Let’s talk gut fungi, flora and more. Like mushrooms, we all have them … and that’s a very good thing, because the microbiome is key to vibrant, healthy living!


So, what exactly is the human microbiome?


“The microbiome is the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us,” is the definition from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the US.


“Although microbes are so small that they require a microscope to see them, they contribute in big ways to human health and wellness. They protect us against pathogens, help our immune system develop, and enable us to digest food to produce energy.”


How do we help these life-giving bugs do their rather significant job?


According to the personal health programme ZOE, which is based in the UK, “your diet is a key factor in determining which microbes are in your gut.”


Professor Tim Spector, a co-founder of ZOE and a leading microbiome researcher at King’s College London, stresses that “there really is no one-size-fits-all approach to nurturing the beneficial microbes in the gut because we all have unique gut microbiomes.”


He does, however, have some tips for best supporting your microbiome:


  •   Eat more plant-based foods – and that definitely includes mushrooms – because gut microbes feed on fibre. From spices, through oils to coffee and greens and even dark chocolate, 30 different plants per week is the number recommended by Professor Spector for good gut health.
  •   Eat plants of different colours. “Not only are colourful plant foods rich in fibre, they also contain loads of polyphenols, which ‘good’ gut microbes love,” explains the prof.
  •   Try fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi and yoghurt. These need to be true ferments and not vinegar-based pickles to be of benefit.
  •   Leave gaps between eating to give your gut bacteria time to rest and restore the gut lining – so, it may be best to cut down on snacking.
  •   Eat fewer ultra-processed foods, which can be high in sugar and does not support gut health, and low in fibre, which is needed for optimal gut health.


What do mushrooms have to do with any of this?


Not only are mushrooms high in fibre, making them perfect microbiome fuel, but “mushrooms act as prebiotics to stimulate the growth of gut microbiota, conferring health benefits to the host” concluded a 2017 scientific review in the US National Library of Medicine.


In addition, a 2023 Chinese study published in the US National Library of Medicine found that “mushroom polysaccharides could promote human health by regulating gut microbiota, increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids, improving intestinal mucosal barrier, regulating lipid metabolism and activating specific signalling pathways.”


“Mushroom polysaccharides,” it explained, “are a kind of biological macromolecule extracted from the fruiting body, mycelium or fermentation liquid of edible fungi.”


These “polysaccharides are an important active ingredient of mushrooms, which are not absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and can only be fermented by gut microbiota in the large intestine. Mushroom polysaccharides can also specifically change the composition and abundance of gut microbiota and maintain intestinal microecological balance.”


Of course we’re not referencing some obscure, hard to procure fungi here. These findings apply to the white button, portabellini and large portabello mushrooms easily found in South African supermarkets.


In reality, the health benefits of common mushrooms are many and varied. A 2021 review of the bioactive compounds with health benefits of edible mushrooms hailed them as being “well recognised for their nutritional importance such as high protein, low fat, and low energy contents.”


They are also known to be “rich in minerals such as iron, phosphorus, as well as in vitamins like riboflavin, thiamine, ergosterol, niacin and ascorbic acid. They also contain bioactive constituents like secondary metabolites (terpenoids, acids, alkaloids, sesquiterpenes, polyphenolic compounds, lactones, sterols, nucleotide analogues, vitamins, and metal chelating agents) and polysaccharides, chiefly β-glucans and glycoproteins.


“Due to the occurrence of biologically active substances, mushrooms can serve as hepatoprotective, immune-potentiating, anti-cancer, anti-viral, and hypocholesterolemic agents. They have great potential to prevent cardiovascular diseases due to their low fat and high fibre contents, as well as being foremost sources of natural antioxidants useful in reducing oxidative damages.”


And all you need to do to access that gut- and overall health-bettering brilliance is decide how you’d most like to enjoy them for dinner tonight. See https://bit.ly/31Tza3V for fungi-forward breakfast, lunch and dinner options, or start the quest to your 30 different plants per week with a fibre-heavy bowl of delectable Mushroom Barley Soup https://rebrand.ly/8d1kv9y.


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