Ergothioneine was discovered a century ago but ignored until recently when researchers found that we have a transporter protein in our bodies specifically designed to pull it out of our diets and into our tissues. This suggests that it plays some important physiological role, but what does it do? Well our first clue was the tissue distribution. Ergothionine concentrates in parts of our body where there’s lots of oxidative stress—the lens of our eye and the liver, as well as really sensitive areas like our bone marrow and seminal fluid in men. Researchers guessed that it might function as a so-called “cytoprotectant,” a cell protector, and that’s indeed what was found.
Not only does ergothionine get into the nucleus of our cells to protect our DNA, it can get into our mitochondria, the power plants of the cell. Ergothieneine appears to function as a potent intra-mitochondrial antioxidant. Why is that important? In my NutritionFacts.org video Mitochondrial Theory of Aging I quote one of the greatest biochemists of all time:
“Aging is a disease. The human lifespan simply reflects the level of free radical damage that accumulates in cells. When enough damage accumulates, cells can’t survive properly anymore and they just simply give up.”
First proposed in 1972, the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging suggests that it’s free radical damage to our cells’ power source that leads to a loss of cellular energy and function over time. It’s a little like charging your iPod battery over and over again; every time you charge it the capacity gets less, and less. In my Stopping Cancer Before it Starts DVD, I go into detail about the quantum biology of oxidative phosphorylation, but in a nutshell the oxygen we breathe may get a hold of an electron we ate that was pumped with energy by plants (thanks to photosynthesis). The oxygen molecule is thereby transformed into what’s called superoxide, which can damage (oxidize) our delicate cellular machinery. Basically we’re rusting—that’s what rust is, the oxidation of metal. Scientifically, aging has been considered the slow oxidation of our bodies. Like those brown age spots on the back of people’s hands? That’s just oxidized fat under the skin. Oxidant stress is why we get wrinkles, it’s why we lose some of our memory, and it’s why our organ systems break down as we get older.
How do we slow down oxidation? By eating foods containing anti-oxidants. If you want to know if a food has a lot of antioxidants in it simply slice it open, expose it to air—expose it to oxygen–and see what happens. Does it oxidize? Does it turn brown? Think about our two most popular fruits: apples and bananas. They turn brown right away—not a lot of antioxidants inside there. How do you keep your fruit salad from turning brown though? Add lemon juice, which has vitamin C in it, an antioxidant, that can keep your food from oxidizing and can do the same thing inside our bodies.
For an introduction on where antioxidants can be found in our diet, see Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods and Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods.
Here’s the catch: many antioxidants can’t penetrate through the mitochondrial membrane into the mitochondria. They can protect the rest of the cell including our DNA, but they can’t get access into the power plants of our cells and therefore may be helpless to slow down the aging process. Ergothionine, however, is allowed access into our mitochondria. Where is it found in the diet? Click on the above video.
Other examples of the magic of mushrooms can be found in:
- Making Our Arteries Less Sticky
- Vegetables Versus Breast Cancer
- Breast Cancer Prevention: Which Mushroom Is Best?
Probably best to cook them though, see Toxins in Raw Mushrooms?
Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: sielju / Flickr