Nutrition is a powerful way to improve your health and athletic performance. What you eat impacts your inflammatory response, immunity, gut microbiota, stress hormone output (or lackthereof), your capacity to train hard and recovery, as well as how sharp your mind feels. We're always told to eat a "plant-based" diet to promote overall health, and of course protein and healthy fats are essential, but there is one category that doesn't get mentioned much... Fungi. Mushrooms aren't fruit or vegetable, but rather their own distinct category and their evolution is actually tightly tied to ours as humans.
If we go back over a billion years ago, before there were plants and animals, fungi were here first. In fact, research shows the 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 strong evolutionary connection may be a reason why mushrooms provide so many potential health benefits. Today more and more research is uncovering the many health benefits of this superfood (sorry, I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but mushrooms may actually fit the bill!).
Let's take a closer look at how mushrooms can impact health and performance
Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are incredibly nutrient-dense, chock-full of protein, iron, B-vitamins and key nutrients like glycoproteins (i.e., ergosterols) and polysaccharides (i.e., beta-glucans). They also provide an array of health benefits:
- boost metabolism
- improve lipid levels
Different types of mushrooms can provide different types of benefits. The following is a list of eight mushrooms you can think about adding to your nutritional arsenal to support better health, recovery, immunity or potentially performance.
Eight Mushrooms for Health & Performance
Athletes need to train hard and train often. This takes its toll on your nervous and immune systems. If you're constantly busy and on the run, this is also a tremendous stressor on these systems. Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) are known as the “king of the mushrooms” and have been used in traditional medicine for centuries to boost resiliency and immunity. They're also adaptogens - a substance that supports the body during times of stress - making them a great fit for athletes or anyone who is pushing themselves hard at work or play.
If you live in a city with a true winter climate, your vitamin D falls dramatically throughout the coldest months of the year. Unfortunately, very few foods contain much vitamin D (making supplementation a good option for most people). All mushrooms contain ergosterol, a plant sterol compound that makes up a fundamental part of the cell membrane. Sun exposure converts ergosterol into vitamin D, and a 100g serving of fresh mushrooms will provide 2,000 IU. (1) I like my clients to add shiitake mushrooms to their nutritional arsenal because they're not only a natural source of vitamin D but also chocked-full of B-vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, etc.), selenium, zinc, and copper. (They also taste great in omelettes and on steaks!) Here's a quick tip; slicing your mushroom will yield even higher vitamin D levels as it exposes more of the surface area to light. Shiitake mushrooms have also been shown to be beneficial for weight loss, heart health, immunity, and fighting off cancer cells.
Maitake mushrooms are another fungi from Asia that provides a wealth of health benefits. They are particularly high in beta-glucans, polysaccharides that have been shown to boost immunity via increased T cells, B cells, macrophages, and natural killer (NK) cells. (2) That means they’re a great tool for increasing your innate “first-line of defense” immune system, as well as supporting your adaptive “seek and destroy” immune system. As I mentioned above, training hard and working hard can compromise your immunity (known as the "open-window" theory in exercise immunology) and leave you more likely to catch a cold or flu. Adding more mushrooms to your nutritional arsenal athletes can help keep you going when you're really pushing the pedal to the metal.
Beta-glucans aren't just good for your immune system, they're also highly beneficial for lowering elevated blood glucose levels. The Agaricus blazei mushroom contains significant amounts of beta-glucan polysaccharides and recent studies show the addition of Agaricus blazei to conventional diabetes medication in type 2 diabetics dramatically improves insulin levels compared to controls. (3) The researchers also noted the mushrooms increased adiponectin levels, a key hormone released by fat cells that helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms are an impressive species, as they grow in a waterfall-like cascade from trees and logs. Compelling new research shows Lion’s mane exhibits tremendous potential as an agent to support healthy brain cell (neuron) function. Lion’s mane contains neuroactive compounds that promote nerve growth factor, making it a potent brain and nerve support. (4) To achieve this therapeutic dose, concentrated supplemental forms would need to be consumed (rather than just from eating the fungi).
Cordycep sinensis mushrooms are native to high altitudes and have been used in Asia for thousands of years to support physical performance. Studies have shown they have the capacity to improve oxygen uptake, and could therefore be highly beneficial for endurance athletes, although not all studies show benefit.(5) Interestingly, they’ve also been used traditionally to combat fatigue and as a tonic for enhancing libido and sex drive.
The King trumpet (Pleurotus eryngii) mushroom goes by many different names – French horn, king oyster or king trumpet – and it’s been used throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia for centuries. This edible mushroom has a thick, meaty stem (and small cap), which contains a particular amino acid called ergothioneine that acts as a powerful antioxidant. (6) Antioxidants are crucial for fighting off oxidative damage caused by free radicals, typically due to poor diet, training (or mental) stress and environmental toxin exposures. King trumpet mushrooms make a great addition to omelets, soups and stir-fries.
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) has been brewed as a traditional tea for centuries in China, and it’s become one of the most well researched mushrooms in the world. It’s shown so much promise as an adjunctive support for protecting cancer patients from the immuno-suppressing effects chemotherapy that the National Institute of Health has launched a new major trial to further investigate these benefits. (7) The mycelium found in turkey tail is also a prebiotic food source for the gut microbiome, and has been shown to be beneficial as an antiviral against the human papilloma virus (HPV). (8)
Mushrooms are an absolute nutritional powerhouse and support health via immune, inflammatory and antioxidant support. If you've been avoiding them because you don't like the taste, or aren't familiar with preparing them, then it's time to upgrade your nutrition game. Sauteed mushrooms with onions are a tasty additions to eggs, steaks and burger, as well as stir-fries. Mushrooms provide a wealth of health and performance boosting benefits, support your health, training and recovery by adding more mushrooms to your diet.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MS(c), CISSN, CSCS