Mushroom: The "Antioxidant Superstar" Chinese People Eat Daily

Story at-a-glance -

  • Virtually all mushrooms provide excellent nutrition, such as protein, vitamins and enzymes, and many have potent medicinal value
  • Mushrooms are excellent sources of antioxidants in general, such as polyphenols and selenium, but they also contain antioxidants that are unique to mushrooms, such as ergothioneine, which is now starting to be recognized as a 'master antioxidant'
  • Whole organic mushrooms and whole food-derived mushroom supplements offer potent immune-boosting benefits
  • Some supplements offer the added boon of including the mycelia of the mushroom—the thread-like vegetative part of the mushroom that branches through the soil—which research has shown to provide many additional health benefits

By Dr. Mercola

Steve Farrar has a Masters Degree in Horticulture from the Washington State University and has worked and studied mushrooms professionally for the last 30 years.

The first 20 years he spent growing them and working primarily with gourmet chefs, but in the past decade, he's started applying his expertise of mushrooms to health purposes.

According to Farrar, Americans consume about 900 million pounds of mushrooms a year, but 95 percent of that just one species: the common button mushroom and its relatives, the Crimini and the Portabello mushrooms.

In more recent years, mushrooms have received a lot of attention, both in gourmet cooking and in the pharmaceutical industry.

As you will soon learn, mushrooms are a largely untapped resource that can help increase your health and well-being.

The Unique Nutritional Properties of Mushrooms

"Mushrooms are defined as a fungus that forms a fleshy above-ground reproductive structure called the' mushroom fruit body,'" he explains.

Mushrooms should not be confused with mold and fungi however, which do not form fleshy fruit bodies. To learn more about the details of how mushrooms grow and propagate, please listen to the interview or read through the transcript. The common button mushroom, while not as 'interesting' as its more exotic cousins, is an excellent low-calorie food, especially for diabetics. It contains a number of valuable nutrients, including:

  • Protein
  • Enzymes
  • B vitamins (especially niacin)
  • Vitamin D2

However, Farrar's focus has been on growing various gourmet mushroom species, particularly the wood decaying mushroom species, which differ greatly from your average button mushroom in terms of biology, nutrition and medicinal value, as well as in the production and methodology of growing them.

"By virtue of them being primary decomposers, they have some unique nutritional and also health benefits to them," Farrar explains. "I tended to focus on species like Maitake, Shiitake, Enokitake, oyster mushrooms, brown beech mushrooms; mushrooms that people over the last 20 years were not really that familiar with."

The wood decaying mushrooms, which are preferred in Asia and parts of Europe, are quite different in terms of flavors and textures. They also tend to have valuable medicinal properties that differ from the button mushroom. And we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the value and importance of mushrooms as we've only classified about 10 percent of all available species.

"I'm continually humbled by my ignorance of what's going on in this incredible complex world of fungi," Farrar says. "It's just mind boggling. Even with the well-studied species, nearly every week they're finding a new bioactive component… Maybe it's a polysaccharide, maybe it's an enzyme, a protein, an antioxidant. They are continually finding new things that have profound effects when we consume them as a food or as a dietary supplement."

Mushrooms are "Superfoods"

According to Farrar, the effect mushrooms can have on human health is multifaceted, but they're most well-known for their immune-boosting properties. Long chain polysaccharides, particularly alpha- and beta glucan molecules, are primarily responsible for the mushrooms' beneficial effect on your immune system.

"They're host mediated responses, meaning that they are not going in like a pharmaceutical medicine and [like] a sledgehammer forcing your body in a particular way. They interact through your immune system itself by stimulating it and making it ready and efficient," he explains.

Mushrooms are excellent sources of antioxidants in general as they contain polyphenols and selenium, which are common in the plant world. But they also contain antioxidants that are unique to mushrooms. One such antioxidant is ergothioneine, which scientists are now beginning to recognize as a 'master antioxidant.' Interestingly, it's an amino acid that contains sulfur, and if you listened to my interview with Dr. Seneff on the highly underestimated importance of sulfur, you may recognize why this particular antioxidant may be of particular importance for human health, as many are severely deficient in sulfur.

"[I]t's one of the only antioxidants identified so far that our cells [use as] a transport system to actively take ergothioneine across the cell membrane into the cell, to the points of oxidative stress," Farrar explains. "It's a very significant antioxidant. It's probably eventually going to be called a vitamin… they barely even found ways to quantify it effectively. Mushrooms are an excellent source of this antioxidant. We can only get it from our diet. It's only produced by fungi and certainly soil inhabiting bacteria."

A 2009 study in the journal Nature discusses the importance of ergothioneine, describing it as "an unusual sulfur-containing derivative of the amino acid, histidine," which appears to have a very specific role in protecting your DNA from oxidative damage. So, if Farrar's assertions that your body needs ergothioneine, which is fairly exclusive to mushrooms, to effectively transport ergothioneine into your cells, it's easy to see how mushrooms may be an important part of an optimal diet. If you don't like to eat them whole, you can also find them in supplement form, either as an extract or whole food supplement, which I'll discuss more in a moment.

The Immune Enhancing Effects of Mushrooms

According to Farrar, many of the immune benefits obtained from mushrooms are due to the glyconutrients (complex sugars) contained in the fruit body and the mycelia.

"The vital information that can be contained in these sugars is astounding," he says. "…The way they communicate is… through receptor sites on your cells. It's described as a lock and a key. There are receptor sites depending on the physical structure of the polysaccharides, the side branches, and the substitutions on it, [and] they will lock on to certain components of your immune system and activate it much like they would be activated by coming into contact with the bacteria.

It's very profound effects, and we don't fully understand them… But it's really these long chained polysaccharides (that are immense complex structures), a lot of times bound with proteins or amino acids or different side chains, that have the effect on your immune system."

From a practical standpoint, what this means is that you can effectively elicit a very broad-based immune response by consuming a variety of different mushrooms of different species. Most likely, this is exactly what our ancestors used to do, and by eating a diverse variety of foods within each food group, you're giving your body everything it needs, thereby optimizing your genetic expression.

How Mushrooms Helped Win a Kentucky Derby

Now, some may argue that you typically would not consume the mycelia of the mushroom—which is the thread-like vegetative part of the mushroom that branches through the soil—because if you were to pick it in the wild, you'd typically snap off the top (the fruit body and stem), leaving the rest in the ground. However, Farrar points out that there's compelling evidence indicating that the mycelia have very valuable health properties.

Studies involving thoroughbred race horses, for example, offer a glimpse into what benefits mushroom products that include the mycelia might harbor. Farrar tells the story of how, in 2007, they convinced an East Coast trainer to put all the horses in his stable on a mushroom blend product developed by Farrar and his team.

"It contained a lot of the Cordyceps species, which is widely recognized as a performance mushroom, enhancing energy production. It had a number of other species and it helped with muscle recovery after strenuous exercise.

Basically, the 2007 Kentucky Derby winner 'Street Sense' was a horse that was on our product. The owner and trainer attributed a lot of the success to that. Interestingly enough, part of that was the performance energy component… another part of it was basically a behavioral aspect. It was totally unexpected on our part. The trainer said that [when the horse was] given this blend of mushroom… it was [like] a different horse… racehorses tend to be very fidgety and very high strung and they can be distracted. It's very difficult to focus their attention. They said once they started along this regimen of a daily dose of this mycelial blend of mushrooms, its trainability and focus [improved]; it was a different animal.

So instead of a lethargic sort of calming effect, it was more like an alert focus... That combined with the performance aspects, the muscle recovery, and the energy generation, was enough to make a difference they thought. Since then they have been spokesman for our products."

Others have found the same effects giving Farrar's product to their pets. Owners of elderly dogs in particular have reported that their dogs start acting like puppies again when taking it.

Usage and Dosage Recommendations

When it comes to mushroom supplements, there are two primary types:

  • Mushroom concentrates or extracts—Most of these are so-called hot water extracts, where either the mushroom mycelia or fruit body is boiled for extended periods of time to extract the long chain polysaccharides. Farrar explains:

    "What you get basically is a concentrated form of these beta glucans. But the enzymes, the proteins, the amino acids, the dietary fiber, mostly the antioxidants, are either denatured, destroyed, or simply discarded.

    While you do get a very concentrated amount of these – generally, they also try to purify it to get them down to a minimum of variation [so] they can standardize it… Not to say that those aren't valuable products. In extreme cases of advanced cancer, tumors, all sorts of things, that is a very appropriate thing… Particularly as a complimentary therapy."
  • Whole food/Raw mushrooms—Consuming the mushrooms raw or using a whole food mushroom (powdered pill) product is generally a better alternative if you're reasonably healthy and looking to maintain optimal health, as they help maintain ideal function of your various systems as opposed to imparting a direct effect. Most of the knowledge about mushrooms come from ancient Chinese medicine where mushrooms are regarded as tonics. Tonics are considered to have non-specific beneficial effects across several systems of your body that do not decline over time.

    If you choose to eat your mushrooms raw, make sure they are organically grown, as their flesh easily absorb air and soil contaminants. Likewise, you'll want to make sure any product you buy is certified organic for the same reason.

    Furthermore, Farrar points out that whole mushrooms also provide healthful dietary fiber that act as "prebiotic platforms for the growth of probiotic organisms in your gut," which is very important for digestive health. This is yet another reason to opt for a whole food mushroom product.

There are no toxicities or resistance build-up associated with mushrooms, Farrar says. Your body will simply use what it needs and expel the rest. One of the most famous medicinal mushrooms is Reishi, revered as "the mushroom of immortality" by the Chinese, who typically take it every day.

"If you take a massive dose of these mycelial products, you're not going to overdose on them… You can't overdose," he says. "Typically when people start on these products, for the first seven to 10 days we recommend a double dose of it to load your system, and thereafter a moderate dose of one to a couple of grams a day. It's all that's needed.

When you're talking about the isolates of mushrooms, the active ingredients, you're talking about milligram dosages. If you're talking about the raw whole food, anywhere from one gram up to 30 grams for very severe cases of cancer cases. People are taking relatively massive doses of it and have had phenomenal effects."  

Typically, one to two grams is enough for a tonic effect, taken on a daily basis. Farrar recommends taking the product on an empty (or nearly empty) stomach, but it can be taken with moderate amounts of food or liquids.

How to Identify a High Quality Product

In the interview, Farrar describes the techniques used within his industry to produce different kinds of mushroom products, so for more information, please listen to the interview in its entirety or read through the transcript.

One way involves a fermentation process, which can be used for both the fruit body and the mycelia. The cells walls are different in the mycelia compared to the fruit body; they're more easily digested, making it easier to reap the benefits from the bioactive compounds therein. The technique involves the use of oats, which may raise concerns about gluten content. However, Farrar allays such fears stating that gliadin cannot be detected in the final fermented product. So in its finished form, it's a gluten-free product.

In a nutshell, when evaluating mushroom supplements, the points of differentiation between products can be broken down to:

  • Isolates versus whole foods
  • Solid state fermentation versus submerged technology
  • The type of substrate (grain) used for the fermentation
  • Percentage of fruit body to mycelium
  • Conventionally grown versus organic

Solid state fermentation is superior to submerged technology when growing the mycelia. Particularly if you're looking for a complex matrix of nutrition and bioactive compounds.

So-called 'submerged fermentation' is typically used by companies focused on extracting particular isolates, and this accounts for up to 70 percent of the products on the market. It's a more 'drug-based' approach that can be beneficial for certain health ailments. However, for a more comprehensively beneficial effect, you'll want to look for a product using 'solid state fermentation,' which is based on the whole food approach where the final product contains more or most of the original compounds and co-factors.

Within the whole food approach, manufacturers may use a variety of different substrate grains for the fermentation process, such as oats, rye, rice, millet, or milo. Farrar tends to favor those using oats, as they tend to have better nutrition than those using rice.

As for the ratio of fruit body to mycelium, Farrar recommends opting for products that contain more of the mycelium. "There is more research directly with the mycelial stage of the mushroom, by far, than the fruit body stage," he explains. He also discusses several other reasons for opting for mycelium, such as:

  • The mycelia stage of the mushroom is easier to standardize and keep contained
  • Mushrooms grown to the fruit body stage for harvesting opens it up to environmental factors that can be more difficult to control, so there's more variation in the quality
  • Mushroom fruit bodies attract airborne contaminants, both biological and industrial, so there's greater risk for contamination

Last but certainly not least, you have the option of simply eating the mushrooms raw, or very lightly cooked. Excellent choices include maitake, shiitake, and king trumpet.

"They are so versatile. You can eat them in anything," Farrar says. "In the United States, our annual per capita consumption of mushrooms is about four pounds a year. In parts of China and Japan, it's 20, 25, 30 pounds! Even Canada has twice the consumption of mushrooms that we have. Mushrooms should be a bigger part of our diet."

+ Sources and References