By Nicola Shubrook – Registered nutritionist
What are mushrooms?
All mushrooms are fungi and they produce spores, similar to pollen or seeds, which allows them to spread or travel by the wind. The rest of the mushroom then matures, typically living in soil or wood.
There are many different types of mushrooms, some of which are edible including well-known species such as button, oyster, porcini, and chanterelle. There are, however, many mushrooms in the wild which are not edible and may cause stomach pains or vomiting if eaten, and in some cases, may be fatal, such as the common death cap mushroom.
Mushrooms are being increasingly researched and used for their important health benefits, with a number of varieties demonstrating medicinal properties.
Top 5 health benefits of mushrooms
1.Plant source of vitamin D
Mushrooms are one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin D. When they are grown, exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from sunlight or a UV lamp, mushrooms increase their concentration of vitamin D.
In fact, you can even do this at home by leaving mushrooms out on the counter in direct sunlight for 15-120 minutes; studies suggest this simple act may result in levels of vitamin D2 as high as 10mcg per 100g fresh weight.
2.Contain immune modulating nutrients
Mushrooms contain active polysaccharides, one of which is a type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan. This compound activates parts of your immune system, including immune cells called natural killer cells and macrophages, and by so doing it increases your body’s ability to fight infection and possibly even stop the growth or progression of tumours.
Mushrooms also contain B vitamins as well as a powerful antioxidant called selenium, which helps support the immune system and prevent damage to cells and tissues.
3.Beneficial for the management of neurodegenerative conditions
Certain varieties of mushroom are referred to as ‘medicinal’, this is because they are thought to have specific healing properties. Medicinal mushrooms, such as lion’s mane and reishi, are more often taken as a powder or supplement rather than eaten whole. There is some evidence that medicinal mushrooms may be beneficial in the treatment and management of neurodegenerative diseases and potentially for Alzheimer’s.
4.Helpful in maintaining heart health
Mushrooms have been shown to have some therapeutic properties which may help lower cholesterol, particularly in overweight adults. They also contribute nutrients and plant compounds that may help prevent cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plaque build-up. This in turn helps protect the heart by maintaining healthy blood pressure and circulation.
5.May support gut health
Compounds in mushrooms, including beta-glucan, appear to act as prebiotics, fueling the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and promoting a favourable gut environment. This is important because a healthy gut plays an important role in maintaining our immune defences, digesting our food as well as communicating with the brain through nerves and hormones.
Are mushrooms safe for everyone?
Shop bought mushrooms are generally safe for most people, as long as you do not have an allergy to mushrooms or a mold allergy.
However, with the popularity of wild food foraging comes more risk. With so many varieties of mushroom not safe for human consumption, it’s important that you heed caution before dashing out to your nearest woodland. It’s best to forage with an expert and take photographs with you of the common edible varieties; make sure that the mushrooms are cooked before you try them as only a few are safe to eat raw.
Certain mushrooms which contain a compound called psilocybin, commonly referred to as magic mushrooms, can cause hallucinations, sound and sight disturbance as well as muscle weakness, drowsiness and nausea. Categorised as a class A drug, it’s illegal to possess these mushrooms for yourself, to give away or to sell.