Mushroom Health Benefits: Understanding the Effects of Consuming Fungus
Mushrooms have been part of our diet since antiquity. They’ve also been an integral part of religious ceremonies, and even folklore. Of course, they’ve also taken center stage in medicine, being attributed to everything from the power to grant immortality to super-human strength, and more.
While today we know that mushrooms will not make us live forever, or help lead our souls to the realm of the gods, it’s becoming clear that these fungi are actually pretty miraculous. In fact, consuming mushrooms can have some pretty significant health benefits.
A Brief History of Edible Mushrooms
It’s likely that humans have been consuming mushrooms in one way or another since the dawn of our species. As omnivores, our ancestors would undoubtedly have come across them, and at least one or two intrepid individuals would have tried to eat them. Assuming that those didn’t consume a poisonous mushroom, others would have joined in.
With that being said, mushrooms have been shrouded in mystery for thousands of years. They seem to be plants, but they don’t grow like them. They don’t fruit on a predictable basis, and it’s difficult to cultivate them. Some are delicious eaten raw or cooked, but others can kill you in a heartbeat. Yet others produce psychotropic effects valued worldwide in religious rites and rituals.
Mushrooms have long been loved by Eastern cultures, but those of the West held them in suspicion. That changed when they became part of the haute cuisine of France, though, and today, a number of different types are consumed on a regular basis. The button mushroom accounts for about 40% of the global consumption of mushrooms, but there are others, including shitake, portobello, truffles, morel, and more.
Nutrition of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are more than just tasty additions to your plate, or replacements for hamburger patties if you’re a vegetarian. They actually pack quite a nutritional punch. Most varieties contain a significant amount of protein, as well as potassium and polysaccharides. They’re also chock-full of antioxidants, as well as phytochemicals that make them powerhouses of health for humans.
It has taken a long time for American views of mushrooms to come around and match reality. For instance, at the turn of the 20th century, most people assumed that mushrooms were either deadly or unpleasant. That started to change in the ensuing years. Today, mushrooms are sought after, not only by cooks looking for meal ingredients in their local grocery store, but by foragers interested in going “as local as possible” and foraging for their meals in the wild.
Mushrooms have also come front and center in the health debate, with numerous studies finding that, while not magical, they do possess some incredible properties.
Bioactive Mushroom Polysaccharides
As mentioned previously, mushrooms contain polysaccharides. These have significant bioactive properties. In a study published in the journal Molecules on June 13, 2017, authors Wang, Wang, Zu and Ding note, “A wide variety of bioactive compounds from medicinal mushrooms, which are widely used in eastern Asia, have been studied extensively and these compounds, including polysaccharides, lectins, lactones, terpenoids, and alkaloids have been reviewed. Among these bioactive compounds, polysaccharides (PSs) with various activities are the main component for the bioactivities of some mushroom species.”
What are polysaccharides? The authors of the paper explain that they are “highly complex molecules, and details characterization of specific glyosidic linkages, degree of branching, monosaccharide composition, molecular weight, and chain conformation is essential for elucidating structure-biological relationships.”
These polysaccharides provide a broad range of activities within the human body, including the following capabilities/properties:
In a study entitled Mushrooms: A Potential Natural Source of Anti-Inflammatory Compounds for Medical Applications, published in May 2014, authors Elsayed, El Enshasy, Wadaan and Aziz state, “For centuries, macrofungi have been used as food and medicine in different parts of the world. This is mainly attributed to their nutritional value as a potential source of carbohydrates, proteins, amino acids and minerals.
In addition, they also include many bioactive metabolites, which make mushrooms and truffles common components in folk medicine, especially in Africa, the Middle East, China and Japan. The reported medicinal effects of mushrooms include anti-inflammatory effects.”
A great many human illnesses and diseases can be attributed to inflammation, either as a causation or a factor affecting development. Almost anything can cause inflammation in the tissues, as well, from an autoimmune response to a perceived threat, to a physical injury.
In a normal response, inflammation is a good thing. For instance, in a damaged joint, inflamed tissue holds the joint still, preventing further injury. Over time, inflammation should subside. However, most of those living a modern Western lifestyle live in a constant state of inflammation caused by irritants in the air, ingredients in our modern diet, chemicals with which we come into contact, and other causes.
Many of the compounds common to mushroom tissues act as anti-inflammatory agents, reducing and gradually eliminating inflammation. This reduces the level of pain and discomfort felt by the individual, but has longer lasting implications, as well. As mentioned, inflammation is at the heart of many of today’s most deadly diseases. By reducing whole-body inflammation, mushrooms can help to stave off health problems ranging from hypertension to heart disease and much more.
You likely don’t think about antioxidants when adding sliced mushrooms to your salad, or biting into a sautéed portobello cap. However, you should. According to a study published in 2015 titled Antioxidants of Edible Mushrooms, authors Kozarski, Klaus, Jakovljevic, Todorovic, Vunduk, Petrovic, Niksic, Vrvic and Giensven highlight the importance of antioxidative compounds within edible mushrooms.
The authors state, “Oxidative stress caused by an imbalanced metabolism and an excess of reactive oxygen species (ROS) lead to a range of health disorders in humans. Our endogenous antioxidant defense mechanisms and our dietary intake of antioxidants potentially regulate our oxidative homeostasis … Edible mushrooms might be used directly in enhancement of antioxidant defenses through dietary supplementation to reduce the level of oxidative stress.”
What the authors found what that our modern lifestyle depletes us of antioxidants very quickly. The standard Western diet is also very low in antioxidants, meaning that they are not replenished regularly, leading to further oxidative damage within the body, to organs, blood vessels, and even our skin.
While synthetic antioxidants are available as over the counter supplements, these are not recommended. The body only absorbs a small percentage of supplement-derived nutrients. The only way to ensure that you’re getting enough would be to increase your dosage to possibly unsafe levels. This is particularly true considering that some synthetic antioxidants have been associated with toxic effects (such as BHA).
However, studies have shown that the body is much more efficient at extracting nutrients from natural foods, so natural sources of antioxidants, like edible mushrooms, are preferred. In addition to plenty of antioxidants, both farmed and wild harvested mushrooms contain high levels of:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Additional Benefits of Mushroom-Derived Polysaccharides
Mushroom chemistry has proven beneficial in fighting other conditions, as well. For instance, they have been shown to be effective in helping to treat patients suffering from obesity, as well as those struggling with obesity-related illnesses like diabetes. There’s also the fact that mushrooms have anticancer properties, and also provide antibiotic properties.
In a study published in the journal Foods in 2016, authors Friedman and Brennan note that, “More than 2,000 species of edible and/or medicinal mushrooms have been identified to date, many of which are widely consumed, stimulating much research on their health-promoting properties … The polysaccharides act as prebiotics in the digestive system … and in blended mixtures work against obesity, diabetes, cancer and infectious diseases.”
Mushrooms offer a low-calorie, high-fiber food, which in its own right can help fight obesity by making you feel fuller for longer periods. However, there’s also the fact that they have positive, powerful effects on your gut microflora (the collection of microorganisms in your gut responsible for digestive health, as well as overall bodily function). B-glucan polymers within mushrooms are the primary source of benefit here.
Interestingly, edible mushrooms also show promise for helping to fight diabetes. This goes beyond merely helping to avoid the overweight or obese condition that usually leads to obesity in adults. It speaks to helping to mitigate the actual insulin metabolism that causes the condition in the first place.
In the end, mushrooms might just be as magical as our ancestors thought them to be. While they might not contain any “magic” in their cells, they do contain powerful compounds that can have a profound effect on human life, and the quality of the life that you enjoy. From fighting obesity and diabetes to the potential to battle cancer tumors, there’s a great deal more to mushrooms than their savory taste and flavor, or their use in culinary dishes.
Of course, further study is needed, as is synthetization of the compounds responsible for anticancer activity, but most benefits offered by mushrooms can be obtained simply by adding them to your regular diet.