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Health Fusion: Foraging for morel mushrooms is about much more than just the hunt

Heading out and into a field or the woods to hunt for morel mushrooms is a seasonal tradition for many people in the upper Midwest. But the activity is much more than just that. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores how foraging for the elusive morel may be good for your physical and mental health.

Morel mushroom
One little morel mushroom can brighten and boost a forager's mood
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — When spring comes in earnest to the upper Midwest, people celebrate. They shed winter clothes, throw open their windows, organize the garage and fire up the grill. And some tuck their long pants into their socks (tick season) and hit the woods to hunt for morel mushrooms.

Morchella esculenta, or the common morel, was adopted as Minnesota's state mushroom in 1984. The Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State website documents that fact and also notes that the highly prized fungi are considered a rare delicacy among mushroom hunters.

As an avid morel seeker myself, I can vouch for that. I can also confirm that the seasonal activity is much more than simply a fun way to find tasty mushrooms. To me, the experience has the potential to benefit your mental and physical health.

I'll start with nutritional benefits. An article in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition describes morels as having anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, which may help fight diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer. Another article , published in the journal Biomedicines, adds that anti-inflammatory foods help promote healthy aging by warding off diseases stimulated by chronic inflammation.

My go-to recipe for morels involves dunking the mushrooms in beaten eggs, dredging them in pulverized crackers and sauteing them in plenty of real butter. That recipe is very high in saturated fat, which may negate the positive nutritional effects of the morel. The good news is that sauteing morels in olive oil — which is high in healthy monounsaturated fats — instead of butter is also super delicious.

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The second way in which I believe morel hunting is good for mind and body has to do with the health benefits of being in and around nature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service reports in an article that a walk in the woods may boost your immune system, reduce blood pressure, increase energy, lift mood and help you focus. Being outside hunting for forest gems gets your body moving and helps get your mind off of your do-list, at least for a while.

The third aspect of morel hunting that may provide health benefits is that of community. I likely don't need to cite a research paper (there are many) to convince you of the importance of social interaction. Many of us experienced how difficult and damaging social isolation can be during the COVID lockdown. Being alone can be hard on anyone.

This year, after doing a podcast about morel hunting, I met and got to know some people in other cities who shared my obsession and reached out to me. At first we tossed around ideas about why we hunt morels and how to find them. Next we traded pictures of our finds and recipes on how to cook them. Then, thanks to modern technology, we became real friends and talked about topics that had nothing to do with mushrooms. The experience lifted my spirits, boosted my energy and made me smile. It enhanced my quality of life and in the process, I became happier and healthier.

Maybe heading out into a field or forest to forage for mushrooms does not sound like fun at all to you. That's fine, I'm not offended. My point is simply that taking on a hobby that gets you up, out, moving and interacting is good for your mental and physical health.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

MORE HEALTH FUSION:
Do you overindulge on Thanksgiving? A lot of people do. It can be hard to resist recipes you only get during the holidays. But if you chow down on foods and drinks that are high in salt, fat or caffeine, you may be at risk of "holiday heart." Viv Williams has details from Mayo Clinic cardiologists in this episode of NewsMD's "Health Fusion."

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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