Updated 4th July 2024

Can mushrooms protect heart health?

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    Mushrooms are fascinating. They’re neither plant nor animal, and they’re as different from plants as plants are from animals. 

    The belief that mushrooms have medicinal powers is nothing new. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have sung their praises for centuries.

    More recently, researchers have become interested in mushrooms’ potential to treat or prevent health conditions.

    For instance, a meta-analysis using data from more than 30,000 people concluded that eating mushrooms reduces the risk of dying for any reason.

    As scientific interest grows, the media has caught wind of the excitement. This isn’t a bad thing. Mushrooms are undoubtedly a great addition to a healthy, varied diet. 

    Recently, however, mushroom powders, supplements, coffees, and teas have entered the market in droves. And some of these products claim to ‘protect’ or ‘support’ your heart health.

    So, in this article, we ask whether the research backs up the hype. But before we dive into mushrooms and heart health, let’s take a quick look inside a mushroom.

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    What’s in a mushroom?

    There are thousands of types of mushrooms, and more than 2,000 are edible — but don’t pick and eat wild mushrooms unless you really know what you’re doing. Some can make you very sick. 

    Each type of mushroom has a distinct nutritional profile, but they also share some features.

    For instance, they’re a good source of fiber and polyphenols, both of which help support your gut microbiome. 

    Mushrooms are also rich in protein and contain a vast array of micronutrients. Some even contain vitamin D, which is rare in food. They produce it in response to sunlight, just like us.

    Plus, mushrooms are one of the few vegan sources of vitamin B12.

    Mushrooms and heart health

    Much of the research into links between mushrooms and heart health has focused on extracting individual components and testing them in the lab, sometimes on animals. 

    There have been a number of these studies, and many have produced encouraging results.

    For instance, one study found that reishi mushrooms reduced blood pressure in rats. Another identified proteins in oyster mushroom extract that should, theoretically, lower blood pressure

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    Researchers are also excited by a mushroom compound called ergothioneine (ET). It’s an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, and some scientists believe it should be classed as a vitamin.

    Our body can’t make ET, but we’ve evolved a unique transport system that ferries the compound to sites that need repair.

    One study on human blood vessel cells concluded that ET might protect heart health

    The scientists found that the mushroom compound helped counteract the development of plaques in arteries. These plaques can lead to coronary artery disease, a major cause of heart disease.

    Aside from ET, mushrooms also contain beta-glucans, which can reduce cholesterol levels. Because high levels of “bad” cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease, beta-glucans might play a protective role, too.

    The evidence from these studies certainly seems hopeful, but what happens in a test tube or rat doesn’t always hold true in humans.

    So, next, we’ll look at the results of human studies. 

    Studies in humans

    A review published in 2020 analyzed the results of eight clinical trials investigating oyster mushrooms.

    Overall, these studies found improvements in blood sugar control and reduced levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fat). They also saw reductions in blood pressure.

    This is all great news. Controlling blood pressure and levels of sugar and fat is linked to better cardiovascular health. But not so fast, reader. The review's authors warn that the risk of bias in the eight studies was “high or unclear.”

    For instance, seven of the eight studies didn’t adequately conceal who was in the control and experimental groups. So, the participants knew if they were getting the mushrooms or placebo — this introduces bias.

    As a result, the authors conclude that eating oyster mushrooms “may improve cardiometabolic health, but evidence for this is low.”

    A newer review, published in 2023, assessed 22 studies. In general, it saw similar results. The authors write:

    “Limited experimental findings suggest [that] greater mushroom consumption lowers blood triglycerides and [high-sensitivity C-reactive protein].” 

    This protein is a marker of inflammation, and it helps predict cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke. Again, this sounds good. But the authors of the review write that the overall standard of the research was “poor.”

    What should you do?

    In the future, when scientists have done more detailed, carefully controlled research, they may find that mushrooms really do reduce cardiovascular risk. But for now, the evidence isn’t there.

    So, if you see heart health claims on mushroom-based products, pause for thought. We’ve seen here that, while mushrooms certainly are healthy, there’s little convincing evidence that they protect your heart.

    But a diet rich in fiber does support your heart health. And mushrooms contain a good dose of fiber. 

    But so do a wide variety of plants. We can’t only apply this health claim to our fungal friends. 

    Overall, upping your mushroom intake is a healthy choice. But opt for fresh or dried rather than powders and supplements, so you get the benefit of the whole mushroom.


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