Shiitake Just Got Real!

February 3, 2015

If we think about mushrooms at all, we may consider them a tasty addition to a salad, stir fry or casserole. Ah, but they are so much more. 
There are about 38,000 species of mushrooms and most of them provide a wealth of protein (yes, you read right), fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C, as well as calcium and other minerals. At least three species have also been shown to have phenomenal healing potential: maitake, shiitake, and reishi. Considered therapeutic, these ancient mushrooms can protect our hearts; reduce our risk of cancer, boost immune function; relieve inflammation; help balance blood sugar levels and support our brilliant body’s ability to discharge toxins.
As mysteriously unique as they are delicious, mushrooms are often thought of as a vegetable and prepared like one, but they are actually fungi, which is simply a special type of living organism that has no roots, leaves, flowers or seeds. So save your ‘E-e-e-e-e-w-w-w-w…’ 
We’re talking some serious shiitake now.
Immune support has gotten a lot of attention when it comes to shiitake, but recent studies are getting the attention of science…in particular, the ability of these gorgeous fungi to protect us from cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis by preventing excessive immune cell binding to the lining of our blood vessels. 
Certain protein molecules, called adhesion molecules are produced and become active to bind immune cells (and other stuff) to the lining of our blood vessels. Some of that is a good thing. Too much of a good thing is in this case, like too much of a good thing in any case. By helping block the production of adhesion molecules in excess, compounds found in shiitake mushrooms aid in protecting our blood vessels which fuel our hearts. 
Now in English. Shiitakes help support and stabilize the interaction between our cardiovascular and immune systems.
Additional heart health benefits of shiitake mushrooms have been documented in research. Cholesterol reduction is huge. DEA (d-Eritadenine) is one of the most unusual naturally occurring nutrients in shiitake mushrooms that have been shown over and over to help lower total blood cholesterol. This nutrient is actually derived from adenine, one of the building blocks in shiitake’s DNA. The beta-glucans in shiitake mushrooms are also very likely to contribute to its cholesterol-lowering impact.
And finally, cardiovascular benefits from shiitake involve antioxidant support. Chronic oxidative stress in our cardiovascular system (oxygen-based damage to our blood vessel linings) is a critical factor in the development of clogged arteries and other blood vessel problems. One of the best ways for us to reduce our risk of chronic oxidative stress is consumption of a diet rich in antioxidant nutrients, right? 
Shiitake mushrooms are a very good source of three key antioxidant minerals: manganese, selenium, and zinc, but also contain some unusual phytonutrient antioxidants, like ergothioneine (ET). This unique antioxidant is derived from the amino acid, histidine. One fascinating finding has been the special benefits of ET on mitochondria, which use oxygen to produce energy for the cell. 
Stay with me for all the science. It’s about to pay off.
Heart cells have greater concentrations of mitochondria than most any other cell type in the body. Researchers believe that ET may be one of the key nutrients from shiitake mushrooms that provide us with cardiovascular support.
I told you shiitake just got real. 
How do you pick a good shiitake? This easily-assimilated source of non-animal food iron is also one of the world’s most sustainable foods, growing in sawdust or on natural hardwood in a forest setting. Having grown wild for thousands of years, today’s cultivated shiitake don’t differ much from their ancient ancestors and are available in most grocery stores.
Look for mushrooms that are firm, plump and clean. If your shiitake are wrinkled, have dark spots or are wet and slimy, skip them.
Store loose fresh shiitake mushrooms in the refrigerator in a loosely closed paper bag, where they will hold for about a week. Dried mushrooms, considered to more therapeutic than fresh, should be stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry pantry. Remember this when buying dried shiitake: look for the most tightly curled caps, the plumpest mushrooms. They will be a tad expensive but these are first harvest. Shiitake grow harvest after harvest on the same log, but it is the first batch (like extra virgin olive oil is the first press) that gives us the most nutritional bang for our heart health.
Get some shiitake in your diet, like…now!  Because as Will Smith says famously in Men in Black, “Cuz, damn!”