When most people think Paleo they think meat, and with good reason. A Paleo diet is chocked full of nutrient dense animal proteins that provide a terrific foundation for health. However, an ancestral approach to eating is more than just meat. In fact, I typically see in clinical practice Paleo dieters consuming far more vegetables than all other types of diets. However, there is one food – neither plant nor animal - that might just be the MOST Paleo of all foods. That’s right, mushrooms may hold the potential to upgrade your health and supercharge your performance (and maybe even save the planet!).
One of the main philosophies of an ancestral or Paleo approach is to eat foods more closely connected to how we’ve evolved over hundred of thousands of years. If we explore this evolutionary route a little deeper (ok, a lot deeper) we find that over a billion years ago, before there were plants and animals, fungi were here first. They naturally released calcium oxides into the environment that helped breakdown rocks into soil, and ultimately from that soil plants were able to grow and insects thrive to build sustainable ecosystems.
In fact, new research shows animal and fungi kingdoms actually come from the same evolutionary branch, perhaps revealing why mushrooms inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like humans. It’s thought that 40% of the diet of ancient primates was derived from fungi, and more and more research is uncovering just how nutrient-dense mushrooms truly are. So, now we’ve established there is an evolutionary connection, just what can mushrooms do for your health?
#1 Fight Obesity
There is a growing body of research highlighting the connection between dysbiosis, too much “bad” gut bacteria, and obesity. Interestingly, a recent study has highlighted how Ganiderma lucidum or reishi mushrooms from Asia may help to slow weight gain due to its positive impact on gut bacteria.(1) Professor Colin Hill, a microbiologist at University College Cork in Ireland believes that "the microbiome is certainly a key player in weight gain and weight loss”.
Not only that, mushrooms also help to cool systemic low-grade inflammation, a hallmark of weight gain, poor health and chronic disease progression. To help support better gut flora, include more fiber rich mushrooms into your meals and if you have a lot of weight to lose, you may think about supplementing with a mushroom formula.
#2 Improve Heart Health
Mushrooms don’t just combat weight gain; they also support a healthy heart. Beta-glucans, a dietary fiber commonly found in mushrooms, has been shown to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels by 7-10%.(2) Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are considered a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved health claims that beta-glucans reduce your risk of heart disease.(3)
Mushrooms also contain one of the only reliable food sources of highly bioavailable vitamin D, low levels of which are strongly associated with increased risk of heart disease. (4) Mushrooms are shown to be just as effective as supplements for increasing blood levels of vitamin D.
#3 Boost Immunity
Intense training or stress depletes key players of your immune system defense arsenal, such as neutrophils, natural killer cells, macrophages, etc. This leaves you more prone to catching a nasty cold or flu. Nothing derails performance – on the playing field or in the office – faster than an infection. The International Society of Exercise and Immunity states that intense exercise can lower immunity for up to 72 hours after training.(5) Not an athlete? Long days at the office or taking care of the kids can exert a similar effect.
The polysaccharides in reishi, maitake and shitake medicinal mushrooms help increase natural killer cell and macrophage activity to protect you from colds and flu. Other mushroom varieties like turkey tail have been shown to protect against various forms of cancer. A recent study found that a specific compound in turkey tail mushrooms – a polysaccharide complex called PSK – has been shown to be protective against prostate and breast cancer.(6)
Another powerful health promoting fungi is called Agaricus blazei. Native to Japan, it protects against radiation, but also supports better blood sugar balance, cholesterol levels and improves skin and hair. This common button mushroom makes a great addition to chili or sautéed and added to steaks.
What Are the Healthiest Mushrooms?
The list of tasty and health promoting medicinal mushrooms is a lengthy one, my favorites include asian mushrooms like shitake, reishi and maitake, which pack a major health punch and protect you against bacterial and viral infections. More great options includes lion’s mane, turkey tail, and cordyceps mushroms
It’s important to remember to always cook your mushrooms. Raw mushrooms have very tough cell membranes and are difficult to digest, making it difficult to assimilate the key nutrients. Raw mushrooms can also contain carcinogens which can lead to adverse symptoms of redness, itching, or hives. Simply cooking them thoroughly deactivates these compounds and makes them save to eat.
Try adding more mushroom into omelettes, stir-fries, or sautéed and thrown on-top of your favorite Paleo-friendly meat dish. (Substitute any medicinal mushrooms into this delicious recipe on the Paleof(x) blog!) If you need more support, adding a mushroom supplement can make a great option for to correct a deficiency or dysfunction,
Finally…could mushrooms possibly be the secret to saving the world? It seems a tall order, but if you ask world-renowned researcher and mushroom expert Dr. Paul Stamets, the answer is a resounding yes. (If you haven’t seen his 2008 TEDtalk on the subject, it’s a must see!) He explains how fungi might be the missing link to true sustainability, showing incredible abilities to recycle nutrients for the health of old growth forests, maintain the prosperity of bee populations (pillars of our ecosystem that have been dangerously on the decline in recent years), and even breaking down radioactive materials and turning them into viable food options for the food chain. While the vast array of health benefits from consuming mushrooms is impressive, the promising capabilities of mushrooms to help save the planet from pollution, deforestation and risk of super-bug infections is something to get even more excited about.
You could make a very convincing argument that mushrooms might be the most Paleo of all foods. We evolved over millions of years with a great deal of help from our fungi friends. They continue to provide the regeneration and growth that gives fields, forests and animals their nutrients and can directly lead to better health for you too. Start adding more to your Paleo-friendly meals and enjoy!
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS