Important DISCLAIMER: Some mushrooms are poisonous. Ingestion of a poisonous mushroom is extremely dangerous and can be potentially fatal. Now, fortunately, this is mostly something to worry about only when foraging your own mushrooms or trying new types from potentially untrusted sources. Always be careful if this is the case and never eat a mushroom if you are unsure about its safety. Otherwise – as is most often the case, they are brilliantly healthy and if you enjoy them should be welcomed into your diet!
Mushrooms, despite often being grouped with vegetables, are actually not vegetables at all! They come in many forms and are classified as fungi. Over the many years of human civilization, they have played a key role in diet, medicine, folklore, mythology, and fantasy!
Considering all of the above, it should come as no surprise they have been historically associated with all sorts of magic and indeed divination! In ancient China, Japan, and Egypt, they held significant association with long life (and in fact immortality in Egypt), and still hold a lot of value today such as in traditional Chinese medicine. Now this is all fascinating, but there are deep rooted reasons for all of this. Today we will be answering the question: why are mushrooms good for you?
Nowadays, of course, beliefs such as those about immortality are a lot less common. What I will be discussing here is in relation to mushroom consumption, and is based purely on research, so take the title with a grain of salt 🙂
A Nutritional Treasure
Mushrooms are extremely nutritious and offer some vitamins and minerals in amounts not often found in vegetables. In this section we will cover many of the benefits of mushrooms, and others will be listed in seperate article sections.
Below is a nutrition label for 100g of white mushrooms (one of the most common types found on the shelves of supermarkets), fried:
Vitamin D Content
Whilst for some mushrooms the vitamin D content isn’t high, it is still contributory to overall vitamin D intake, and may prove of slight value for those that don’t often eat meat or animal products. The vitamin D of mushrooms is D2, which is not the same bioavailable type we find in animal products, and is also only found in small amounts so it shouldn’t be relied upon as a main source of vitamin D. However, if the mushrooms have been exposed to UV light during growth, they will have a higher amount. Sun exposure is undoubtedly the best way to get your vitamin D, but eating mushrooms can help to give that a little boost. This essential vitamin aids calcium and phosphorus absorption, both of which are vital for proper development and the strength of bones.
Vitamin B Content
Mushrooms contain notable amounts of vitamins B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), and B9 (folic acid). Amongst many other functions these have, some of the main ones in common are supporting heart health, the nervous system, healthy digestion, providing energy, and ensuring proper growth and development.
I’ve spoken about selenium in previous posts (including my first ever post) because of its amazing benefits. Unfortunately, a lot of people are deficient in this essential mineral, so it is important to try and get it from dietary sources. Selenium acts as a powerful antioxidant, protecting the body from free radicals and demonstrating powerful anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting properties. There are countless benefits to reducing and preventing the formation and effects of free radicals, and another one is slowing down ageing. Free radicals can cause weakening throughout the body and skin, which may lead to wrinkles for example. Mushrooms are a fair source of this mineral.
Mushrooms can contribute to our copper intake appreciably. Copper is another mineral which acts as a powerful antioxidant, and is used in multiple daily bodily functions such as melanin and energy production, iron absorption, and thyroid activity. It is essential for proper growth and development, protects heart health, and boosts the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems as well, and is a strong anti-inflammatory. To compliment this it also has some antimicrobial actions which may prevent and inhibit illness. It is a well-known treatment for arthritis which stems from Ayurveda, and also is used for skin care, improving circulation, and digestive issues.
Mushrooms are a rich source of potassium, and pound for pound pack in more potassium than bananas! Potassium helps to oxygenate the brain, regulate hormones (which is important for mood), maintaining healthy blood pressure, and increase bone density by improving calcium absorption. According to studies1, 2 , calcium absorption in too high amounts may lead to slight inhibition of zinc and iron absorption (particularly in the same meal), therefore trying to include calcium and potassium in a meal may benefit some, but also getting iron and zinc in seperate meals is imporant if this is done often: a balanced diet is key to health.
Note also that mushrooms are a good source of protein. For those who do not consume meat or animal products, mushrooms may be of contributary value to ensure adequate intake of protein (perhaps not to be relied on solely, however).
Immune System Boost
Mushrooms boost the immune system and prevent illness in many different ways. This is something they are often praised for and is a reason why many people choose to consume them in different ways (even such as kombucha).
Excluding the ways mentioned above such as the benefits of selenium and of copper on the immune system, mushrooms contain multiple components that can protect us from illness. The first I would like to talk about is the natural polysaccharides (glucans) present in mushrooms. These are (mostly) types of beta-glucans and exhibit antimicrobial properties which help to stimulate the immune system, combat infection, and enhance natural killer cell and white blood cell (macrophage) activity. These properties have been demonstrated in multiple studies3, with a significant one having been done by the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences. (Beta-glucans are also present in oats, check out these awesome recipes if you’re interested).
There also exists an impressive antioxidant that belongs only to mushrooms. Its name is Ergothioneine, and its ability to eliminate free radicals distinctly effective. Unlike most antioxidants, Ergothioneine not only has the ability to protect our cells and the DNA, but it also has the ability to penetrate into mitochondria (where our cells’ energy is stored), means that they are great at preventing and slowing down the ageing process as well!
I’m planning to write a post about foods to promote longevity, and I have no doubt that mushrooms will be on there. UPDATE: Here it is! Mushrooms are the first independent food item on the list! 🙂
In many ways mushrooms’ beneficial properties towards the immune system are also linked to preventing and protecting us from cancers. The very same antioxidants mentioned above (the polysaccharides and Ergothioneine) each exhibit actions which aid in this.
Ergothioneine, through protecting our DNA and preventing ageing, may help to prevent the formation of cancer. Most studies (such as this example4) would agree that this antioxidant has chemopreventative properties which protect us against cancer. Interestingly however, there is thought to be a potential for certain cancer cells to actually use Ergothioneine as a means of “protection” (perhaps against certain treatments), as suggested by one other study5.
The Polysaccharides inhibit tumour proliferation (growth) and metastasis (spread throughout the body).
This is one reason why plenty of research is increasingly showing the potential for mushrooms in cancer treatment and prevention. The common white button mushroom, for example, is known to fight breast cancer, as is the Japanese shiitake mushroom due to its lentinan. One study on mice conducted in Japan, showed a full regression in 6 of 10 mice when giving a shiitake extract, and then again in all 10 tested when a higher dosage was used.
Some reportedly potent mushrooms in different types of cancer treatment include the following:
- Dong Chong Xia Cao (The Caterpillar Fungus) – used in Ayurvedic medicine and in traditional Chinese medicine
- Reishi Mushrooms – these have been used in East Asia (including by Taoists and monks) for thousands of years. These are prized for their wonderful benefits and potency in the numerous ways it is good for well-being and illness prevention and treatment.
- Oyster Mushroom (Hiratake) – studies such as this one6 printed in the Journal of Medicinal Food have demonstrated powerful cancer-fighting effects of oyster mushrooms, including inducing cancer cell apoptosis and the reduction of efficiency in tumour colony formation.
- Turkey Tail Mushroom – patented turkey tail mushroom cancer treatments are currently used in Japan. This seems to be for multiple cancers, including lung, gastric, and breast cancers. Such treatments include polysaccharide extracts such as ‘PSK’7.
In some edible mushrooms, side effects have been noted in individuals, and therefore you should always research consumption guidelines and consult a professional before trying new kinds of mushrooms, especially if for medicinal purposes. The same rules may follow for almost any food kind, but as mushrooms are potentially more hazardous, extra care should be taken.
Mushrooms are rich in many anti-inflammatory components8.
Inflammation is our body’s natural response when things go wrong and we need to protect ourselves from factors such as invasive bacteria, harmful chemicals, or wounds and injuries. However, certain biological processes, or an inadequate supply of nutrients and antioxidants, for example, can prevent our immune system from efficiently resolving inflammation. When this happens, our healthy cells and tissues can get damaged. This is called chronic inflammation, and it is related to many kinds of illness, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease (amongst many others). This is one of the reasons that diet is so important and its role is paramount to health.
When we can control this and prevent cellular damage, we are protecting ourselves from the development of illness and harmful processes, which is linked to healthier and longer life. Natural anti-inflammatories such as those found in mushrooms have all sorts of benefits, ranging from cancer-fighting properties to increased mood and mental health.
Prebiotic Boost May Improve Gut Flora
Studies conducted on the effects of mushroom (including White Button Agaricus bisporus) consumption on the gut microbiome have indicated prebiotic properties of mushrooms, for example, due to the polysaccharide content. Prebiotics encourage the growth and reproduction of beneficial gut bacteria (probiotics). This has been suggested to have multiple benefits, including a potential for improved glucose metabolism9!
As of yet, the study10 of the prebiotic effects of mushrooms and their specific relations to overall health is not highly extensive, so we still have more to learn and understand. What we do understand so far, however, includes the following: The consumption of certain mushrooms such as White Buttons can improve antioxidant activity and microbiome composition, which is related to glucose metabolism, immune system function, and the gut barrier (which keeps invasive microorganisms from damaging the gut). This has been shown to improve intestinal health. By increasing the amount of lactic acid producing bacteria in the gut, these mushrooms may also aid in digestion. Another studied benefit here is that the prebiotic effects of mushroom can create a response from the immune system that can prevent damage caused by inflammation.
Another example11 of the potential benefits of mushroom consumption is that after medicinal Phellinus linteus. It contains the polysaccharide AEATP, which is interestingly been shown to have antidiabetic effects and may improve lipid profile, which could help both heart and liver health, and may even act against obesity.
Many more mushrooms have also been studied for their prebiotic effects, including the shiitake mushroom and other medicinal mushrooms. This field of study is extremely interesting, so let’s look forward to the future discoveries!
Mushrooms are a good source of certain fibres (including beta-glucans, which are powerful anti-inflammatories). The kinds of fibres found in mushrooms may help to increase cardiovascular health by lowering LDL cholesterol levels. Some mushrooms (such as the shiitake, protobello, and oyster mushroom) may also lower liver cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Moreover, the aforementioned Ergothioneine acts as an antioxidant in the body and is well-retained in human body tissue and blood cells (implying intentional usage by the body) and has demonstrated abilities to actively scavenge free radicals5, and reactive oxygen/nitrogen species (ROS and RNS), which can cause damage to all kinds of cells. In this way and others, Ergothioneine may protect the heart and blood vessels and prevent them from damage, thus supporting healthy heart function.
The nutrients in mushrooms such as B-vitamins, copper, and potassium all support heart health and prevent high blood pressure. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) is known to increase blood pressure by causing blood vessels to constrict (via hormone conversion of “angiotensin I”), and the alkaloid Eritadenine acts as an enzyme inhibitor12 and prevents this from happening. As it happens, Eritadenine is found in high amounts in mushrooms: Particularly in shiitake and button mushrooms (Agaricus Bisporus). The effects of this alkaloid are reduced blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
Why To Cook Mushrooms
Some foods should always be cooked before you eat them, and this includes mushrooms because without cooking them the nutrient profile is much lower and you will also be ingesting small amounts of toxins, including Agaritine – a known carcinogen. Apart from that, they are tough when raw and very difficult to digest. You wouldn’t bite into a raw potato, right? Well, it’s best not to with mushrooms too…
By grilling your mushrooms or lightly frying them you are breaking down the toxins, and making them more nutritious! Plus, you can also add your favourite seasonings such as garlic to improve the flavour (if you like) to make them extra-healthy!
If you choose to fry mushrooms, the best way is to do so lightly using a healthy oil or fat such as olive oil (not Extra-Virgin for cooking though) or goose fat, or something else, it’s really your choice of course! Just try to avoid vegetable oils such as sunflower, grapeseed, canola, soy, and corn.
The Mighty Mushroom
When it comes down to it, mushrooms are wonderful for our health (and the imagination apparently – I’m looking at you Ancient Egyptians). They’ve been used medicinally for thousands of years of tradition, and really it is easy to understand why. The benefits just go on, and if you can stomach them, they are more than worth including your diet.
Remember never to pick or eat any wild fungi or mushroom that you find, unless you have received training from expert and are absolutely sure that’s it is safe. You can experience the benefits of mushrooms even from the ones you find in the local supermarket or online (but never buy them from untrusted sources or any that you are uncertain about).
P.S. Ever wondered why mushrooms give Mario superpowers? Well, I think we can all answer that now… 😉
This has been a funny article for me, because growing up as long as I have remembered I have hated the taste of mushrooms! However, over roughly the past year specifically a highly natural diet has had a large impact on my taste buds – and a very positive one at that! It is only been over the past week as a matter of fact that I have discovered that I like mushrooms. It has been a slow process, and over time and I have been able to include different types of mushrooms into my diet in certain amounts (mostly Shiitake and Portobello). Now, however, I seem to be pretty comfortable with most mushrooms (particularly given the addition of garlic)
Let me know your favourite kind of mushroom! I’d say mine is shiitake, but I really want to try enoki.
If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
Until the next one, stay healthy