Mushrooms – merely food, or more?

For thousands of years the people of Asia have eaten mushrooms for both food and medicine. Among them, the mighty Maitake mushroom reigns supreme. Significant research has been done regarding its medicinal benefits and I will elaborate on that later. First of all, know that all mushrooms have nutritional benefits and help us to expand our nutritional base. The greater the variety of foods we eat, the greater benefits we will get from our diet. Whilst eating spinach, for example, is great for many reasons, if we eat it every day we are limiting our source and range of nutrition from food. Variety is key, and many of us do not eat fungi regularly, if at all.

I’m sure you’ve all tried the common white mushroom, even the crimini or baby bella, but how many of you have expanded your horizons to the Enoki, the Portabella, the Oyster, the Shitake and the Maitake? Unfortunately I already know the answer, so I will now try to persuade you to expand your fungi horizons.

As a food generally, all mushrooms are FAT FREE, SUGAR FREE and extremely low in both carbohydrates and sodium. This fact in itself makes them a great food choice. Now add to that the nutrients they contain – fiber, protein, potassium, copper, folate, iron, magnesium, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, selenium, thiamin, vitamin B6, vitamin D and zinc. Now tell me why they’re not an everyday part of your diet….

Certain varieties of mushroom do have higher levels of certain nutrients than others, which is why they are known for certain medicinal uses. For example, the Maitake has extremely high levels of Vitamin D. Known as the sunshine vitamin  – Your body is designed to get the vitamin D it needs by producing it when your bare skin is exposed to sunlight, or more specifically ultraviolet B (UVB). This is the most natural way to get vitamin D. Unfortunately, most of us do not expose enough bare skin per day to produce the amount our bodies require. We can supplement it by eating certain foods, but there is a very limited range of foods which provide this very important vitamin: salmon, mackerel, egg yolk, milk, yoghurt, almond milk, orange juice, beef or calf liver, oyster, shitake and maitake mushrooms. Of these foods, (ignoring the mushrooms for a second) the oily fish are the winners by far, having 425 IU Vitamin D in 3 oz salmon, 547 IU in 3 oz mackerel. Now consider that in the same 3 oz serving of Maitake there is a whopping 943 IU of vitamin D. That’s 236% of the Daily Recommended Value.

Now Vitamin D is an incredibly important and often overlooked part of our diet, mainly because people assume that we get it solely from the sun, but if we rely on that alone we are going to be severely deficient. Evidence continues to mount that the vitamin which has long been associated with bone health (which includes your teeth!) also helps to regulate the immune system, lower blood pressure, protect against depression, and reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and several kinds of cancer. A 2014 study from the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine also found that people with low vitamin D levels were twice as likely to die prematurely.

If that is not enough evidence to convince you to try a Maitake mushroom, then I don’t know what is! (PS. Supplements are a second choice, but should always remain a second choice as they are synthetic copies at best.)

maitake mushroom

In addition to the vitamin D argument, Maitakes are also used to treat cancer and relieve some of the side effects of chemotherapy. Several researchers corroborate that maitake causes apoptosis (“programmed suicide”) of cancer cells and contains anti-angionenesis properties. That means they can restrict the proliferation of bloods cells that feed tumors. One reason may be that maitake mushroom fruitbodies are rich in complex polysaccharides, in particular the heavy and complex 1,3; 1,4; and 1,6 beta-D-glucans.

Various studies also show its effectiveness in treating diabetes as it modulates glucose levels thanks to the α-glucosidase inhibitor they contain. (Care should be taken if consuming alongside other diabetes drugs, as they also do the same thing – compounding the effect could cause blood sugar to drop too low.)

In addition to all of this, they are actually very, very tasty! I know they look a bit strange if you’re not used to them, but just cook them as you would a regular mushroom and be wowed by both the taste and the potential health benefits.

Plus, if you live in NE USA you can quite likely find these in the woods near you! Try looking from the end of August through to November, at the base of hardwood trees, particularly oak. Good luck foraging!

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