Arriving from all over the world, a veritable Who’s Who of anti-aging scientists gathered at the campus of UCLA in Westwood, California in 2011.
They met to discuss a newly rediscovered nutrient that must be obtained from the diet. It’s a type of sulfur-containing amino acid, but it’s also been described as a potential vitamin with powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties.
It’s called ergothioneine. . .
Ergothioneine (ET) was first isolated by a French scientist in 1909, but largely ignored for the rest of the century.
Then in 2005 interest was reawakened by a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Researchers from Germany reported the discovery of a transporter protein (ETT) in mammals specifically designed for ET.
They wrote, “Cells with expression of ETT accumulate ET to high levels and avidly retain it.” The discovery of the carrier protein implies ET plays an important role in the body.
Five years later, Professor Solomon Snyder, a leading neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wrote in Cell Death & Differentiation that “ET probably fits the definition of a vitamin.”
Potent Protection for Mitochondria
ET concentrates in cells and tissues that suffer high degrees of inflammation and oxidative stress, such as the bone marrow, blood cells, liver, kidney, lens and cornea of the eye, and seminal fluid.
It is transported both into the nucleus of cells to protect DNA and the power plants of the cell — the mitochondria — which are highly sensitive to oxidative damage. Here, ET acts as a potent antioxidant.
Since ETT is expressed in cells that are particularly sensitive to free radicals and inflammation — key forces of aging – the fact that it’s there indicates a critical role in cell functioning and survival.
Lab culture and animal studies show ergothioneine:
- accumulates in the brain as well as the body
- protects the brain from neurotoxicity
- scavenges cell-damaging peroxynitrite and hydroxyl radicals
- modulates inflammation
- increases and prolongs the potency of other antioxidants
- is active in the body for months rather than hours or days, as is the case with other antioxidants
- is nontoxic
World leading scientist Bruce Ames, of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, CA — one of the conference speakers — said it was a highly effective antioxidant that the body clearly wants and that “it’s pretty clear it’s some kind of vitamin that affects aging…”
He believes ET is an example of a specialized antioxidant that “helps extend the body’s healthy lifespan.”
Best Foods for this New Vitamin
Ergothioneine is not made in plants or animals. It is produced by microorganisms in the soil and taken up by plants and the animals that eat them. But the amounts found in these sources is tiny, far too small to supply the benefits described.
So while useful quantities can be obtained from organ meats, black and red beans, and oat bran, there’s one food item that has 40 times as much as the next best source — specialty mushrooms.
Last year researchers from Penn State found mushrooms had by far the largest amount of ET (as well as another major antioxidant, glutathione) with the porcini species topping the bill. They believe mushrooms have real anti-aging potential.
Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science, pointed out that countries like France and Italy, which have more ET in the diet than does the US, have lower rates of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Yet the gap between these countries can be closed without resorting to exotic mushroom varieties. Just five button mushrooms a day, easily found in supermarkets, supplies three milligrams, and that’s enough.
ET can already be found in skin creams, where it’s employed to prevent wrinkles and reduce the signs of aging. For those who dislike mushrooms, it’s recently become available as a nutritional supplement.