The Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms get a pretty bad rap in the produce world.
Some people find their texture off-putting. Others think they’re far too “earthy” (courtesy of the fact that mushrooms are likely to still have some dirt on them at the grocery store or farmers market). And some people have been scared off of mushrooms because of the knowledge that some varieties are poisonous.
No matter the reasons for avoiding mushrooms, one thing is clear: mushrooms might be the healthiest food you’re consistently ignoring.
Far from being dirty or dangerous, edible mushrooms are actually one of the greatest health foods around. But don’t just take our word for it. Science and history leave a clear footprint that mushrooms have long been utilized for functional purposes and nutritional benefits..
That’s part of the focus of my book Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health.
The Misunderstood Mushroom
Though many people lump mushrooms into the “vegetable” category, they’re actually the fruiting body of fungi. (That’s another way of saying mushrooms are a spore-producing organ, but we can probably all agree that “fruiting body” sounds way more appealing.) There are more than 140,000 species of known mushroom-bearing fungi across the globe. Of these, an estimated 2,000 species are thought to be edible and/or medicinal.
What research has uncovered so far is incredibly promising. Studies have found that consuming mushrooms can do everything from improving immunity to reducing stress and preventing, relieving a wide variety of physical and emotional ailments.
We know, we know: By this point, you’ve been exposed to so many “superfood” claims that it’s easy to take them with a grain of salt. You’ve seen ads all over the internet proclaiming “miracle” cures and tons of articles declaring that simply eating kale, or garlic, or any other trending superfood will make all your problems go away. You have every right to be skeptical of these claims. But hear us out.
We’re not claiming that eating a mushroom a day will cure everything that ails you and turn your life into a daily montage of sunshine, rainbows, and puppies. Instead, we’re identifying the fact that a wealth of high-quality, peer-reviewed research has determined mushrooms are packed with a variety of nutritional properties.
Beyond the quality of the available research, there are ample other reasons to consider the veracity of these claims.
For starters, mushrooms have a long and storied history of being utilized by cultures across the world. For thousands of years, traditional Eastern medicine has incorporated mushrooms into its wellness practices. Meanwhile, ancient Egyptians identified mushrooms as being so special that their consumption was reserved for royalty. The ancient Romans concurred, and went one step further by declaring mushrooms “food for the gods.” (They also believed mushrooms imbued warriors with incredible strength.)
Mushrooms remained popular in Europe well into the 1700s thanks to the French, who began cultivating the crop in the 17th century. The appeal of mushrooms gradually caught on in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and their production in the U.S. picked up steam in the 1900s thanks to major producers Pennsylvania and California. These days, mushroom growers can be found in abundance across the country and the world.
If historical precedent doesn’t do it for you, consider that humans share approximately 85 percent of our ribosomal RNA and 50 percent of our DNA with fungi—which is another way of saying that mushrooms are extremely bioavailable to human bodies. This means mushrooms have a higher chance of providing medicinal benefits to humans than many other products, probably because the same defense mechanisms fungi use against pathogens can help our bodies when we consume mushrooms.
Still need convincing? Consider that mushrooms are used either directly or indirectly in more than 40 percent of the pharmaceuticals currently on the market—including penicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline, immunosupressants, and many of the most prescribed anti-cholesterol statins on the market.Of course, whole food mushrooms are not pharmaceuticals, but this proves that mushrooms still pack a punch.
Finally, anecdotal evidence also backs up mushrooms’ power. Take just one example: Four Sigmatic’s own founder, Tero Isokauppila, regularly consumes medicinal mushrooms. He travels more than 40 times per year for business and, as a result, is constantly exposed to immune-challenging germs on airplanes, in hotels, and so on. Yet, he hasn’t been sick for a single day in nearly a decade.
The Overwhelming Health Benefits of Mushrooms
To date, research suggests that mushrooms may prove beneficial in the treatment of more than 200 health conditions and may provide more than 130 medicinal functions in the body. We won’t recount all of those benefits here, because that would make for a very (very) long article—in fact, there are so many good things to say about mushrooms that we’ve written a whole book on the topic. Below, we’ll share just some of the highlights.
Suffice it to say that if you learn how to use and consume just a few different mushroom varieties, you will better enable your body to heal, recharge, and reach its fullest potential. Here are just some of the ways in which mushrooms can promote greater physical and mental wellbeing.
They provide essential nutrients.
One of the primary reasons mushrooms confer so many health benefits is because they’re jam-packed with essential vitamins and nutrients including:
- B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, and folate, which are necessary for maintaining healthy metabolic and nervous system functions and boosting energy levels. Chanterelle mushrooms, in particular, have one of the highest natural concentrations of B vitamins of any produce item
- Vitamin C, which helps maintain a healthy immune system and protect against a variety of illnesses
- Vitamin D, which plays a critical role in bone health, muscle and nerve function, nutrient absorption, and immunity and can help combat depression
- A variety of minerals including selenium, potassium, iron, and copper, which together can help prevent cell damage, boost the production of red blood cells, improve bone health, prevent anemia, promote skin, hair, and nail health, and fight damaging free radicals in the body
They balance and restore your immune system.
Study after study finds that mushrooms are packed with immune-supporting compounds in the form of polyphenols, polysaccharides, and antioxidants. These compounds play a big role in regulating the immune system and maintaining its healthy function. One study even found that the immune-supporting benefits of mushrooms can’t be replicated by any pharmaceutical drugs currently on the market.
Not only do mushrooms help maintain a healthy immune system, but they can actually increase immune system activity. Consuming mushrooms may boost immunity and help protect the body from invasion by harmful microbes. This is because mushrooms increase the production of certain proteins in the body that are responsible for combatting disease-carrying pathogens.
Dried shiitake mushrooms, in particular, contain a compound named lentinan, which has been shown to stimulate the immune system and increase the body’s disease-fighting abilities.
Lentinan is so powerful that laboratory studies have shown it to kill viruses and disease-carrying microbes outright. Other compounds in mushrooms have similar antiobotic, antifungal, and antiviral properties. There’s even some evidence that mushrooms could be used to treat smallpox and the flu.
In addition to maintaining and stimulating the immune system, mushroom consumption has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body—which, in turn, reduces strain on the immune system. This may be one of the most important means by which mushrooms sustain immunity, because studies have found that chronic inflammation is a major threat to physical health and the biggest impediment to long life.
They keep your brain healthy.
Mushrooms’ cognitive enhancing effects are largely thanks to their high potassium content. The nutrient has been shown to maintain and even enhance brain health in a number of ways, including improving memory, facilitating the retention of learned knowledge, increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain (thereby promoting neural activity), and generally improving cognitive function overall.
Additionally, some research suggests that reishi mushrooms in particular may assist in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. This may be because compounds in the mushrooms help protect the hippocampus from oxidative stress, or the proliferation of damaging free radicals.
They lower your stress levels.
Consuming mushrooms may help ameliorate stress and its attenuating symptoms including anxiety, insecurity, irritability, trouble focusing, and so on. This is thanks in part to the B vitamins found in mushrooms, which play a big role in keeping the brain and nervous system healthy. When these systems get out of whack, stress is more likely to present itself.
Some mushroom varieties offer an additional mental uplift beyond these general stress-relieving effects. For example, black truffles contain amandamide, which researchers have dubbed a “bliss molecule.” The compound functions much like the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana (only without the high). It’s thought to trigger chemicals in the brain that are responsible for enhancing mood and reducing feelings of depression and pain.
And then there are so-called “magic” mushrooms. While not legal, mushrooms containing psilocybin (a naturally occurring hallucinogenic substance) have been studied in controlled trials. In these studies, researchers determined that a single dose of psilocybin resulted in long-lasting boosts in participants’ imagination, creative thinking, and mood, and had the potential to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
They may improve heart health.
A variety of studies suggest that regular mushroom consumption may be good for your heart. That’s due to a couple of reasons:
- Mushrooms can reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol, thereby decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is partly due to the fact that fresh mushrooms are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. Additionally, a compound called eritadenine (which is found in shiitake mushrooms) is especially adept at reducing bad cholesterol and promoting cardiovascular health. Animal studies have found that pink oyster mushrooms may also be particularly effective in this vein.
- Mushroom consumption may reduce plaque buildup in the blood vessels and relax the blood vessels. Together, these effects improve circulation and stabilize blood pressure, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
They promote gut health.
As mentioned above, mushrooms are a great source of both insoluble and soluble fiber, the latter of which facilitates healthy digestion and may help increase beneficial gut bacteria. This, in turn, enables the gut to overpower harmful bacteria. One study (which was conducted on mice) found that certain species of mushrooms may function much like prebiotics by promoting the production of healthy bacteria. This is important because more and more studies are finding that a healthy gut environment is critical for maintaining healthy metabolic processes, preventing disease, and promoting overall wellness.
They assist with weight loss.
Mushrooms have been shown to facilitate the process of losing weight in a number of ways. First of all, they assist the body in metabolizing lipids (aka fatty compounds). Secondly, thanks to their texture and flavor, they provide a lower-calorie alternative to meat products in a variety of dishes (such as red sauces and burgers). This might sound inconsequential, but one year-long trial tracked participants who substituted white button mushrooms for red meat and found that doing so enabled participants to enhance or maintain their weight loss over the course of the 12 months.
They support healthy skin.
One study (which was performed on mice) found that the consumption of white button mushroom extract after an injury to the skin promoted skin healing and regeneration. This is partly because consuming the extract increased the production of collagen fibers, which are the primary structural protein found in the skin.
They may play a role in cancer prevention and treatment.
Several studies have found that mushrooms can potentially inhibit or mitigate the development of cancerous tumors, particularly when it comes to breast, prostate, and lung cancers and leukemia. This is thanks to a number of factors:
- Mushrooms are high in selenium, which promotes the production of an enzyme that protects the body’s cells from damage
- They also contain beta-glucans, which can stimulate the production of immune cells and have been shown to be anti-carcinogenic. (In other words, they may prevent or limit the growth of cancerous cells)
- White button mushrooms, in particular, contain high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may provide additional protection from various cancers
- When used in conjunction with chemotherapy, the high levels of lentinan found in shiitake mushrooms may improve the survival time of patients with certain cancers. These effects have been validated enough that the American Cancer Society recognizes that lentinan may help inhibit or slow tumor growth
- Mushrooms contain a type of protein named lectins, which can bind with cancerous cells (or other abnormal cells) and flag them so the immune system knows they should be destroyed
- Turkey Tail mushrooms in particular contain two polysaccharide complexes—PSK and PSP—which may improve the immune system function.
The “magic” varieties of mushrooms (those containing psilocybin) may also help cancer patients cope with the mental effects of their treatment. Multiple clinical trials have found that taking psilocybin helped relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and promoted feelings of optimism and connection. These effects were powerful enough that they lasted up to half a year. (Once again, it should be noted that psilocybin is not a legal substance at this time.)
They may have anti-diabetic effects.
Multiple studies have found that maitake mushrooms can increase insulin sensitivity and decrease insulin resistance, which can assist with regulating healthy blood sugar levels. Additional studies have corroborated the idea that mushrooms may have anti-diabetic properties. Of course, this doesn’t mean mushrooms are a cure for diabetes; but it might mean they can support the body’s own ability to balance blood sugar levels.
They may assist in recovery from hepatitis B.
One small study of hepatitis B patients found that regular consumption of maitake mushrooms may have increased patients’ recovery rates. Patients in the control group demonstrated a 57 percent recovery rate, while those patients who consumed the mushrooms exhibited a 72 percent recovery rate. This and similar studies help explain why a number of scientific reviews refer to mushrooms’ “hepatoprotective” effects. Again, maitake is not a cure for hepatitis B, but it might help our body’s own ability to deal with it.
They have anti-aging effects.
Mushrooms can promote longevity in a number of ways. For starters, all the benefits outlined above—from supporting the immune system to sustaining brain health—contribute to greater mental and physical well being, which is a surefire way to stave off the more damaging effects of aging.
Beyond these general anti-aging benefits, mushrooms also boast distinct anti-aging properties. That’s largely thanks to the antioxidants found in mushrooms, which can slow down the aging process by helping to prevent cellular damage. (One study found that the mushroom cordyceps might possess especially strong antioxidant and anti-aging effects.) The compound ergothioneine, which is found in abundance in mushrooms, has been shown to protect DNA from oxidative damage, which can further protect the body from wear and tear resulting from aging.
They support environmental wellbeing.
Mushrooms don’t just benefit our bodies’ internal environment. They can also improve the health of the ecosystems on which our very survival relies. As mycologist Paul Stamets shares in his TED talk, mushrooms provide a variety of essential ecosystem functions, including absorbing pollution, cleaning polluted soil, producing natural insecticides, assisting in the clean-up of oil spills, breaking down nerve agents, providing a sustainable fuel source, and producing rich soil for farms and forests. You’ve heard the saying “No farms, no food”? Well, without fungi, there would be no farms, and there would be no food.
Mushrooms can be cooked, incorporated into other edible products (a la Four Sigmatic coffee), or in supplement form as extracts or whole food supplements. Virtually every variety of edible mushrooms promises some of the health benefits above—including regular old portabellas and white buttons (which are the most common mushroom variety grown in the U.S.). That’s thanks to the fact that all edible mushrooms are packed with bioactive compounds.
Still, most research on the possible health benefits of mushrooms are generally done on the Asian varieties, including cordyceps, enoki, maitake, reishi, and shiitake. Your palate will thank you for branching out: Different varieties of mushrooms boast a tremendous diversity of flavors and textures, so you can enjoy consuming the mushrooms while experiencing their complete range of health benefits.