Aging is a natural process that we, unfortunately, cannot stop, but understanding how it occurs allows us to potentially slow down its effects to improve our quality of life as we grow older. Oxidative stress plays a major role in aging, ultimately leading to an increased likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases and an overall decline in physiological function.
To combat the effects of oxidative stress, scientists have turned their attention towards natural antioxidants such as mushrooms. A recent study has found that certain types of mushrooms, especially those high in ergothioneine, a potent antioxidant, could counteract oxidative stress. This research emphasizes shiitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes) as particularly rich in ergothioneine.
The study’s findings suggest that incorporating ergothioneine-rich mushrooms into our diet may effectively slow the aging process and its adverse health effects.
Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between harmful substances known as free radicals and the body’s natural defense system of antioxidants. As we age, our bodies produce less energy (ATP) and acquire more free radicals while our defenses against them gradually become weaker.
Free radicals are created through our bodily processes along with external factors such as UV exposure and pollution. Although free radicals aren’t inherently bad, high concentrations can be harmful to the body, putting it through oxidative stress, which can cause severe damage to cells, DNA, and other crucial cellular components.
Ultimately, this accelerates the signs of aging, leading to loss of tissue and organ function. Externally, oxidative stress contributes to the physical symptoms of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, gray hair, reduced collagen production, and decreased skin elasticity. If left unchecked, the damage can lead to a weakened immune system, inflammation, and various age-related problems like Alzheimer’s and cancer (1).
Luckily, consuming foods that are rich in antioxidants can help mitigate these effects. Although our bodies naturally produce some antioxidants, including them in our diets can boost our body’s defenses against oxidative stress. Antioxidants can help neutralize free radicals by giving up their free electrons, thereby reducing their reactivity to cells (2).
Ergothioneine, a naturally occurring amino acid, is one of the most potent antioxidants and is primarily found in mushrooms (3). To better understand the role of antioxidants in healthy aging, researchers have examined the anti-aging potential of edible mushrooms, specifically those with the highest ergothioneine content.
The researchers began the study by analyzing 14 different kinds of mushrooms with varying levels of ergothioneine. Using a specialized technique called High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), they were able to accurately determine how much ergothioneine was in each mushroom.
Once they established the species with the highest ergothioneine levels, the researchers began the next phase of the study by preparing extracts from these mushrooms and applying them to neuronal brain cells in a controlled laboratory setting. This step aimed to simulate the aging process in these cells, creating a model that allowed them to examine how the mushroom extracts influenced aging on a cellular level.
Several comprehensive tests were taken on the brain cells to understand the broader impact of the mushroom extracts. First, they measured the cell viability to assess the overall health and survival of the brain cells and gauge whether they remained functional after treatment.
Then, researchers noted any observational changes in the cells that could be linked to aging by examining typical markers of cellular aging to determine if the extracts had any impact on slowing or reversing these processes.
Finally, the brain cells were checked for oxidative stress and whether or not the mushroom extracts helped reduce or prevent damage from it. This step was particularly important in the study, considering the role oxidative stress has on the deterioration of cells and the overall aging process.
Among the different types of mushrooms analyzed, shiitake mushrooms were found to have the significantly highest concentrations of ergothioneine, making them a prime candidate for future studies due to their potent antioxidant properties.
The shiitake mushroom extracts demonstrated a remarkable improvement in brain cell viability, indicating a protective effect on the cells. Researchers also observed that the treated cells showed reduced oxidative stress and decreased signs of aging. The mushroom extracts appeared to help the cells counteract typical aging effects such as deterioration and loss of function (4).
The findings from the study suggest that shiitake mushrooms may provide protective benefits for the brain and reduce the effects associated with aging. The large amounts of ergothioneine present in shiitake indicate that including the mushroom in our regular diets could help benefit overall health and well-being, especially in regard to healthy aging.
Shiitake mushrooms have traditionally been valued for their medicinal and culinary uses in places like China, Korea, and Japan for centuries. They are increasingly being recognized as a superfood globally. The notable antioxidant properties are just one of the several health benefits of shiitake mushrooms.
Chronic inflammation is a major contributor to age-related diseases (5). However, shiitake mushrooms are also known for their anti-inflammatory properties due to their contents of beta-glucans, a naturally occurring polysaccharide. These compounds also help boost the immune system, protecting the body against illnesses, which is especially important as the body becomes more susceptible to diseases with age.
In addition, shiitake mushrooms are rich in selenium and vitamin D, which are both essential for maintaining overall health. Selenium is another powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body against cellular damage, while vitamin D is important for maintaining bone health, mood regulation, and immune function.
Shiitake mushrooms can also improve external signs of aging and skin health. The mushroom is a common ingredient in skincare products due to its unique composition, yet consuming shiitake can also have beneficial effects for healthy skin.
Shiitake mushrooms are rich in amino acids and phenolic acid, which help stimulate collagen production and inhibit elastase, an enzyme that breaks down elastin in the skin (6). These compounds also help repair damaged skin and maintain a more resilient barrier while protecting it from harmful UV rays (7). Furthermore, shiitake contains kojic acid, a compound that can help improve skin tone, brighten dark spots, and balance uneven pigmentation.
Overall, the findings of the study support a broader claim about the anti-aging properties of shiitake mushrooms. Incorporating shiitake mushrooms or extract as a regular part of your diet can be an effective holistic approach to combat the signs and symptoms of aging and protect you from the negative implications of oxidative stress.