What’s So Great About Mushrooms?

What’s So Great About Mushrooms?

As a personal trainer (and control freak!) I always assign my clients “homework” for the week, like cardio and weight workouts to get through before I see them next and nutrition goals. Usually the nutrition homework involves food or ingredients to limit (think sugar and alcohol) and foods to add or try, like a new grain or a vegetable that’s in season. But I must admit I rarely if ever put mushrooms on the homework list. Nothing personal but they never really shone at the top of the power veggie list. But in light of recent research it may be time to rethink the status of the lowly fungus, especially during cold and flu season.

That is because mushrooms have recently been shown to activate the body’s dendritic cells, which according to the ubiquitous Dr Oz et al, are powerful immune system helpers. “Dendritic cells lasso viruses – like the rhinoviruses and influenza viruses responsible for colds and flu. Then they bring those viruses to your germ-killing B lymphocytes to be finished off. And though it’s not clear how or why, researchers think that polysaccharides, compounds in white button mushrooms, may help trigger the whole process.” That’s right; it’s not even the big Bertha portobello or the high society shitake but the much maligned button mushroom that stole the show.   In fact, one study reported in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture showed that the white button mushroom “has as much anti-oxidant properties as its more expensive rivals, the maitake and the matsutake mushrooms – both of which are highly prized in Japanese cuisine for their reputed health properties including lowering blood pressure and their alleged ability to fight cancer.” Oh yes, did I mention in addition to fighting the common cold, mushrooms are showing promise in cancer research?

The Journal goes on to say, “Researchers at City of Hope’s Department of Cancer Biology, identified phytochemicals in mushrooms that block the enzyme aromatase from producing estrogen. Controlling aromatase activity can help decrease estrogen levels, which controls and kills hormone-dependent breast cancers. In addition, mushrooms also demonstrate the ability to inhibit cancer cell activity and slow tumour growth”. Pretty impressive… and the list of current research findings on the health potential of mushrooms continues. Here’s a sampling:

  • It has been reported that Reishi mushroom extracts exerted an inhibition effect on tumour growth. Recent studies have also indicated that Reishi can have a number of other effects: Analgesic, Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant and Antiviral
  • An extract (Lentinan) from Shitake has been licensed as an anti-cancer drug by the Japanese FDA. Lentinan has shown some effect on bowel cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer. Shiitake mushrooms may also lower blood pressure in those with hypertension and lower serum cholesterol levels
  • The mushroom species Cordyceps can be a powerful stimulant for macrophage activity, strengthening your immune system’s ability to fight against bacterial and viral infection. Human clinical studies indicate that Cordyceps can be effective for treatment of high cholesterol, poor libido/impotence, arrhythmia, and chronic kidney failure. It is also reported that Cordyceps causes smooth muscle relaxation. This can make it especially helpful for treating chronic coughs, asthma, and other bronchial conditions.

And that brings us back to the common cold. If you have kids in school, let’s see….they’ve been back for a couple weeks so lets be conservative and say we’re all on cold number 2 by now? And while studies about cancer and cholesterol may be promising, the apparently proven benefits of mushrooms to tackle the everyday nuisances of cold and flu make it worth adding mushrooms to the nutrition “homework”.

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