Into the Well
Exploring the rabbit hole of wellness trends
Exploring the rabbit hole of wellness trends
Let’s get the big thing out of the way: mushroom coffee tastes pretty much the same as regular coffee. I drank only Four Sigmatic’s dark-roast mushroom coffee blend for two weeks straight and I can vouch for its palatability. I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado, but I’ve consumed coffee pretty much every day for the past decade. And mushroom coffee is fine! It doesn’t taste like a cup of steamed chanterelles, I promise. It is not poison.
On a usual day, my brain is essentially scrambled eggs before my morning mug. I thought this was very adult and cosmopolitan of me until I was about 25, when I discovered that I get splitting headaches when I skip my fix. Addiction, even when not so crippling, never feels emotionally good. I also wondered if coffee was partially to blame for my ever present generalized anxiety.
I initially heard about mushroom coffee in 2018, from targeted Instagram ads and clickbait-y health story headlines. (For the uninitiated: it’s a blend of regular ground coffee and powdered mushrooms—yes, there’s real coffee in there.) Four Sigmatic attributes a whole host of health benefits to their product: it can help you focus, make you less jittery, support your immune system. They also claim it can even improve your sleep habits and give you more energy. All this piqued my interest.
According to Four Sigmatic’s (very hunky) founder, Tero Isokauppila, mushroom coffee’s roots date back to 1940s Finland. When rations ran low during World War II, the Finns brewed chaga mushrooms, native to Scandinavia, as a substitute. Four Sigmatic, founded in 2012, was the original modern brand and remains the most popular, but other companies including Life Cykel and Neu Roast also brew their own fungi java. Four Sigmatic sells a variety of mushroom-blended products, including ground coffee and lemonade. I decided to go with the ground dark roast, which includes lion’s mane and chaga mushrooms. Because, honestly, mushroom lemonade is a bridge too far.
I tried to think of my two-week switch as the healthier version of something I already do—rather than seeking to introduce an entirely new good habit, or totally kick a bad one. Could this mushroom drink keep a habitual coffee drinker alert without tasting like garbage? Could it really make me less anxious and jittery? I was ready to find out.
Unfortunately, the major difference between mushroom and regular coffee is something I learned the hard way: the mushroom variant has about half the caffeine. I definitely could have read this on the website before I started my two-week shroom spectacular, but, well, I didn’t.
By around 4:30 P.M. on days one and two, I felt like I’d been run over by a train. My eyelids weighed like Volkswagens on my face. I wanted to fold my entire body inside my laptop and never emerge. Truly, all I craved was a nap, and maybe death. I had a date on day two! So around 6 P.M., I made an extra pot of coffee to prevent my body from hurtling directly into a REM cycle at the bar. Thankfully, that worked.
On day three, exhausted, I checked the bag again. I discovered Four Sigmatic recommends three tablespoons of coffee per eight-ounce cup; I’d been using one tablespoon per five-ounce cup. (Mr. Coffee “cups,” as marked on the pots, are actually five fluid ounces each; the standard cup measurement is eight fluid ounces; a mug holds ten fluid ounces.) I did a little math, and to brew my three daily mugs of coffee, I should’ve been scooping about 11 tablespoons. That meant on days one and two, I was getting about a quarter of my normal caffeine intake. So I adjusted accordingly, and things improved from there: I felt awake, alert, and occasionally anxious—not all that different than when I drink fully caffeinated coffee.
According to Four Sigmatic’s own blog, the caffeine cutdown is one of mushroom coffee’s main appeals. Halving the caffeine of regular coffee, they say, can give you an energy boost without disturbing sleep cycles. But caffeine, in itself, isn’t necessarily bad for you—unless you’re overdoing it. “Caffeine has actually been shown to improve focus, energy, and wellness,” nutritionist Abby Langer told me over email. Too much caffeine can cause issues including sleeplessness, jitters, and stomach problems. While Langer concedes that reducing caffeine intake could help sleep cycles, she adds that’s only true “if you’re a person whose coffee habit is affecting their sleep.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is a perfectly fine amount for the average, healthy adult. That’s four eight-ounce cups of (non-mushroom) coffee per day, 32 ounces total. Things get dicey, per Mayo, around 500 to 600 milligrams in one day—that’s when insomnia, irritability, upset stomach, and racing heartbeat can occur. Of course, the exact tipping point varies from body to body. According to a 2017 study from E-Imports, a coffee and espresso consulting company, the average American coffee drinker consumes about 3.6 cups of coffee per day. If a major benefit of mushroom coffee is simply that it has less caffeine, it seems suspiciously like a well-marketed solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.
Then there’s the much-touted fact that chaga mushrooms are adaptogens, a category of medicinal herbs. Adaptogens are the latest trendy supplement in beauty products, and as The Cut pointed out in March, they’re a part of Gwyneth Paltrow’s morning smoothie. Some studies suggests adaptogens have anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve stress, but there really hasn’t been enough research conducted to say so conclusively. Four Sigmatic claims that the adaptogens in its coffee can make us feel less jittery, a normal side effect of drinking caffeine. But Langer explains that most adaptogen research has been conducted on animals, or on cells in labs—so it’s not clear whether those benefits translate to humans. Langer says she sees lots of companies making “overblown claims” about chaga and adaptogens. “With chaga, there’s really no compelling evidence that it has significant health benefits,” she says.
Four Sigmatic also says mushroom coffee may support digestion, thanks to the prebiotics and polysaccharides found in the fungi, which “may contribute to the production of healthy bacteria in the gut.” Langer confirms prebiotics are great for gut health, generally speaking. “Although,” she adds, “we just aren’t sure how much prebiotic is in this product,” nor how much is necessary to see benefits or effects in our bodies. Sounds like another toss-up.
Superfoodly, a site that offers detailed breakdowns of supposed health foods, took an in-depth look at mushroom coffee’s alleged benefits in 2017. It ultimately concluded, “While the medicinal or health benefits of the coffee remain speculative, the vitamin D2 is good for immune system support and the low calorie count is a boon for weight loss.” I’m not terribly concerned about what my three-calorie cups of coffee are doing to my pants size, but I suppose if you’re actively trying to lose weight, more D2 couldn’t hurt.
During my test, I generally felt the same on mushroom coffee as I do on regular coffee—just a little sleepier during the day. I didn’t notice any changes in my actual sleep habits, focus, or energy level. Some days I felt jittery, some days I felt a little anxious, but those moments seemed to be unrelated to the coffee I was drinking. (In the interest of journalistic transparency: I did fart a ton on day one. But it’s unclear if that was caused by my switch to mushroom java and an attendant boost in my gut health, or simply a result of the gobs of Super Bowl dips I’d downed the day prior.) Overall: not life-changing.
Health benefits aside, it’s also worth noting that mushroom coffee, like many wellness-oriented products, is really expensive. Four Sigmatic goes for $21.50 per 12-ounce bag on Amazon, compared with $5 for the same size bag of Starbucks house blend.
If you’re trying to cut down on your caffeine intake but can’t kick the ritual, then sure, make the switch to mushroom coffee. (Or, if you’re one of those people who’s always says things like, “Coffee makes me so jittery!” when your deskmate goes out for a Starbucks run, maybe give it a shot for your coworkers’ sanity.) But until the science backs up the claims from Four Sigmatic’s marketing team, I’m going to stick to my tub of Kroger breakfast blend—and, of course, to the $5 latte I feel pressured to buy when I’ve been camping out on my local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi for hours, thank you very damn much.