Mushrooms and Health - The Microbiome is also a Mycobiome


With each passing year we learn more and more about the health benefits of including mushrooms in our diet. In the past many of the obvious benefits were defined by what mushrooms didn’t contain -- low in calories, almost no fat, very low in sodium. Now we know more about what mushrooms do contain, and how these elements contribute to our health. Some of the compounds that have been identified are selenium, ergothionene, beta glucans, chitin, and B-vitamins. Some of these substances, like ergothionene and beta glucans, are unique to the fungal kingdom. Mushrooms are richer sources of these compounds than animal or vegetable sources.

In research by PCK Cheung (citation below), scientists found that “Bioactive secondary metabolites found in mushrooms include phenolic compounds, sterols and triterpenes. In vitro and in vivo studies with mushrooms and isolated bioactive constituents have purported many pharmacological effects such as anti-tumour, antioxidant, antiviral, hypocholesterolemic and hypoglycaemic effects. Consumption of mushrooms or mushroom products in our daily diet may provide health benefits.”

Including mushrooms in the diet as functional foods has the potential to improve health by fighting obesity and its associated diabetes, by reducing cholesterol, by acting as an anti-inflammatory, by supporting a healthy immune response and possibly by reducing the incidence of tumor formation. Mushrooms in the diet also can reduce sodium intake, since the naturally occurring umami in mushrooms brings out the flavor in food without the need to over salt.

A note here on the widely publicized conception that mushrooms are a good source of Vitamin D. This is true of cultivated mushrooms only when they are exposed to ultraviolet light. Mushrooms have the capacity, as humans do, to make Vitamin D when exposed to UV. In animals cholesterol in the skin is synthesized to D3. Mushrooms synthesize ergosterol into Vitamin D2. Both of these D vitamins promote bone health and may be associated with improved immune system functioning. Wild mushrooms, like chanterelles, can be good sources of Vitamin D because they receive natural UV from sunlight, but not all mushrooms are good sources of Vitamin D. In the supermarket, look for packages marked “good source of Vitamin D.” These have been exposed to pulsed UV.

Recent interest in the microbiome has led to research on the contribution that mushrooms can make to maintaining a healthy and balanced gut flora. There are also indications that imbalances in the fungal mycobiome in the gut can promote inflammation. Initial research suggests that some mushrooms, including white button mushrooms and shiitake, have a pronounced positive effect on the microbiome, while other popular mushrooms, like oyster mushrooms, have little or no effect. At Gourmet Mushrooms we have long believed that including a variety of different mushrooms in the diet or as dietary supplements is the best way to take advantage of the diversity of benefits available from different species.

Chefs appreciate the range of flavors and textures offered by mushrooms. Likewise your body will appreciate the range of bioactive compounds found in mushrooms as functional foods. If you are ready to dig deeper into the current research, here is an assortment of papers and peer-reviewed resources. 

Further Reading

Mushrooms and Nutrition: