New research has also revealed that certain mushrooms have cancer-fighting antioxidant properties and support a robust immune system response to infection, inflammation, and abnormal cellular growth. As if that wasn’t enough, did you know that consuming mushrooms could also have powerful effects on our mental health? And no, we are not talking about “magic mushrooms” (although those have also been shown to help with symptoms of anxiety and depression). We are talking about plain old culinary mushrooms—the kind you saute up for a stir fry or put in your risotto.
A new study conducted by a group of researchers from Penn State College of Medicine took data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, collected from more than 24,000 U.S. adults from 2005 to 2016, and looked at two days of dietary recall to assess how often participants were consuming mushrooms. The authors then compared that frequency with reported levels of depression. Researchers found that participants who reported eating moderate-to-high levels of mushrooms over the course of the two days had lower odds of depression, as compared to those who ate low or no amounts of mushrooms.
Their findings confirmed their hypothesis that people who eat mushrooms have a lower risk of depression, due to their high levels of vitamin B-12, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory components. "Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine—an anti-inflammatory agent which cannot be synthesized by humans," said lead researcher Djibril Ba. Inflammation has been linked to depression, as well as a host of other chronic illnesses. Building on previous small clinical trials that have shown reductions in both depression and anxiety among regular mushroom consumers, the research is very promising for those seeking nutritional solutions for preventing and treating mood disorders.
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Real Nutrition says that the findings of the study are encouraging, but that more research is needed to further study the potential mood benefits of consuming mushrooms. She notes that this particular study uses food recall as its research method, which asks participants to remember the food they consumed in detail. This is not always an accurate way to get details about someone’s consumption, as we often over or under estimate the amounts of what we consume. Additionally, the study does not mention what types of mushrooms the participants consumed. Each type of mushroom has a different range of nutritional benefits, so knowing more about mushroom variety will help future studies narrow down on what exactly it is about shrooms that is improving the mental health of consumers.
Why are mushrooms helpful for combatting depression and anxiety?
So what is it about mushrooms, exactly, that makes them so helpful in the quest for improving our mental health? Shapiro says that in general, culinary mushrooms are rich with nutrients that help support optimal mood, although certain specific benefits depend on the variety. “White button mushrooms—the most common—are rich in potassium, which may help reduce anxiety,” she says. As we mentioned earlier, mushrooms (especially lion’s mane) are also a good source of ergothioneine, an antioxidant that prevents cell and tissue damage which studies show may prevent mental illness and depression. Shapiro explains that ergothioneine cannot be made in our bodies, so we have to consume it externally. Additionally, mushrooms are a great source of vitamin D, which has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve mood.
Research has not yet shown how much we should be eating to reap these benefits, so a great place to start is just by including them in your diet regularly and seeing how you feel. Shapiro’s favorite ways to eat mushrooms are a simple stir fry with onions and greens, or cooked up into an egg omelet for the ultimate powerhouse breakfast.
Other mushrooms that are helpful for mental health
In addition to the benefits of the mushrooms we use in our kitchens, specific species of mushroom have been identified as adaptogenic, which means that they help to maintain the body’s homeostasis and prevent long-term damage by minimizing the effects of mental or physical stress. These adaptogenic mushrooms, which include varieties like reishi, chaga, cordyceps, and lion’s mane, can help regulate hormones and lower stress, which has a ripple effect on our general mood and levels of depression and anxiety.
And, of course, we can’t forget about “magic” psychedelic mushrooms, which are becoming more mainstream as certain states start to decriminalize the formerly illegal drugs. While psychedelic mushrooms are often thought of for their ability to make consumers “trip” thanks to the presence of psilocybin, research is showing that taken in a safe and controlled setting, magic mushrooms have a powerful ability to treat depression and anxiety.
Not everyone lives in a state where psilocybin is legal or has the desire to take magic mushrooms, but luckily culinary mushrooms are an easy and accessible way to start harnessing the power of shrooms to feel your healthiest and happiest. Shapiro offers a word of caution to always buy your mushrooms from a well known source and not pick your own (unless you’re an expert on mushroom foraging) as many varieties can be poisonous.
Other foods that can be helpful for depression and anxiety
Mushrooms aren’t the only foods that offer mood-boosting support. Shapiro recommends a few additional ingredients that you can include in your diet to feel your best:
“Chamomile contains antioxidants that regulate neurotransmitters related to mood in the brain such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin,” says Shapiro. Try the mild tasting herb as tea for a cozy bedtime treat.
3. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate isn’t just a sweet treat—it is also rich in flavonoids, which are antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain and enhance cell-signaling, which helps the brain adapt to stress quickly and more easily.
There's a real reason you feel more relaxed (and maybe ready for a nap) after a turkey-filled Thanksgiving dinner. “Turkey is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin in the brain promoting calmness and relaxation,” says Shapiro.
5. Probiotic-Rich Foods
It’s no secret that our gut health is linked to our mental wellness, and probiotics play an important role in improving our microbiome and regulating mood. Shapiro recommends yogurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut to help support the gut-brain axis.
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