The Life-Changing Magic of Mushrooms

The Life-Changing Magic of Mushrooms

Forget the old saying about apples because, according to recent studies, it’s actually a mushroom a day that keeps the doctor away. According to researchers from the Penn State Cancer Institute, eating just one medium-sized button mushroom a day can reduce your risk of cancer by 45%.[1a]

Their fascinating research analysed 17 cancer studies published from 1966 to 2020, using data from some 19,500 patients. It found that people who incorporated any variety of mushrooms into their daily diets had a lower risk of cancer. And, while a single daily mushroom was enough to make a difference, the researchers discovered that the more you ate, the better.

Whether you favour a button, oyster, porcini or chanterelle, mushrooms are low in calories and rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But they also have another interesting trick up their stalks: ergothioneine, a unique antioxidant and potent anti-inflammatory that humans are unable to synthesise on their own. 

And that’s not the only health benefit that could be hiding in your risotto because some mushrooms, such as reishi and Lion’s Mane, are also what’s known as ‘adaptogens’. These help support the nervous, endocrine and immune systems to reduce the effects of stress on the body.

But while the latest research may be exciting, we’re really only waking up to what ancient civilizations have known about mushrooms for thousands of years. In 450 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates used the amadou mushroom as an anti-inflammatory, while the first peoples of North America used puffball mushrooms (Calvatia genus) to heal wounds. 

Want to know more about the medicinal properties of the humble mushroom? Here’s five fungi facts that will see you ordering the mushroom omelette for lunch…

1. They’re a vegan source of vitamin D [1]

Fish oil, egg yolks, shellfish.. if you’re a vegan, getting food sources of vitamin D into your diet can be tricky. But, providing they’re not grown in the dark, mushrooms actually contain a surprising amount of the sunshine vitamin.

All mushrooms are fungi and they produce spores, similar to pollen or seeds, which allows them to spread or travel by the wind. The rest of the mushroom then matures, typically living in soil or wood. When they grow and are exposed to sunlight [2], mushrooms increase their concentration of vitamin D. In fact, mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light may contain about 450 IU of vitamin D2 per 100g serving - not bad when you consider that a portion of salmon contains 570 IU of the bone-strengthening nutrient.

2. They help support immunity  

Ever wondered why we include chaga and reishi in our award-winning Immunity Complex? Two words: beta glucans [4]. These magical medicinal mushrooms are particularly rich sources of the special soluble fibre [3] known to activate vital parts of our immune systems (such as immune cells called natural killer cells and macrophages). By doing so, beta glucans increase your body’s ability to fight infection. 

Mushrooms also contain B vitamins and selenium, an antioxidant that helps the immune system and prevents damage to cells and tissues.In fact, a clinical study found that eating shiitake mushrooms daily improves immunity in a way that is not found in any currently available pharmaceutical drugs [11]. 

3. They’re good for your gut  

We’ve seen how mushrooms strengthen the immune system, but a large part of the way they do this is by acting as a prebiotic [10]. Prebiotics act as a food source for the good guys, fuelling the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and promoting a favourable gut environment. It’s all down to those beta glucans, found inside the fungi’s cell walls. 

One medicinal mushroom in particular, lion’s mane, is best known for having benefits in cognitive and nerve health. But one of the reasons it works so well for the brain may actually stem from its soothing action in the gut. Not only is it a rich source of beta glucans, lion’s mane also boasts  anti-inflammatory properties, while studies (12) have found that lion’s mane extract may help prevent the growth of helicobacter pylori in the digestive tract. 

4. They have heart-healthy properties 

Mushrooms have been shown to have some therapeutic properties which may help lower cholesterol. [8] They also contribute nutrients and plant compounds [9] that may help prevent cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plaque build up. This in turn helps protect the heart by maintaining healthy blood pressure and circulation

But cooking with mushrooms could see you less inclined to reach for the salt shaker, too. Mushrooms contain glutamate ribonucleotides which have that savoury umami taste, giving you lots of flavour without the additional risks! 

5. They may help you look and feel good as you age

Mushrooms contain a high concentration of two antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, according to a 2017 Penn State study. [13] When these antioxidants are present together within the same food source, they can protect the body from the type of stress that causes visible signs of ageing.

But this powerful duo may have beneficial effects on our grey matter, too. Penn State researchers also found that the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione may help prevent Parkinson's and possibly even Alzheimer's, too. [6] [7]

So if that’s inspired you to eat more mushrooms in your daily diet, which ones should you choose? Eating a wide variety of the organic kind will help you take advantage of all of the fabulous fungi’s health properties, so choose from white, cremini, Portobello, oyster, shiitake, maitake and reishi. But before you decide to forage in the woods, remember that not all wild mushrooms are edible and some can be extremely toxic to humans. So don’t pick mushrooms to eat from the wild unless you have been trained to identify them.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like Optimal nutrition on a vegan diet.




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    Inessa Team

    Our team pull together science-backed information to bring you up to date health and wellness insights.

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