Recently, while listening to a podcast called The Tim Ferriss Show, I became aware of a product called mushroom coffee that is produced by a company from Finland named Four Sigmatic. Being a regular coffee drinker at this point in my life, I was intrigued with what I heard on the podcast. I didn’t grow up drinking coffee and didn’t begin to drink it regularly until I was in my early 40s. I was never really attracted to the beverage but have consumed it on and off over the past 12 years out of interest in its health and cognitive benefits.

I learned on the Four Sigmatic website that when there was a coffee shortage during World War II in Finland, the local folks combined limited supplies of coffee with dried mushrooms that had a coffee like flavor. I also learned that the two mushrooms used in the four sigmatic mushroom coffee had some pretty astounding properties.

First things first. What’s in it and what does it taste like? There are several variants of the product, but the one that I have the most experience with is the original mushroom coffee mix. This product contains a small amount of coffee, about half as much as one would normally consume in a typical cup of coffee from a café. This reduces the amount of caffeine one is taking to 40 mg rather than the 80 to 100 one would consume in regular coffee. The mushroom extract has a coffee-like flavor. There’s no noticeable mushroom taste to me. The actual coffee in the product seems to dominate any flavor imparted by the mushrooms themselves. The closest comparison I can think of is if you’ve ever tried a coffee substitute that is made from chicory root. If you have, you know that it has a coffee like flavor but is still different and unique. Because the mushroom coffee product contains actual coffee, my personal opinion is that it tastes much closer to real coffee than alternatives that contain no coffee at all.

One of the mushrooms in this mix is called Chaga. Chaga is purported  to have potent anti-cancer properties  as well as being a powerful antioxidant and immune tonic. The other is known as Lion’s Mane. Lion’s Mane appears to have potent nootropic effects. It is often referred to as a “smart mushroom” (as in “smart drug”). My renewed interest in the subject of medicinal mushrooms led me to search for the current work of the worlds leading mushroom expert, a fellow named Paul Stamets.

(As an aside for fans of the new Star Trek show named Discovery, it may occur to you that this is also the name of the dimension-hopping chief engineer. This is not a coincidence. The most interesting technology in this latest chapter in the Star Trek mythology is what is called a spore drive. The real Paul Stamets consulted with the producers of the show, and his insight was so influential in the plot development that they named the chief engineer after him.)

Anyway, I have found that Paul’s series of articles on medicinal mushrooms on the Huffington Post website is a good place for laypersons to begin their explorations of this fascinating topic. Word to the wary, though. Paul has some unorthodox ideas about mushroom mycelium mats and their similarity to both human and computer neural nets. Maybe more on that in a future post as well.

Here’s Paul’s HP post on Chaga. And here’s the post on Lion’s Mane. These posts were originally written in 2012, and there has been a lot of new research since then. The Braintrophic site has a concise research summary on Lion’s Mane. Check out this podcast where Ben Greenfield, the fitness expert, interviews the owner of the Four Sigmatic company.

What follows next is a description of my personal experience using the mushroom coffee product so far. I’m fairly well trained in the analysis of research data and am generally not a fan of decision-making based solely upon anecdote. So, I don’t think that my personal experience would in any way reflect the experience of someone else using the same product. I’m also a strong proponent of personalized medicine. This harks back to my roots as a practitioner of Chinese medicine in which herbal formulas are always individually tailored for each patient based on their constitution and body type. It is also an approach that is well-supported on the cutting edge of modern medicine with the recognition that an individual’s genome an epigenome can have a profound impact on the action and effectiveness of one substance versus another.

The research on these mushrooms led me to believe they probably have certain benefits for certain people. While I do not think that my personal experience is proof of anything, at the end of the day, it all comes down to how I feel when doing or ingesting something and whether the substance or activity is a good return on my investment of time and/or money.

About a month ago, I bought a single packet of mushroom coffee from the local Whole Foods. I went back to my office, mixed it up with some hot water and consumed the beverage in place of my usual afternoon java. The first thing that I noticed was that when I was at a late afternoon meeting and had to take some notes that I seemed to have much better typing skills than I normally do, especially late in the afternoon when my eyes are tired and I have already been typing for many hours. Now, I am what most people would call a lousy typist. I have to look at the keyboard and my fingers while I type and tend to make a lot of mistakes. However, I have gone through long periods of time where I can type rapidly and mostly error free. So, there is obviously some optimum state of cognition that allows me to type well on some occasions and poorly on most others. Obviously, a single incident of this sort is not meaningful. And I will be the first to admit that improvements in things like eye-hand coordination, memory, energy, focus, etc. are probably highly susceptible to suggestion and the placebo effect.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued. So, I bought a box of 10 packets of the mushroom coffee and used it to replace both my morning and afternoon coffee for an entire work week. Under a wide range of different circumstances with a wide range of different external variables, such as diet or exercise or work stress on any given day, I came to the conclusion that there was definitely a noticeable impact. There was also no real downside for me, as the mushroom coffee was less expensive than what I was purchasing at Starbucks or other cafés twice a day.

So, I made a large order of the product. Enough to get me through twice a day for a couple of months. Now, about a month into my experiment, I am still noticing the immediate effects and I’m also beginning to think there is a cumulative benefit on my mood and motivation. The fact that I am writing a blog post of this length is fairly telling. I used to be a very active participant in online discussion forums, often posting at great length and detail. Let’s just say it has been a long time since I did so. Long story short, I put this mushroom coffee in the category of ‘well worth a try.” At the very least, you will still get the basic benefits you expect from regular coffee and at a lower price if you were in the habit of indulging yourself at expensive cafés.

I’ve experimented with consuming the mushroom coffee in several ways. The most basic way is to just add hot water to the extract. The owners of the company and some of their biggest advocates also tend to be fans of what is called bulletproof coffee. Bulletproof coffee was first popularized by Dave Asprey. You can find out more about it on his bulletproof blog. There are two ways to bulletproof your coffee. One is to add a spoonful of grass-fed butter. My sources seem to agree that the Irish butter from the Kerrygold company is a good one. Another is to use a coconut oil product that has a large percentage of medium chain triglycerides. I went with the butter and can say without a doubt that combining the mushroom coffee with a teaspoon of grass-fed butter finished with some coconut milk creamer is a nice way to start the day. I don’t feel the need to add any sugar to the beverage even though I normally like to have a packet in my coffee. My mornings have been very productive and energetic despite the fact that I do not break my fast until lunchtime.

I’ve also played around with an afternoon variant of this on the weekend where I heat up 8 ounces of Trader Joe’s coconut milk until it is just too hot to stick my finger in to. I mix that with the mushroom coffee extract and a teaspoon of raw cacao powder. There is a related product that contains no coffee but instead mixes the lions mane mushroom with herbs and spices such as peppermint and anise. I’ve mixed that version into an evening smoothie when I already felt I had enough caffeine for the day.

In each preparation of the mushroom products, I have had a similar experience. I think it is simplest to compare it to how one feels after drinking coffee. If one is feeling sluggish in the morning, you will notice that some short period of time after consuming an appropriate amount of coffee that your energy, mood, and focus will suddenly improve. However, there is often a little bit of jitteriness that goes on for many people until the blood levels of caffeine begin to drop slightly. My experience with the mushroom coffee is similar yet gentler. On one hand, the sense of energy does not spike suddenly to the same extent. However, one does feel more energetic after consuming either the caffeinated or non-caffeinated versions. Obviously, you feel more of a sudden spike in the formula that includes coffee but you do not experience any of the jitteriness. In addition, one seems to stay at a plateau of energy for an extended period of time, which subsides more gently than the crash one experiences from a high dose of caffeine. Most importantly, the effects on concentration and focus feel far more significant than what consuming coffee alone.

I look forward to hearing your comments.