For mushroom hunters in the temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, nothing signifies the beginning of spring more than the first appearance of morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.). These organisms are arguably considered among the most prized edible fungi on the planet, and it’s not uncommon to see them fetching a price of a few hundred dollars per dried pound in the market.
While morels are some of the easiest mushrooms to identify, a few look-alikes exist… some of them benign, some a bit toxic. For detailed information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, check out another article from this blog: How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms.
While most morel enthusiasts cherish this particular mushroom for its exceptional taste and culinary applicability, less attention is given to its physiological effects on the body. This is unfortunate, because, like many members of the fungal kingdom, morel mushrooms possess important nutritional and medicinal properties that can play key roles in optimizing the health of those who consume them.
Let’s take a look at some of these unique characteristics, focusing on one species of yellow morel mushroom, Morchella esculenta.
Mushrooms exposed to sunlight or UV radiation are great sources of dietary vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). While most vitamin D supplements contain D3 (cholecalciferol), dietary D2 from mushrooms has been shown to be as effective as vitamin D2 and D3 supplements in raising and maintaining 25(OH)D levels (1).
Morel mushrooms contain approximately 206 IUs of vitamin D2 per 100 grams of fresh material (2).
Protection against drug side effects
Pharmaceutical drugs are commonly known to create side effects, and cisplatin (a chemotherapy drug) and gentamicin (an antibiotic) are no exceptions. When given to mice, these drugs can deplete the internal antioxidant defense system and induce kidney failure.
Research shows, however, that an aqueous-ethanol (water and alcohol) extract from cultivated morel mycelium has the remarkable ability to enhance the internal antioxidant defense system, thereby protecting against toxicity caused by the chemotherapy and antibiotic drugs (3).
Oxidative stress is associated with numerous conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes types 1 and 2. Consuming antioxidant-rich food, therefore, is an important strategy to protect against this internal damage.
Studies have shown that extracts from morel mycelium are effective in combating oxidation. This is primarily accomplished through the scavenging of damaging molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), including the superoxide, hydroxyl, and nitric oxide radicals (4).
Antioxidants from morel mushrooms have also been shown to inhibit lipid peroxidation – a process involving tissue damage which, if left unchecked, can lead to inflammation and cancer (5).
Carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) is an inorganic compound which has been linked to disorders of the central nervous system and kidneys. Research on animals has shown that administration of CCl4 with ethanol damages the liver by, among other things, depleting internal antioxidant stores. When supplied with an extract of morel mycelium, however, protection is provided against liver damage, and antioxidant reserves can be restored.
This suggests that morel mushroom mycelium may provide therapeutic use as a liver-protecting agent (6).
Immune system activity
A 2002 study analyzed the immuno-stimulatory property of a unique polysaccharide isolated from the morel mushroom. Known as galactomannan, this compound comprises 2.0% of the dry fungal material, and may work on both innate immunity and adaptive immunity by enhancing macrophage activity (7).
In summary, morel mushrooms are excellent wild foods to add to your diet. While they can be rather expensive at the supermarket, foraging provides a better option (in my opinion), though caution must be taken so as not to confuse this mushroom with the toxic false morel (genus Gyromitra). The biggest difference is that morels are hollow when cut in half lengthwise, while Gyromitras, which are typically a shade of reddish brown, are stuffed or chambered. Check out How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms to learn more.
Of course, just knowing this information is no substitute for attending a mushroom walk or foray and having a trusted identifier discern for you the edible from the toxic.
Happy morel hunting!
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