Despite over 10,000 species of mushroom known in North America alone, the public knowledge regarding these diverse fungi revolve around a few main culinary staples. Everyone knows the porcini and shitake, the earthy cremini, the flavorful portabella—all mushrooms are fantastic sources of fiber and iron, kickstart your metabolism and pack a punch of vitamin C.
However, new research has uncovered unique and jaw-dropping health benefits for lesser-known species of mushrooms, motivating people to expand their horizons and try some wildly named varieties including lion’s main, agaraikon, and turkey tail.
Free Radicals and Antioxidants
Before we delve into their mushroom connection, let’s talk about two terms that get thrown around a lot these days—free radicals and antioxidants.
The human body is constantly dealing with oxidative stress—oxygen in the body which is split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. This frequently happens when the body utilizes food to produce energy. The problem is electrons tend to prefer the ‘buddy system’ and if unpaired, these atoms—free radicals—roam the body seeking out other electrons in need of pairing. Studies have shown free radicals damage cells, protein, and even DNA.
As research has grown, free radicals have been linked to serious diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, they are a pet peeve of gerontologists and futurologists seeking a cure to aging, and have been linked to various types of cancer.
While free radicals occur naturally due to internal chemical processes, guess what also is a major contributor of free radicals in the human body? Tobacco, pesticide, air pollution and fried and processed foods.
Now the goal isn’t to eradicate free radicals completely, but simply to keep them in check. That is where antioxidants—our hero in this biological saga—comes into play. Antioxidants are molecules that pair an electron with a free radical without destabilizing themselves. Beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene are examples of primary antioxidants found in a typical diet.
Here’s the thing: the human body doesn’t produce enough antioxidants on its own, which means diet is critical for combating free radicals. This is the reason that you see a new and exotic ‘super-foods’ unveiled every year, unearthed from the rainforest or discovered among faraway hills, supposedly chocked-full of antioxidants. The truth is common fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants already—berries, broccoli, spinach, nuts, great tea, and tomatoes are all excellent providers of antioxidants (and found in your local grocery store).
The Mushroom Connection
Now let’s get back to mushrooms, and in particular, a study which recently concluded at Penn State University. Researchers found that mushrooms contain an incredibly high amount of two antioxidants—ergothioneine and glutathione—that could help not simply bolster health, but combat two of the most destructive diseases plaguing modern society, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
While the amount of these two antioxidants varied by mushroom species (with porcini having the highest quantity), all species contained significant amounts of ergothioneine and glutathione. Cooking the mushrooms did not seem to significantly affect the compounds—great news for anyone with picky taste buds.
In discussing the potential correlation between neurodegenerative diseases and these antioxidants, Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health said, “it's preliminary, but you can see that countries that have more ergothioneine in their diets, countries like France and Italy, also have lower incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, while people in countries like the United States, which has low amounts of ergothioneine in the diet, have a higher probability of diseases like Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's.” That difference between cultures may be as small as “five porcini mushrooms per day.”
Let’s Talk About Medicinal Mushrooms!
Unorthodox varieties of mushroom—when considering the typical diet—may have unique and additional health benefits. Let’s highlight a few.
The turkey tail mushroom, a medium-sized variation noted for its digestion aiding prowess, was the focus of a seven-year study at the University of Minnesota. Researchers found that the mushroom helped boost immune system capabilities in women with stages I-III breast cancer who recently completed radiation therapy. Additional anti-cancer research found when used in combination with certain chemotherapy regimens, a protein dubbed PSK found in the turkey tail mushroom benefited post-surgery stomach and colorectal cancer patients.
Similarly, the chaga mushroom, famously found on birch trees across the northern hemisphere is a nutrient-dense powerhouse, boasting high levels of B-complex vitamins, vitamin D, potassium, selenium, zinc, iron, and calcium. The Chaga species also possess unique properties which reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called "bad" cholesterol. It also fights inflammation.
Lion’s Mane is a mushroom with a long history in traditional Chinese medicine. This fuzzy and odd-looking mushroom was believed to provide “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion,” to anyone lucky enough to eat it. While those properties have not been medically verified, there is research to suggest that proteins in Lion’s Mane may assist in the growth and maintenance of nerve cells in our brain. A darling of the nootropic world, Lion’s Mane may support memory and cognition, as well as boost mood. Buddhists monks located in Asia frequently consume Lion’s Mane tea before meditating.
Finally, the agaraikon—or quinine conk—has been utilized as medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks. In 65 A.D., Greek physician Dioscorides called agaraikon “the elixir to a long life,” and modern research has shown incredible anti-viral properties. Mycologists (i.e. professional fungi experts) have found agaraikon contains strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agents, along with long-presumed anti-viral properties. As virus and bacteria continue to rapidly mutate, many in the medicinal world are once again giving study to the agaraikon.
Okay, Great Information, But Now What?
The advice is simple: get more mushrooms in your diet.
For those brave souls looking to try some of the more exotic species above, the culinary route may not be the best option. For one, they are difficult to find locally. Some are also rather unpleasant tasting—agaraikon is so bitter, traditional users thought it contained quinine (it doesn’t) and tried to harvest it for anti-malarial purposes. However, all the mushroom species highlighted above can be easily found in tea, capsule and powder form. For the more intrepid readers, you can buy a mushroom growing kit online for certain species, including Lion’s Mane, and make a hobby of impressing our family and friends. Regardless of your route, make sure mushrooms are a featured player in your dietary regiment.
- Szalay, Jessie, “What are Free Radicals,” Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/54901-free-radicals.html, May 27, 2016
- Swayne, Matt, “Mushrooms are full of antioxidants that may have antiaging potential,” Penn State News, http://news.psu.edu/story/491477/2017/11/09/research/mushrooms-are-full-antioxidants-may-have-antiaging-potential, November 9, 2017
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