The Mushrooms That Protect Your Brain

Little cognitive impairments can significantly impact your quality of your life, and increase your chance of developing dementia. You may find that mushrooms can be an easy way to protect your brain and reduce your chance of developing dementia.

  • Eating more than two portions of mushrooms a week reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in study subjects by 50%. Data show people with MCI over age 60 have lower levels of ergothioneine, an antioxidant found in mushrooms
  • Mushrooms are rich in ergothioneine, and glutathione. Countries with high levels of ergothioneine have lower risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, and vice versa
  • Robert Beelman is a professor of food science and physiology at Penn State. He believes that the mycelium in mushrooms releases ergothioneine to the soil. This link can then be restored using regenerative farming methods
  • .

  • Mushrooms contain also beta-glucans which are beneficial for immune health, viral protection, obesity, and high blood pressure. Choose organic mushrooms or grow your own since the fungi easily absorb air and soil contaminants

Mild cognitive Impairment (MCI), which can lead to a decline in your quality of life, and even deprivation, if it progresses into dementia. You can help your brain by eating mushrooms.

MCI refers to a mild decline in cognitive abilities that can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, it does not guarantee. According to the Alzheimer’s Association,[1] up to 18% of people aged 60 or older are living with mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, up to 15% of those people will develop dementia within one year.

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness. It is normal to lose your keys every once in awhile. MCI can be diagnosed when you forget important information or events that you might normally remember, like appointments or conversations.

MCI sufferers also experience difficulty making decisions and figuring out how to accomplish a task. The Alzheimer’s Association [2] classifies MCI based upon the impairment of thinking abilities. Nonamnestic MCI affects the thinking abilities unrelated to memory, while amnestic MCI affects the memory.

If you’ve been diagnosed with MCI be aware that not all cases progress and that there are some individuals who actually improve. Your brainpower can be boosted by regular exercise, healthy eating habits and engaging in socially and mentally stimulating activities. Research has shown that eating mushrooms can help to prevent MCI.

While brain structure and function change with age, this usually does not result in MCI. You have many options to preserve your cognitive function. One of them is eating mushrooms. For decades, mushrooms have been used as traditional medicine. But it wasn’t until 1970 that mushrooms were officially distinguished from flora and recognized in their own biological kingdom. [4]

Those who study mushrooms believe that they have a closer relationship to animals than plants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture[5] estimates that people consume about 3 pounds of fresh mushrooms each year. Many nutrients are essential for human health are found in mushrooms, including ergothioneine.

Ergothioneine, a powerful antioxidant, is absorbed through the stomach and then distributed throughout the body. A study in animals [6] showed that repeated administrations of ergothioneine in mice had an antidepressant effect. The extract also improved memory function in both humans and mice. Another animal study[7] published in 2018 found an accumulation in the brain of one of ergothioneine metabolites.

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Earlier research[8] with Norwegian participants aged 70 to 74 years has shown that a higher intake of mushrooms can improve cognitive performance. Another epidemiological study[9] of Japanese participants aged 65 and older found those who ate mushrooms at least three times a week was “significantly associated with a lower risk of incident dementia, even after adjustment for possible confounding factors.”

Another study[10] from Singapore gathered data from 663 participants aged 60 and older and compared those who ate mushrooms less than once a week against those who ate more than two portions per week. They found those who ate the most mushrooms had a 50% lower risk of developing MCI,[11] which was independent of confounding factors that included cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and high blood pressure.

Levels of ergothioneine are significantly reduced in people who have MCI over the age of 60. The researchers concluded,[12] “This decrease in blood ET [ergothioneine] may indicate that low ET is a risk factor for neurodegeneration in the elderly.” If low levels are reversed, it may explain how some people diagnosed with MCI may appear to recover cognitive function.

A study[13] published in 2022 in the journal Neurology followed 2,903 cognitively normal participants at enrollment over an average of 6.3 years. During that time 752 developed MCI. The risk was lower for those with higher education levels, more income and more activities. After an average of 2.4 years of follow-up, they found 47.9% of those people with MCI no longer met the criteria.

Norwegian participants aged 70 to 74 years has shown that a higher intake of mushrooms can improve cognitive performance. (godi photo/shutterstock)

Mushrooms are high in nutrients, including essential minerals like manganese and copper. [14] They are also high in potassium and sulfur, as well as many of the B vitamins. [15]

Mushroom varieties also have antioxidants that other fungi plants do not have, such as ergothioneine and glutathione,[16] also called the “master antioxidant.”[17] As noted in The Guardian:[18]

“… [S]cientists think [ergothioneine and glutathione] may help to protect the body against the maladies of old age, such as cancer, coronary heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

In a press release following the publication of a paper in Food Chemistry, Robert Beelman, Professor Emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health, said:[19]

“What we found is that, without a doubt, mushrooms are the highest dietary source of these two antioxidants [ergothioneine and glutathione] taken together, and that some types are really packed with both of them.

A theory called the “free radical theory” of aging has been in existence for some time. It states that when food is oxidized to make energy, a lot of side effects are created. Many of these can be quite dangerous.

The body has mechanisms to control most of them, including ergothioneine and glutathione, but eventually enough accrue to cause damage, which has been associated with many of the diseases of aging, like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer’s.”

Beelman focuses his research on neurodegenerative disorders and shows that countries such as France or Italy have lower rates of these diseases. In contrast, conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s are more likely to develop in those countries that have a lower intake of ergothioneine. [20]

“Now, whether that’s just a correlation or causative, we don’t know. But, it’s something to look into, especially because the difference between the countries with low rates of neurodegenerative diseases is about 3 milligrams per day, which is about five button mushrooms each day.”

Mushrooms may help reduce your chance of developing neurodegenerative disorders and protect you against cancer. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University performed a literature review and meta-analysis[21] to assess the association between the risk of any type of cancer and mushroom intake.

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An evaluation of research from January 1, 1966, to October 31, 2020, yielded 17 studies that met the inclusion criteria. Analyses of data from more than 19,500 cancer patients[22] showed that those who consumed the most mushrooms had the lowest risk of any type of cancer. The study also showed a link between breast cancer risk and high mushrooms intake.

The researchers wrote this may be “due to the small number of studies which examined associations of mushroom intake with other site-specific cancers.”[23] They reported in a press release[24] that those who ate 18 grams of mushrooms, or about one-eighth to one-fourth cup, daily had a 45% reduced risk of cancer.

Legend has it that the founder of the Rodale Institute and promoter of organic farming once wrote “Healthy Soil=Healthy Food=Healthy People”[25] on a chalkboard. Scientists have not yet made an evidence connection between the two concepts, even though they are logical.

A study[26] in Environmental Science, published January 27, 2022, revealed the results of measurements across eight pairs of regenerative and conventional farms in eight states in the U.S. Each regenerative farm was paired with a neighboring conventional farm that planted the same crop variety.

The regenerative farms used no-till and diverse rotations, as well as cover crops. The data shows that regenerative farm produce is healthier and has higher levels of certain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Interestingly, even though not everybody eats mushrooms (or has it), everyone in the body contains ergothioneine. [27] More importantly, mushrooms are the leading dietary source. Beelman started to ask the question: How can everyone get ergothioneine from mushrooms? [28]

He and his coworkers hypothesized that the ergothioneine found in mushrooms is being absorbed by the crops via underground association with mycelium. These fungal threads are below the soil’s surface. It is absorbed into meat when animals eat plants high in ergothioneine.

Beelman speculated that this could be the way the antioxidants are distributed throughout the population. The Rodale Institute collaborated to determine the levels of ergothioneine found in oats. They also separated crops according to how intensively they were tilled. [29] The data showed oats grown on conventionally tilled land had one-third less than those grown on no-till land.

Beelman thinks this shows a strong link between soil and crop, as well as human health. You can reduce the amount ergothioneine in the soil by tilling it. No one has actually demonstrated a connection. He said, “I think it does.” [30]

I highly recommend adding mushrooms to your diet (Tatiana Volgutova/Shutterstock)

A chemical analysis[31] of mushrooms by the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, revealed mushrooms are also rich in beta-glucans. Portobello mushrooms contained nearly twice the amount as other mushrooms. Beta-glucans, a natural polysaccharide found in nature that is beneficial for high blood pressure and obesity as well as insulin resistance are also known to be beneficial. [32]

Past studies have also shown that beta-glucans are important in the prevention and treatment of viral infections such as common colds and flu.

  • A 2013 study found that taking 900 mg of beta-glucans in the form of brewer’s yeast for 16 weeks reduced the rate of cold infections by 25% and eased symptoms in those who got ill by 15%. [33]
  • Marathon runners who took 250 mg of beta-glucans containing brewer’s yeast for 28 days following a marathon were 37% less likely to contract a cold or flu symptoms compared to those taking a placebo. [34]
  • People who took 250 mg of beta-glucans per day for 90 days reported 43 fewer days with symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection compared to those taking a placebo. [35]
  • A 2015 animal study found feeding mice beta-glucans for two weeks “significantly reduced the effects of influenza infection in total mortality.”[36] According to the authors, “these effects are caused by stimulation of both cellular and humoral immune reaction resulting in lower viral load.”
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Beta-glucans are able to combat the spread of viral diseases and act as a prebiotic, which means that they can improve the diversity of the microbiome in the stomach. In one study,[37] beta-glucans improved the growth rate of Lactobacillus plantarum in the gut in both unstressed and stressed conditions.

It also protected the probiotics against gastrointestinal stress due to lower pH, bile sodiums and digestive enzymes. As probiotics travel through the digestive tract, this may help increase their survival rates. Although beta-glucans can be purchased in supplements, it’s best to obtain it from whole foods sources like mushrooms, bread yeast, and seaweed. [38]

I highly recommend including mushrooms in your diet. They are a great addition to salads and can be paired with any kind of wild-caught or grass-fed meat. It is important to choose organically-grown mushrooms, as they are more likely to absorb soil and air contaminants.

Growing mushrooms at home is a great option. It’s likely to be safer than wild mushroom foraging. While foraging sounds like fun, it is not easy to tell the difference between edible and toxic mushrooms. According to Medscape, in more than 95% of cases[39] where toxicity was reported, amateur mushroom hunters have misidentified poisonous mushrooms.

The severity of poisoning is variable, but mushrooms belonging to the Amanita family are the most dangerous. [40] There’s no antidote for amatoxin poisoning, so it’s essential if you have any reason to suspect someone has ingested an amatoxin-containing mushroom, you do not wait for symptoms but immediately seek emergency treatment.

Some medications may help lessen the severity,[41] but they are not always successful. The most famous of the Amanita mushroom is the lethal death cap mushroom,[42] which may kill more people each year than any other type of mushroom.

Originally published Jul 12, 2022, on


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