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Mushrooms: Inside the Vast World of the Longevity OGs


mushrooms-and-lon

You can’t have a conversation about human genius without mentioning penicillin.


One of the most telling ways to quantify the profound impact of the world’s first antibiotic is to revisit World Wars I and II. During WWI, the mortality rate due to bacterial pneumonia was about 18%. Thanks to the discovery of penicillin, however, that figure plummeted to less than 1% during WWII [1]. Since then, it’s estimated that penicillin has helped save over 200 million human lives worldwide [2].


All this because we were fortunate to stumble upon the defense mechanisms of fungi. 


As you might know, penicillin itself originates from a genus of fungi called Penicillium. Scientists observed how these fungi eradicated intruding bacteria, identified penicillin as one of its weapons in this process, and then isolated it to transform human health forever. Genius, isn’t it?


So if we revisit our opening statement, you can’t have a conversation about human genius without mentioning — fungi genius.


Part of this fungi genius is that several species produce the fruiting bodies we know as mushrooms. Mushrooms help fungi vigorously reproduce by generating and dispersing spores.


For the millennia that mushrooms have been on the job though, humans have intuitively relied on them for numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits. The totality of these gains plus the potential that lies ahead make us firmly believe that mushrooms are the OGs of longevity


So in this article, we’ll dive into the vast world of mushrooms to explore their remarkable role in our longevity.


A disclosure before we go: we won’t be venturing into the psychedelic side of mushrooms here because that’s its own extensive topic. But, we promise you’ll find the longevity side of mushrooms to be no less magical.


Why Are Mushrooms the Longevity OGs?


“Without leaves, without buds, without flowers, yet, they form fruit; as a food, as a tonic, as a medicine, the entire creation is precious.”

While penicillin has been used for a little less than a century, humans have recognized mushrooms as food and medicine since ancient times. The quote above is from a poem inscribed on the walls of Egyptian temples [3]. That mushrooms are precious is also certainly a notion ancient Chinese would agree with, as mushrooms are pillars of traditional Chinese medicine [4].


Notably, these civilizations especially cherished the diversity of mushrooms and categorized them based on their different health effects. Fast forward to today, we know of over 660 mushroom species containing pharmacologically active compounds [4].


Mushrooms and All-Cause Mortality


As modern science has probed into the therapeutic potential of mushrooms, we now have a much clearer picture of their effects on longevity. In a historic study, researchers explored the link between mushroom consumption and the risk of mortality in American adults. 


They drew data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, a comprehensive health study conducted in the US. NHANES III tracked participants’ health over several years, assessing mushroom consumption through dietary questionnaires. The study included a substantial sample of 16,179 adults.


The findings revealed that individuals who reported eating mushrooms had a 16% lower risk of all-cause mortality compared to those who didn’t consume mushrooms. Further, consuming one serving of mushrooms per day in place of one serving of red meat was associated with a whopping 35% reduction in mortality risk [5]


Although the specific mushroom types weren’t specified in the observational study, the overall trend suggests that incorporating mushrooms into your diet might contribute to a longer lifespan. But, what about healthspan? Let’s look at studies exploring the relationship between mushroom consumption and the incidence of a couple of age-related diseases.


Mushrooms and Dementia


Analyzing data from the Ohsaki Cohort 2006 Study, scientists explored how mushroom consumption might affect the risk of dementia in 13,230 Japanese individuals aged 65 years or older. Over a span of 5.7 years, they tracked the incidence of dementia within the sample, revealing that participants who savored mushrooms three or more times per week showed a significantly lower risk of dementia [6].


Mushrooms and Cancer


A systematic review and meta-analysis compiling data from over 19,500 participants revealed that consuming 18 grams of mushrooms daily led to an impressive 45% reduction in risk of cancer compared to those who didn’t consume any mushrooms. The cancer-protecting effect was found in all varieties of mushrooms and was most effective in breast cancer [7]


So What’s Inside These Mushrooms?


Mushrooms are solid sources of fiber and vegan protein. We also mentioned earlier the hundreds of health-boosting compounds found in mushrooms. As valuable as this diversity is to mushrooms’ ultimate benefits, scientists point to the following four micronutrients as the main longevity players in mushrooms [8]


Ergothioneine


By far, ergothioneine is the MVP mushroom molecule. Humans can’t produce this unique amino acid, but they benefit a great deal from its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and energy-boosting properties. With mushrooms being the primary synthesizers and highest sources of ergothioneine, humans can rely on mushrooms for their ergothioneine requirements [8].


Unfortunately, ergothioneine levels in humans seem to decline with age. It’s not yet clear whether aging leads to the decrease in ergothioneine levels or an insufficient intake of ergothioneine drives accelerated aging. What we do know from a study of older Singaporean adults is that blood ergothioneine shows an even higher decline in the incidence of early dementia. The finding is so consistent that scientists suggest low blood ergothioneine might be a risk factor for neurodegeneration [9].  


Thus, increasing intake of mushrooms for boosting ergothioneine levels becomes a pivotal strategy for healthy aging. Some scientists have even called ergothioneine "the longevity vitamin".


Glutathione


Glutathione is considered a universal master antioxidant, protecting almost all living systems from oxidative damage by free radicals. It’s also involved in the detoxification of toxins and regulation of protein function. Research suggests that even partial glutathione depletion can significantly affect health so maintaining sufficient levels of it in the body is critical. Fortunately, scientists have discovered that mushrooms contain uniquely high levels of glutathione, with levels in some varieties of mushrooms exceeding those in any other food source [10].


Vitamin D


Just like in humans, mushrooms can generate significant amounts of vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. To replicate this process on a mass production scale, cultivators boost the vitamin’s levels in mushrooms by exposing them to UV lamps. These fortified mushrooms can reach higher levels of vitamin D than other food sources and meet the daily intake requirements. Of course, vitamin D is integral for the absorption of dietary calcium, preserving bone and muscle health while reducing the risk of falls in older individuals [11].


Selenium


Selenium is an essential mineral for our bodies, participating in numerous metabolic processes. It’s involved in the metabolism of thyroid hormones, acts as an antioxidant, and supports our immune system. However, it’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation — we need just the right amount. Too much selenium can lead to toxicity, with symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues and hair loss. Several mushrooms contain modest amounts of selenium, allowing humans to maintain a balanced intake [12].


Specialty Mushrooms


Most of the nutrients mentioned above as well as countless other bioactive compounds can be found in your regular grocer’s mushrooms, such as the white button kind. However, with some species of mushrooms, you can get way more bang for your buck. For example, one of these species can give you the same dose of ergothioneine for quarter the amount of white button mushrooms you’d need [8]. These species are commonly referred to as specialty mushrooms. Some of them even possess their own unique health benefits. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular and potent specialty mushrooms below: 


Shiitake


Of all the specialty mushrooms we're going to discuss, shiitake is probably the most mainstream thanks to its rich culinary profile. Aside from being such a savory delight, you can add to shiitake that it's a strong immunity booster. A clinical trial followed healthy adults who consumed different doses of shiitake over four weeks to explore whether the mushrooms improved their immune system function. It was found that indeed shiitake improved their immunity, as evidenced by the presence of more active immune cells in the blood, increased production of antibodies, and decreased markers of inflammation [13].


Lion’s Mane


Lion’s mane mushroom is another dinner show-stealer, particularly if you relish a good vegan steak. But, don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling a little calmer after the delicious meal. A randomized placebo-controlled trial investigated the effects of lion's mane mushroom on different psychological health parameters in healthy adults. As revealed, those who consumed lion’s mane reported improved speed of performance as well as reduced subjective stress [14]. Lion’s mane has also shown promise in clinical trials for the treatment of cognitive impairments, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s [15].


Turkey Tail


As we've seen already, there's no shortage of specialty mushrooms with poetic names that strike vivid imagery. Enter: Turkey tail. Aside from being a sight to behold itself, this specialty mushroom can sure dazzle our gut microbiomes, nurturing them and helping fend off a variety of digestive disorders. A randomized clinical trial looked at the effect of turkey tail consumption on the composition and health of our gut microbiome. It found that compounds in turkey tail mushrooms can act as prebiotics for our gut microbiomes and improve their diversity as well [16].


Cordyceps


Cordyceps mushrooms are often referred to as adaptogens. That is, they help our bodies adapt to stress. This adaptogenic potential of cordyceps comes especially handy for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. A randomized placebo-controlled trial of older adults in China assessed the effect of cordyceps supplementation on exercise performance. The trial revealed that cordyceps improved VO2 max (signifying improved oxygen uptake) levels and resistance to fatigue due to exercise [17]. As adaptogens, cordyceps mushrooms are also promising agents for promoting skin longevity [18]


Reishi


Reishi is nicknamed the mushroom of immortality. Concurrently, it has been found to have a wide therapeutic potential — particularly in cancer. A Cochrane review, which is a highly respected systematic review of primary research in human health care and health policy, of five randomized controlled trials found that reishi could potentially enhance tumor response and stimulate host immunity. This suggests that reishi could be a beneficial adjunct to conventional cancer treatments, especially since reishi seems to be safe and well-tolerated by humans [19].


Chaga


Most longevity gurus reading this already hold chaga in great regard. They probably also realize that chaga technically isn’t a mushroom. Instead, chaga is a type of fungi that grows on the bark of birch trees. Still, chaga has historically been recognized as one of the most powerful natural healers — and for good reason. Recently, it’s been estimated that chaga carries about 130 pharmacological properties, including antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory ones. Clinical trial data is lacking on chaga. However, it’s an immensely intriguing species with plenty of ongoing research [20].


How to Add More Mushrooms to Your Life


Reducing cancer risk. Improving exercise performance. Enhancing the diversity of the gut microbiome. These are just examples of the variety of health benefits mushrooms can offer. You’ve seen for yourself now why mushrooms earned the longevity OGs moniker par excellence. 


Now, you’re probably wondering how to increase your intake of mushrooms to reap all these longevity rewards.


One strategy to do so is mixing ground fresh mushrooms with your meat of choice at a ratio of approximately 30% to 40% mushrooms to 60% to 70% meat [8]. Alternatively, you may consider incorporating dry mushroom powders into your diet. 


Most of the specialty mushrooms we mentioned earlier are available in powder form. These powders help you significantly boost the mushroom content of your diet. Plus, they can be easily incorporated into a plethora of delicious recipes, unlocking different ways for you to enjoy your longevity OGs.


The trick is to find a trustworthy provider to source your mushroom extracts (a good tip is to look for those who use third-party lab testing). But, that's a small price to pay for your body's daily dose of fungi genius.


References: 


[1] Markel, H. (2013, September 27). The Real Story behind Penicillin. PBS NewsHour; PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic


[2] University of Sheffield. (2021, October 25). Scientists make breakthrough in understanding how penicillin works. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211025172049.htm 


[3] El Enshasy, H., Elsayed, E. A., Aziz, R., & Wadaan, M. A. (2013). Mushrooms and Truffles: Historical Biofactories for Complementary Medicine in Africa and in the Middle East. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/620451


[4] Chang, S., & Buswell, J. (2022). Medicinal Mushrooms: Past, Present and Future. Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology. https://doi.org/10.1007/10_2021_197


[5] Ba, D. M., Gao, X., Muscat, J., Al-Shaar, L., Chinchilli, V., Zhang, X., Ssentongo, P., Beelman, R. B., & Richie, J. P. (2021). Association of mushroom consumption with all-cause and cause-specific mortality among American adults: prospective cohort study findings from NHANES III. Nutrition Journal, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-021-00691-8


[6] Zhang, S., Tomata, Y., Sugiyama, K., Sugawara, Y., & Tsuji, I. (2017). Mushroom Consumption and Incident Dementia in Elderly Japanese: The Ohsaki Cohort 2006 Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 65(7), 1462–1469. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.14812


[7] Ba, D. M., Ssentongo, P., Beelman, R. B., Muscat, J., Gao, X., & Richie, J. P. (2021). Higher Mushroom Consumption Is Associated with Lower Risk of Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Advances in Nutrition, 12(5), 1691–1704. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmab015


[8] Beelman, R. B., Kalaras, M. D., & Richie, J. P. (2019). Micronutrients and Bioactive Compounds in Mushrooms. Nutrition Today, 54(1), 16–22. https://doi.org/10.1097/nt.0000000000000315


[9] Cheah, I. K., Feng, L., Tang, R. M. Y., Lim, K. H. C., & Halliwell, B. (2016). Ergothioneine levels in an elderly population decrease with age and incidence of cognitive decline; a risk factor for neurodegeneration? Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 478(1), 162–167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbrc.2016.07.074


[10] Kalaras, M. D., Richie, J. P., Calcagnotto, A., & Beelman, R. B. (2017). Mushrooms: A rich source of the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione. Food Chemistry, 233, 429–433. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.04.109


[11] Cardwell, G., Bornman, J., James, A., & Black, L. (2018). A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D. Nutrients, 10(10), 1498. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10101498


[12] Falandysz, J. (2008). Selenium in Edible Mushrooms. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part C, 26(3), 256–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/10590500802350086


[13] Dai, X., Stanilka, J. M., Rowe, C. A., Esteves, E. A., Nieves, C., Spaiser, S. J., Christman, M. C., Langkamp-Henken, B., & Percival, S. S. (2015). Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 34(6), 478–487. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2014.950391


[14] Docherty, S., Doughty, F. L., & Smith, E. F. (2023). The Acute and Chronic Effects of Lion’s Mane Mushroom Supplementation on Cognitive Function, Stress and Mood in Young Adults: A Double-Blind, Parallel Groups, Pilot Study. Nutrients, 15(22), 4842–4842. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15224842


[15] Chong, P. S., Fung, M.-L., Wong, K. H., & Lim, L. W. (2019). Therapeutic Potential of Hericium erinaceus for Depressive Disorder. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 21(1), 163. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21010163


[16] Pallav, K., Dowd, S. E., Villafuerte, J., Yang, X., Kabbani, T., Hansen, J., Dennis, M., Leffler, D. A., Newburg, D. S., & Kelly, C. P. (2014). Effects of polysaccharopeptide fromTrametes Versicolorand amoxicillin on the gut microbiome of healthy volunteers. Gut Microbes, 5(4), 458–467. https://doi.org/10.4161/gmic.29558


[17] Yi, X., Xi-zhen, H., & Jia-shi, Z. (2004). Randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial and assessment of fermentation product of Cordyceps sinensis (Cs-4) in enhancing aerobic capacity and respiratory function of the healthy elderly volunteers. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 10(3), 187–192. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02836405


[18] Di Lorenzo, R., Falanga, D., Ricci, L., Colantuono, A., Greco, G., Angelillo, M., Nugnes, F., Di Serio, T., Costa, D., Tito, A., & Laneri, S. (2024). NAD-Driven Sirtuin Activation by Cordyceps sinensis Extract: Exploring the Adaptogenic Potential to Promote Skin Longevity. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 25(8), 4282. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms25084282


[19] Jin, X., Ruiz Beguerie, J., Sze, D. M., & Chan, G. C. (2016). Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi mushroom) for cancer treatment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd007731.pub3


[20] Fordjour, E., Manful, C. F., Javed, R., Galagedara, L. W., Cuss, C. W., Cheema, M., & Thomas, R. (2023). Chaga mushroom: a super-fungus with countless facets and untapped potential. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 14, 1273786. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2023.1273786

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