Are mushrooms good for you? Here's what you need to know

September 30, 2022
Are mushrooms good for you? Here's what you need to know

Mushrooms are more than just a take-it-or-leave-it pizza topping. Consumed for their medicinal properties for over 5,000 years in Eastern societies, these low-calorie, antioxidant-rich, protein- and fiber-packed fungi are growing in popularity and interest globally as a natural disease treatment. But do the purported health benefits of mushrooms really stack up? Or, like many fad “superfoods,” are they just a trend waiting to burn out? Read on to find out whether mushrooms are good for you, and whether mushrooms are good for diabetics.

What are mushrooms?

This might seem like an obvious question, but with so many different types of “mushrooms” being marketed today, it can be hard to keep them all straight. For example, what is mushroom coffee? Have people blended up the white button mushrooms used on pizza or spaghetti with a little coffee and cream (ew!!)? Or, what is the difference between the mushrooms we eat and the “shrooms” people take for the psychedelic effects? Do we need to worry about getting high from eating too many mushrooms? 

Below we list the common mushrooms you’ll find at the grocery store or might see marketed on TV or online and describe how they’re commonly used. Remember that regardless of the name or what it looks like, all mushrooms are the reproductive parts (i.e., “fruit”) of a type of organism called fungus. That’s right: although they are considered key components of plant-based diets, mushrooms are not plants!

Food mushrooms

  • Button mushrooms: These are the most common type of mushroom you’ll see at the grocery store; they are white in appearance with a round top and thick stem. These mushrooms can be sautéed, served raw in salads, added to pizzas and spaghetti sauces, and much more.
  • Crimini mushrooms: Also known as Baby Bella mushrooms, crimini mushrooms are just older button mushrooms. They look the same, except they are brown in color and can be used in exactly the same way as button mushrooms.
  • Portobello mushrooms: These large mushrooms, characterized by a sizable cap, are simply the most mature version of button mushrooms. Due to their meaty flavor, they are often used as meat substitutes in a variety of dishes. You can even order portobello “burgers”!
  • Shiitake mushrooms: A popular choice in Asian cuisine, shiitake mushrooms resemble miniature umbrellas.
  • Maitake mushrooms: These are a popular Japanese mushroom that can be used in a variety of dishes, including ramen. Instead of a round cap like button mushroom varieties, the head of this mushroom resembles leaves.
  • Morel mushrooms: Known for their spongy look, morel mushrooms can be cooked and added to a variety of dishes or eaten alone sautéed with spices.
  • Porcini mushrooms: These mushrooms have a cap similar to button mushrooms, but their stems are much longer and thicker. These light brown mushrooms are often used in Italian dishes, such as risotto or pasta in cream sauce.
  • Chanterelle mushrooms: These bright yellow mushrooms look like fans or the leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba tree. Their flavor is very earthy, so they aren’t for everyone, but they’re a great addition to stews and soups.

Other mushrooms that you might encounter in food dishes include oyster, beech, enoki, lobster, and hedgehog mushrooms.

Supplemental mushrooms

Most mushrooms used as dietary supplements (including those found in “mushroom coffee”) are called adaptogenic mushrooms, which may help reduce the effects of stress on the body. (These mushrooms are also commonly referred to as “medicinal mushrooms” or “functional mushrooms.”). The most common adaptogenic mushrooms are:

  • Lion’s Mane: used to support cognitive function.
  • Chaga: used to support immune and gastrointestinal function and is also a popular caffeine replacement.
  • Reishi: used to increase energy, reduce stress, and promote healthy sleep.
  • Cordyceps: used to reduce fatigue and improve blood oxygen levels.
  • Turkey Tail: used to support immune system function.

It’s important to note that clinical research supporting the health benefits of medicinal/functional mushrooms is sparse, so buyer beware. What we do know is discussed in further detail in the following sections.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms, which we mention here only to differentiate them from the health-promoting mushrooms discussed in this article, are a group of mushrooms containing psilocybin, a psychoactive and hallucinogenic compound. Although ongoing research suggests psilocybin could be used to treat some mental disorders, there are currently no approved medicinal uses for hallucinogenic mushrooms.

What are the health benefits of mushrooms?

Are mushrooms good for you? Most of the health benefits of mushrooms derive from the polysaccharides they contain. Not only do mushroom polysaccharides possess significant antioxidant activity, they also act as prebiotics — “food” for fiber-digesting bacteria in our intestines that turn fiber into gut-healthy short-chain fatty acids. Mushrooms are also a rich source of terpenoids, a large class of natural compounds with various beneficial impacts on health, including in the context of diabetes (discussed more below). The vitamin content of mushrooms is also excellent: they are a rich source of vitamin B6, folate magnesium, zinc, and potassium. Additionally, mushrooms contain ergosterol, a vitamin D precursor. When exposed to ultraviolet light, mushrooms can become great sources of vitamin D, too.

The nutrient content of mushrooms has made them a popular subject of study in relation to a number of human health conditions, from cancer to heart disease to cognitive function. Results are promising, although should be interpreted with caution. Most studies, with the exception of those related to cancer, have been done on animal models or on human cells in the lab and haven’t been replicated in clinical settings.

Mushrooms and cardiovascular health

  • A meta-analysis of seven studies in humans suggested that mushrooms “may have favorable effects on lipid profiles by changing some metabolic markers such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.” The same study also found that mushrooms were “probably” associated with lower blood pressure, but that the relationship between mushroom consumption and the risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke was inconsistent.
  • Studies in human cells have shown that ergosterol, linoleic acid, and inter alia from Lion’s Mane mushrooms prevent cholesterol oxidation — which, when it occurs in the bloodstream, contributes to vascular disease.
  • A class of polysaccharides called beta-glucans, which are found in mushrooms, have shown promising ability to reduce cholesterol levels based on studies in cells.

Mushrooms and cancer

  • Several different mushroom species have been shown to have anti-cancer effects. In fact, several mushrooms, such as Phellinus linteus, have their own page on the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website.
  • Clinical studies on patients with leukemia, gynecological cancer, multiple myeloma, and prostate cancer have demonstrated that the Agaricus blazei Murill mushroom has immune-modulating and anti-cancer effects.
  • The anti-tumor effects of polysaccharides from the Grifola frondosa mushroom have been reported in several clinical studies.
  • In human cells in the laboratory, Lion’s Mane and Chaga mushrooms cause several types of cancer cells to die.

Mushrooms and cognitive health

Are mushrooms good for diabetics?

An important part of type 2 diabetes (T2D) management is maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Mushrooms are a great option for weight management because they are a low-calorie source of fiber and protein. But are mushrooms food for diabetics in a more direct way that could impact diabetes management?

You may be surprised to learn that mushrooms and their bioactive compounds, including polysaccharides and terpenoids, have been used for centuries to treat diabetes, although we historically haven’t understood exactly why mushrooms are useful in this context. A recent review summarized findings from multiple studies evaluating the impact of mushroom-derived polysaccharides and terpenoids on controlling blood sugar:

  • Across several studies, both in cells and in animal models, mushroom polysaccharides inhibited glucose absorption, enhanced pancreatic β-cell mass, and increased insulin-signaling pathways — suggesting mushrooms are potential therapeutic options for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • In animal models, mushroom terpenoids inhibited α-glucosidase (the enzyme that turns starch into simple sugar) and improved insulin sensitivity by activating PPARγ, a receptor that increases the ability of pancreatic β-cells to sense glucose.

Another review explored several edible and functional/medicinal mushrooms and their use in ameliorating diabetes historically and currently; however, their analysis also pointed out that, currently, treating diabetes with mushrooms has limited applicability.

Key takeaways

Are mushrooms for for diabetics? Anecdotal evidence collected over thousands of years suggests that mushrooms have several important health benefits, including anti-tumor and anti-diabetic effects. Science is only now beginning to unravel the reasons why and how mushrooms can contribute to health, and there is still a lot we don’t understand. For now, it’s best to treat serious health conditions such as diabetes with well-established treatment and lifestyle interventions under the guidance of a medical professional. However, the nutrient content of mushrooms means that enjoying them on your pizza or even in the form of a delicious “mushroom coffee” is something you can feel good about.

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