Mushrooms have been revered throughout history for their culinary and medicinal benefits. Asian cultures in particular have used these fungi for thousands of years as both food and medicine, and they remain so popular today that they are sold by street vendors, similar to how we sell hot dogs and bagels in the United States. The ancient Egyptians believed so strongly in the healing properties of mushrooms that they thought eating them could make you immortal. France was among the first nations to cultivate mushrooms, followed by England, and then the United States in the late 1800’s.
Science is confirming what natural healers have known and practiced for a long time regarding mushrooms. There are indeed numerous health benefits associated with regular consumption of mushrooms, including the Shitake, Maitake, Reishi, Enoki, Portobello, and white button varieties.
Some of the benefits include the following:
- Improved immune function and defense against cancer – Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, a polysaccharide or complex sugar, that is similar in structure to bacteria. When you eat these mushrooms, your immune system produces more white blood cells to fight infection. Lentinan also has anti-tumor properties. Shiitake mushrooms have long been valued in Japan for their ability to shrink tumors and are often used as an adjunct to chemotherapy to support the immune system. They are gaining attention by cancer researchers around the world. Maitake mushrooms also have a long reputation as cancer-fighters. Like Shiitake mushrooms, they contain lentinan – as well as a polysaccharide called beta-D-glucan, or D-fraction, which has effectively shrunk tumors in lab animals. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, white button mushrooms – as well as Shiitake, portabello, crimini, and baby button mushrooms- contain phytochemicals that inhibit an enzyme that produces estrogen within the breast cells. Estrogen is a key factor in the development of breast cancer, and the suppression of estrogen production by these phytochemicals may provide cancer protection in postmenopausal women. Enokis, which are white and spindly, contain lentinan, as well as proflamin, another anti-cancer compound that stimulates immune cells to attack cancer cells more vigorously. A 2009 Australian study found that Chinese women who ate 10 grams ( about 3/4 cup) of fresh mushrooms daily had a 64% lower risk of breast cancer compared to non-consumers. Those who also drank green tea in the amount of 1 gram of infused leaves per day reduced their risk of breast cancer by 89%! The high levels of zinc and selenium in mushrooms also support healthy immune function,
- Help with weight loss A study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that substituting 1 cup of white button mushrooms for red meat can be a useful strategy for enhancing weight loss. At the end of the one-year study, those in the intervention groups lost 7 pounds and showed improvements in body composition compared to participants on the control diet. Why? Differences in nutrient composition helped account for the different results. A one-cup serving of cooked mushrooms contains only 44 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 3 grams of fiber, whereas a medium hamburger patty provides about 200 calories, 14 grams of fat, and no fiber. Part of the fiber in mushrooms is in the form of beta-glucan ( a soluble fiber also found in oats, barley, and rye) which increases satiety or sense of fullness, and diminishes hunger.
- Lowering of cholesterol A compound in Shiitake mushrooms called eritadenine has been shown to lower cholesterol in human and animal studies conducted in Japan. Also, beta-glucan interferes with the absorption of dietary cholesterol, which helps keep blood cholesterol low. Substituting mushrooms for meat will not only help with weight control, but also will promote healthy cholesterol levels.
- Improvement of skin conditions and anti-aging benefits Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, mushrooms can improve acne, rosacea, and eczema. Most varieties of mushrooms contain ergothionine, an amino acid that reduces inflammation. They also are very high in the mineral selenium ( one cup of cooked mushrooms provides 33% of the Daily Value), which acts as an antioxidant that helps protect the skin. Studies have shown that oral consumption of Kombucha mushrooms fights free radical damage and topical application can hinder glycation- a process where excess sugar binds collagen in the skin, leaving it brittle and wrinkled. Skincare companies such as Aveeno and Origins have started adding Reishi mushroom extracts to their products.
With all the amazing benefits of mushrooms, you may wish to add them regularly to your meals. Try Including mushrooms in your morning omelette along with some scallions and red pepper. Stir-fry a variety of mushrooms with other vegetables in a wok for a tasty side dish. Toss them into your pasta dishes and add them on top of your pizzas. A large grilled portobello mushroom makes a great replacement for a burger. Dress it with some avocado, onion, and tomato for added flavor and nutrition. And there is always delicious mushroom soup!