There’s a reason why mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in natural therapies, that’s because they are loaded with powerful nutrients that not only improve our health, but also have been shown to fight disease. Mushrooms are not technically a vegetable, but rather part of the fungi family, and are surprisingly more closely related to animals than plants (they digest their own food, lack roots, leaves and stems) and have some pretty impressive health benefits.
Boost the Immune System
Mushrooms boost the immune system in two major ways. Firstly by being an antioxidant powerhouse. Antioxidants such as selenium and polyphenols help to neutralise free radical damage to our cells. Mushrooms contain a large amount of antioxidants including a pretty rare one, ergothioneine, which protects and improves blood cell function. In one study of 30 different fruits and vegetables, mushrooms ranked 5th highest in antioxidants (spinach was the winner). The more antioxidants we consume, the less free radical damage we experience, meaning less wrinkles, less mutated cells (that trigger diseases such as cancer), brighter skin, more energy and whole host of other benefits.
The second way mushies boost our immune system is by enhancing the function of our Natural Killer Cells. These white blood soldiers play a pivotal part in destroying viral invaders and attacking rogue tumour cells, preventing their growth.
Help protect against diseases such as cancer:
Besides all the immune boosting benefits, mushrooms contain some other powerful nutrients that have been shown to help protect against cancer. Beta Glucans (β-glucans) are a type of sugar found in the cell walls of mushrooms that help to stimulate the immune system by increasing chemicals, which prevent infections. These same chemicals also help to reduce blood cholesterol, prevent flu symptoms, can help manage HIV, autoimmune diseases and a whole host of other benefits. It’s these same β-glucans that protect the mycelium from pathogens in the soil (mycelium are a thread-like underground network that connects colonies of mushrooms). The tiny mycelium are only one cell thick yet surrounded by dirt, bacteria and a plethora of other pathogens that want to destroy it. It’s the powerful β-glucans (and other antioxidants) in the cell wall that gobble up or repel such pathogens.
In a scientific review of oral β-glucan supplementation for cancer, researchers advocated the intake of β-glucans along with combined adoptive T-cell treatments for the treatment of cancer.
Eating a diet rich in β-glucans can help prevent such diseases, and mushrooms (along with oats) contain the largest amounts of β-glucan.
Aid healthy digestion:
Many nutrients in mushrooms aid healthy digestion. Firstly they are packed with prebiotics, a type of fibre that our gut micro biota thrive on. Feed our gut bacteria with prebiotics to help them thrive. Secondly mushies contain digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes work by breaking down protein, carbohydrates and fats into smaller parts. This increases the availability of nutrients and helps us to absorb more from our food. Finally mushies are what we classify as an anti inflammatory food. They contain polysaccharides, terpenoids, phenolic and other compounds, which prevent the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Most western diets and lifestyles are abundant in pro-inflammatory triggers, which are harmful to health, including an array of irritable bowel symptoms (IBS). An anti-inflammatory diet helps to prevent some of these IBS symptoms.
Amelia Phillips is a nutritionist, exercise scientist and online health coach who has helped thousands live a healthier life through optimised nutrition and targeted supplementation.