As people age, inflammation and oxidation can contribute to many of the diseases we associate with getting older, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Previous research has found that ergothioneine – or ERGO, an amino acid made primarily by fungi and found in high concentrations in mushrooms – may be a useful tool in fighting these conditions.
In a recent article in FUNGI magazine, Robert Beelman – professor emeritus of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State – drew comparisons between ERGO and penicillin, which are both products of fungi and have positive influence on human health but in different ways. A PDF of the article is available here.
“Penicillin was an antibiotic famously discovered from a fungal contaminant in a petri dish that started the antibiotic revolution and helped save many lives from infectious diseases,” Beelman said. “On the other hand, ERGO is a little known but potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound produced by fungi in the soil and found naturally in our food that shows promise to help save us from many of the chronic inflammatory diseases that plague us more today.”
According to Beelman, ERGO is found in high levels in the blood of humans but declines during aging. Previous research found levels declined significantly more in individuals with cognitive impairment, and further studies demonstrated that people with numerous chronic diseases of aging have significantly lower blood ERGO levels than age-matched healthy people.
Beelman said this suggests that increasing those levels might be a good prevention strategy. However, humans can’t make ERGO and must get it from dietary sources.
“Fortunately, humans have a dedicated and highly-specific transport system for ERGO that pulls it from food into red blood cells as soon as it is consumed and distributes it all over the body, where it tends to accumulate in tissues under the most oxidative stress,” Beelman said. “This is another indication of its importance to preventing chronic disease and why some scientists now refer to ERGO as a ‘longevity vitamin.'”
Beelman noted that while mushrooms are known to be the best source of ERGO, plants are the primary source of nutrients in the human food chain. But plants don’t create ERGO on their own and appear to depend on fungi in farm soils to pass it on to them through their roots.
While there is not yet a research-based recommended daily dose of ERGO, Beelman pointed to a previous study, which found that Americans consumed an estimated average of 1.1 mg a day, the lowest amount of the five countries studied. Meanwhile, people in Italy averaged 4.6 mg a day.
The study also found that people in the U.S had the lowest life expectancy while Italians had the highest in the five countries in the study.
“If Americans want to boost their ERGO consumption to get in the range of 4.6 mg a day, that would be about 3 to 4 ounces of button mushrooms a day,” Beelman said. “Specialty mushrooms, like shiitakes, have higher levels of ERGO, so people would need to aim for about one ounce of those a day.”
However, Beelman added that since eating this many mushrooms a day may be difficult, the levels of ERGO in the rest of the food supply is critical.
Moving forward, Beelman said he’s interested in learning more about the health benefits of ERGO, as well as identifying agricultural practices that can increase the amount of ERGO in crops.
For example, he said that a recent study conducted at Penn State found that there was 30% more ERGO in crops grown with a no-till strategy, since tilling disrupts the microbes in the soil. Additional research supported this theory, finding that ERGO levels in the soil decrease as tilling increases.
“Fortunately, we have shown that some regenerative farming practices such as minimal disturbance of soil at planting (no-till) can mitigate this problem, allowing fungi in the soil to supply more ERGO to our food crops,” Beelman wrote in FUNGI. “Also, regenerative farming practices help to reduce soil erosion and sequester more carbon in the soil that mitigates climate change – helping us live longer, healthier lives.”