More than 100 years ago, when researchers discovered an amino acid that is only made by certain mushrooms and bacteria, no one thought it was important.
But, in fact, the presence of this remarkable natural chemical in certain foods may be a big reason the people in countries like Italy and France are healthier and less likely to develop conditions like dementia, heart disease and cancer than we are.
Researchers began to realize the essential nature of this amino acid when they found that the human body has its own special chemical pathways to transport it and keep high levels of it in certain organs. And the compound began to attract even more serious attention when it was shown to be present in every red blood cell.
This substance is called ergothioneine, named after the ergot mushroom in which it was first identified. Far from being unimportant, it turns out to be a unique antioxidant that can fight chronic diseases and inflammation.
Ergothioneine is so crucial to cell health, some researchers think it should be classified as a vitamin.1
In the body, the highest concentrations of ergothioneine are found in red blood cells, the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, eyes and (in men, of course) semen.
All of these areas of the body are known to be subjected to significant amounts of oxidative stress – exposed to the caustic molecules called free radicals that can oxidize cell membranes and distort genetic material in ways that can speed up aging and cause diseases.
Plus, researchers have demonstrated that ergothioneine is concentrated in mitochondria, the tiny structures in all cells that provide them with energy. Mitochondrial energy production throws off a stream of potentially damaging free radicals, much the same way a power plant spews waste out of a smokestack. Ergothioneine can help the mitochondria avoid being destroyed by these self-generated waste products.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have shown, as a matter of fact, that ergothioneine is concentrated in the mitochondria and plays a key part in protecting the mitrochondrial DNA (each of these small structures has its own genetic material) from suffering oxidative damage.2
In their lab tests, the Hopkins scientists made further findings that show how important ergothioneine is for cell health:
- In parts of the eye, they found that the amount of ergothioneine is even higher than glutathione – a crucial antioxidant in the body that is believed to be central to cells’ antioxidant defenses. In some areas, there was 14 times more ergothioneine than glutathione.
- When oxidative stress occurs in a cell, glutathione is quickly used up in defending the cell. But ergothioneine’s unique molecular structure allows it to regenerate itself and keep fending off free radicals.
- When you eat a food containing ergothioneine, your body uses the molecule and works hard to hold on to it. Within a month of consuming it, half of the original ergothioneine will still be in your cells.
According to the Hopkins researchers, mushrooms, black beans, red meat and oats are rich sources of ergothioneine. But among these foods, a study at Penn State scientists shows that mushrooms may give you the best antioxidant bang for your buck, because they contain ample amounts of both ergothioneine and glutathione for double-barreled antioxidant protection.3
“What we found is that, without a doubt, mushrooms are the highest dietary source of these two antioxidants taken together, and that some types are really packed with both of them,” says Prof. Robert Beelman, one of the researchers.
Prof. Beelman also notes that countries with better health, possibly linked to ergothioneine, consume about three milligrams of the substance per day – which is about the amount in five button mushrooms.
One great feature of ergothioneine is that heat doesn’t destroy or deplete it – so cooking your mushrooms won’t eliminate it the way high temperatures can break down vitamin C and other nutrients.
Research into ergothioneine shows that organisms have been making the substance for about three billion years – from a time before there was even any oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. That leads scientists to believe it probably has health-promoting effects that go beyond acting as an antioxidant. As they discover more about this remarkable natural substance I’ll keep you updated.