Mix some mushrooms into your diet and you may have a better chance staying healthy – and avoiding certain age-related diseases. Mushrooms have long been touted for their health benefits, from boosting your immune functioning to improving your cholesterol. But anti-aging mushrooms?
Yet for the first time, scientists have pinpointed two important compounds – ergothioneine and glutathione – that are plentiful in mushrooms and are tied to anti-aging properties.
“What we found is that, without a doubt, mushrooms are the highest dietary source of these two antioxidants taken together, and that some types are really packed with both of them,” said Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health.
Beelman says that consuming polyphenols can help protect against stress that occurs when the body produces energy from food. The result of that stress, harmful circulating molecules known as free radicals, can damage the body’s cells and DNA.
“There’s a theory — the free radical theory of aging — that’s been around for a long time that says when we oxidize our food to produce energy there’s a number of free radicals that are produced that are side products of that action and many of these are quite toxic,” said Beelman.
Your body contains some of these compounds naturally, but if you’re deficient, you may suffer from long-term disease.
“The body has mechanisms to control most of them, 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,” added Beelman.
Not All Mushrooms Are Created Equal
The researchers found that some types of the edible fungus have more anti-aging power than others.
“We found that the porcini has the highest, by far, of any we tested,” said Beelman. “This species is really popular in Italy where searching for it has become a national pastime.”
While other species of mushroom, such as the popular white button mushroom, had fewer antioxidants than the porcini mushroom, they still “had higher amounts than more other foods,” according to the study.
Also, unlike some other types of food that lose part of their nutritional value after cooking, heat exposure doesn’t seem to affect the key polyphenols in mushrooms.
“Ergothioneine are very heat stable,” said Beelman.
Mushroom-Eating Countries Show Benefits
There’s no definitive scientific research showing that cultures that feature mushrooms in their cuisine have lower rates of disease, such as dementia. However, Beelman says that preliminary studies have found a link between eating more mushrooms and improved health, especially as one ages.
“You can see that countries that have more ergothioneine in their diets, countries like France and Italy, also have lower incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, 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,” said Beelman.
Making up the gap wouldn’t mean eating mushrooms at every meal.
“The difference between the countries with low rates of neurodegenerative diseases is about 3 milligrams per day, which is about five button mushrooms each day,” said Beelman.