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Mushrooms: What's Edible, Medicinal, and Psychedelic

What to know about the health benefits -- and risks -- of mushrooms.

Safety First

Foraging is not without risks -- there are, of course, poisonous, even deadly mushrooms. The North American Mycological Association, which has been tracking mushroom poisonings for more than 30 years, receives an average of one report of a human death due to mushrooms each year. However, in 2009, there were four people who died after eating mushrooms containing a toxin called amatoxin, according to the North American Mycological Association.

Brill says that foraging intelligently will keep trouble at bay.

"You have to make an effort to mess up with mushrooms, and it's usually people who have no knowledge who do so," Brill says. “A lot of the fear is simply nature-phobia.”

Brill says that touching poisonous mushrooms is not dangerous, but he strongly advises only eating mushrooms that can be identified with 100% certainty -- and none should be eaten raw.

"Magic" Mushrooms

Finally, there are mushrooms that are eaten not for their nutritional content but for their psychedelic properties. Often called magic mushrooms, these fungi contain a hallucinogenic substance called psilocybin. 

In one such study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers at Johns Hopkins report that a single dose of psilocybin -- given in a research study that was closely supervised -- led to a long-lasting increase in openness, a personality trait related to imagination, creativity, feelings, and abstract ideas. The study authors suggest that psilocybin may prove useful in treating neuroticism and accompanying depression and anxiety, but it will take more research to learn how that works.

Psilocybin, however, is illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies it as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the U.S. Unless and until that changes, it is recommended that you only seek out mushrooms meant to be savored for their flavor and health benefits. There are plenty to choose from, and plenty of ways to prepare them. Here's what Weil likes to do:

"When I try a new species for the first time, I usually sauté it in a little olive or grapeseed oil to experience its flavor and texture," he says. "Many thick-fleshed mushrooms can be grilled over charcoal and basted with a low- or nonfat sauce. In addition to grilling, simmering in broth and stir-frying with vegetables are great ways to prepare a delicious meal with mushrooms."

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Reviewed on October 19, 2011

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