Decades of research have shown mushrooms to be loaded with antioxidants, immune-boosting compounds, and wound-recovery properties. One particular amino acid found in mushrooms has shown to have great health benefit potential. This amino acid is called ergothioneine or L-ergothioneine, and it can be found in food as well as an ergothioneine supplement.
In this article, we’ll first examine the history and origins of ergothioneine before looking at exactly which mushrooms it can be found in. Next, we’ll discover the multitude of potential health benefits that research is starting to demonstrate this amazing amino acid can provide.
Finally, we’ll look at who can benefit the most from ergothioneine, who should avoid it, and the ways that you can add an ergothioneine supplement into your healthy daily lifestyle.
Ergothioneine is a sulfur-based amino acid. Amino acids are important compounds that help the body build proteins (3). Ergothioneine was discovered in 1909 by Charles Tanret, a French pharmacist and chemist.
Tanret was examining the ergot fungus, which had recently been responsible for destroying crops, and he discovered the compound by using a purification process. The amino acid name ergothioneine originates from this fungus (13). While the ergot fungus may damage crops, the amino acid it contains helps essential functions in the human body.
Though this discovery is relatively recent, scientists speculate that ergothioneine may have originated from ancient earth. Due to its anaerobic nature (it does not require oxygen to function), it may have manifested in the earth’s oxygen-free atmosphere more than three billion years ago (2) While ergothioneine is not classified as one of the nine essential amino acids (3), current research is showing it to have significant potential health benefits.
Ergothioneine is found in a wide variety of organisms all over the globe. However, very few creatures on our planet produce it themselves. Humans have an ergothioneine transporter that helps to move this amino acid into our cells more efficiently, but we can’t produce it in our bodies (1).
Ergothioneine is only produced by bacteria and fungi. Mammals such as ourselves need to consume and absorb it from an external source (1). Fortunately, edible mushrooms contain ergothioneine in significant amounts, as well as other antioxidants like glutathione.
Many foods including chicken, pork, grains, and beans contain ergothioneine. However, mushrooms contain by far the most significant amounts of ergothioneine, making them the most concentrated dietary source of this amino acid—as much as several hundred times the next closest competitor (4).
Not every mushroom is equal in this regard. If you’re looking to reap the potential health benefits of the ergothioneine found in common mushrooms, it’s important to stick to those that offer a maximum amount or consider an ergothioneine supplement.
A Japanese study in 2013 set out to discover which mushrooms contained the most ergothioneine and found interesting results. The highest amounts come from mushrooms in the Pleurotus family, better known as the common oyster mushroom (4)
The shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes), King Bolete or porcini (Boletus edulis), and enokitake mushroom (Flammulina velutipes) were also all found to contain greater amounts of ergothioneine than their peers.
Some mushrooms, such as the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and the common white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) contain negligible amounts of ergothioneine (4). If you’re looking for easy-to-find mushrooms with high ergothioneine amounts, stick with the oyster and shiitake varieties, and consider an ergothioneine supplement in pill form.
|Mushroom Species||Ergothioneine (mg/g)*|
|Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)||0.08|
|Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)||0.20|
|Lions Mane (Hericium erinaceus)||1.61|
|Maitake (Grifola frondosa)||0.45|
|Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus)||1.85|
|Reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi)||0.07|
|Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)||1.43|
|Tremella (Tremella fuciformis||0.10|
|Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)||0.06|
Ergothioneine was initially thought to not have any important physiological functions in humans, since we don’t produce it on our own. However, the recent discovery of a specialized transporter—known as ERGO transporter (ETT)—that absorbs and moves it directly to our cells ignited interest in the scientific community (1,17)
The transporter takes the ergothioneine and moves it into cells, particularly those that deal with high levels of oxidative stress, like red blood cells and cells in the central nervous system.
It’s here that this amino acid helps the cell produce energy in the form of ATP at the mitochondrial level, which can help with cell regeneration (1)
If our bodies have this specialization, then ergothioneine must surely serve some significant purpose. Further research has found it to have a multitude of potential health benefits in our bodies.
Below are some of the interesting discoveries scientists have made about this fascinating amino acid.
Scientists have discovered that ergothioneine levels decrease as we get older. An observational study found that elderly test subjects suffering from mild memory problems associated with aging had lower ergothioneine levels than those with no impairment (5). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating ergothioneine’s potential ability to support cognitive function in humans is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021 (6).
Antioxidants play a vital role in countering oxidative stress. To function properly, our bodies need antioxidants to balance out highly reactive free radicals. When there are not enough antioxidants in our bodies, reactive free radicals can wreak havoc on our health (7).
Numerous in vitro studies into ergothioneine’s efficacy as an antioxidant have shown promising results. The ergothioneine antioxidant will actively seek out and neutralize a wide range of free radicals to help protect from oxidative stress (8). It has also been found in high levels in skin cells, and research suggests that it may reduce the levels of free radicals in skin cells caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and protect the integrity of DNA in skin cells exposed to UV light (9).
Ergothioneine’s antioxidant benefits are not just for internal health but external beauty as well. UV radiation from the sun causes significant changes to our skin structure throughout our lifetime, and not just from sunburns. Everyday exposure to UV light causes “photoaging,” or premature aging of the skin, characterized by wrinkles, fine lines, and discoloration — outcomes that everyone wants to avoid.
Initial research suggests that ergothioneine may have dermatoprotective effects, helping protect against accelerated aging caused by UV light exposure. In a test tube study of human skin cells, ergothioneine suppressed an enzyme activated by UV radiation that degrades collagen, a key structural element of skin (10). The study authors recommended that ergothioneine could be used to create new skincare lotions or healthier sunscreen products (10). Ergothioneine is considered to be very stable compared to other antioxidants.
Ergothioneine also appears to have the potential to be protective to our cardiovascular systems and brains from the effects of aging. In a Swedish study of 3200 people, ergothioneine was found to be the best metabolic marker in reduced cardiovascular risk and mortality out of 112 markers examined, even after 20 years of follow-up (19). Another study was able to determine that lower Ergothioneine blood-marker levels were associated with more frailty and cognitive decline versus higher ergothioneine levels (20).
Given the recent discovery of the ERGO transporter (ETT) in the human body, whose sole purpose is to transport ergothioneine into cells, experts such as biochemist Dr. Bruce N. Ames are even noting that it likely rises to the status of vitamin (11).
Its unique ability to penetrate the mitochondria of our cells and to protect them from the inside is unique among many antioxidants (12). From the results of an animal study, ergothioneine shows that it can also cross the blood-brain barrier (18). It’s possible that, as research continues, ergothioneine could be designated an essential vitamin.
The potential health benefits of ergothioneine are numerous and exciting. Researchers are continuing to investigate exactly how this compound interacts with our bodies. The breadth of ergothioneine benefits will likely continue to grow as we learn more.
Real Mushrooms’ ERGO+ supplement contains 5mg of L-ergothioneine per capsule, which is derived from yeast and paired with both Oyster and Shiitake mushroom extracts, which naturally produce ergothioneine. In addition to being cornucopias of this important amino acid, both of these mushroom varieties offer their own wealth of health benefits.
Oyster mushrooms have long been prized for their delicate flavor and meaty texture that can make for an excellent addition to hearty dishes like soups and stews. For millennia they’ve also been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine because of their multitude of health benefits.
Oyster mushrooms deliver minerals such as potassium and copper, as well as vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, and folates, in addition to bioactive secondary metabolites including phenolic compounds, sterols, and triterpenes (15).
This translates to Oyster mushrooms having the potential to benefit cardiovascular health, blood sugar balance, and cholesterol maintenance.
Like Oyster mushrooms, Shiitake mushrooms are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals and have been used for centuries to achieve and maintain optimum health. Shiitake mushrooms also offer polysaccharides, terpenoids, sterols, and lipids, which can have immune-boosting and cholesterol-maintenance effects (16).
By incorporating Shiitake into your diet in either whole food or supplement form, you’re reaping the benefits of an age-old, potent medicinal mushroom.
The presence of high levels of ergothioneine in mushrooms is a very important discovery with far-reaching potential health benefits. Though initially found over a century ago, the more recent discovery of a specialized transporter for ergothioneine in our bodies has led scientists on a quest to find out how we use and metabolize it. They’ve found several potential health benefits, from helping to support cognitive function and mitigate the effects of photoaging in our skin, to potent antioxidant and vitamin-like properties that can boost overall cell health and wellness.
While ergothioneine can be found in high amounts in oyster and shiitake mushrooms, you can unlock its true potential in a convenient fashion with ERGO+, Real Mushrooms’ new ergothioneine supplement.
As with all supplements, you should speak with your healthcare provider before starting to take an ergothioneine supplement. It’s important to determine if there is a risk of any side effects or interactions with other medications you’re taking.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should generally avoid mushroom supplements without a discussion with their doctor beforehand.
If you choose a reputable source, such as Real Mushrooms, your ergothioneine medicinal mushroom extract should contain nothing but pure mushrooms. The important thing to look for is that the product is organic, contains only mushrooms (the fruiting body, not the mycelium), and is free from fillers.
All of our mushroom powder extracts are organic and contain only the most potent medicinal parts of the fungi (the mushroom) and zero added fillers or starches. This is in contrast to the majority of mushroom supplements sold in North America which contain the fungi root-like structure, called mycelium, and the grain on which the mycelium is grown. In contrast to Real Mushrooms’ extract powders, this results in a less effective product.
Research continues into the benefits afforded by the amino acid, ergothioneine and it’s not too early to add an ergothioneine supplement to your routine. By selecting a high-quality functional mushroom supplement, you can begin experiencing the health support of ergothioneine for yourself today.
Learn more about ergothioneine from the O.G. researcher himself, Dr. Robert Beelman:
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9 Damagi, N., Dong, K., Karaman-Jurukovska, N., Markova, N., Smiles, K., Yarosh, D. 2009, ‘Skin cells and tissue are capable of using L-ergothioneine as an integral component of their antioxidant defense system’, Free Radical Biology & Medicine, Volume 46, pp. 1168-1176.
10 Chen, X., Gowrisankar, Y., Hseu, Y., Yang, H., Yang, Y. 2020, The antiaging activity of ergothioneine in UVA-irradiated human dermal fibroblasts via the inhibition of the AP-1 pathway and the activation of Nrf2-mediated antioxidant genes, Hindawi, viewed 24 September 2020 <https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2020/2576823/#conclusion>
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18 Nakamichi, N., Nakayama, K., Ishimoto, T., Masuo, Y., Wakayama, T., Sekiguchi, H., Sutoh, K., Usumi, K., Iseki, S., & Kato, Y. (2016). Food-derived hydrophilic antioxidant ergothioneine is distributed to the brain and exerts antidepressant effect in mice. Brain and behavior, 6(6), e00477. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.477
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20 Kameda, M., Teruya, T., Yanagida, M., & Kondoh, H. (2020). Frailty markers comprise blood metabolites involved in antioxidation, cognition, and mobility. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(17), 9483–9489. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1920795117
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