Ergothioneine is a remarkable antioxidant with unparalleled health-promoting benefits. Discovered in 1909, ergothioneine is a sulfur-containing amino acid that is synthesized only by mushrooms and by fungi and mycobacteria in the soil. Plants can take up ergothioneine through their roots by association with fungi in soils where there are healthy fungal communities. In turn, grazing animals that consume these plants can absorb ergothioneine. Humans can obtain ergothioneine solely from their diet from the consumption of mushrooms, plants and meat that contains ergothioneine. Mushrooms are particularly rich sources of ergothioneine (Dubost 2007). Research at Penn State University has shown that when humans are fed mushroom powder with known amounts of ergothioneine, it showed up in the blood very quickly.
Ergothioneine is found in all human tissues but is preferentially distributed to organ systems and cell organelles that are exposed to high levels of oxidative stress such as the liver, kidney, red blood cells and eye tissue. Within cells, ergothioneine is highly concentrated in the plasma membrane and mitochondria. There is increasing recognition of the important role of ergothioneine in human physiology and the prevention of diseases, including those that affect the immune, reproductive and central nervous systems. Ergothioneine functions as a “master antioxidant” in our bodies where it is transported to cells throughout the body to fight damage and death from oxidative stress and toxic free radicals . Ergothioneine is unique in that it is the only currently known dietary substance that has a specific gene and transport system- the Ergothioneine Transporter (ETT). ETT is a unique transport system that enables ergothioneine to be actively transported across the cell membrane and into the cell. The ergothioneine transporter gene expresses for this amino acid when inflammation occurs. Prof. Dr. Dirk Grundemann, University of Cologne, Germany, a discoverer of the Ergothioneine Transporter (ETT) states in a published study, “supplementation of ergothoneine to correct a dietary deficit could provide a new therapeutic strategy for chronic inflammatory diseases.” (Grigat 2007).
More recently Dr. Solomon Snyder, Department of Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published an article titled “The Unusual Amino Acid L-Ergothioneine is a Physiologic Cytoprotectant”. In the review Dr. Snyder states: “because of its dietary origin and the toxicity associated with its depletion, ergothioneine may represent a new vitamin whose physiologic role includes antioxidant cytoprotection”.
Ergothioneine is also unique in that it has a very long half-life in the body–around 30 days as compared to the 30 seconds to 30 minutes of many antioxidants. Ergothioneine is also unusual in regards to being very stable to heat and acidity.
An antioxidant study on horses was conducted in which the antioxidant potential of blood samples taken after 30 days of supplementation with a medicinal mushroom powder blend were quantified and compared with pre-supplementation blood levels. To evaluate the antioxidant status of the blood samples, the Acute Oxidative Potential (AOP-490™) assay was used. This assay represents the combined actions of all antioxidants in a living body better than the more popular ORAC assay that only measures antioxidant activity against the peroxyl radical in a test tube. The mean increase in the antioxidant status in the blood of the 14 horses tested was 16.45%. In a previous initial human trial, several individuals showed an increase in their antioxidant potential after only 2 weeks of receiving the mushroom blend supplement fortified with a small amount of synthetic LE (1 mg LE/2 g) at a daily dose of 2 grams per day.
The health-promoting benefits of LE include:
- Reduction of oxidative stress by efficient “scavenging & quenching” harmful free radicals;
- Conservation and maintenance of the levels of other more transitory antioxidants such as Vitamins E, Vitamin C and glutathione;
- Increased availability of cellular energy sources;
- Increased metabolic respiration and oxidation of fat;
- Protection of mitochondria from oxidative damage by superoxide that is physiologically generated by mitochondrial metabolism;
- Reduction of the damaging effects of environmental UV rays;
- Protection against the effects of neurotoxins believed to have a role in cognitive decline.
- Maintenance of system homeostasis as a regulator or effector
- Protection of haemoglobin in red blood cells
- Chelation of heavy metals for removal from the body
The introduction of modern agricultural practices over the past century such as the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, soil fumigants and extensive soil tillage has had dramatic impacts on the fungal communities in our soils. The effect has been a steady depletion and even eradication of the soil fungi and mycobacteria that can synthesize ergothioneine for uptake by plants, thus reducing the total amount of ergothioneine in food supply chains. At the same time, changes in our dietary habits and over-consumption of highly processed foods may be further accelerating deficiencies of ergothioneine in our diet. It is likely that the dramatic increases we are seeing in debilitating diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and neurodegenerative conditions may be due in part to deficiencies of ergothioneine in our diets. This hypothesis is supported by human blood testing conducted in the late 1920s (Salt 1931) that showed “normal” ergothioneine levels nearly double those found by researchers at Pennsylvania State University in 2010 (Weigand-Heller 2012)
The increased consumption of mushroom products is a viable strategy to compensate for the decreasing amounts of ergothioneine in our foods. Mushrooms are rich sources of not only ergothioneine but also many other important bioactive antioxidants such selenomethionine, selenium, polyphenols and glutathione. This combination of several antioxidants in a single dietary supplement may well provide synergistic benefits beyond that provided by the individual components in isolation. – SF
Dubost NJ et al. 2007. “Quantification of polyphenols & ergothioneine in cultivated mushrooms & correlation with total antioxidant capacity”. Food Chemistry 105:727-735.
Ey, J. et al. 2007. “Dietary sources and antioxidant effects of ergothioneine”. Jrnl of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Published on web July 6, 2007.
Grigat, S. et al. 2007. “Probing the substrate specificity of the ergothioneine transporter with methimazole, hercynine, & organic cations”. Biochemical Pharmacology 74:309-316.
Grundemann D, Harlfinger S, Golz S, Geerts A, Lazar A, Berkels R et al. 2005 “Discovery of the ergothioneine transporter”. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102: 5256–5261.
Paul BD and SH Snyder 2009. “The unusual amino acid L-ergothioneine is a physiologic cytoprotectant”. Cell Death and Differentiation 17(7):1134-40. Epub 2009 Nov 13.
Salt HB 1931 “The Ergothioneine Content of the Blood in Health and Disease,” August 27, 1931. Biochem Journal 25:1712.
Weigand-Heller et al, 2012 “The bioavailability of ergothioneine from mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) and the acute effects on antioxidant capacity and biomarkers of inflammation.” Preventive Medicine,54:575-578