We tell people to “eat the rainbow” when it comes to fruit and vegetables — meaning that intensely colored ones have the most antioxidants and other healthful micronutrients. The color of mushrooms is rather drab, yet they are nutritious. They are fungi, however, so the intense color rule doesn’t apply. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of several books writes in “Eat to Live” that “mushrooms contain a variety of powerful phytochemicals and have been linked to decreased risk of chronic diseases, especially cancer.”
Mushrooms have the highest concentration of ergothioneine of any food. Ergothioneine is an amino acid that is a potent antioxidant that protects mitochondria — the microscopic “power plants” inside your cell — against free radicals. In his book “How Not to Die,” Dr. Michael Greger says that “depriving human cells of this amino acid leads to accelerated DNA damage and cell death.” Ergothioneine is concentrated in parts of your body that experience a lot of oxidative stress, such as your liver and the lenses of your eyes, as well as in free radical-sensitive tissues such as your bone marrow and semen.
The following mechanisms explain why mushrooms help prevent cancer:
• Angiogenesis refers to formation of new blood vessels. Cancer cells make angiogenesis promotors that enable them to multiply and metastasize. Compounds in mushrooms block this process, causing cancer cells to die.
• Some of the 2 billion cells in our bodies are always mutating. Mushrooms help optimize our immunity, killing off these mutant cells before they can propagate and cause cancer.
• Excessive estrogen contributes to breast cancer, and aromatase is an enzyme involved in estrogen production. Aromatase inhibitors are used in chemotherapy to treat breast cancer. Mushrooms contain a natural aromatase inhibitor. Asian women have a much lower incidence of breast cancer incidence than do women on a Western diet — part of the reason is thought to be due to the prevalence of mushrooms in Asian diets.
Inflammation is implicated in many diseases including asthma, and mushrooms have anti-inflammatory properties. Dr. Fuhrman credits mushrooms as being one of the few food sources of vitamin D.
Dr. Greger points out that “mushrooms make a great, chewy replacement for meat.” His favorite way of eating mushrooms is to drizzle balsamic vinegar on them and grill them at low heat, turning them frequently. Recipes for tasty mushroom stroganoff can be found on the internet and in vegan cookbooks.
There are two caveats about eating mushrooms (other than being very cautious when gathering your own in the wild):
• Raw edible mushrooms have a mild toxin called agaritine, which fortunately is destroyed by cooking. Morel mushrooms have a higher level of this toxin and even cooked morels can release this toxin when combined with alcohol.
• Some commercial mushrooms are grown with fertilizer containing chicken dung, that often contains arsenic (arsenic compounds are often fed to chickens). However, the amount of arsenic that people get from eating the quantity of mushrooms that most people eat is not enough to be problematic.
Bottom line: Mushrooms are good for you, so eat them a few times a week, but don’t eat huge quantities and avoid raw ones.
Retired physician Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is author of new book “Enjoy Optimal Health, 98 Health Tips From a Family Doctor,” available on Amazon and in local bookstores. Profits go towards an endowment to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to add prevention and nutrition to the curriculum. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, diabetes reversal, nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his column, email email@example.com.