Many people love mushrooms. Others don’t. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, there are compelling reasons to add wild mushrooms to your diet because of their unique nutritional and medicinal benefits. In this post, we will introduce you to the health benefits of eating wild mushrooms.
Believe it or not, until relatively recently living organisms were classified as either plants or animals. We now know fungi and plants are quite different — fungi are actually more similar to animals than they are to plants! There are more than a million species of fungi, most undiscovered, and each is remarkable in its own way. Typical diets focus on plants and animals, excluding our fungal friends. However, mushrooms contain unique nutrients that aren’t found in other foods, so if you truly want to balance your food intake, you should pay more attention to the underappreciated fungi!
Edible mushrooms contain substantial amounts of B vitamins, copper, protein, potassium, choline, vitamin D, selenium, fiber, phosphorous, niacin, folate, and amino acids, among other important nutrients. Some mushrooms even contain as much protein as meat! But, mushrooms do more for you than simply provide nutrition and sustenance. Many species of mushrooms also have anti-cancer, antioxidant, and other benefits. Despite the powerful medicinal properties of many of these mushrooms, eating fungi should never be used as a substitute for traditional treatment methods. These mushrooms can have impactful benefits, but they should be used in conjunction with other treatment methods as determined by your doctor. Some of the diseases mushrooms can help combat are discussed below.
Mushrooms contain antioxidant agents, such as Vitamin C, selenium, and choline, which help the body eliminate free radicals. Free radicals are produced naturally by the body all the time as a byproduct of cellular metabolism. However, high levels of these toxic byproducts can cause oxidative stress, killing cells and leading to some diseases such as cancer by damaging DNA. These antioxidants found in mushrooms may help prevent lung, breast, prostate, and other types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Over 100 types of mushrooms have been used in Asia to treat cancer for many years, and in recent years some have been studied in the U.S. to determine their anti-cancer benefits. The most popular are turkey tail, reishi, and shiitake mushrooms, but turkey tail is the only one of these three that naturally grows widely in North America.
Polysaccharide K (PSK) is the most understood active component of turkey tail mushrooms. It is thought to strengthen the immune system’s ability to fight cancer, although the specific mechanism is unknown. Studies have shown that patients with colorectal, breast, lung, and gastric cancer lived longer and had fewer recurrences of cancer when treated with PSK in addition to chemotherapy or radiation than those who did not receive PSK.
Although Shiitake mushrooms do not grow wild in North America, they can be cultivated and therefore are usually easy to find at the grocery store. The anti-cancer properties of shiitake mushrooms are attributed to lentinan, a polysaccharide thought to have similar immune-boosting effects as PSK in turkey tail. Although lentinan has been studied less than PSK, studies have found it to directly kill viruses and microbes and to slow tumor growth.
As mentioned above, mushrooms contain lots of antioxidants, which also help stave off cardiovascular disease by protecting your blood vessels and heart cells from oxidative stress. They also contain lots of fiber (some are as much as 50% fiber), which has been shown to help prevent and manage cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol levels. Chanterelles are one of the highest-fiber mushrooms, a cup of which contains about 2.1 grams of fiber.
According to the American Heart Association, consuming potassium, which is also found in many mushrooms, can help lower blood pressure. With all of these benefits, including mushrooms in your normal diet throughout your life will help protect you from cardiovascular disease as you age.
The antioxidants found in most mushrooms come to the rescue again when it comes to preventing Alzheimer’s disease and demedtia. A study in Singapore found that people over 60 who ate two five-ounce portions of mushrooms a week, when compared with those who ate less than one portion a week, had a 43% reduced risk for mild cognitive impairment, a common precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Those who ate more than two portions of mushrooms a week had a 52% reduced risk.
Lion’s mane mushrooms, scientific name Hericium erinaceus, have been studied extensively for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s. The polysaccharides in this rare mushroom have been found to promote neuron growth and health. A study on Japanese men and women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment found an increase in cognitive function when subjects consumed lion’s mane daily. This suggests that lion’s mane can not only help prevent mild cognitive impairment but may actually be a suitable treatment for it.
Many women take folic acid, or folate, supplements when pregnant to boost fetal health. Mushrooms, a cup of which contains about 4% of the recommended daily dose of folate, can act as a healthy dietary supplement for this purpose. Oyster mushrooms have some of the highest amounts of folates among wild mushrooms.
Supplements vs. Foraging
If you do a quick google search after reading this post, you will quickly find out that many of the mushrooms we mentioned are available online and in stores in the form of pill supplements. “So why should I go through the effort of foraging my own medicinal mushrooms?”, you might ask. Well, many resources maintain that consuming a nutrient in a supplement is not the same as consuming it as a part of your diet. This study recommends consuming lion’s mane fresh because processing into pills can affect its medicinal properties, and it is likely this applies to other mushrooms as well. Cultivation techniques and conditions may also affect the medicinal properties of mushrooms, so when we forage them, we are most guaranteed their health benefits.
Each of the mushrooms pictured in this post, except for shiitakes, grows widely in North American and is fairly easy to identify. However, before attempting to forage mushrooms for the first time, please visit our Missouri Mushrooms page for more information about each mushroom, and read our posts about How to Safely Forage for Mushrooms, Sustainable Mushroom Foraging, and The 4 Thing You Need to Start Mushroom Hunting. And as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions you might have.
If you are new to mushrooms, beginning to incorporate them into your cooking will add another dimension to your diet. We encourage you to adventure beyond the common button mushroom found at most grocery stores. If you do a little more digging, your palate will be rewarded with unique flavor profiles, and your body will be rewarded with unique health benefits you may not be getting if your diet ignores the fungi kingdom.