Mushrooms: Many people love them; others don’t. Even the ordinary white button mushrooms sold in supermarkets and sprinkled on pizzas are a great source of protein, Vitamin D, fiber, and an array of minerals, B vitamins, and antioxidants–with very low calories and no cholesterol!
Often considered a vegetable, mushrooms actually aren’t plants. Kingdom Fungi includes thousands of mushroom species beyond the few we typically eat. Filling up on fungi can bring health benefits–but some folks don’t care for the flavor or texture.
In addition to the typical culinary mushrooms, many fungi are dried for medicinal use. You could just take powdered mushroom in a capsule, but why not make it more appealing?
Katie snagged me some free samples from Four Sigmatic (use code “Kimball” for 10% off!), a company that markets hot-beverage mixes and skin-care products containing therapeutic mushrooms.
I tried their instant coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga, cacao (hot chocolate) with Reishi, and cacao with Cordyceps. Katie and her family tried some additional flavors–see their mini-review below.
Several of our taste-testers were less than thrilled with some of these beverages, but we’re giving you the full range of our honest opinions!
At Kitchen Stewardship, our goal is to support your healthy living journey, not just sell things–so we’ll tell you all about the downsides of a product as well as its appealing features, to help you make an informed decision about whether it’s something you’ll want to try.
Before I review the specific products I sampled, let’s look into these four less-common fungi and their benefits.
Lion’s Mane: Does It Sharpen Your Brain?
Hericium erinaceus is believed to protect and improve both nerves and stomach lining, but it’s mostly marketed as a supplement for improving “mental clarity and focus.” This mushroom, also known as hou tou gu or yamabushitake, has long vertical strands that look like a very pale lion’s mane. Its flavor is often compared to seafood.
A research study found that daily supplements of Lion’s Mane improved mental functioning in older people, but the effect wore off within a month after they stopped taking the supplement. Lion’s Mane reduces memory loss and prevents Alzheimer’s symptoms in mice, so it may help to slow down brain degeneration as people age.
By improving the hippocampus’s functioning, as well as regenerating brain cells, Lion’s Mane may help people work through anxiety or depression related to processing memories and emotional responses. Research in this area was mostly done on animals, but one small study found that Lion’s Mane helped menopausal women manage irritability and anxiety.
Animal and laboratory studies also suggest that Lion’s Mane speeds recovery from stroke and other injuries to the brain or nervous system, prevents heart disease, slows the spread of cancer, prevents ulcers in the stomach and intestines, and boosts immunity–but research on these conditions in humans either hasn’t been done or showed conflicting results.
WebMD cautions that Lion’s Mane might not be safe for long-term use–the longest studies of daily supplementation lasted 4 months.
Lion’s Mane may slow blood clotting and lower blood sugar, so people with hemophilia, diabetes, or heavy periods should use it cautiously. However, those side effects could be helpful for preventing stroke or other blood-clot problems, or for controlling high blood sugar.
Nootropics like Lion’s Mane are having a heyday in the last few years. You’ve probably taken one and didn’t know it–caffeine is also in this classification of potentially cognition-enhancing substances.
Chaga: Cancer Fighter?
Inonotus obliquus grows on birch trees in cold climates and looks a lot like dirt or burned food, but somehow it became a traditional beverage in Finland–it tastes a lot like coffee but has no caffeine.
Chaga contains antioxidants and is also antimutagenic, meaning that it prevents cells from mutating into cancer. It’s been used for centuries as a folk medicine for cancer prevention and general good health.
Chaga has been even less thoroughly studied than Lion’s Mane, but animal and laboratory studies suggest these benefits:
- suppresses growth of cancerous colon tumors
- suppresses growth of lung tumors and also appears to improve body temperature regulation
- kills liver cancer in the lab
- reduces inflammation from colitis
- inhibits anaphylactic shock (This could be a great thing for allergy sufferers! But it really hasn’t been studied much yet.)
- speeds recovery from immune-system damage (This could be helpful for people going through chemotherapy.)
Like Lion’s Mane, Chaga may increase bleeding and lower blood sugar, so it could be dangerous or helpful depending upon your health conditions.
Chaga also contains oxalate, which can damage the kidneys–but don’t freak out! Oxalate is also in many vegetables, like spinach. Balancing high-oxalate foods with other foods in your diet will prevent problems for most people. Oxalate also inhibits calcium absorption, which is a good reason to add plenty of milk to your coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga!
Reishi: Relaxing Mushrooms?
Ganoderma lucidum is a reddish mushroom that grows in hot, humid Asian forests. It’s best known for boosting immune system function. Reishi, also called lingzhi or mannentake, has a very bitter flavor.
Reishi is a popular medication for cancer patients, especially in China. This meta-analysis of research studies found that cancer patients who took both chemotherapy and Reishi had a better recovery and fewer side effects than patients who took chemo only or Reishi only.
Another study found that Reishi protects patients from cardiac damage caused by the chemo drug doxorubicin. But Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says Reishi can decrease the effectiveness of some chemo drugs.
However, for healthy people, Reishi has very few scientifically documented benefits. It may prevent the development of breast cancer or improve general immunity by increasing the number of white blood cells. Around 20 years ago, some studies found that Reishi extracts (not dried mushrooms, purified extracts isolating certain chemicals) killed many types of infectious bacteria and viruses in test tubes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that eating/drinking Reishi mushrooms will kill these pathogens in your body.
I spent more than an hour searching for unbiased evidence of Four Sigmatic’s suggestions that Reishi helps us relax, sleep well, or “adapt to stress.” Most of the claims I found were on sites connected to the sale of Reishi or strongly advocating mushrooms that are “traditionally believed” to have beneficial effects. I didn’t find any hard science documenting the relaxing effect of Reishi on healthy people.
However, for fibromyalgia patients, Reishi improved sleep as well as dramatically reducing pain. (Reishi isn’t promoted as a general painkiller, but perhaps it acts on nerves in a way that’s effective for fibromyalgia pain specifically?)
WebMD raises several concerns about side effects of Reishi, especially long-term use in powdered form (like the Four Sigmatic beverage mixes): liver damage, allergic reactions, and excess bleeding.
Reishi lowers blood pressure, another of those side effects that could be helpful to some people and harmful to others. It can interact dangerously with a number of medications for blood pressure and blood clotting, as well as over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen that affect your blood and liver.
Quick note from Katie: This is n=2 and not very scientific, but two friends of ours with the Oura Ring say that on nights when they drink Reishi tea, their sleep is deeper and properly oscillating. Studies needed!
Cordyceps: Long-Lasting Energy?
Cordyceps militaris is a cultivated fungus typically grown on grain–so it’s possible that a Cordyceps product contains a little gluten if it’s not labeled gluten-free.
Four Sigmatic does not claim their Cordyceps cacao mix is GF but does affirm that it is vegan: It’s related to, but not the same as, the wild fungus Cordyceps sinensis which eats caterpillars! Here’s a fascinating article with video about different species of Cordyceps.
Cordyceps contains antioxidants and chemicals that could help to prevent tumors, prevent the spread of cancer, modulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, kill germs and insects, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, and protect nerves and kidneys.
But most of the research that’s been done has been in labs or on animals, not humans, and most of it’s been done in China using a vat-grown version of Cordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar killer.
This study found that Cordyceps grown on grain contains nearly the same bioactive compounds as Cordyceps grown on caterpillars, so let’s try to stop thinking about caterpillars now!
Here are some research findings specific to Cordyceps militaris, the variety used in Four Sigmatic and most other supplements sold in North America:
- Its alleged ability to “support stamina and endurance” is documented by some studies, but others find no effect on athletic performance. Cordyceps-enriched mouse chow helped mice swim longer.
- Cordyceps extract kills some cancers in a test tube-like lung cancer, liver cancer caused by Hepatitis C, and colorectal cancer–but that doesn’t mean the dried fungus would kill cancer in your body.
- Cordyceps improves the cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and insulin sensitivity of hamsters eating a high-fat diet. Another hamster study showed similar effects and no side effects, even after 2 weeks of a very high dose.
- Cordyceps reduces asthma symptoms and ear swelling in mice–but it isn’t as effective as conventional medications.
WebMD warns that Cordyceps increases the risk of heavy bleeding, is dangerous to people with auto-immune diseases, and interacts poorly with immuno-suppressant drugs. But unlike these other therapeutic fungi, it doesn’t harm your kidneys and may even be good for them. Take your medical history into consideration before trying any therapeutic fungus!
Should You Use Therapeutic Mushrooms While Pregnant?
For all of these fungi, some of the documentation of cancer-fighting effects mentioned “anti-angiogenic activity,” meaning that the mushroom chemicals reduce blood-vessel growth. That’s a good thing if you’re fighting a cancerous tumor or uterine fibroids: Tumors that are able to establish their own blood supply grow faster.
But a developing embryo and the placenta that supports it need to be able to grow new blood vessels rapidly. Taking in too many anti-angiogenic chemicals could increase your risk of miscarriage–and none of the benefits of these mushrooms is especially helpful to pregnancy.
Mushrooms in Your Breakfast Beverage: Yum or Yuck?
My opinion in a nutshell: Four Sigmatic’s mushroom-infused coffee and cacao drinks are a decent idea, but it takes a lot of milk to make them palatable, and a sweetener helps, too!
So I don’t consider their single-serving packets sufficient for making hot drinks–and if you’re adding ingredients anyway, you’re better off buying a canister of one of Four Sigmatic’s mushroom blends and mixing the powder into your hot drink or smoothie. Then you’ll throw away less packaging and probably save money, too!
Of the three products I tried, instant coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga was the best. It tastes much like any other instant coffee–with the same amount of milk I’d use in any mug of coffee–but even my middle-aged brain felt that it was more highly caffeinated than the store-brand instant coffee I used to drink in college.
As the day went on, I noticed that the energy boost from coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga went on and on, too! Normally, I drink percolator-brewed coffee with breakfast at 6:30am, and then sometime between 10am and noon I’ll start thinking about having a second cup, but I try to wait until after lunch.
When I drank this coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga at breakfast, I didn’t really think about coffee again until after lunch (around 1pm), and some days I decided to wait another hour or two! So I was getting more energy from half as much caffeine.
I also felt more focused than I typically do with the slightly nervous energy from caffeine: It was a little easier than normal to keep doing whatever I was doing and to remember what I planned to do next, instead of jumping up to get something done “before I forget.”
It felt similar to the effect of taking a Vitamin B12 supplement with breakfast. I really noticed the difference on the several days I drank just plain coffee, interspersed with the 10 days I used a Lion’s Mane and Chaga packet for my first cup of the day.
I’d recommend coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga for those days when you especially need focused, long-lasting energy. With less-than-daily use, you probably won’t have any trouble with side effects.
Katie’s addition: I second Becca’s review on both taste (yep, pretty much like coffee – I don’t actually drink much coffee so I either think this is genuinely better or because I know it’s good for me, my brain tells me to like it and it works. 😉
I love being able to grab a cup on days when I feel a little foggy or have some serious work to do.
I asked my 14-year-old son and his friend to taste-test Four Sigmatic’s cacao beverages.
Nicholas studied the packaging and asked with some skepticism: “Okay Erica, do you want to ‘Press Play’ or get a ‘Warm Hug from Grandma’?” She chose the hug from Grandma, Cacao Mix with Reishi.
We were surprised that the instructions said to mix a packet with only 3.5 fluid ounces of water, less than half a cup–but that turned out to be plenty for them and for my partner Daniel and me. Here are our opinions:
- “Grandma’s been sitting in the dusty basement for a long time, and she’s reeeal bitter!“
- “Does it have any sugar in it? [looking at box] Yes. Just not enough, I guess. It also has stevia–that explains the aftertaste.”
- “It’s like not enough cocoa powder, mixed with instant coffee, and then somebody mixed in some mushrooms for some reason.”
- “I don’t taste mushrooms, but this is incredibly bitter.”
- “Here, Mom, I made you hot cocoa.” (In other words, the teens want no more of it.)
After adding enough milk to double its volume, I was able to drink it, but I can’t say I really liked it. Later, my friend Winfrey also did a taste-test of Cacao with Reishi and decided it was drinkable with a lot of milk and two spoonfuls of sugar! Neither of us thought it had any relaxing effect.
Katie’s addition: The hot cocoa REALLY is a unique taste! 1.5 of my 4 kids don’t like it either. It’s not very sweet and includes cinnamon, which is a very specific taste that’s unique in hot chocolate. My oldest thinks it’s the bomb though!
I MUCH prefer the Reishi tea by itself, and when it’s chilly I really like to have a mug at night just before bed. It’s bitter, but if you like coffee, you will probably appreciate it. Reishi is supposed to improve sleep, especially the most restorative phases of sleep. I was disappointed to learn that Becca didn’t find any research on that. Phooey.
I wasn’t able to convince anyone other than myself to try Cacao with Cordyceps–but I like this one much better! It includes ginger, which I often add to my coffee because it’s so compatible with bitter flavors. This mix also has no stevia, and maybe Cordyceps tastes less bitter than Reishi.
I’m astonished that Four Sigmatic chose a photo of wild caterpillar-murdering fungus for their Cacao with Cordyceps page when the product is actually made with cultivated Cordyceps militaris that “is suitable for vegans.” (They don’t say what it grew on, but probably grain.) I was briefly creeped out when I thought I’d been drinking that caterpillar stuff!
Anyway, a packet of Cacao Mix with Cordyceps dissolved in half a cup of boiling water, plus half a cup of cow’s milk makes a hot beverage that tastes like “healthy hot chocolate with ginger” and is pretty satisfying to me. It’s a good pick-me-up right before I walk over to pick up my daughter from school and take her to the playground.
Sometimes I’ve thought maybe I felt more energetic after drinking it than can be explained by the calories, chocolate, and psychological effect of a hot drink–and other times I haven’t.
Katie’s note: There’s another version with cordyceps too that’s just straight, and it would make a good alternative to coffee in the morning (or afternoon) if you’re sensitive to caffeine or trying to cut back. I really like the coffee with adaptogens that are stress supportive as well. What can I say? I’m a sucker for easy ways to take “supplements” so I don’t have to swallow another capsule…
Functional Fungus vs. Mundane Mushrooms
Coffee with Lion’s Mane and Chaga seems effective, and science supports the idea that it gives an energy boost and mental clarity, as well as other health benefits. I wouldn’t drink it every day, but I might keep it on hand for difficult days when I need to get a lot done.
I found less evidence for the purported benefits of Reishi and Cordyceps. Even if I wanted to work these mushrooms into our diet, hot cacao mix doesn’t seem like the most appealing way to consume them.
These therapeutic fungi may be risky if used daily, especially by expectant mothers or people with bleeding problems, diabetes, auto-immune disorders, or liver problems.
Overall, it was interesting to try these, but I think I’ll stick with cooking my mushrooms. Apparently you can cook Lion’s Mane . . . and there are so many delicious ways to enjoy the crimini, portabella, white, and shiitake mushrooms sold in my local supermarkets, as well as oyster mushrooms and others from the Asian market.
I’m rounding up mushroom recipes to share in January! Meanwhile, here’s a strategy for getting mushroom-haters on board with finding the fun in fungus!