The nutrients in mushrooms support a wide array of systems in the body, including the gut, brain, and immune system — often all at the same time.
“When we eat a mushroom, we are not only feeding ourselves, we are feeding our gut bacteria and making that ecosystem happier and more fit,” says Li. This is because mushrooms provide important prebiotics, a type of fiber that sustains healthy gut bacteria.
Among the many prebiotics in mushrooms is beta-glucan, a soluble fiber found in their cell walls. Beta-glucan has been shown to reduce hypertension, stabilize blood sugar, and increase the body’s ability to ward off infection.
Animal studies suggest that beta-glucan lowers inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and staves off ulcers.
Some of the highest levels of beta-glucan are found in the wild-harvested golden chanterelle, followed by shiitakes. And don’t throw away the stems. “The stem has twice as much beta-glucan as the cap,” says Li.
Many researchers have studied mushrooms’ ability to modulate the immune system and curb tumor growth; this attribute appears to be due, in part, to beta-glucan’s salutary effect on the microbiome.
In one small but notable study at Australia’s University of Western Sydney, 20 volunteers ate either their normal diet or their normal diet plus roughly 11/3 cups of cooked white button mushrooms per day for one week. The goal was to learn if eating mushrooms would activate the immune system in a beneficial way, says Li.
To measure the impact on immune function, the scientists measured levels of immune antibodies, including antibody IgA, in the participants’ saliva. (IgA antibodies are part of the body’s first line of defense against infection.) Those who ate mushrooms saw their IgA soar by 50 percent after a week.
“That was an eye-opening human experiment using a dose of mushrooms that is easy to achieve,” says Li. “It also showed that heat didn’t destroy the beneficial properties, so lightly cooking the mushrooms was OK.”
Finally, the high antioxidant quotient in mushrooms may help slow the inflammation and oxidation that can contribute to cognitive decline. In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, scientists at the National University of Singapore analyzed six years of data from more than 600 people. They found that those age 60 and up who ate at least 11/2 cups of mushrooms per week lowered their risk of mild cognitive impairment by about 50 percent.
The mushrooms most commonly eaten by those in the study were golden chanterelle, oyster, shiitake, and white button, but the authors believe that any edible mushroom would offer the same protection.
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