Mushrooms are having a moment, medically speaking. While medicinal mushrooms are anything but new, they certainly seem to be popping up everywhere in the wellness world, from mushroom capsules to elixirs to blends.
And for good reason: from managing blood sugar levels to adrenal support, to strengthening the immune system, their health benefits have long been known.
Now a recent study from the National University of Singapore says that an antioxidant present in mushrooms could have a protective effect on the brain.
Researchers tracked the diet and lifestyle of 663 Chinese adults, aged over 60, over six years. Participants in the study were asked how often they ate six different types of mushrooms: oyster, shiitake, white button, dried, golden and tinned.
Those who ate mushrooms were found to have lower chances of mild cognitive impairment and performed better in brain tests and were found to have faster processing speed.
The reason for this? The researchers said it's due to the fact that mushrooms are one of the richest dietary sources of ergothioneine - an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which humans are unable to make on their own.
While the results sound promising, Dr. Oreoluwa Ogunyemi, MD, says to take the study with a grain of salt.
"The study asked people to recall what they ate over a long period of time. Studies that use food diaries or recall can be quite inaccurate, " Dr. Ogunyemi tells Organic Authority. "Many of us forget what we had for dinner last night, let alone a month ago."
The fact that it was also a cross-sectional study- meaning that they looked at people at only one point in time -- is another point of concern for Ogunyemi.
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"They didn’t follow up people years later to see if eating more mushrooms decreased brain problems. Therefore, there is no way this study can show that mushrooms improve brain function."
While she admits that mushrooms are generally known to be healthy, rich in antioxidants, and multiple vitamins and nerve-protecting compounds, she says more research is needed "to see if compounds rich in mushrooms like ergothioneine, a prominent antioxidant, improves brain health at the quantities found in two servings per week."
Jill Nussinow, MS, RDN, who looked at the study, told Organic Authority that she believes the beneficial effect of eating mushrooms on cognitive function is due to the type of fiber that’s in mushrooms. Because "it can help regulate blood sugar, as well as having a positive effect on the microbiome, providing better gut function. This, in turn, can lead to better brain function," she says, adding that "we are now learning a lot about the gut-brain connection."
The researchers did admit that So while eating a diet full of fruit and vegetables, including mushrooms, is a great starting point, our best advice is to also cut down on sugar and salt, be physically active, drink in moderation and avoid smoking
Dr. Ogunyemi admits that people who eat lots of mushrooms tend to eat other fruits and veggies, "which are also important for brain health" -- a fact that the researchers of the study also agree with.
"It seems that a commonly available single ingredient could have a dramatic effect on cognitive decline. But we are talking about a combination of many factors - tea, green leafy vegetables, nuts, and fish are also beneficial," said assistant professor Lei Feng, the lead study author.
So, if you choose to listen to the survey, Dr. Ogunyemi says, yes, buy some mushrooms, but "also cut back on the red meat and heaping quantities of colorful vegetable to your shopping cart as well. Not only will it improve your brain function down the line, it will also improve your current gut, heart and brain health."
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