Holistic health is gaining increasing prominence in medicine as a useful adjunct to conventional care. Typically, holistic health considers the entire person – body, mind, and spirit. A holistic approach to health goes beyond merely eliminating symptoms; instead, it takes preventative as well as healing approaches to promote overall well-being. Often, holistic health is conflated with holistic medicine, which incorporates traditional and complementary approaches to treat illness. However, holistic health can go further, expanding into many aspects of an individual’s lifestyle, such as holistic nutrition.
Historically, the term ‘holistic’ has carried many different connotations. ‘Holism’ has its origins in the Greek holos, meaning “whole”. Later, in 1926, Jan Smuts revisited the term in his book Holism and Evolution . Here, he argued that the specialisation of scientific disciplines has created a ‘silos mentality’, leading to a myopic approach to knowledge. Smuts used evolution as a case study to make the case for holism, but his thinking became a precursor for interdisciplinary, integrative approaches to health and medicine.
As such, holism doesn’t seek to draw knowledge or approaches from one particular dogma, culture, or perspective. Instead, it aims to take a wider view. Today, practices like holistic nutrition and medicine draw knowledge from diverse cultural disciplines, including traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Ayurveda, for instance, is about restoring and promoting health and balance. According to Ayurvedic practices, health is not just the absence of disease, but the maintenance of a harmonious balance between physical, mental, spiritual, and environmental factors.
Nutrition, of course, plays an integral role in maintaining this equilibrium. Ayurveda aims to promote optimal nutrition by formulating food groups that work in harmony, induce proper digestion and promote maximum absorption of essential nutrients. Certain foods and supplements can play an integral role in reaching this goal, namely, certain species of mushrooms. Here, we discuss the practice of holistic nutrition and why mushrooms are a vital part of this whole-system approach to health and well-being.
The Rising Acceptance of Holistic Health
Before introducing the holistic nutrition concept, it’s useful to discuss why these methods are increasingly gaining mainstream acceptance. When healthcare professionals take into account everything about a patient – that is, their overall well-being as opposed to discrete complaints – patients feel better cared for. They cease to be a statistic or a symptom, and instead, an individual with unique needs.
This is especially the case when many patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may have spent a lot of time or money in conventional healthcare settings. After years of coping with the same ailments, many patients are seeking comprehensive (or indeed holistic) approaches to health and well-being. Equally, those using conventional medicine to treat serious conditions like cancer may use integrative methods to alleviate the side effects of medications or treatments.
Moreover, for patients with chronic conditions or in rehabilitation, these approaches have long-term benefits. Holistic nutrition and healthcare can prevent future disease or relapse by supporting harmony between mind, body, and spirit. This can be achieved via multiple strategies, from manipulative body-based therapies like massage, mind-body practices like yoga, energy practices like qi gong, and of course, adjustments to diet and nutrition.
The Principles of Holistic Nutrition
Holistic nutrition, like holistic medicine, considers the whole person in the design of healing or health-giving diets. Whereas conventional dieticians may outline plans based on symptoms, a practitioner of holistic nutrition will assess other actors that may be causing poor nutrition that leads to disease. Holistic nutrition analyses an individual’s physical, emotional and spiritual health to design a roadmap to recovery and long-term well-being, based on nutritional principles.
Holistic nutrition is currently not subject to licensing or certification by an official regulatory body. However, there is sufficient demand and emerging evidence to make the case for official training and professional credentials. Generally, good holistic nutritionists will work in collaboration with other healthcare providers to identify biochemical imbalances and toxicities that contribute to poor health.
For example, a holistic nutritionist will take into account a broad spectrum of the body’s chemical processes and how these are impacted by diet. When foods are treated with pesticides, fertilizer and hormones, they impact the body’s normal chemical processes. These substances can have a knock-on effect on other parts of the body aside from the digestive tract, including brain functions. Subsequently, holistic nutritionists will normally recommend organic foods and supplements that restore chemical and hormonal imbalances to promote overall health.
This also works the other way; some hormones that are naturally produced in the gut have an impact on neurological health. For example, high levels of a satiety hormone could decrease a person’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease . As such, dietary choices link to emotional, mental and neurological health, situating the body as a whole system.
Mushrooms as Part of Holistic Nutrition
Edible mushrooms have a high nutritional value, more than any vegetable or fruit, and have been eaten for their flavor, economic and ecological benefits, and therapeutic properties for many years 
The health-giving value of mushrooms has been prized by different cultures for centuries. Ancient Greeks believed that mushrooms built strength; the Romans called them the “food of the gods”, and ancient Chinese culture referred to them as the ‘elixir of life’. Throughout human history and cultures, their sensory characteristics and biological composition have made them popular medicinal and culinary ingredients.
Today, scientific inquiry has demonstrated mushrooms’ nutritional value. Rich in fiber, antioxidants and proteins, mushrooms are a nourishing part of a balanced diet. Their protein content, particularly, is significant; with high levels of essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, their nutritional value is of great importance to the human diet. Equally, they’re full of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B1, B2, B12, C, D, and E .
A good illustration is the protein content of huitlacoche, which is an edible fungus found on mexican corn ears. The protein content of huitlacoche varies from 9.7% to 16.4%, which is far greater than maize (10%). As such, huitlacoche is an excellent protein source for those with vegetarian or vegan diets. Huitlacoche also contains almost every essential amino acid, including lysine, serine, glycine, aspartic and glutamic acid, as well as the fatty acids oleic and linoleic acid .
As well as having a high nutritional content, mushrooms also contain various bioactive substances. As an alternative source of antimicrobial compounds, namely secondary metabolites, mushrooms have various holistic benefits that contribute to broader health. These compounds include triterpenes, natural sterols, omega 3 fatty acids and perhaps most famously, polysaccharides including β-glucans.
These bioactive polysaccharides and polysaccharide-protein complexes appear to enhance innate and cell-mediated immune responses. A wide range of these compounds have been reported to have immunotherapeutic properties, with studies showing they can even exhibit anti-tumour activity . In Asia, particularly, several clinical trials have been conducted to assess mushroom’s immunostimulatory and anticarcinogenic activity.
One such example is A. blazei, an edible mushroom native to Brazil that today is primarily cultivated in Japan. Commonly known as the sun mushroom, it is consumed in food or prepared as a tea due to its medicinal properties. Various studies have confirmed this mushroom to have antimutagenic, anticarcinogenic, and immunostimulatory activities. In vitro studies have demonstrated that it also has remarkable antioxidant activity, with 62% and 87% suppression of powerful oxidants such as the superoxide anion radical, amongst other activities . Furthermore, it has been reported that this mushroom blocks the liver lipid peroxidation.
This rich nutritional and bioactive content makes many species of mushrooms an excellent basis for many different nutraceuticals, combining holistic nutrition and medicine. With this potential to promote health due the synergies between mushrooms’ bioactive compounds, mushrooms are a cornerstone of holistic nutrition. Alongside their rich nutritional content, various species have substantial benefits for patients.
A Whole-Systems Approach to Health
Holistic nutrition recognises the complex interplay between physical, chemical, emotional and mental well-being, as well as the environmental factors that impact a patient’s life and physicality. Therefore, holistic nutrition professionals will approach diet and supplements from a whole-systems perspective. Using nutrition education as their primary tool, holistic nutritionists highlight the importance of a bespoke approach, which takes into account each patient’s individual needs.
Considering their medicinal and bioactive properties, mushrooms encompass many of the goals of holistic nutrition, and thus, are a key tool. Several species of mushroom have been identified as rich sources of bioactive compounds, as well as low-fat sources of protein and amino acids. In fact, some species are so nutritionally beneficial they can be incorporated into the diet as a supplement in the form of a whole food or of a superfood powder.
However, many more benefits of mushrooms can be reaped from nutraceuticals. Through the extraction of metabolites via sophisticated biotechnological methods, capsule and liquid formulations can deliver a rich dose of these health-giving compounds for chronic conditions, protection of our immune system and those on restrictive diets, among others. Holistic nutritionists should look for organic products backed by evidence to ensure quality.
As part of a balanced diet, whole mushrooms, mushroom powder and their extracts have substantial benefits, with new research emerging all the time. Demand for holistic approaches is growing amongst patients and allopathic doctors are increasingly embracing a multidisciplinary approach. To address this demand, holistic nutrition professionals should situate mushrooms at the centre of their whole systems approach.
- Smuts, C. J. (2020). Holism and evolution. Alpha Editions.
- Sager W. (28 January 2019), What you eat could impact your brain and memory. Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190128111705.htm
- Sharifi-Rad J, Butnariu M, Ezzat SM, et al. Mushrooms-Rich Preparations on Wound Healing: From Nutritional to Medicinal Attributes. Front Pharmacol. 2020;11:567518. Published 2020 Sep 16.
- Heleno S. A., Barros L., Sousa M. J., Martins A., Ferreira I. C. F. R. Tocopherols composition of Portuguese wild mushrooms with antioxidant capacity. Food Chemistry. 2010;119(4):1443–1450.
- Valverde, M. E., Hernández-Pérez, T., & Paredes-López, O. (2015). Edible mushrooms: improving human health and promoting quality life. International journal of microbiology, 2015, 376387.
- Hakime-Silva RA, Vellosa JC, Khalil NM, Khalil OA, Brunetti IL, Oliveira OM. Chemical, enzymatic and cellular antioxidant activity studies of Agaricus blazei Murrill. An Acad Bras Cienc. 2013 Sep;85(3):1073-81.