When it comes to sticking to a healthy diet, disease-fighting mushrooms check off all the boxes: They’re low in carbohydrates and calories, but a great source of B vitamins, trace minerals, fiber and even protein. They also an anti-inflammatory food, containing high levels of beta-glucans compounds that keep immune cells alert, plus a powerful antioxidant called ergothioneine that helps lower bodywide inflammation.
The medicinal use of mushrooms has a very long tradition in the Asian countries that goes back thousands of years. Although their use in the Western Hemisphere only started increasing in the past several decades, today numerous studies show that mushrooms are vital, biologically active compounds with significant protective effects.
Mushrooms’ Surprising Immunity-Boosting Benefits
Proven mushroom nutrition benefits include the ability to boost the immune system and combat many diseases by way of providing numerous important vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Mushrooms are also a high antioxidant food, which means they fight free radical damage. According to extensive research, many mushrooms contain a wide variety of bioactive molecules that have anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant abilities.
Mushroom nutrition benefits also include their capability to inhibit viruses and decrease the severity of illness in those who are already sick. For example, certain types of mushrooms are shown to increase production of B and T lymphocytes, which are the crucial immune cells that help control our response to pathogens (harmful bacteria), viruses, toxins and other substances that can make us fall victim to disease.
Cancer prevention is really the field where mushroom nutrition gets the most attention. For centuries, Asian cultures have used certain mushrooms as a natural cancer treatment because of these fungi’s ability to lower the risk for cancer through many mechanisms, including supplying germanium, a nutrient that boosts oxygen use in the body and fights free radical damage. In fact, over 200 mushroom species are used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, and 25 percent of these are found to effectively fight harmful tumors.
Mushroom Nutrition Facts
Although most people think of mushrooms as vegetables, they’re in fact a type of beneficial fungus. The term “mushroom” refers to any macrofungus with a distinctive fruiting body large enough to be seen with the naked eye and picked by hand. As of now, mushrooms constitute at least 14,000 different plant species — and perhaps way more. The number of mushroom species on the earth is estimated to be 140,000, which suggests that scientists only know about 10 percent of the possible species at this time.
Although various types of mushrooms differ in terms of their exact calorie and nutrient count, in general they’re very low in carbohydrates, calories, fat, sodium and sugar. Meanwhile, provide a high level of nutrients — especially antioxidants, energizing B vitamins, copper and selenium.
One cup of raw white button mushrooms has about: (1)
- 21 calories
- 3 grams protein
- Less than 1 gram fat
- 1 gram fiber
- 2 grams sugar
- 2 grams carbs
- 0.4 milligrams vitamin B2 riboflavin (23 percent DV)
- 5 milligrams vitamin B3 niacin (17 percent DV)
- 4 milligrams vitamin B5 pantothenic acid (14 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams copper (13 percent)
- 9 milligrams selenium (13 percent DV)
- 305 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 83 milligrams phosphorus (8 percent DV)
6 Health Benefits of Mushrooms
With so many species in existence, plus numerous compounds within each species that offer their own unique qualities, it’s hard to sum up the health benefits of mushroom nutrition and the perks you get when you eat them regularly. But here are six benefits common to most types of mushroom varieties:
1. Fight Cancer
Known to be a natural cancer remedy and one of the best foods for increasing “natural killer cells” — the type of immune cells that seek out and destroy dangerous cancerous cells — mushrooms are praised as powerful anti-cancer foods. According to the medical journal 3 Biotech,
mushrooms anti-cancer compounds play a crucial role as a reactive oxygen species inducer, mitotic kinase inhibitor, anti-mitotic, angiogenesis inhibitor and lead to apoptosis, and eventually checking cancer proliferation. (2)
This means mushrooms can inhibit tumor formation, protect DNA from damage and stop cell mutation, all while protecting healthy cells and increasing the body’s ability to detoxify itself of dangerous substances.
2. Improve Immunity and Lower Inflammation
According to a 2005 report published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, mushrooms contain “compounds and complex substances with antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antiallergic, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antiatherogenic, hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective activities.” (3)
That may sound like a mouthful, but what it means is mushrooms can enhance almost every system in the body and protect you from numerous diseases since they’re associated with lowered inflammation (which is really the root of most diseases). Mushrooms also help alkalize the body, which is associated with improved immunity. A balanced pH level is crucial to health because, as some experts say, “disease cannot grow in an alkaline environment.”
Mushrooms also have the natural ability to fight dangerous bacteria and viruses. In fact, mushrooms need to have strong antibacterial and antifungal compounds just to survive in their own natural environment, which is why it’s not surprising that these beneficial compounds can be isolated from many mushrooms and used to protect human cells.
Mushrooms are even shown to have special fighting abilities against deadly multi-resistant bacterial strains and microorganisms responsible for gut and skin problems. In fact, some substances present in common antibiotics given to people when they’re sick — including penicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline — are derived from mushroom fungal extracts.
3. Protect Heart Health
Eating more mushrooms is one way to lower cholesterol levels naturally. Many types of mushrooms help lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and keep arteries from hardening, which are risk factors for heart disease.
Mushrooms have sterol compounds that interfere with the production of cholesterol in the liver, yet at the same time they can raise HDL “good” cholesterol. They also contain potent phytonutrients that help keep cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plague buildup, which maintains healthy blood pressure and improves circulation.
4. Support Energy and Improve Brain Function
Mushrooms are a great source of B vitamins, which help support adrenal function and turn nutrients from food into useable energy. B vitamin benefits include the ability to help with neurotransmitter function, which makes them stress-defying nutrients that help break through “brain fog,” prevent thyroid disorders and support a healthy metabolism.
Is chronic stress killing your quality of life? Certain types of mushrooms, especially reishi, are also considered adaptogens that lower cortisol, which means they can help your body to deal with stress and keep your mood more upbeat. Mushrooms can also lower inflammation that can trigger a decline in cognitive function, mood problems, low energy and age-related neurodegenerative diseases.
5. Help with Weight Management
Studies find that regularly substituting mushrooms for meat might help you to lose weight, since mushrooms are a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. Eating mushrooms several times per week is linked with a healthy body weight, reduced waist circumference and better overall health.
And while you’re working to improve your weight, mushroom nutrition benefits include the ability to protect your heart and vital organs from suffering the consequences of inflammation and imbalanced hormones.
6. Provide Vitamin D
While we know that vitamin D is best obtained from sun exposure, certain kinds of mushrooms can also provide a decent source of this important vitamin. Vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem for many people and linked to everything from heart disease to depression.
Exposing mushrooms to UV light, whether they’re grown outdoors or indoors under certain light fixtures, increases their concentration of vitamin D. Eating vitamin D-rich foods can help reduce your risk for cancer, heart disease, mood disorders and bone loss. Studies show that in addition to supplying vitamin D2, mushrooms can also produce vitamin D3 (the kind best utilized by humans) and vitamin D4. (4)
Unique Benefits for Different Types of Mushrooms
Here are the major types of disease-fighting mushrooms you should try to regularly include in your diet for their protective, immune-enhancing effects:
Reishi mushrooms have been used for thousands of years as a way to fight chronic disease. Today, we know from scientific studies that they’re in fact capable of doing what the Chinese have always speculated they could: fighting inflammation, cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalances, neuro-degenerative problems, mood disorders and more.
Reishi mushrooms, a type of bitter, woody fungi, are known as one of the top natural superfoods in existence. Reishi mushrooms are a type of powerful adaptogen that help the body deal with stress, whether physical or psychological, so they’re a natural remedy for anxiety.
When taken in tincture, capsule or tablet form, they have the unique ability to increase energy and also bring on a feeling of calm at the same time, making them an all-around mood booster and “brain food.” They can help heal adrenal fatigue and are sometimes called the “medicine of kings” because they can improve memory and concentration while also helping bust stress and facilitate restful sleep.
How do reishi mushrooms do so much? Their beta-glucans increase the immune system’s T-cell levels, which means they help lower inflammatory responses caused by stress, stimulants, a poor diet or other environmental factors. This is especially beneficial for people suffering from immune disorders or adrenal or chronic fatigue.
This immune boost that you receive from reishi mushrooms can help reduce cancer cell growth and the spread of tumors, but that’s not all — they also contain ganoderic acids that lower cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood pressure, as well as reduce the risk of blood clots and even help correct heart arrhythmia. Reishis also contain lanostan, an antihistamine that can act as a natural arthritis cure and also soothe muscle aches.
Shiitakes contain many chemical compounds that protect your DNA from oxidative damage — for example, lentinan, a substance that can heal chromosome damage caused by anti-cancer treatments. In Japan, shiitake mushrooms provide this special chemical component known as lentinan, which is used to prolong longevity and act as a natural treatment for cancer.
Eritadenine substances are also found in shiitakes, which help reduce cholesterol levels, while lentinula edodes mycelium (LEM) helps prevent and treat cancer (especially of the stomach and digestive organs), heart disease, hepatitis, high blood pressure and infectious diseases.
In addition, revealed in the Journal of Nutrition, shiitake mushroom nutrition benefits include antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal effects, as well as helping to control blood sugar and reduce the symptoms of inflammatory diseases. (5) Shiitakes are also unique for a plant since they contain all eight essential amino acids along with a type of essential fatty acid called linoleic acid. Look for them in most grocery stores, especially Asian markets.
These are sometimes known as anti-aging mushrooms since they can help increase stamina and endurance due to their ability to help the body produce ATP, the primary fuel our bodies run on. In fact, in Chinese folk medicine they’re known to be “invigorants” and believed to act as a gentle stimulant, a tonic and an adaptogen used to increase energy and reduce fatigue.
They also act as protectors of mitochondria by scavenging reactive oxygen species, inhibiting mitochondrial swelling and increasing the activities of antioxidant substances, which makes them a natural anti-aging food. (6)
Similar to reishi mushrooms, numerous studies find that cordyceps mushrooms can help as a natural cancer remedy by inhibiting cancer cell division and growth. Cordyceps interfere with how cancer cells make proteins and stop metastatic spread of cancerous tumors. They’re usually hard to find fresh, so look for them dried or in capsule or tablet form.
In addition to being loaded with vitamins, maitake mushroom nutrition benefits are due to special polysaccharide components called beta-1,6 glucan, which stimulates the immune system. Many of maitake’s compounds are even classified as host defense potentiators and are used in Asia as an adjunctive treatment for cancer. They can even help minimize toxic effects of radiation or chemotherapy.
In studies, maitake mushroom nutrition is linked to enhanced immunity and the ability to balance hormones naturally and reduce the growth of cancerous tumors. Maitake mushrooms have even improved the health of AIDS patients and the blood sugar levels of diabetics. They may also reduce hypertension and protect people from heart disease.
Oyster mushroom nutrition benefits include the ability to naturally reduce joint pain and muscle aches due to their anti-inflammatory effects — for example, they’re shown to reduce tightness in tendons. They’re also a heart-healthy fungus with the ability to strengthen blood vessel walls and lower the risk for heart attack or a stroke.
Additionally, they’re an excellent way to address a possible iron deficiency, especially if you don’t eat much meat, which can help prevent anemia, low energy, poor concentration and weakness. Oyster mushrooms are available at certain spatiality food stores, in dried mushroom packages or at some farmers markets.
Cremini/White Button Mushrooms
You might suspect that the tasty, familiar mushrooms in your grocery store aren’t very valuable — but think again. What may surprise you is just how many benefits of cremini (or white button) mushrooms are proven in studies.
These ordinary mushrooms are super dense with nutrients, including having more copper, potassium, protein and selenium than either oyster or shiitake mushrooms. They’re also a good source of phosphorus, zinc, niacin and pantothenic acid, especially when you cook them down and eat more than one cup at a time.
Research shows that extracts from creminis can reduce hormonal imbalances and prevent hormone-dependent types of cancer, especially breast cancer. A benefit of cremini mushroom nutrition is the high source of conjugated linolenic acid, which is a type of fatty acid that controls the production of estrogen and can stop cancerous tumor growth in some instances by blocking certain enzymes’ effects.
Similar to white mushrooms, porcinis, portabellas and morels are also mushrooms loaded with nutrients and antioxidants, so include in these recipes often too.
How to Buy and Cook Mushrooms
Look for fresh or dried mushrooms in grocery stores, health food stores or at your local farmers market, where you might be able to find some rarer types that have their own special benefits. It’s important to buy and eat organically grown mushrooms because they’re very porous and have the tendency to easily absorb chemicals from the soil they’re grown in.
Mushrooms can contain high levels of toxins like heavy metals and pesticides when they’re chemically sprayed or exposed to water pollutants, so it’s worth the extra money to buy the best quality you can. Dried mushrooms might be a bit more expensive than fresh ones, but they’re a good option when mushrooms aren’t in season.
To wash mushrooms, some need just a wipe down with a clean, damp cloth to remove any dirt (like shiitake, portobello, crimini and button mushrooms). But others ideally should be cleaned using a delicate brush (like chanterelles). Since mushrooms absorb water easily, you don’t want to rinse them for too long or keep them submerged in water — this can make them “water-logged.” A quick rinse to get off any visible dirt is enough.
Keep them dry in the refrigerator until the time you’re ready to use them, and remember that they have a short shelf life so the quicker you use them, the better. Many people like to store them in a paper bag (not a plastic one). This allows air to move in and out, which can keep them in better condition.
When it come to cooking mushrooms, each type needs to be handled a bit differently. Dried mushrooms, for example, can be rehydrated by combining them with boiling water and letting them sit for about 15 minutes so they plump up to a larger volume.
Large mushrooms like portabellas can be baked and still hold their firm texture, but more delicate mushrooms like shiitakes and cremini are best for sautéing in a pan or wok. Keep in mind mushrooms absorb a lot of liquid at first, but they release their water so don’t feel the need to drown them in sauce or oil.
Mushrooms add an earthy flavor and chewy, hearty texture to all kinds of savory dishes — from omelets and stir fries, to whole grain pilaf or side dishes. Here are several ways to add more mushrooms to some easy, healthy meals:
Total Time: 15 minutes
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 portobello mushrooms, stems off
- 4 slices of raw cheese
- 1 to 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 medium-sized onion, sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 4 Udi’s gluten-free hamburger buns or Ezekiel bread buns
- Heat up a grill to a medium heat.
- Mix coconut oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, sea salt and black pepper in a bowl.
- Coat both sides of mushrooms with mixture.
- Grill mushrooms, stems side up, for approximately 3 minutes, then turn and grill for additional 5 minutes.
- Grill red bell pepper slices for 6 minutes. (3 minutes per side.)
- With 3 minutes remaining, put the buns on the grill, cut side down.
- Remove everything from grill and allow to rest for a couple minutes.
- Serve by placing mushroom on the bun with onion and tomato.
Also try one of these healthy mushroom recipes to make a great side dish or appetizer:
Are There Any Risks for Eating Mushrooms?
If you buy mushrooms in extract form or scavenge for wild mushrooms on your own by some chance, always look for a reputable brand and consult with a specialist who knows about wild mushrooms. Certain mushrooms can be toxic or contaminated and are not meant for human consumption, so be careful where you purchase “medicinal mushrooms.”
Also, look for organic mushrooms whenever possible, and if you can’t find these, give dirty mushrooms a good rinse or wipe down to remove residue, bacteria and possibly even insects.
Keep in mind that most mushrooms contain purines that can be naturally found in some plants and are linked to health problems in some cases. Purines break down to form uric acid, which can accumulate and lead to conditions like gout or kidney stones in rare circumstances, so if you have an existing problem that’s worsened by purines, you should eat mushrooms in moderation.
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