Study Shows Benefits of Eating Mushrooms for Depression

TThere is no doubt that the Mushroom Kingdom has a lot to offer, with uses beyond the wonderful flavor of umami. You may already be familiar with the nutritional benefits of mushrooms, their ability to act as a convincing (and delicious) alternative to meat, their low environmental footprint, their ability to prevent cognitive decline, and even their use in skin care.

New research also reveals that some types of mushrooms have cancer-fighting antioxidant properties and support a robust immune system response to infection, inflammation and abnormal cellular growth. As if that weren’t enough, did you know that eating mushrooms can also have powerful effects on our mental health? No, we’re not talking about “magic mushrooms” (although they have also been shown to help treat symptoms of anxiety and depression). We’re talking plain old mushrooms – the kind that you fry in a quick stir-fry or put in your risotto.

A new study by a group of researchers from Penn State College of Medicine took data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which was collected from more than 24,000 American adults from 2005 to 2016, and examined two days of diet recalls to assess how often participants consumed mushrooms. The authors then compared this frequency with reported levels of depression. The researchers found that participants who reported eating moderate to high levels of mushrooms over the two days had lower odds of developing depression, compared to those who ate little or no mushrooms.

Their findings confirmed their hypothesis that people who eat mushrooms have a lower risk of depression, due to higher levels of vitamin B12, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components. “Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine – an anti-inflammatory agent that humans cannot synthesize,” said lead researcher Gabriel Ba. Inflammation has been linked to depression, as well as a host of other chronic diseases. Building on previous small clinical trials that showed reductions in both depression and anxiety among regular mushroom consumers, the research is very promising for those looking for nutritional solutions to prevent and treat mood disorders.

Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Real Nutrition, says the study results are encouraging, but more research is needed to further examine the potential mood benefits of mushroom consumption. She notes that this particular study uses food recall as a research method, which asks participants to remember in detail the food they ate. This is not always an accurate way to get details about someone’s consumption, because we often over or underestimate the amounts of what we are consuming. In addition, the study did not mention what types of mushrooms the participants ate. Each type of mushroom has a different set of nutritional benefits, so learning more about the variety of mushrooms will help future studies narrow down exactly what mushrooms improve the mental health of consumers.

Why are mushrooms useful in fighting depression and anxiety?

So what makes mushrooms, exactly, so beneficial in the quest to improve our mental health? In general, culinary mushrooms are rich in nutrients that help support an ideal mood, Shapiro says, although some specific benefits depend on the variety. “White button mushrooms — the most common — are rich in potassium, which may help reduce anxiety,” she says. As mentioned earlier, mushrooms (especially lion’s mane) are also a good source of ergothioneine, an antioxidant that prevents cell and tissue damage and that 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 the best place to start is to include it in your diet regularly and see how you feel. Shapiro’s favorite ways to eat mushrooms are by simple sautéing with onions and greens, or cooking them into an omelet for a great breakfast.

Other types of mushrooms that are good for mental health

In addition to the benefits of mushrooms we use in our kitchens, certain types of mushrooms have been identified as adaptive, meaning that they help maintain body balance and prevent long-term damage by reducing the effects of mental or physical stress. These adaptive fungi, which include species as diverse as reishi, chaga, cordyceps, and lion’s mane, can help regulate hormones and reduce stress, which has a ripple effect on our overall mood and levels of depression and anxiety.

And of course, we can’t forget about the “magic” psychedelic mushrooms, which are becoming more and more prevalent as some countries begin to decriminalize previously illegal drugs. While psychedelic mushrooms are often thought of for their ability to make consumers “flight” thanks to the presence of psilocybin, research shows that magic mushrooms have a powerful ability to treat depression and anxiety when consumed in a safe and controlled setting.

Not everyone lives in a state where psilocybin is legal or has a craving for magic mushrooms, but fortunately cooking mushrooms is an easy and accessible way to start harnessing the power of mushrooms to feel healthier and happier. Shapiro offers a word of caution to always buy your mushrooms from a well-known source and never choose your own (unless you are an expert on mushroom hunting) because many varieties can be poisonous.

Other foods that can be helpful for depression and anxiety

Mushrooms aren’t the only foods that offer mood-enhancing support. Shapiro recommends a few more ingredients that you can include in your diet to feel your best:

1. Salmon

According to Shapiro, salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation, promote brain health and can improve symptoms of depression.

2. Chamomile

“Chamomile contains antioxidants that regulate mood-related neurotransmitters in the brain such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin,” Shapiro says. Try a mild-tasting herb like tea for a relaxing bedtime treat.

3. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate isn’t just candy — it’s also rich in flavonoids, which are antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain and boost cell signaling, helping the brain adapt to stress more quickly and easily.

4. Turkey

There’s a real reason you’ll feel more relaxed (and maybe ready for a nap) after a Thanksgiving dinner full of turkey. “Turkey is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin in the brain that promotes calm and relaxation,” Shapiro says.

5. Foods Rich in Probiotics

It’s no secret that gut health is linked to our mental health, and probiotics play an important role in improving the microbiome and regulating mood. Shapiro recommends yogurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut to help support the gut-brain axis.

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