Surprising health benefits of mushrooms

March 1, 2018 Christopher Schraner, RD, LD, CDE

  • Edible mushrooms offer numerous health benefits
  • Studies suggest mushrooms help promote neurological regeneration in the brain
  • Mushrooms may have beneficial effects for those with certain cancers

When it comes to mushrooms, there’s more than meets the eye. Edible mushrooms offer impressive health benefits. These  fungi can help in lowering cholesterol levels, and are used in China and Japan to assist in fighting cancer and strengthening the immune system. To harness these health benefits, it’s important to know that just a handful of the approximately 140,000 known species of mushrooms are edible, and they can play a vital role in your overall health and well-being. 

What are mushrooms?

Mushrooms are edible fungi and have several scientific names, although their family name is Agaricus. They are essentially saprophages (plants without chlorophyll), which means they thrive by extracting nutrients from dead and decaying plant and animal matter. And not surprisingly, they vary greatly in color, texture and shape. Of the thousands of species of mushroom-forming fungi in the world, science is only familiar with about 10 percent, and only about 100 species are being studied for their potential health benefits and medicinal applications.


A superfood that can multitask

The term “superfood” is often used to describe nutrient-rich foods considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being. And while there are several foods worthy of this moniker, mushrooms in particular deliver “super” in several ways. In addition to their cholesterol-lowering and immune-boosting properties, certain mushrooms, such as the Lion’s Mane and Turkey Tail, have shown evidence of promoting neurological regeneration and cancer-fighting capabilities.


The Lion’s Mane mushroom, (Hericium erinaceus), which has been used as a medicine for centuries in many parts of Asia, is named for its distinctive appearance which resembles the mane of a shaggy lion. Long considered effective for enhancing the immune system, recent studies in Japan have found potential anti-dementia properties present in Lion’s Mane that may benefit people who suffer from cerebrovascular diseases causing senility, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other spinocerebellar and orthopedic diseases that afflict the elderly.


The results of one preliminary study showed that after six months of taking Lion's Mane mushroom, six out of seven Alzheimer's patients demonstrated improvements in their perceptual capacities. More recently, certain nootropic (cognition-enhancing) capabilities of Lion’s Mane have been discovered due to the mushroom’s relationship to NGF, a protein that is crucial for the survival and function of nerve cells. Essentially, Lion’s Mane increases the amount of NGF in the brain, which enhances cognition by reducing inflammation, encouraging neural growth and improving overall brain health.


The Turkey Tail mushroom, Trametes versicolor, named for its autumn-like colors and broad shape that resembles a fanned turkey tail, has been used for thousands of years by the Chinese as medicinal tea. One of the most common mushrooms around, Turkey Tail can be found abundantly in forests. These mushrooms typically grow near fallen trees, stumps or branches.


While popular as a prevention and treatment for the common cold or flu, the Turkey Tail mushroom is also being studied for potential use in treating certain forms of cancer, such as breast cancer.


Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted clinical trials for a Turkey Tail extract to be consumed by patients who have advanced prostate cancer and are enduring conventional chemotherapy. The same trial also tested how well it helps women with breast cancer in combination with a vaccine treatment, in hopes of a new and better form of cancer therapy. Because chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, research suggests that Turkey Tail mushrooms build the immune system up to better handle the weakness that chemo often causes. This is vital, since a stronger immune system helps combat deadly cancer cells, thus making the Turkey Tail mushroom a potentially strong cancer-fighting food.


Finding evidence-based benefits for illness- and disease-fighting allies that grow in forests and other natural environments is not a quick or easy process, but many species of mushrooms, and in particular the Lion’s Mane and Turkey Tail, offer promise. Closer to home, mushrooms are valued for their unique nutrient profile as well as culinary value. Common mushrooms like white button mushrooms, Portobello, crimini, shitake, oyster and chanterelles, add flavor and texture to meals while providing important nutrients. They are a good source of protein as well as vitamins and minerals including riboflavin, niacin, folate, selenium and copper and they are the only non-animal source of vitamin D. These edible varieties have also demonstrated many benefits including immune-enhancing and cancer-fighting properties.


Add more mushrooms to your diet with these amazing mushroom stuffers, healthy mushroom tacos and more.

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