Who could ever imagine that the product that has the most potential for fighting the effects of aging and perhaps even Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s can be found at the local grocery store?
Mushrooms have been a tasty addition to salads, appetizers, and main dishes for as long as people have been able to separate the edible varieties from the poisonous ones. Their nutritional value is also widely recognized. And it’s no surprise, considering how much protein they contain.
Additionally, mushrooms contain high amounts of two important antioxidants that researchers from Penn State believe might have a profound impact on aging and possibly Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
These two antioxidants are ergothioneine and glutathione, and they are gaining a lot of attention from medical professionals.
Mushrooms as a Source of Antioxidants
According to Robert Beelman, the director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health, mushrooms possess both ergothioneine and glutathione, but the amount of these two antioxidants differ from one species to the next. In other words, some contain a higher amount than others. Nonetheless, findings from his study have shown that mushrooms, in general, are the best dietary source of these two substances which are instrumental in promoting good health.
Ergothioneine and Glutathione—what they are; how they work
One might wonder why these compounds are important in the battle against aging and promoting wellbeing. For starters, ergothioneine is extracted from foods that are consumed by a transporter protein into other tissues in the body which reflects its importance. It is distributed to tissue that take on a lot of oxidative stress, such as the liver, lens of the eye, and bone marrow. It basically guards cells against the effects of free radicals by going straight to the nucleus to protect the DNA. Furthermore, it’s also transported to the mitochondria, which are the energy sources for cells. This quality separates ergothioneine from other antioxidants because of its easy access to the mitochondria which makes it very powerful in regard to fighting the aging process.
Likewise, glutathioneis another antioxidant that’s beneficial to cell protection. As a matter of fact, it facilitates cell growth and division by protecting against the accumulation of oxides. Moreover, glutathione guards the cell’s DNA from oxidative stress. In other words, if the DNA is altered by electron-stealing free radicals, this antioxidant repairs it right away by replacing the missing electron. This means that more new cells can be produced more quickly and easily.
Also, glutathione works in the liver to metabolize toxins by making them more soluble in water and as a result, easier to pass out of the body. Another great quality is its ability to change cancer-causing substances into harmless compounds that can also be eliminated without any adverse reactions from cells or DNA. They also function in a similar manner by breaking down and eliminating xenobiotics which are drugs or poisons that are foreign to the body; plus they enhance the performance of the immune system while cutting back on inflammation.
A Winning Team
Thus, when these two antioxidants are present in the body at high levels, then the combination helps tremendously in the battle against a broad spectrum of maladies.
For instance, according to Beelman, when food is digested and ready for the body to use as energy, it causes oxidation to some degree. At this point, free radicals are created and can potentially cause damage to DNA, cells, and proteins as they search for other electrons to latch onto. After a while, the amount of these free radicals builds up to where enough harm is done, and diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's can more easily develop. This whole cycle contributes to the overall aging process while valuable tissues are damaged in spite of the body’s naturally occurring mechanisms that exist to fight off the effects of free radicals.
Thus, antioxidants need to be periodically replenished in order to ward off the negative impact of free radicals, and the best source, in regard to mushroom varieties, is the porcini species. According to the study conducted by Beelman’s team, this variety, compared to 13 others, contains the highest quantity of ergothioneine and glutathione (Although it’s worth noting that the results of this study also imply that any other type of mushroom might contain less of these substances than the porcini but generally contain more antioxidants than any other type of food). This means that this particular type of mushroom effectively rids the body of the toxic bi-products that are created when food is oxidized. And of course, this cuts the risk for developing heart disease and other maladies that are related to aging.
Interestingly enough, researchers have also noted a correlation between the amounts of glutiathione and ergothioneine. For instance, if a mushroom has a high level of glutiathione, then it will also possess a good amount of ergothioneine. Most importantly, these substances do not lose their nutritional value during the cooking process. Thus, mushrooms are still beneficial whether eaten raw or cooked.
The Direction of Future Research
So future research will be focused in the direction of determining how much of an effect mushrooms have on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Beelman expresses optimism in this possibility. He states that countries, like Italy and France, where mushrooms and other foods that contain glutiathione and ergothioneine make up an integral part of their diet had lower instances of conditions that affect the nervous system. Conversely, the U.S., where mushrooms are not a big part of daily meals, has a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Right now, it may be too early to tell if there is a definite connection, but Beelman has already pinpointed an amount of three milligrams (five mushrooms) per day as being the difference between the low rates of neurodegenerative diseases.
Thus far, another study led by Paul Stamets shows such promise. Stamets and his team conducted research on mice with one group being fed another variety of mushroom called lion’s mane and the other not ingesting mushrooms at all. The results showed that the group who ate the mushrooms regularly had less development of beta amyloid plaque in their brains (This substance contributes to cognitive decline and the development of neurological disorders). Therefore, the antioxidants not only protected brain health but also enhanced neuron transmission according to the findings.
Additional research on human subjects has also commenced. In one such study, similar to that of Stamets, some patients who were between the ages of 50 to 80 years of age were given the lion’s mane variety while others were given a placebo. Tests showed effects similar to those in the mice in Stamet’s study. Sixteen weeks into the study, the patients who ate the mushrooms showed less cognitive decline along with a decrease in depression, irritability, insomnia, and anxiety. Consequently, even more research will be conducted in the future.
Basically, one can’t lose when adding mushrooms to a well-balanced diet. They are high in protein, Vitamin D, and selenium, a mineral that’s hard to find in most foods but has cancer-fighting properties. And as more recent research shows, can improve neurological health.