They may sometimes be an underappreciated food type, but the health benefits of mushrooms have been known for thousands of years.
Studies (opens in new tab) show that even the ancient Egyptians held them in the highest regard, believing them to be plants of immortality and a gift from the God Osiris. In fact, they valued mushrooms so highly that they reserved them only for royalty and commoners were prevented from even touching them.
Fortunately, there are now so many easily accessible and affordable mushroom varieties available that we can all benefit from their nutritional greatness.
When it comes to nutrition, mushrooms are far from basic. All varieties, even the humble white mushroom, boast an impressive nutritional profile that provides several important nutrients like copper, potassium and B vitamins, which according to a recent study (opens in new tab) is helpful in improving mood and reducing stress.
Importantly, mushrooms are one of few food sources that when exposed to sunlight produces health-boosting and bone-building vitamin D - an important vit that features heavily in our list of the best vitamins for women over 50. In fact, studies (opens in new tab) show that sun-exposed mushrooms are a brilliant vitamin D food source, providing as much as a health supplement.
Health benefits of mushrooms
Mushrooms are also a rich source of antioxidants, like vitamin C, vitamin A and selenium, which counteract the damaging effects of free radicals and combat diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, coronary heart disease and cancer.
In one study (opens in new tab), researchers at the University of Perth in Australia observed 2,000 women for almost a decade, tracking their diets, lifestyles, health outcomes and health histories. The researchers found that those women who consumed mushrooms daily, an average of at least one button mushroom per day, had a 64 per cent drop in their risk of breast cancer.
Additionally, a 2021 study published in Advances in Nutrition (opens in new tab) that analyzed over 50 years of data from nearly 20,000 cancer patients found that people who ate just 18 grams of mushrooms daily had a 45% lower risk of cancer compared to those who did not eat mushrooms.
Mushroom health benefits also come from their fiber content. They contain two types of dietary fiber, beta-glucans and chitin, which have been shown to help manage blood sugar levels and help with weight loss. In one study from the journal Appetite (opens in new tab), researchers examined the effect of substituting mushrooms for red meat, compared to a standard meat diet. After just one year, those who had the mushroom diet lost more weight, had lower blood pressure, less inflammation and reported feeling healthier.
What's more, according to a study from Nutrition Reviews (opens in new tab), 50 per cent of edible mushrooms are considered functional foods, which means they have the potential to boost health beyond basic nutrition. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (opens in new tab) found that adults who consumed more than two portions of mushrooms weekly slashed their risk of cognitive decline in half.
When it comes to specific mushroom health benefits, here are some of the best fungi to feed on.
Health benefits of chaga mushrooms
One of the surprising health benefits of chaga mushroom is its ability to support healthy hair growth. Research (opens in new tab) shows that chagas are routinely used as shampoo in Mongolia to maintain healthy hair, and in a 2019 study (opens in new tab) scientists concluded that chagas did indeed have the potential to naturally boost hair growth.
From their tests, the researchers found that certain compounds in chaga mushrooms stimulated hair follicle cells and were more effective than minoxidil, a common hair-growth medication for male-pattern baldness.
Health benefits of reishi mushrooms
According to research (opens in new tab), reishi has been used in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries for thousands of years, often referred to as the mushroom of immortality.
Whilst studies (opens in new tab) have shown the health benefits of reishi to include reducing fatigue, anxiety and depression, it has also been studied for its cancer-fighting properties. In one study (opens in new tab) of over 4,000 breast cancer survivors, researchers discovered that 59 percent consumed reishi mushroom.
Another study (opens in new tab) found that a year of reishi mushroom treatment decreased the number and size of tumors in the large intestine for colorectal cancer sufferers.
Scientists also conducted a three-month study (opens in new tab) where they treated 34 patients with advanced stages of cancer with a reishi-sourced polysaccharide. The patients who were given the treatment had a significant boost in the efficiency of their immune system.
Health benefits of lion's mane mushrooms
Lion’s mane mushrooms are often referred to as a brain tonic, as studies (opens in new tab) show they have a rare ability to stimulate the growth and signaling of brain cells. Several studies (opens in new tab) have shown the health benefits of lion’s mane include boosting memory, mood and cognition.
In one study (opens in new tab), older adults who were given powdered lion’s mane mushroom daily for three months saw improvements in short term memory loss and cognitive function.
Another study (opens in new tab) involving menopausal women found that eating cookies containing lion’s mane significantly reduced their anxiety and depression after four weeks of consumption.
Health benefits of cordyceps mushrooms
According to recent research (opens in new tab), the health benefits of cordyceps are extensive.
One study in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology (opens in new tab) showed it to be beneficial for fighting fatigue, whilst another study in the Journal of Medicinal Food (opens in new tab) showed its ability to boost immune health.
But thanks to its studied (opens in new tab) ability to increase the production of ATP - the compound that gives cells their energy – it has become a popular mushroom among athletes.
In one study (opens in new tab) involving healthy younger adults, three weeks of supplementation with a cordyceps-containing mushroom blend improved VO2 max, reduced exhaustion and improved tolerance to high intensity exercise.
Another study (opens in new tab) involving twenty healthy older adults found that supplementation with a cordyceps extract known as Cs-4 improved exercise performance and overall wellness.
Health benefits of shittake mushrooms
Among the health benefits of shiitake are its antiviral and immune-supporting capabilities. Studies (opens in new tab) show that many of the compounds in shiitake have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal effects that can help the body fend off invading pathogens that make you sick.
Shiitake mushrooms also contain a polysaccharide called lentinan, which the Carbohydrate Research (opens in new tab) journal has described as being an immune system activator.
In one study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (opens in new tab), healthy young adults were given either five or ten grams of dried shiitake daily for one month. Consumption of the mushrooms was found to significantly improve immunity and reduce inflammation, with results being most prominent in those who took ten grams daily.
Health benefits of mushrooms: final thoughts
So, the bottom line is, eating mushrooms is great. But a word to the wise: you generally want to avoid eating them raw.
According to research from Integrative Medicine - A Clinician’s Journal (opens in new tab), when mushrooms are cooked, the immune system is better able to defend against pathogens and other harmful components. The cooking also allows some of the insoluble fibers in the mushrooms to be broken down, allowing you to get more nutrients out of them.
Of course, not all cooking methods are equal when it comes to healthy eating. Check out our guides to the best grills and best steamers for healthy ways to cook vegetables, fish and more. Or, if you just love a fried mushroom, check out our pick of the best healthy air fryers.
Angela has been a health writer for over 10 years, contributing to a range of online and print publications including Women's Health, Women's Fitness, Your Fitness, Top Santé, Healthy, and Good Housekeeping. She writes about all aspects of health and wellbeing, with a special interest in nutrition and the therapeutic application of food. A qualified nutritionist and a recipe developer, she is the founder of Dara Dara Nutrition and has developed recipes for titles including GoodtoKnow. In her spare-time she likes to throw netballs, hula hoops and yoga poses (or what poses as yoga!) and has recently taken to the bass guitar. Fortunately for her neighbors, she’s invested in some headphones.
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