Do you want to boost your immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic? Mushrooms can help strengthen your immunity, while also improving brain health and inhibiting cancer growth. Here's what the science says...
Mushrooms recently entered the scene as an elusive new “superfood”, and are now topping the charts for foods to watch in 2020, due to their powerful proven health benefits. And amid the current coronavirus pandemic, we’ll take whatever we can get that’s been proven to strengthen our immunity and overall health!
Don’t like eating raw mushrooms? Consider all the different ways you can reap their multitude of benefits. Take the D2D team, for example: Lucy sprinkles a few tablespoons of Laird Hamilton’s Performance Mushroom powder in her coffee each morning, Hillary enjoys dried mushrooms as an occasional mid-day snack, and I prefer sautéed mushrooms over my favorite chicken dish.
Even more than just their meaty, savory flavor, mushrooms are being touted as a functional ingredient that can help boost immunity and energy, prevent cancer growth, inhibit LDL cholesterol production, and improve gut and brain health. Bonus: it has even been said to help heal the environment!
Breakdown of the Benefits
Boosting our Immune System
Eating mushrooms can provide a wide range of impressive immune-boosting effects due to the amount of beta-glucan in the cell walls of these fungi. A study from University of Florida’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition found that eating shiitake mushrooms daily improves immunity in a way that you cannot find in any currently available pharmaceutical drugs. Also, the white button mushrooms has been shown to have anti-inflammatory powers.
Mushrooms are also densely fortified with vitamin D, a proven immune booster. While other food sources like salmon, tuna, cod liver oil, and milk are great sources of the nutrient, mushrooms are the only product in the produce aisle with a significant source of vitamin D.
When it comes to the current COVID-19 virus, we are all looking to strengthen our immune systems and avoid spreading the virus, or better yet, avoid getting it at all.
According to a recent analysis of vitamin D, 25 randomized controlled trials of 11,000 patients showed that vitamin D supplementation had protective effects against acute respiratory tract infections—a primary symptom in the COVID-19 outbreak. WHO also has studies on its website that show the benefits of vitamin D to prevent respiratory illnesses. So eat your mushrooms and get out into the sunshine to boost that vitamin D!
Improving Gut Bacteria
Penn State conducted a study on mice that showed eating white button mushrooms can actually create a subtle shift in the gut’s microbial community. The study suggests that white button mushrooms can improve the regulation of glucose on the liver, serving as a prebiotic.
Another study published in the journal, Nature, showed that by using mushrooms to alter gut bacteria, they could simultaneously be used to treat obesity.
The bacteria in mushrooms, Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, can help nourish the good bacteria in our gut, and ultimately improve digestion.
Five types of mushrooms were tested in a study published by the Journal of Experimental Biology and Medicine: white button, maitake, oyster, crimini, and portabella. They discovered these types of mushrooms “significantly suppressed” breast cancer cell growth and reproduction when eaten. The terminology specifically cited in the journal was that “both common and specialty mushrooms may be chemoprotective against breast cancer.”
Furthermore, shiitake mushrooms contain a type of sugar molecule called lentinan, which, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, may help to extend the life of patients with some cancers when used in conjunction with chemotherapy. By binding with abnormal cells, they can then “label” the cancer cells as ones that need to be destroyed by our immune system.
But we are not the first to make these discoveries. In Japan, shiitake mushrooms have been approved since 1985 as an adjuvant for stomach cancer because of its anti-tumor effects. The study that brought about these approvals was published in the International Journal of Cancer, which found that male participants who regularly ate mushrooms ultimately had a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. Consumption of over 3 times per week had a 17% lower risk than those who ate mushrooms less than once a week.
Enhancing Brain Function
Reishi mushrooms, as illustrated in the earlier chart, are considered a type of adaptogen. Adaptogens function in the body to regulate cortisol levels. Why should we care about cortisol levels? Well, when cortisol levels rise, it triggers our “fight or flight” responses. This, in turn, stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands to work on overdrive. When this process occurs, there is a decrease in your digestive secretions and an increase in your blood pressure.
You may be thinking you don’t often experience fight or flight responses. Well, you may be experiencing them without knowing. Chronic stress can cause the same process to trigger in your body, which can lead to adrenal fatigue and an inability of the body to bounce back. That is where mushrooms come in!
Cordycep, reishi, maitake and shiitake mushrooms serve as natural regulators. The root of adaptogen is “adapt”, pointing to the ability of these mushrooms to respond to harsh conditions. They function the same way in the body. They adapt to raised levels of stress, and aid in balance and restoration, mitigating the effects of stress on our adrenal glands.
While mushrooms themselves contain no cholesterol, they are a good source of chitin and beta-glucan—both of which are fibers that lower cholesterol. A study in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found that pink oyster mushrooms naturally reduced total cholesterol and LDL, or better known as the “bad” cholesterol, when tested on hypercholesterolemic rats.
Alternatively, shiitake mushrooms contain potent phytonutrients that help the liver process cholesterol and remove it from the bloodstream. How does it do this? According to best-selling author and nutritionist Josh Axe, D.N.M., these compounds can keep cells from sticking to blood vessel walls, which helps to prevent plaque buildup, promoting circulation and improving blood pressure. Because mushrooms have sterol compounds, they interfere with the production of cholesterol in the liver as well, while simultaneously helping to raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol.
Healing the Planet
In Paul Stamets’ very popular TED talk, he cites mushrooms as a critical element in solving some pressing environmental problems. Stamets cites their ability to clean up oil spills all over the world, absorb farm pollution, fight off flu viruses and smallpox, create rich environments for new farms and forests, as well as potentially serve as a sustainable fuel source.
He points to the fact that mushrooms have long been used as a crucial part of nature’s recycling system. Without mushrooms and mycelium, plants would not exist, because rock and organic matter could not be broken down and turned into soil that provides nourishment for the growth of all plant life.
Who’s excited about Mushrooms?
The industry is looking for other ways to expand its plant-based alternative options. Mintel reports that 38% of U.S. consumers are trying to add more plant-based food to their diet, fueling demand for these products in the market.
Furthermore, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, 5% of United States citizens consider themselves to be vegetarians. A staple food group for both vegetarians and flexitarians (those who eat mostly vegetables but also some meat and fish) is mushrooms.
Statistics show that 20% of US consumers are now embracing flexitarian diets, which is directly reflected in the rise in popularity of plant-based meat and dairy products. These statistics have been driving up the prevalence, and desire for mushroom products and the market is responding.
In addition to adding mushrooms to your diet, don’t forget to add plenty of fruits and veggies to your meals, exercise regularly, and get good sleep to boost your immunity during times like these. If you are looking for more health information and recommendations for COVID-19, please refer to the CDC, WHO and NIH sites for updates.
The Bottom Line
While we have learned that nothing is a cure-all and our health outcomes are a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise—mushrooms can be a great addition to our balanced, varied diet and a great way to fortify our immune system. Sending healthy thoughts to all our readers during this time.