Mushrooms are definitely superfoods: nutrient dense and high in both fiber and protein, they are packed with antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals. But even beyond these benefits, it’s their medicinal properties that have made them a staple of traditional medical practices for thousands of years. In fact, mushroom consumption in general has been linked with a decreased risk of all cause mortality.
Here are some of the specifics.
Mushrooms are probably best studied for their anti-cancer properties. Many different species have been identified as possessing anti-tumor properties, with no apparent toxicity. Research has specifically shown that mushrooms help fight against breast cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer, pancreatic cancer, gastric cancer, and leukemia. Also, increased mushroom consumption is associated with a lower overall cancer risk.
Studies of several individual species have identified the possible medical compounds and mechanisms of action. These include:
- Maitake, aka Grifolia frondosa which shows promise in reduced tumor growth and increased remission, as well as enhanced immune function.
- Turkey tail, aka trametes versicolor or coriolus versicolor, shown to protect against DNA damage and boost NK cell production.
- Reishi, aka Ganoderma lucidum, which may improve survival as quality of life, and also enhances NK cells.
- Cordyceps sinensis, which boosts white blood cells post-chemo. It also decreases DNA damage, perhaps by stimulating DNA repair. (Technically cordyceps is not a mushroom, though since it is still a fungus, it’s usually grouped with mushrooms.)
Many mushrooms have also been studied for immune support properties. One specifically studied for this is shiitake, aka Lentinula edodes. These have been shown to increase secretory IgA production in the gut, the immune system’s first line of defense. In the same study, they also were shown to decrease inflammatory cytokines and CRP, suggesting decreased overall inflammation.
Insulin Sensitivity and Metabolic Improvements
As a low calorie, high protein food, mushrooms are a good addition to any weight loss diet. But even beyond that, several medicinal properties enhance their metabolic support.
Maitake, aka Grifolia frondosa helps to lower both glucose and cholesterol, at least in mice studies so far.
Cordyceps sinensis decreases glucose spilling into urine and high blood sugar generally. It too helps to lower both cholesterol and triglycerides. It’s also helpful for kidney disease, decreasing creatinine and proteinuria.
Cognitive and Sleep Improvements
Lion’s mane, aka Hericium erinaeus, is especially well known for its cognitive support. It’s rich in antioxidants, as are many of the other mushrooms. But it has also been shown to increase remyelination and encourage both the development and the function of nerve cells by stimulating Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
Energy and Anti-Aging
Cordyceps sinensis and militaris are the stars here. Cordyceps has been shown to boost production of ATP, the body’s primary energy currency. Related to this, cordyceps scavenges reactive oxygen species which typically hang out around the mitochondria, resulting in protection from mitochondrial damage.
Mitochondrial damage is still the most prevalent theory of aging. Perhaps for this reason, cordyceps has been associated with anti-aging effects in general, including improved brain and sexual function.
Cordyceps sinensis is endangered in the wild, but militaris can still be found fresh. Sinensis can also be purchased as a supplement.
Mushrooms can be added to your diet in a number of ways. Slice them and add them to your salads. Sauté or stir fry them with a variety of other veggies as a side for dinner, or to your omelettes for breakfast. Add them as a topping to your (cauliflower crust) pizzas. Add them fresh, dried, or frozen to your soups. If you hate the texture or flavor, you can probably even hide them in your smoothies.
You can also find dried herb options as supplements.