No magic needed: Eating mushrooms may improve mental health, lower depression risk

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HERSHEY, Pa. — Mushrooms are a nutritional superfood and now a new study finds they may also be a mental health superfood too. Researchers at Penn State say consuming more mushrooms can lower a person’s risk of developing depression.

Prior studies have revealed many health benefits of adding mushrooms to your plate, including improving the body’s defense against cancer. The new report collected mental health and diet data from over 24,000 U.S. adults between 2005 and 2016. The findings reveal that mushrooms contain ergothioneine, an antioxidant which may protect cells and tissues from damage.

“Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine — an anti-inflammatory which cannot be synthesized by humans,” says lead researcher Djibril Ba, a recent graduate from the epidemiology doctoral program at the College of Medicine, in a university release. “Having high levels of this may lower the risk of oxidative stress, which could also reduce the symptoms of depression.”

Study authors add that antioxidants can also prevent other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Which shrooms power up mental health?

Researchers find white button mushrooms, the most common variety in the U.S., are a rich source of potassium. The team believes this nutrient can play a key role in lowering anxiety. Other varieties of fungi, such as the Hericium erinaceus (or Lion’s Mane), may also stimulate factors which contribute to nerve growth. Improving these factors can impact and even prevent neuropsychiatric disorders.

The team examined a group of adults with an average age of 45. The majority of the participants (66%) were non-Hispanic white individuals. Study authors add that, typically, college-educated, non-Hispanic white women are the most likely group to include mushrooms in their daily diet.

Results show a strong link between eating more mushrooms and lower rates of depression. This connection remained steady after accounting for other mental health risk factors like self-reported diseases, medication usage, and other dietary habits. While moderate servings of mushrooms appear to provide a benefit, you don’t have to go overboard in the produce aisle while grocery shopping. The study did not find that high mushroom intakes provide any extra benefit to mental health.

“The study adds to the growing list of possible health benefits of eating mushrooms,” says Joshua Muscat, a Penn State Cancer Institute researcher and professor of public health sciences.

Should you replace meat with mushrooms?

The Penn State team also looked at swapping out other foods for mushrooms to see if the superfood provided any extra health benefits. Unfortunately, replacing one serving of red meat or processed food each day did not result in any further drop in depression rates.

Researchers note that few studies have examined the link between eating regular mushrooms and depression. Most of the studies to date have involved less than 100 people in a clinical setting. The team adds that their findings highlight the importance of this superfood on both physical and mental well-being.

Djibril Ba’s team notes that the data on these individuals did not specify what kinds of mushrooms they ate. With that in mind, researchers can’t say if other varieties have a greater or lesser impact of mental health.

The findings appear in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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