Mushrooms, Health and Self-Care

paul stamets with a giant mushroom

Before I dive too far into this post, I want to point out that plucking up random mushrooms from your backyard and eating them is a really dumb idea. There are a growing number of known health benefits associated with our fungal friends, but there are plenty of reasons to exercise caution, the most obvious of which being death.

This evening I attended a talk given by Paul Stamets, a world renowned mushroom expert (and famed astromycologist in the upcoming Star Trek movie), at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The program was entitled “Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness,” and it did indeed blow my mind.

I’ve been fascinated recently by research pointing to mushrooms being a significant source of vitamin D. Like humans, mushrooms use sunlight to manufacture the fat-soluble vitamin, and since there are few natural food sources for this essential nutrient, it’s quite intriguing.

But while this particular talk didn’t cover that aspect of mushrooms, the fact that it didn’t simply points to the enormous impact fungi has on human health, and we’re only just beginning to understand its synergistic roles.

Before Paul took the stage wearing a hat made of Amadou mushroom fiber, it was hard not to notice the small table next to the podium, on top of which was a bulging mass hidden beneath a dark cloth.

We all knew what it was, though.

It was a giant Agarikon mushroom, a variety that has fascinated Stamets for decades, and one that he often poses with in photos.

“How can you not spend your entire life studying this?” he said of it as he held it high above his head.

But it isn’t the largest by a long shot.

To date, the biggest known mushroom spans roughly 2,200 acres atop the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The Honey mushroom’s expansive mycelial network lives mostly below ground (there’s approximately one mile of mycelium per cubic inch…say what?), and Paul hypothesizes that its role is one of a “meadow maker,” since the ground above the network contains almost no trees. To get an aerial photograph, Stamets chartered a plane, which had to climb to 14,000 feet (roughly the elevation of Mt. Rainier) in order to capture the entire site.

It’s jaw-dropping when you consider the fact that this is a single organism.

The amount of information that was covered in just a couple of hours could have easily consumed two full days, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for Stamets, who has devoted his entire life to this subject so that we may have a deeper understanding of the world around us.

So, what does a mushroom expert’s personal collection look like? His culture library includes no less than 700 strains. (I had no idea until today so many even existed.)

From eyebrow-raising topics such as LSD microdosing to stimulate creativity, to mushrooms playing a role in treating cancer, it was hard not to look at fungi in a new way. (And I certainly had no idea that mycelium could break down rocks!)

The real focus of the evenings’s discussion, though, was around the relationship between fungi and bees. And if you’re not concerned about the disturbing reality that we’re losing significant populations of bees (and, incidentally, the cause is pointing directly to our irresponsible use of pesticides), then you should be:

No bees = no food.

As it turns out, the powerful immune boosting properties of mushrooms play a significant role in bee health, and it’s clear we’ll be hearing a lot more about this as time goes on.

But I left the talk feeling a mixture of hope and concern–not just for the plight of the bees, but also for what will likely follow these new research findings: an upturn in the manufacture of single-substance products.

This ongoing obsession with the distillation of nature into single ingredients and compounds is alarming to me. It’s clear that our relationship with the natural world isn’t linear. There aren’t single cause-and-effect outcomes that can be fully understood, yet we continue to extract and distill and reduce our food into substances that later get itemized in food journals. We dissect food and then reassemble it into a nutrient slurry that we deem more suitable.

And we’ve been seeing more and more of this kind of thinking within the supplement industry, which, in my opinion, has become as problematic as big pharma…but that’s a topic for another time.

Our interconnectedness with nature is complex, to say the least. But what if we were meant to nourish our bodies with foods as they exist in the natural world? In all of its complexity? With its thousands of phytochemicals and nutrients (some known, some still unknown)? And with all of its synergistic properties?

Nature is our greatest teacher when it comes to self-care.

But as the clock ticks toward midnight, I’ll have to contemplate all of this later. For now, I think it’s time for a slightly different state of consciousness…sleep.

Self-Care Challenge (Day 133): Hiking to Poo Poo Point

poo poo point
Poo Poo Point, paragliding launch area

Yesterday, I coaxed myself out of bed at 4:30 AM so I could take a 3-hour lunch break and hike up to Poo Poo Point.

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. In the late 1800’s, loggers used “steam donkeys” to pull logs from the forest, and the machines made a noise that sounded like poooooo…poooooo…

Poo Poo Point is located on the bare shoulder of West-facing Tiger Mountain, and it overlooks the town of Issaquah and Lake Sammamish. The mountain itself, one of the three that make up the “Issaquah Alps,” has seven peaks in total. Poo Poo Point is one of the world’s most popular launch sites for paragliders. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see 20 or so gliders in the sky on any given sunny afternoon in the summer months.

The trail head (well, the back entrance anyway) is within walking distance of my front door. Pretty convenient, huh? The seven-mile hike takes me about three hours round-trip, but the uphill climb takes quite a bit longer than the descent.

The extended walk allowed me to sneak in some physical activity, and it also gave me a chance to decompress and clear my head. A mid-day break can do a lot for creativity and productivity, and long walks tend to invite an abundance of new ideas. In fact, yesterday I filled up 22 pages of my journal as I walked!

Salmonberries on Tiger Mountain in Issaquah, WA

On the way up, I admired the spring growth (and even the weeds). I listened to the chirping, buzzing and chattering of busied wildlife–all of which was louder than the crunching of gravel beneath my feet. A nearby chipmunk began spewing high-pitched profanity at me. Why are they always so pissed off?

Then I noticed the berries! Their emergence also marks the season’s return of bear activity. Earlier this week, our garbage was overturned and we suspect it was a furry friend’s handiwork. When I finally reached the summit, I overheard a local say that he saw a bear in his yard earlier that morning. Time to put away the bird feeders for a while, I guess. 

Soon I began to feel sweaty. I could hear myself breathing heavier, my heart was beating faster, and the sun felt hot against my back. I wasn’t having fun anymore. 

I can’t tell you how many times I thought about turning back. After all, three hours is a long time commitment, especially when you have a lengthy to-do list awaiting your return. Here I was again…talking myself out of fitness. Could I have turned back? Sure. Would I have forgiven myself for it? Yeah, I would have. But did I know that I was fully capable of pushing onward despite all of my complaining? Absolutely. Once again, I had to bring myself back to what I want to enjoy later so that I could endure what I wasn’t enjoying now

It’s tough, isn’t it? Keeping our focus on longer-term rewards can be difficult when our efforts make us uncomfortable. Fortunately, the more often we endure, the more often we’re able to experience the payoffs.

What are your self-care plans for the weekend?


Self-Care Challenge (Day 132): Hugging a Tree

Tree Love 2Does this blog post make me an official tree hugger?


And that’s totally fine. I’ve become quite good friends with my towering neighbors over the past few years, and they inspire me on a daily basis.

It had always been a dream of mine to choose a home based solely on how a place made me feel. And that’s exactly what happened when we bought our current home in Issaquah, WA. The truth is, I fell in love with the trees.

At the time, I had been living in a hotel for a month while I transitioned into a new job role. My husband was still living in Austin, and his responsibility was to sell our home there, while mine was to buy one here. The classic “divide and conquer” technique.

I had looked at several properties without much success. Too big. Too small. Too much fixing. Ironically, the day I visited this property, I had just put in an offer on a different one. But that night I couldn’t sleep, and I called my realtor in the morning to rescind the prior offer and put in a new offer on our current home.

I’m so glad we did! Now back to the trees.

Growing up in the Midwest, I had been surrounded by trees my whole life. I loved playing in the woods, and being outside somehow made me feel more connected. But here in the Pacific Northwest, the trees are much different. They’re bigger. They’re more mysterious. Rays of sunlight through mist and trees in the morningAnd their mere presence commands respect. There are very few Red Western Cedars or Douglas Firs on our property that I can reach my arms around completely, and for some reason that makes me smile.

I love looking out my window and staring back at these strong, enduring beings. Their silent solidarity reminds me that when we stand firm, working toward our goals, we can reach our fullest potential–especially when we’re surrounded by a supportive community.

Most of time, we achieve this by simply being who we are…just like the trees. They remind us quietly that being authentic is a true reflection of how we care for ourselves. And being true to our “self” is the first step to being authentic.

Self-Care Challenge (Day 129): Shopping the Farmers’ Market

Market FlowersThe Issaquah Farmers’ Market reopened yesterday with a colorful bounty of art and produce. Ecstatic doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about it. 

Shopping the farmers’ market has always marked the beginning of summer for us, and our Saturday routine adjusts like clockwork.

The morning usually starts with coffee and breakfast in bed, where we talk about our work schedules and menu for the coming week. Then, we finish up some quick chores at home and make our way to the open air market to stock up on ingredients for the week. Before returning home, though, we make a quick stop at the supermarket to gather any supplies that we weren’t able to procure at the market.  

Including travel, our Saturday shopping excursions take about three hours. Sound like a lot? Read on.

Prepping meals for the weekOnce we get home, we face what most people see as the most dreaded task of all: putting away groceries.

Now, I have to admit that I’m probably among the few that actually enjoy putting away groceries and prepping ingredients for the week. To me, it feels a bit like an art project. The fresh produce is so beautiful that it sometimes takes my breath away.

But I don’t just do it because I love it. I’ve learned that prepping ingredients as I put them away saves me a lot of time during the busy and often unpredictable work-week. All-in-all, I probably spend an hour on the prep side.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve probably figured out that I allocate about 4 hours every Saturday to my menu for the coming week. But what you may not have considered is what I gain from that investment: the rest of my weekend and every week-night. Not too shabby!

Do I go grocery shopping after work during the week? Nope.

Do I put off the task of grocery shopping until the last minute, tossing convenience items into my cart late Sunday night? Nope.

Do I waste time every night of the week trying to figure out what to have for dinner when I’m already exhausted from work? Nope.

I simply grab the pre-prepped ingredients, follow my menu and enjoy the rest of the evening with my family. The whole process combined–prepping, cooking, eating and cleanup–usually takes no more than an hour.

I know a lot of people who stop at the store every night after work. Not only do they have to come up with a menu on the fly, they also have to wait in the checkout line, battle additional traffic, put groceries away, prep ingredients, cook the meal, eat the meal and then clean up the kitchen. There’s no way that approach takes less than 4 hours a week. And it sounds downright exhausting!

I don’t know about you, but by 5 PM, the last thing I want to do is stand in line at the grocery store.

Planning menus ahead of time saves both time and money. Shopping once each week takes less time than shopping every day. Even if you are highly efficient, and each supermarket trip only took you 30 minutes, you’re still looking at 3½ hours just in shopping alone.

Shopping once each week also enables you to maximize the use of ingredients, which means less food gets wasted–and less money is spent overall. (This week, I bought a whole chicken, which will provide at least 3 meals-worth of ingredients.

And, contrary to what many people think, shopping the farmers’ market isn’t more expensive.

“That will be six hundred cents,” joked a farmer at the first booth we shopped. For just six dollars, we came away with 4 large apples, a bunch of spinach, a bundle of green onions and a bunch of cilantro–less than what we would have paid at the supermarket.

Aside from buying super-fresh ingredients, shopping the farmers’ market makes me feel more connected to my community. I love supporting local growers and artisans, and I love the atmosphere at the market in general. I can’t imagine spending my Saturday mornings any other way.

Where is your nearest farmers’ market?