Research Article

A Mushroom-Derived Compound That Could Change Your Life: Ergothioneine

by Mike Amaranthus*

Associate Adjunct Professor Oregon State University and President of Myco Analytics LLC in Grants Pass, Oregon

*Corresponding author: Mike Amaranthus, Associate Adjunct Professor Oregon State University and President of Myco Analytics

LLC in Grants Pass, Oregon

Received Date: 22 December 2023

Accepted Date: 26 December 2023

Published Date: 30 December 2023

Citation: Amaranthus M (2023) A Mushroom-derived Compound that Could Change your Life: Ergothioneine. Food Nutr J 8: 282. https://doi.org/10.29011/2575-7091.100182

Humans through time have been captivated and, at times, intimidated by the enigmatic and mysterious lifeforms of mushrooms. This sense of awe extends to the equally peculiar and mysterious chemical components that mushrooms harbor. Within mushrooms, a plethora of compounds exist, including betaglucans, melanin, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, triterpenoids, glutathione, and ergothioneine. Many of these compounds boast documented health benefits, and their concentrations can be scarce in other foods. Do you require an organic chemistry degree to unravel the science behind these compounds and understand their benefits? Certainly not. However, one compound that occurs in wild and culinary mushrooms should demand your complete attention.

Its name is ergothioneine.

Why? Because ergothioneine may just be a compound that will help you live a longer and better life. Ergothioneine is not produced by humans or plants and is only made by fungi. It has recently gained attention as a potent antioxidant and antiinflammatory, and as such, it has been labeled as a potential “longevity vitamin” and “powerhouse nutrient” [1]. In this paper I will present to you our current understanding of the potential health benefits of this amazing compound.

 

Figure 1: Boletus edulis (king bolete) is an exceptional source of ergothioneine.

Ergothioneine is abundantly concentrated in specific wild and cultivated mushroom species and their fungal mycelium. Which fungi possess this compound? What are the specific benefits associated with it? How well-documented is the research on ergothioneine? How does the cultivation of food and the presence of mycorrhizal fungi in soil affect ergothioneine levels? This paper aims to provide essential information to address these questions.

What is Ergothioneine?

Ergothioneine might be one of the most crucial, yet lesserknown compounds linked to human health. ergothioneine an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory present throughout the body, is obtainable solely through food, with mushrooms being the most concentrated source by far. Despite its minimal presence in other foods like grains, vegetables, and meat, its biosynthesis has only been observed in specific fungi [2].

The discovery of ergothioneine dates back over a century, but its role in human health has gained significant recognition only in the last two decades. Initially discovered in 1909 in the Ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea), ergothioneine has proven to be an effective antioxidant, attributed in part to the stability of its “thione” form of sulfur, making it resistant to the oxidative process. As an antioxidant, ergothioneine scavenges oxygen radicals present in the cells of your body [3-5]. Notably, it is one of the few antioxidants concentrated in mitochondria. Cells lacking ergothioneine have shown increased susceptibility to oxidative stress, leading to heightened mitochondrial DNA damage (Lu et al., 2016). Considering the role of mitochondrial deterioration in age-related illnesses and neurodegeneration, the content of ergothioneine may be crucial for the body to resist oxidative stress resulting from aging, poor diets, and lifestyles.

Biologically, humans produce a specific transport protein for ergothioneine (OCTN1), rendering it highly bioavailable and readily retained. This unique presence of transport proteins for this compound underscores the potential importance of ergothioneine in human health [6].

Brain Health

Numerous studies suggest a connection between ergothioneine levels and cognition. However, can supplementing ergothioneine in your diet slow mental decline or age-related diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s? Let’s delve into recent research.

Blood level of ergothioneine may serve as an indicator of brain health. Studies have demonstrated low blood levels of ergothioneine in patients with mild cognitive impairment and dementia [7-9]. Dementia patients with the lowest ergothioneine levels exhibited faster rates of brain volume loss and cognitive decline. While this might not establish an ergothioneine causeand-effect relationship (e.g., lower ergothioneine levels could be a consequence of brain cell loss), it underscores the potential significance of this compound.

Here’s another reason to enjoy a healthy assortment of wild and cultivated edible mushrooms - mushroom consumption is considered an approximate surrogate for ergothioneine intake [10]. In a study of 2840 individuals aged 60 or older, those with the highest mushroom consumption in the U.S. demonstrated improved cognitive performance compared to those with lower intake rates [11]. A more specific study tied to blood levels of ergothioneine evaluated 470 individuals over the age of 50 for cognitive performance, revealing improved memory and executive function in individuals with higher plasma blood levels of ergothioneine [12].

Additionally, a double-blind, parallel-group, placebocontrolled trial (considered the “gold standard” in clinical research) was conducted on 50- to 80-year-old Japanese individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment to examine the efficacy of oral administration (3 gms/day mycelial powder) of Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) [13] The Lion’s Mane group showed significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group at weeks 8, 12, and 16 of the trial. Although ergothioneine plasma levels were not specifically measured in the study, Lion’s Mane mycelium contains high levels of ergothioneine at 370 mg/kg dry weight [14]. Similarly, a crosssectional study in Singapore by [14] found an association between lower levels of mushroom consumption and mild cognitive impairment.

 

Figure 2: Paul Stamets with Lion’s Mane (left) the author with Hen of the Woods, Griffola frondusa (right). Both mushrooms contain significant levels of ergothioneine and have documented health benefits.

In a noteworthy study published in 2017, researchers found that the consumption of mushrooms significantly decreased the incidence of dementia among elderly Japanese individuals [15]. The study involved 13,230 participants aged 65 years or older, residing in Ohsaki city in northeastern Japan. Over a span of 5.7 years, the incidence of dementia in the non-mushroom eating population was 8.7%. However, for those consuming mushrooms 1-2 times a week, the dementia incidence dropped to 0.95%, reflecting a nearly 10-fold reduction. Participants who consumed mushrooms 3 or more times a week exhibited an even lower incidence of dementia at 0.81%. While the data doesn’t establish a direct causeand-effect relationship, it strongly suggests that regular mushroom consumption is correlated with a reduced incidence of dementia, even when adjusted for potential confounding factors.

While these studies are promising, more large-scale clinical trials are needed to assess the potential of increasing ergothioneine intake to improve cognitive health and address brain diseases. Clinical trials conducted in diverse countries and considering different dietary patterns are imperative to ascertain whether elevating ergothioneine levels can effectively slow or prevent cognitive decline. Mushrooms containing ergothioneine are recognized for harboring a variety of other beneficial bioactive compounds aside from ergothioneine, which could also contribute to improved cognitive performance.

 

Figure 3: Enokitake mushrooms (Flamulina filiformis) contain high levels of ergothioneine.

Protection from cardiovascular disease and reduced mortality

Ergothioneine may serve as a protective factor for the heart. Recent research conducted by [16] suggests a significant association between higher ergothioneine levels and reduced mortality, as well as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. In this study, 3236 individuals without pre-existing cardiovascular disease were examined, with measurements taken for 112 plasma metabolites (small molecules resulting from metabolism). Over a median follow-up time of 21.4 years, 603 participants developed cardiovascular disease, 362 developed diabetes, and 843 participants passed away. Notably, ergothioneine emerged as the plasma metabolite most strongly linked to a decreased risk of coronary disease (p=0.01), cardiovascular mortality (p=0.002), and overall mortality (p=0.0004). The researchers identified higher ergothioneine as an independent marker associated with lower cardiovascular disease and mortality. While further research is essential to determine if a specific dietary intake of ergothioneinecontaining foods can effectively protect the heart, the preliminary results from this large-scale study are encouraging, suggesting that foods rich in ergothioneine could be a valuable tool for promoting heart health.