The Power of Mushrooms - 8 Benefits for Health & Performance

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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:

  • antioxidant
  • anti-inflammatory
  • antiviral
  • boost metabolism
  • improve lipid levels
  • anti-cancer

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 

Reishi

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.

Shiitake

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

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.

Agaricus

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

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).

Cordyceps

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.

King Trumpet

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

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

Want to learn more about Vitamin D and Immunity? Listen to Precison Nutrition DIrector of Performance Nutrition Brian St-Pierre in Season 2 of the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast...

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Does Red Meat Really Cause Cancer?

Earlier this week the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed red meats are a “human carcinogen” and red meats a “probable human carcinogen” that increase your risk of cancer. Those are powerful words and unsurprisingly they spread like wildfire within just a few hours.

Perhaps not too many people are surprised to read that traditional processed meats (e.g. hot dogs, salamis, sausages), with so many fillers and additives, are not good for your gut health. But, where do naturally and pasture-raised meats without preservatives or additives, like bacon and homemade sausages fit in?

However, what many health professionals (including myself) are shocked about, is that red meat (e.g. steak, lamb, veal, etc.) was also included. Red meat is one of nature’s best sources of healthy fat, essential amino acids, iron, zinc, and B12 so how did it get lumped in with the processed meats?

Unfortunately, in today’s Twitter world of 140 characters or less, a controversial headline gets a lot of media play. Let’s take a closer look at the WHO summary and see what the document actually reveals.

Processed Red Meat is a Human Carcinogen

The WHO defined processed red meat as a “human carcinogen” because they believe there is sufficient evidence that the agent causes cancer in humans and/or animals. They believe (and there is good evidence) that carcinogenic compounds like nitrosamines and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – produced during curing, salting and smoking – are leading to an increase risk of cancers. It’s these specific compounds that worries the WHO and led to their conclusions.

The Group 1 category also includes things like smoking, radiation, plutonium, etc. However, the report notes that just because smoking and processed red meat are both included in Group 1, it doesn’t mean they confer the same risk of cancer.

Relative Risk vs. Absolute Risk

The report states that processed red meat and red meat consumption increases your risk of colorectal cancer (not all types of cancer) by 17% for every 100g. This seems high, but you must remember that “relative risk” is a statistical term researchers use to compare the risk between two groups.

For example, the WHO has just stated you’re at 17% increase risk of colorectal cancer if you eat processed red meat. However, your true risk getting this type of cancer – called absolute risk– is only 5% for your lifetime according to the American Cancer Society.1 Using the relative risk term typically makes the “risk” seem greater than it actually is.

Other major risk factors for colorectal cancer are smoking, weight gain, obesity, diabetes, low fiber diet, sedentary lifestyle and alcohol use. If the meat you consume is placed between two buns with an order of fries and a sugar-laden soda at a fast food restaurant, then your choices will definitely be putting you at greater risk. However, it’s very different if you eat red meat as part of a healthy diet, rich vegetables, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.

Why Is Red Meat Lumped In With Processed Meat?

This is where things get very grey. The direct quote for classifying red meat as a “possible carcinogen” in the report is based on, “limited evidence from epidemiological studies… that a positive association has been observed.” The evidence from the report gets even more speculative in the next sentence, stating “other explanations for the association (chance, bias, confounders) could not be ruled out”.

Association is not causation. Fire trucks appear at every fire in the city, and therefore are associated with fires, but they do not cause fires. The most troubling statement is that the relationship is so thin that “coincidence” or “luck” might explain the association. In fact, the WHO stated in their report that “red meat has known health benefits”, but not surprisingly this didn’t make the media headlines. Why then the tough stance on red meat?

High Temperature Cooking & Carcinogens

The root of the WHO’s concern with processed and natural red meat seems to stem from how we cook it. When we cook red meat – grilling, sautéing, searing, etc – it can lead to the production of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamine, heterocyclic amines (HAs) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), if it’s cooked with an open flame. These compounds are the real “bad guys” the WHO is concerned about and the likeliest reason processed red meat was included in Group 1 “human carcinogen” and red meat included in the Group 2A “possible carcinogen” category. However, what isn’t included in the report is that PAHs are found in the same concentrations in vegetables and grains, and even more concerning, virtually double the amount in the ambient environment (i.e. dust).2,3 That’s right, you get just as much PAHs from the rest of your dinner plate and are virtually exposed to them everyday in the environment. Seems unlikely they alone are the smoking gun.

Can You Mitigate The Negative Effects of Cooking Red Meat?

The good news is there are numerous cooking techniques that help to mitigate the potential negative effects of grilling or sautéing your meat. For example, marinating your meats (spices, honey, vinegars, etc.), cooking at lower temperatures (slow-cooker, braising, simmering, etc.) and choosing medium-rare over a “well done” steak, all significantly reduce the formation of carcinogens.

The research also shows that if you add leafy greens or green vegetables with your red meat it offsets the DNA damage from these carcinogens.4 The vegetables you add to your plate, along with fruit and friendly starches – potatoes, rice, yams – dramatically increase your fiber intake, building up “good” gut bacteria and reducing your risk of colorectal cancer.

Remember, the biggest risk factors for colorectal cancer are sedentary lifestyle, weight gain, obesity, diabetes, lack of fiber and constipation. Physical inactivity leads to a 10% increase in risk of colon cancers, and for every 4 inches you add to your waist, your risk of colorectal cancer increases by 20%.5,6 For two-thirds of the population who are classified as overweight or obese, it is especially important to promote good gut health, physical activity and a high-fibre, low carbs/sugar diet to reduce risks. If your bowel movements don’t occur daily and you “miss” days in the week, toxins build-up in the large intestine and put you at greater risk of colorectal cancer.

Animal protein, especially red meat, is one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. Marinated, cooked at moderate temperature, and served over a plate of leafy greens as part of diet high in fiber (e.g. the Paleo diet), red meat promotes good health, slimmer waistline and improve body composition. I see this everyday in clinical practice. While too many processed meats do present a potential risk factor and should be consumed in moderation, if you stay active, maintain a healthy weight and fill your plate with leafy greens your lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is only 5%.

Yours in health,
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CSCS