Before the rise of pharmaceuticals, plant medicines like mushrooms were key components in maintaining optimal health and treating an extensive range of ailments. Rich in health-promoting compounds like vitamins, polyphenols, polysaccharides (such as beta-glucans), and triterpenes, the health benefits of mushrooms are due to the array of chemicals that mushrooms produce not only help them ward of predators but also stimulate our immune system and support our overall health. In fact, medicinal mushrooms have been shown to exert as many as 126 medicinal functions, including antitumor, antiviral, antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and antidiabetic effects.
Even though there are tens of thousands of species of mushrooms on Earth (with varieties still undiscovered!), only a small percentage of them are both digestible and tasty enough to eat. Fortunately for us, practically all mushrooms have been shown to have positive effects on our health. The health benefits of mushrooms extend to even the common grocery store staple, the lowly white button mushroom. These little guys have more health benefits than most people think—they contain phytochemicals shown in animal studies to be beneficial for cancer prevention, contain high levels of antioxidants, and decent amounts of both soluble and insoluble fiber. However, the most common varieties people think of when they think “functional mushrooms” include Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps Sinensis), lion’s Mane (Hericium Erinaceus), maitake (Grifola frondosa), reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), and turkey tail (Trametes Versicolor).
Eager to better understand the mechanisms behind what makes mushrooms so beneficial to us, modern researchers have been studying the potential impact mushrooms can have on human health since the middle of the 20th century. During that time, these studies have demonstrated over and over again the health benefits of mushrooms.
The Top 7 Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Boosts your immune system.
Our immune systems are working non-stop every day to help keep us safe from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Unfortunately, our modern world pits that system against a near-constant barrage of stress, wreaking havoc on our immune system, causing it to weaken and unable to function optimally. This makes us more susceptible to everything from the common cold to much more serious infectious diseases.
Mushrooms are an excellent source of beta-glucans, which play a key role in keeping our immune system operating optimally by stimulating and enhancing the production of white blood cells and natural killer cell function. These cells are vital in maintaining a healthy adaptive immune system – a subsection of your larger immune system that is made up of highly specialized cells responsible for mounting an effective defense against pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress reduction can all help maintain a healthy immune system and improve one that is working poorly. Including mushrooms as part of your diet and/or supplement regimen can give your system a boost, especially during the winter months when illnesses like colds and the flu are more prevalent.
Increases antioxidant levels.
Free radicals are the result of both normal processes in the human body like energy production and inflammation and external exposure to things like exercise, x-rays, air pollution, cigarette smoke, and industrial chemicals. When your body has a balance between these free radicals and antioxidants, there generally isn’t a negative effect on your health. However, when the amount of free radicals outpaces your body’s ability to neutralize them, they can cause serious issues such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Needless to say, maintaining a high level of antioxidants is key in maintaining good health.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t eat enough richly colored fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. As a result, we tend to have low levels of antioxidants and essential nutrients such as folate, vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc. Not only do mushrooms contain these essential nutrients, but they are also rich in compounds such as sterols, tocopherols, and phenolic compounds that act as powerful free radical scavengers that can help remove free radicals and even prevent them from forming in the first place. Mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps have high antioxidant properties, while Chaga has some of the highest antioxidant levels of all foods.
Potential natural cancer treatment (or adjunct therapy).
Most studies on the effects of mushrooms on various cancers have been done via lab and animal models, not on humans. While the results of these studies have been promising, there certainly needs to be more research done to help determine what role mushrooms, or their extracts, can play in the treatment of this devastating disease.
Some of the most promising cancer treatment benefits of mushrooms are a result of the beta-glucans, fungal immunomodulatory proteins, and lectins which have been shown to potentially help reduce tumor proliferation, prevent tumor metastasis, induce cell apoptosis, and decrease the viability of cancer cells.
Some mushrooms, such as reishi, may also be viable complementary components of conventional cancer treatments by helping to enhance the effectiveness of radiotherapy, reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea, and increase the sensitivity of some cancer cells to certain chemotherapy medications.
Improves memory, focus, and brain function.
As the prevalence of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s increases, maintaining a healthy brain as you age is a concern for a growing number of people. Lifestyle factors such as exercising regularly, fostering a strong social circle, and adhering to a healthy, nutrient-dense diet (including foods like mushrooms) are all necessary factors in sustaining optimal brain function.
Mushrooms are rich sources of bioactive compounds that have been shown to reduce beta-amyloid-induced neurotoxicity, improve nerve growth factor synthesis, and exhibit neuroprotective, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects.
For example, a double-blind, parallel-group, placebo-controlled study in 2009 looked at the effects of Lion’s Mane on the cognitive function of 50-80-year-old Japanese men and women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. The study found that subjects that took Lion’s Mane for 16 weeks showed significant increases in cognitive function scores compared to the placebo group. However, once they stopped taking the mushroom, their scores dramatically decreased.
Improves Exercise Endurance.
Cordyceps, used in China for more than 300 years, is considered an adaptogen and has been shown to help enhance endurance and strength. David Winston, RH(AHG), notes in his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, that in 1993 Chinese athletes contributed taking cordyceps to their success in breaking world records and dominating at the world championship track meet.
In one randomized, repeated measures, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 28 individuals, cordyceps supplementation improved VO2 max, time to exhaustion, and ventilatory threshold after just 3 weeks.
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled, prospective trial of twenty healthy individuals, 50-75 years old, suggested that 333mg of cordyceps three times per day for 12 weeks improved various exercise performance markers.
Cordyceps may also stimulate the generation of mitochondrial ATP, which can help improve energy levels in and out of the gym while combating fatigue.
Helps with diabetes.
Diabetes is becoming increasingly common, affecting over 30 million people in the US. Possible complications from diabetes can include conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, and Alzheimer’s. Thankfully, something as simple as using medicinal mushrooms may be enough to help some people regulate their blood sugar and possibly avoid some of the issues associated with diabetes.
An animal study of diabetic rats showed a reduction of HbA1c of up to 24.7% when given reishi mycelium powder. Another animal study found that powdered reishi could normalize leukocytes (which can become elevated in patients with diabetes, resulting in susceptibility to infections and secondary inflammatory conditions).
Issues with lipid metabolism and increased oxidative stress are challenges that those with diabetes can experience. The saponins found in mushrooms like Golden Ear (Tremella aurantialba) may help decrease blood glucose, cholesterol, phospholipids, and serum triglyceride levels while increasing antioxidant levels.
Helps improve cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol is another common disorder, estimated to affect over 100 million adults in the US alone. Beta-glucans, polysaccharides found in foods like oats and mushrooms, have been studied for decades for their ability to reduce LDL cholesterol levels while maintaining HDL or triglyceride levels. Beta-glucans in mushrooms may also help prevent the absorption of dietary cholesterol in the gut, modulate cholesterol-related gene expression, and downregulate pro-inflammatory signals caused by higher cholesterol levels.
The research on the health benefits of mushrooms is adding up regularly. Researchers are continually providing more and more reasons why you should consider making them a part of your regular diet. Just remember, to ensure you’re getting the most benefit, it’s vital to obtain them from a reliable company that sources only those that have been organically grown and, if supplements, tested for purity.
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