Apr 27

Meet Your Mushrooms

mushroomsI have always been a fan of mushrooms, especially portobellos. These “meaty” fungi are fantastic grilled with garlic or stuffed with veggies. As a vegan, I find them to be a delicious and easy menu option, especially when I eat out.

Despite my fondness for these big mushrooms, I never knew until a few years ago that portobellos are actually the grown up version of the immature white (button or common) and brown (crimini) mushrooms.

Yet these larger versions of button and crimini mushrooms are not the most healthful of the mushroom family, even though they are among the most common and still pack an impressive nutritional punch (see below, “General mushroom nutrition”). In fact, according to Andrew Weil, MD, internationally known author and professor, founder, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, this species of mushroom contains some natural carcinogens not found in other types of mushrooms.

For that reason he strongly recommends against eating raw mushrooms and cooking them thoroughly since heat breaks down the toxins. (Weil also advises everyone to avoid eating raw mushrooms of any variety.)

General mushroom nutrition

Overall, mushrooms are low in calories (about 15 calories per cup, sliced) and 8 ounces contain 0 grams of fat, 2.2 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fiber. All mushroom varieties provide a decent amount of B vitamins (e.g., riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate), vitamin D (good news for us vegans), selenium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, choline, and copper.

One thing is worth noting about the fiber in mushrooms. They contain a type of fiber called beta-glucans, which have been shown to have a positive impact on cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, and the immune system. Beta-glucans also have been suggested to possess anticancer properties, which is discussed below.

MushroomsNot all of the healthful or medicinal mushrooms also carry a culinary label. Therefore, some of them are better experienced in supplement form. Medicinal mushroom supplements should be taken with the guidance of a knowledgeable healthcare provider. But when you can, embrace the flavor of mushrooms in your meals!


Recently a newly published article caught my eye concerning shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes). University of Florida researchers found that eating just 4 ounces daily of this Asian native can boost the immune system. More specifically, consuming the fungi resulted in an improvement in the function of gamma delta T cells and a reduction in inflammatory proteins.

The study involved 52 healthy adults (ages 21-41) who were instructed to consume 4 ounces of shiitake mushrooms daily. In an attempt to control for factors that could enhance the immune system, none of the participants were vegetarians or vegans, they did not consume tea or take antioxidant supplements or probiotics. In addition, they did not drink more than 14 glasses of alcohol per week or eat more than seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily during the study.

Using blood tests, the authors found that the participants had improved function of gamma delta T cells and a decline in inflammatory proteins. In other words, they experienced a boost in their immune function.

MushroomsShiitake mushrooms also are a rich source of beta-glucans, a type of fiber that has been associated with making the immune system more efficient and helping with heart health. These Asian mushrooms assist in the fight against cancer because they have a specific beta-glucan called lentinan. Lentinan is believed to help with the side effects of cancer therapy and reduce tumor activity. One more benefit of shiitake mushrooms is the presence of eritadenine, a substance that promotes the absorption of cholesterol, which in turn lowers the amount in the bloodstream.


Taxonomically, cordyceps is not a mushroom, but it is considered a medicinal mushroom in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that grows on caterpillars. Icky, I know, and this is not a mushroom you will buy at your local market and add to your stir fry. To enjoy the benefits of this fungus, you can take a supplement.

However, cordyceps is worth mentioning because of its reported health advantages. Traditional healers have used this mushroom for centuries to address nearly two dozen ailments.

Both animal and human studies have suggested it has the power to boost aerobic abilities, help athletes improve performance, fight fatigue and muscle weakness, increase sexual energy, and battle cancer by enhancing cancer cell death. In this latter area, the authors of a recent (2015) study noted that “cordycepin, an active component of WECS [water extract of cordyceps sinesis] might be a candidate anticancer and antimetastatic agent.”


Reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi) has been highly valued in traditional medicine for thousands of years, but scientific evidence to back up any healers’ claims have been nearly nonexistent. A team of Japanese scientists recently identified specific peptides in reishi extract that have the ability to lower blood pressure. After witnessing significant declines in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures in hypertensive rats, they noted that reishi extract “could be a good source of hypotensive peptides that could be used for antihypertensive medication.”

Reishi is another mushroom you won’t be adding to your stir fry, as it is hard and bitter. However, as a dried or liquid extract, capsule, tablet, or tea (if you can stand the taste), you may enjoy a boost to your immune system, some anti-inflammatory effects, and better management of allergy symptoms.


You may know this mushroom better as “hen in the woods” because it looks like a hen’s tail feathers. Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is especially valued for its beta-glucan content and its associated health benefits. In fact, an extract called Maitake-D fraction is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States and Japan. Many people enjoy maitake mushrooms in favorite recipes or in supplement form to help control blood pressure or blood sugar levels, enhance immune system function, or because of its possible anticancer traits.

MushroomsA number of animal and human studies have indicated that maitake has anticancer properties. Thus far there has been evidence that maitake extract is effective against human gastric cancer cells, bladder cancer cells, and breast cancer cells, among others.

Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a culinary and medicinal mushroom that does not look like your traditional mushroom. Instead it looks like a shaggy head of white hair. Its Latin name, Hericium erinaceus, means “hedgehog,” and in Japan it is called yamabushitake.

There’s limited evidence that this mushroom has an ability to promote and stimulate nerve growth. This quality makes it a potential candidate for health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that involve nerve damage.

Thirty patients with mild cognitive impairment were given either a placebo or four 250-mg tablets containing 96 percent dried lion’s mane powder three times a day for four months. At weeks 8, 12, and 16, the subjects in the treatment group had significantly better scores on cognitive function than did those in the placebo group.

Lion’s mane is not as easy to find in markets as some other culinary mushrooms, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Supplements are also available.

I’m going to keep on enjoying my portobello mushrooms and perhaps include more maitake for their immune-boosting properties. At the same time, I’ll be looking for fresh lion’s mane when I get to an Asian market. How about you?


Bhardwaj N et al. Suppression of inflammatory and allergic responses by pharmacologically potent fungus Ganoderma lucidum. Recent Patents on Inflammation & Allergy Drug Discovery 2014; 8(2): 104-17

Dai X et al. Consuming Lentinula edodes (shiitake) mushrooms daily improves human immunity: a randomized dietary intervention in healthy young adults. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2015; 1 DOI:10.1080/07315724.2014.950391

Deng G et al. A phase I/II trial of a polysaccharide extract from Grifola frondosa/Maitake mushroom) in breast cancer patients: immunological effects. Journal of Cancer Research Clinical Oncology 2009 Sep; 135(9): 1215-21

Life Extension. The immune enhancing benefits of beta glucans.

Mori K et al. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial. Phytotherapy Research 2009; 23:367-72

Nakamura K et al. Anticancer and antimetastatic effects of cordycepin, an active component of Cordyceps sinensis. Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 2015 Jan; 127(1): 53-56

Panda AK, Swain KC. Traditional uses and medicinal potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim. Journal of Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine. 2011 Jan-Mar; 2(1): 9-13

Rajamahanty LB et al. Synergistic potentiation of interferon activity with maitake mushroom d-fraction on bladder cancer cells. BJU International 2010 Apr; 105(7): 1011-15

Shomori K et al. Antitumor effects of a water-soluble extract from Maitake (Grifola frondosa) on human gastric cancer cell lines. Oncology Report 2009 Sep; 22(3): 615-20

Soares R et al. Maitake (D fraction) mushroom extract induces apoptosis in breast cancer cells by BAK-1 gene activation. Journal of Medicinal Food 2011 Jun; 14(6): 563-72

Tran HB et al. Hypotensive effects and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitory peptides of reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi) auto-digested extract. Molecules 2014 Aug 29; 19(9): 13473-85

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