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Behold the holy shiitake mushroom, an unsung superhero of the fungi kingdom. Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) are tan to dark-brown in color with a distinctly smoky taste. The name, Shiitake, is Japanese, and comes from the word “Shii” which is the name of the tree that the mushroom usually grows on. They are native to Asia and they’re one of the most cultivated edible mushrooms in the world.

The medicinal properties of shiitake mushrooms have been studied since the Ming Dynasty (1369–1644) when Japanese elders considered the shiitake the “elixir of the life”. Their use has a long history in Asian folklore for healing an extensive list of ailments. As research verifies the medicinal and gastronomic qualities of shiitake, it’s recently gained popularity in the West for its nutritional and medicinal value.

Shiitake mushrooms provide a healthy source of carbohydrate, protein, and essential amino acids. They are low in fat and contain high concentrations of vitamins D, B-6, B-9 and B-12, and minerals. Although there is no formal definition of a “superfood,” shiitakes unquestionably deserve this accolade.

Recent scientific research has not only validated the mushrooms traditional medicinal use, but also provided leads for new drug discoveries. With continuing research, more discoveries are likely to follow. Here are five of the most recognized superpowers of this fascinating fungus.

1. Prevents Weight Gain

Scientists in Australia found that adding shiitake mushrooms to the diet of rats reduced weight gain, fat mass, and blood triacylglycerols (the main constituents of body fat). The researchers fed four groups of rats a high fat diet along with different amounts of powdered shiitake mushrooms. The rats that received the highest amount of shiitake had the lowest weight gain — around 30 percent less than rats fed the fatty diet without shiitake. The findings, published in the Journal of Obesity, theorize that certain components in the mushrooms could increase the fat elimination, reduce certain fatty acids, and/or inhibit the release of triacylglycerol from the liver. Scientists are now using shiitake extracts as prebiotic agents and studying how this can help prevent obesity-related metabolic disorders.

2. Lowers Cholesterol

Shiitake mushrooms can help fight the heart disease epidemic by reducing blood pressure and lowering cholesterol. Various bioactive compounds derived from shiitakes such as eritadenine and beta-glucans, have been proven to lower cholesterol when tested on mice. Beta-glucans are a soluble form of fiber and are found in high concentrations in shiitake mushrooms. It is thought that beta-glucan interferes with the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Eritadenine, an amino acid, can lower certain lipid levels by altering the way they are produced in the liver. Clinical trials have been carried out to investigate the effect of eating shiitakes in people with very high levels of cholesterol. The volunteers had a decrease in cholesterol levels of 7 to 10 percent after eating 9g of dried shiitakes a day, and many people over 60 years old had a decrease in cholesterol of 9 to 12 percent after just 7 days of eating fresh shiitakes (equivalent to 9g a day of dried mushroom).

3. Boosts The Immune System

A study by the University of Florida in 2011 found that daily consumption of shiitake mushrooms can significantly improve your immune system. They gave 52 healthy adults a supply of dry shiitake mushrooms with instructions to eat one 10g serving a day for four weeks. The scientists found significant improved function of immune cells and reductions in proteins that cause inflammation, based on a comparison of blood tests before and after the experiment.

4. Combats Infections

Scientists are excited about a compound extracted from shiitakes called lentinan, a polysaccharide named after the scientific name of the mushroom. Lentinan is effective against various viral and parasitic infections. Research on human cells in the lab even suggest that it could even be useful in the treatment of AIDS. Lentinan, along with other bioactive compounds of shiitake mushrooms have antibacterial and, ironically, antifungal properties.

5. Fights Cancer

Possibly the most exciting superpower of shiitake mushrooms is their cancer-fighting abilities. These abilities have been repeatedly proven in laboratory mice. There is a growing body of evidence that the shiitake-derived compound lentinan has potent anti-tumor abilities. Lentinan is already an approved drug constituent in Japan and is generally used to extend survival and improve the quality of life of patients receiving conventional cancer therapy. Oddly, despite being the third most prescribed drug globally, it has not as yet been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). The cancer-fighting characteristics of shiitake compounds are likely due to their ability to boost the immune system, although some studies have documented shiitake extracts destroying and preventing the proliferation of tumor cells while leaving non-tumor cells untouched.

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shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake Mushrooms Superlife

Shiitake mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses, taste exquisite, and are widely accessible. They retail from $8 to $15 a pound and if you head down to an Asian or Chinese market you’ll probably get the best price. You can buy them dried, and simply dehydrate them at home or enjoy them fresh. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try growing your own using a grow-your-own shiitake home kit?

All manner of meals can be made with shiitakes as the main ingredient such as mushroom risotto, stroganoff, and pasta. They also make a delicious addition to miso soup, salad, or casserole. They stand out in Asian stir-fries as their robust flavor doesn’t get masked by the ginger and garlic. The stems are too tough to eat so make sure you remove them from the heads before cooking. You can reserve them for a tasty vegetable stock.

If you’re going to make one positive change to your diet you should definitely consider adding shiitakes to your shopping list or making sure you get a healthy daily dose of it in a nutritional supplement!

Nicole Santos is a science writer interested in human advancement, particularly in medicine and psychology. Day dreamer, night thinker. All of my hobbies are water-based.

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