Fabulous Fungi

Romans considered them “food of the gods.” Egyptians believed that they granted immortality and only pharaohs could have access to them. Common people were not allowed to touch them, let alone eat them. What was this magical food? Mushrooms!

In more recent history, mushrooms began to be cultivated in the 1600’s in areas outside of Paris, and in the United States, cultivation began in the late 1800’s. When buying mushrooms, select mushrooms that are firm. Avoid mushrooms that are wet, slimy, or darkened. Fresh mushrooms respire – they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, and unwanted moisture can collect in the packaging. Remove mushrooms from the plastic carton (be sure to recycle it!) and store the mushrooms loosely in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to five days. They can also be stored in a glass dish covered with a moist cloth in the refrigerator. Mushrooms may be treated with chemicals (particularly white button, cremini, and portobello), so purchase organic when possible. When ready to prepare, wipe mushrooms clean with a damp cloth or a mushroom brush. Don’t discard the stems – they have twice as much disease fighting beta-glucans as the caps.

Mushrooms add a wonderful umami flavor to foods. They are best eaten cooked and can be baked, grilled, or sauteéd. Mushrooms can be added to your favorite soups and stews (mushroom barley anyone?), risotto, or added to a stir fry or vegetable stock. White and cremini mushroom caps can be stuffed and baked or place cooked sliced mushrooms drizzled with balsamic vinegar on top of crostini for delicious appetizers. Mushrooms are a wonderful ingredient to add to tofu frittatas and quiches, fajitas, pastas, grain dishes, cooked greens, and vegetable side dishes. Other ideas to incorporate mushrooms in your diet are to sauté mushrooms in onion and red tomato sauce or grill on skewers. Get the George Foreman Grill out of the basement and cook portobello mushrooms just by adding a bit of balsamic vinegar to them. Easy peasy!

For a simple fungus, mushrooms have a nutritional punch – too many to list in this article and we can only scratch the surface. Many stimulate the immune system, contain antioxidants that prevent cellular damage, and in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy, help fight certain cancers. Mushrooms contain many minerals including selenium (antioxidant, thyroid health), copper (bones, tissue), potassium (blood pressure, kidney health), and zinc (immune, skin health). They also contain thiamine – B1 (energy production), riboflavin – B2 (antioxidant, iron metabolism), pantothenic acid – B5 (fat metabolism), and niacin – B3 (energy production, antioxidant). They also can be had in capsules, tablets, extracts, teas, coffees, and powders. Mushrooms in herbal supplements are stronger than cooked mushrooms. An amazing fact about mushrooms is they have the unique ability to produce Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Give them a quick tan by placing sliced or whole mushrooms (gill side up) outside for 15 minutes to two hours before preparing to get this bonus nutrient. Another added bonus – mushrooms give us is that they have only have 100 calories per pound! Let’s take a closer look and learn the health benefits of mushrooms.

Note: The information below regarding health benefits of mushrooms is not providing medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medial advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information, please read the medical journal articles cited below.

Commonly found mushrooms include:

White Button Mushrooms have a meaty flavor and help control blood sugar and improve gut health. A study found that conjugated linoleic acid, a major component in white button mushrooms, changed the gene expression of prostate cancer cells within 72 hours, thus induced their death, inhibited proliferation, and decreased tumor size. The study concluded white button mushrooms may have a therapeutic effect of treating and preventing prostate cancer.¹

Cremini Mushrooms are a coffee-colored mushroom and are actually baby portobello mushrooms. They have numerous health benefits. Several phytonutrients in cremini mushrooms support our immune system including our white blood cells. They are a nutritional powerhouse containing antioxidants D1, D2, B1, B2, B3, B5, B12, as well as selenium, zinc, and manganese which are cardiovascular protective. An amino acid found in cremini mushrooms, erthothioneine, strengthens antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification cellular functions. Creminis block pro-inflammatory molecules better than shiitake and maitake mushrooms. Cremini mushrooms may protect against cancer, arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases ² .

Portobello Mushrooms like several others, are rich in B vitamins which support a healthy nervous system and metabolism. They contain potassium which helps maintain a healthy blood pressure. The mineral copper found in portobello mushrooms help support a healthy immune system as well as nerves and blood vessels. They also contain phosphorus which is need to form bone tissue, DNA, and red blood cells. Oyster Mushrooms’ iron and B vitamins are helpful in treating anemia and fatigue. They contain the compound lovastatin which helps lower cholesterol. Oyster mushrooms contain anti-oxidants that help reduce cellular damage. Beta-glucans in oyster mushrooms help slow down digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, therefore help control blood glucose levels. A study concluded oyster mushrooms helped reduce high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and triglycerides. ³

Mushrooms have many health benefits as listed above, but shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms in particular go to the head of the class when it comes to their health benefits including their anti-tumor properties. They contain polysaccharides which are a component of the cell structure and play a big part in our immune system. Macrophages are large roving immune cells. They leave the blood vessels and move through tissues. Macrophages eat the polysaccharides in the gut wall and carry them to other immune cells which then cause a chain of defensive reactions. This increases the number and activity of our natural killer cells (yes, we have natural killer cells!) and increases the ability to fight the invasion of bacteria and viruses. Polysaccharides are found in shiitake, oyster, and maitake mushrooms. Shiitake Mushrooms are cultivated on logs and contain the active ingredient lentinan. Lentinan boosts the immune system and may help slow the growth of tumors as well as kill viruses and microbes in addition to helping in the lowering of cholesterol.

Subjects in most studies were injected with the anti-tumor properties of shiitakes because it is poorly absorbed orally. Eritadenine, a substance in shiitake mushrooms, encourages the uptake of cholesterol into the tissues, leaving less to be in the bloodstream. Shiitakes are also anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Maitake Mushrooms are cultivated from tree stumps in big clusters and are also known as hen of the woods mushrooms. Their flavor is mild. They also contain the active ingredient beta-glucan which activates and increases the production of white blood cells, causing a chain reaction that boosts the immune system. Medicinal benefits include managing diabetes, lowering high cholesterol, reducing high blood pressure, and helping prevent and treat cancer.

Beta-glucan protects healthy cells from becoming cancerous, boosts the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells, helps control division of cancer cells, and helps prevent cancer from spreading. Maitake mushrooms also helps relieve the side effects of chemotherapy. 

Beta-glucan in maiitake mushrooms boost our killer T cells that help fight viruses. Consult your physician before taking maitake if you are on blood thinners or medication to control blood sugar. Reishi Mushrooms are cultivated from dead trees. They have a bitter flavor and for that reason, are used primarily for medicinal purposes and are most often found in supplements. Reishi mushrooms boost the immune system, are anti-inflammatory, and increase strength and stamina. They help men with urinary conditions from having to go to the bathroom at night, urinate often, or those who are unable to control urination. They also help the body cope with stress. Reishi mushrooms are also know for inducing apoptosis (cell death) for certain cancer cells.

Side effects of reishi include nausea, difficulty sleeping, and liver injury. Consult your physician before taking reishi if taking blood thinners or immunosuppressants. Also talk to your physician before taking reishi spore mushroom powder if being treated for cancer.

Below is a brief review of other mushrooms used primarily for medicinal purposes: Lion’s Mane Mushroom anti-inflammatory properties help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and can improve cognition. They also reduce the blood supply to cancer cells and induce natural killer cell activity .

Turkey Tail Mushrooms have a compound in them that strengthens immunity by both activating specific immune cells and inhibiting other cell activity. The antioxidants in this mushroom stimulate the release of compounds that are protective against cell damage. A compound in lion’s mane is thought to fight cancer by stopping the growth of cancer cells and stimulating the body’s natural killer cells to attack cancer and other diseased cells. ¹⁰

Chaga Mushrooms are mostly found in herbal teas and supplements. Their antioxidant property may reduce LDL cholesterol. It stimulates cell death in colon, liver, and lung cancer cells. ¹¹

A cautionary note – they may interact with certain medications including those that lower blood sugar levels and may be unsafe for people on insulin and other blood sugar lowering medications. It also can interfere with blood thinners. Cordycepsmilitaris Mushrooms (cordyceps) study found that their bioactive compounds inhibited the growth of cancer cells found in the liver, colon, and prostate. Cordyceps also induced cell death of human leukemia cells. ¹²

The production of the compound ATP which delivers energy to muscles, was increased in those taking cordyceps mushrooms according to one study ¹³ .

Cautionary notes about mushrooms in addition to what has been sited above:
Mushrooms are a source of purines which convert to uric acid. Gout and kidney stones can form as the result of an excess accumulation of uric acid. If you have either of these conditions, avoid or limit the ingestion of mushrooms. Because mushrooms contain a moderate amount of oxalates, people with a history of calcium oxalate kidney stones should limit the amount of mushrooms they eat. You will find mushrooms are a delicious and easy way to add flavor and nutrition to dishes you prepare. Experiment with different varieties to add a new dimension of flavor to your everyday dishes.

Lion’s Mane Mushroom “Crab” cake 

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¹ Lynn S. Adams, Shiuan Chen, Sheryl Phung, Xiwei Wu & Lui Ki (2008) White Button Mushroom (Agaricus Bisporus) Exhibits Antiproliferative and Proapoptotic Properties and Inhibits Prostate Tumor Growth in Athymic Mice, Nutrition and Cancer, 60:6, 744-756, DOI:
10.1080/01635580802192866
² Levy, J. 2022 Nov. 13. Cremini Mushrooms Benefit the Heart, Gut, & Helps Fight Cancer. www.draxe.com.
³ Dicks L, Ellinger S. Effect of the Intake of Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) on Cardiometabolic Parameters-A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials. Nutrients. 2020 Apr 17;12(4):1134. doi: 10.3390/nu12041134. PMID: 32316680; PMCID: PMC7230384.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (n.d.). www.mskcc.org/lentinan. Accessed 2 August 2023.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (n.d.) www.mskcc.org/maitake. Accessed 2 August 2023.
Murray, M. ND. 2005. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY. Atria Books.
Patel S, Goyal A. Recent developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: a review. 3 Biotech. 2012 Mar;2(1):1-15. doi: 10.1007/s13205-011-0036-2. Epub 2011 Nov 25. PMID:22582152; PMCID: PMC3339609.
Memorial Sloan Keating Cancer Center. (n.d.) www.mskcc.org/reishi. Accessed 2 August 2023.
Patel S, et al.,(2012).
¹⁰ Popov, M. 2021, Feb. 24. Turkey Tail-The Beautiful One. Mushroom Health Foundation. www.mushroomhealth.org.
¹¹ Zhao LW, Zhong XH, Yang SY, et al. Inotodiol inhabits proliferation and induces apoptosis through modulating expression of cyclinE, p27, bcl-2, and bax in human cervical cancer HeLa cells. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2014;15(7):3195-3199.
¹² Patel, S. et. al. (2012).
¹³ Popov,M. 2020, Nov. 16. Cordyceps. 3 Reasons Why. Mushroom Health Foundation. www.mushroomhealth.org.¹

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