This article was originally published on March 3, 2020, and has since been updated.
In recent years kale, blueberries, quinoa, and even cauliflower have dominated the conversation in the world of health and wellness. They have antioxidants and phytonutrients, they can be turned into chips, rice, even pizza crust.
Of course, each of these foods is very good for you (there are plenty of others too), and they do offer a wide range of incredible benefits, but there is another vegetable that has been living in their shadows, despite the fact it is a veritable health superstar: the mushroom.
Yes, the humble fungus that grows in the dirt is more than just a great pizza topping. Mushrooms contain an abundance of nutrients, and new research is emerging that suggests they may be a powerful tool in preventing cognitive decline.
Mushrooms and Anti-Aging
It turns out that the cream-of-mushroom soup your mom forced you to eat when you were a kid may have done something good for you after all.
In 2017, researchers at Penn State University found that mushrooms contain high amounts of two important antioxidants: ergothioneine and glutathione. Both of these natural chemicals are effective in preventing aging .
More recent research from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine has now provided even greater evidence of mushrooms’ age-defying capabilities. The team from the Department of Psychological Medicine and Department of Biochemistry discovered that seniors who ate more than two servings of mushrooms each week reduced their risk of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by up to fifty percent .
Antioxidants for Anti-Aging
There is a theory called the “oxidative stress theory of aging” which hypothesizes that the functional losses associated with aging are a result of an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in our bodies .
A free radical is an oxygen atom that contains an unpaired electron. Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable and can be created during many regular activities, like eating or exercising. They can also be produced from external sources like x-rays, smoking, or air pollutants.
Antioxidants help to counteract the damage from free radicals, but if there is an imbalance between the amount of free radical generation and antioxidant defenses, your body will be under what is called “oxidative stress”.
Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health, explained that their findings show mushrooms as the highest dietary source of ergothioneine and glutathione taken together, which is crucial in counteracting the damage that is caused by free radical production in our bodies.
“The body has mechanisms to control most [free radicals], including ergothioneine and glutathione, but eventually enough accrue to cause damage, which has been associated with many of the diseases of aging, like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer’s,” said Beel .
The number of antioxidants vary between types of mushrooms, with porcini containing the most, however even white button mushrooms still have more than other foods .
“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,” said Beelman. “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,” .
Mushrooms and Cognitive Decline
The research from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine involved a 6-year-long study in which data was collected from over six hundred Chinese adults over the age of sixty living in Singapore.
Six types of mushrooms that are commonly used in Singapore were referenced in the study, including golden, oyster, shiitake, white button, dried, and canned mushrooms. The researchers defined a portion as three-quarters of a cup of cooked mushrooms and found that participants who ate two or more servings each week showed a significantly lower risk of mild cognitive impairment than those who did not.
Assistant Professor Feng Lei, who is from NUS Psychological Medicine, and the lead author of this work, was very pleased with the outcome of the research.
“This correlation is surprising and encouraging. It seems that a commonly available single ingredient could have a dramatic effect on cognitive decline,” he said .
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is defined as the stage between cognitive decline that is expected with normal aging, and the more severe decline of dementia. If you or a friend or family member is experiencing MCI, you may notice a small change in your memory or general mental functioning, but it is not enough to significantly impact your day-to-day life.
MCI could, however, increase your risk for developing a more serious condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s .
The study used neuropsychological tests that are specifically designed to measure the various aspects of a person’s cognitive abilities. Researchers also conducted extensive interviews with participants to gain an accurate assessment of each individual.
“The interview takes into account demographic information, medical history, psychological factors, and dietary habits. A nurse will measure blood pressure, weight, height, handgrip, and walking speed. They will also do a simple screen test on cognition, depression, anxiety,” said Feng .
The researchers are particularly interested in mushrooms’ high concentration of ergothioneine, since, unlike glutathione, we can’t synthesize that antioxidant in our bodies .
Other Compounds Found in Mushrooms
While much of the research looking at the benefits of mushrooms has focused on ergothioneine and glutathione, there are other compounds found in the unassuming fungus that have potential age-defying properties.
Hericenones, erinacenes, scabronines, and dictyophorines have been shown to promote the synthesis of nerve growth factor (NGF), which can prevent neurons from dying and promote the growth of new ones .
NGF deficiency is related to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as anxiety and depression, so including foods that can promote its synthesis could play an important role in preventing cognitive diseases .
Other Health Benefits of Mushrooms
There are many other great reasons to include mushrooms in your diet. They contain fiber, potassium, and vitamin C, which can contribute to cardiovascular health and help prevent Diabetes.
Add Mushrooms into Your Daily Diet
There are many delicious ways to prepare mushrooms, and if eating them raw doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry- ergothioneine is very heat stable, so cooking mushrooms does not appear to significantly alter their health benefits .
Mushrooms taste great when sauteed, and are fantastic additions to many stir-frys, soups, omelets, and casseroles. Baked, stuffed mushrooms make a delightful appetizer for your next party, and grilled portobello mushrooms are a great alternative to a burger patty at a summer barbeque.
If you’re looking for inspiration for dinner tonight, try one of these nine satisfying mushroom soup recipes to stave off the winter cold.
While mushrooms may not have gotten the same recognition as some of the other “superfoods” on the market, they are incredibly nutritious additions to any meal and are finally being given a piece of the limelight in the world of food and health.
If you want to help prevent the effects of aging, including cognitive decline, consider adding the little fungi to your meals a couple of times per week- your brain will thank you.
Keep Reading: Mushrooms Can Eat Plastic, Petroleum and CO2
- “Mushrooms are full of antioxidants that may have anti-aging potential.” PSU. Matt Swayne. November 9, 2017.
- “Mushrooms may reduce risk of cognitive decline.” NUS
- “Oxidative stress, aging, and diseases.” NCBI. Ilaria Liguori, et al. April 2018.
- “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.” NCBI. V. Lobo, A. Patil, A. Phatak, and N. Chandra. July-December 2010.
- “Mild cognitive impairment (MCI).” Mayo Clinic
- “Hericenones and erinacines: stimulators of nerve growth factor (NGF) biosynthesis in Hericium erinaceus.” T and F Online. Bing-Ji Ma, et al. April 29, 2010.
- “What is the nutritional value of mushrooms?” Medical News Today. Megan Ware, RDN, L.D. November 6, 2019.