Mushroom Health Benefits from Ergothioneine
Known as the ‘longevity vitamin’ by Dr. Bruce Ames, evidence suggests1 that the amino acid ergothioneine (ERGO), which is found extensively in mushrooms, may support increased life expectancy and may offer support for chronic diseases associated with aging such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
ERGO is an amino acid that is anti-inflammatory in nature and acts as a potent antioxidant to help the body eliminate toxic free radical stressors. Free radicals are associated with a host of negative consequences for the human body, from Alzheimer’s, to a variety of Cancers and Parkinson’s Disease.
Humans get ERGO via their diets, primarily via mushrooms and via plants and animals which draw their nutrients from soil containing rich mushroom mycelium networks. However, since not everyone eats mushrooms and since over-tilling and chemicals, such as Roundup, are destroying the underground mycelium networks in our soil, ERGO is found in relatively low amounts in American diets today.
When farmers plow or till the soil each year, the underground mushroom mycelium networks which supply ERGO to all of the plants grown in the same soil (which are then eaten by humans or by animals that are eaten by humans) are destroyed thus eliminating the source of ERGO into the U.S. food supply. Seemingly, another benefit of grass-fed beef and of free-range chickens, is that these animals have a higher likelihood of consuming foods rich in ERGO.
The movement to introduce and expand regenerative farming practices in order to better protect the soil would have great benefits in increasing the amount of ERGO in American diets. In fact, ERGO might be the direct missing connection between human health and soil health.
According to Dr. Ames, ERGO may help provide mitigation vs. diseases associated with aging and a diet that is insufficient in ERGO can result in life expectancy that is reduced as compared to an ERGO rich diet. While ERGO is highly bioavailable to our bodies, it is difficult to get sufficient amounts of ERGO into our diets without eating mushrooms directly.
In 1993, Brummel and Stegnik did studies2 to measure ERGO levels in foods and found the following had the highest ERGO levels of the foods studied: Exotic Mushrooms (Shiitake, Oyster, Maitake, Lion’s Mane), Chicken Livers, and Wheat Germ. Other studies indicated that Oyster Mushrooms, Tempeh, and Garlic are also good sources of ERGO. While mushrooms are generally a strong source of ERGO, not all mushrooms are created equally in their ERGO nutritional value. For instance, the most commonly consumed mushroom in the United States, Button Mushrooms, are quite low in ERGO, while Shiitake, Oyster, Maitake, Yellow Oyster and Porcini are quite high.
The four most common “functional” mushrooms, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Chaga and Cordyceps each contain varying levels of ERGO; with Lion’s Mane containing more ERGO than Shiitake mushrooms and similar levels as Oyster mushrooms.
In addition to ERGO, mushrooms are rich in Glutathione (GSH), which is a water-soluble combination of the amino acids glutamine, cysteine, and glycine. Both ERGO and GSH act as potent antioxidants against free radicals to help aid health maintenance and support the immune system against disease. Further, studies suggest that insufficient levels of ERGO and GSH are both associated with the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
According to the 2021 issue of Agronomy3, no-till farming has been shown to result in significant increases in fungi populations which did significantly increase ERGO content in three prominent food crops when compared to tilling.
While research is accumulating every day, Ramirez-Martinez et al evaluated four European countries and the United States to estimate and compare the average person’s ERGO consumption in mg per day4. The United States was the lowest of these countries studied in terms of ERGO consumption and the lower order of ERGO consumption across all five countries aligned with the corresponding higher rates of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and lower life expectancy. A 2010 study by the World Health Organization also concluded that ERGO consumption and both total mortality and mortality from neurological diseases were negatively related, while greater longevity was positively related.
Japan has the 2nd highest life expectancy in the world along with one of the world’s lowest death rates from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and the Japanese diet is thought to be the reason why. Subsequent to their 2016 study of ERGO consumption in European countries as compared to the United States, Ramirez-Martinez decided to include Japan in their analysis and estimated that the average Japanese citizen had 50% more mg per day of ERGO than did the highest European country studied (Italy) and over 5X the amount of the average U.S. citizen!
A recent study in Advanced Nutrition5, found that higher mushroom consumption was associated with lower total indications of cancer across Asia, the United States and Europe.
Other studies suggest a link between ERGO / mushroom consumption and a lower risk of chronic diseases, including:
Better Cognitive Performance among the Elderly11
Lower risk of All-cause Mortality12
Prevention of Hypertension13
While the antioxidant ERGO is hypothesized to be the key nutrient in mushrooms that is delivering health support, mushrooms are rich in many other beneficial nutritious compounds including:
In conclusion, a recent Swedish study20 of over 3000 healthy men and women, tested for 112 blood metabolites found plasma ERGO levels to be the metabolite most strongly associated with a lower cardiovascular disease risk (CVD) and with reduced mortality (after 21 years)!
Another study21 in Japan looked at over 130 blood metabolites for frailty markers in the eldery and found that the frail had significantly lower ERGO levels as compared to the non-frail. Additionally, those in the study identified with cognitive impairment also had lower blood ERGO levels which is not surprising given that low ERGO has been linked to neurodegeneration, cognitive impairment22 and Parkinson’s disease.23
There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that ERGO is extremely nutritious for humans by acting as the ‘longevity vitamin’ to arm the body’s natural defenses against chronic aging diseases and to extend life expectancy. While research is needed to determine the optimal daily ERGO consumption levels, the estimate of Japanese consumption was approximately 7mg per day. Consumers who wish to act upon this mushroom benefit evidence should seek to add the following mushrooms to their diets in order to get the most ERGO: Oyster, Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, Maitake, Porcini.
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