Mushroom coffee — healthy or hype?

K. Howard / Stocksy
Originally Published: 

I tried mushroom coffee for the first time at a crunchy cafe in West Berkeley: a latte brewed with a chaga mushroom elixir. It reminded me of a slightly bitter chai, with an astringent finish, thankfully softened by the mild sweetness of oat milk. But what the concoction lacked in palatability, it apparently compensated for in health benefits, according to my barista, who prattled off a laundry list of them — everything from immunity and focus, to vitality and general well-being. Since then, I’ve spotted mushroom coffee on a smattering of other specialty café menus.

After a bit of digging, I've learned that Goop-endorsed company Four Sigmatic sells mushroom coffee grounds and instant coffee at Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other grocery chains. Other companies like NeuRoast and Sayan offer similar products. Clearly, mushroom coffee is trending. I wondered, though, whether it does anything, or if it was just more woo-woo wellness hype.

Using mushrooms such as chaga, reishi, and lion’s mane to improve health purposes is nothing new. Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, among other healing traditions, have used them for centuries. Keep in mind though, that these medicinal mushrooms aren't to be confused with magic mushrooms, which contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin. The kind of mushrooms I'm referring to will not make you trip.

Mushroom coffee — basically powdered mushrooms blended with ground coffee — is a fairly recent phenomenon. In a blog post, Four Sigmatic notes that coffee masks the often unpleasant flavor of mushrooms. The company also claims that combining mushrooms and coffee delivers their shared benefits —“focus, energy, and overall wellness” — without the digestive issues and impaired sleep that coffee can trigger, since mushrooms apparently aid in digestion and stress management, and mushroom coffee contains less caffeine.

Do the purported benefits of mushroom coffee stand up to scientific scrutiny, though? Does it contain enough mushrooms for them to have an effect? I asked two physicians for their insight.

Is mushroom coffee good for your health?

Generally speaking, the few human trials on medicinal mushrooms (again, not the psychedelic type of medicinal) have been small, so we can’t yet draw any broad conclusions about their health benefits. That doesn’t necessarily mean traditional medicinal mushroom remedies had no rationale, but perhaps that modern medical research still needs to catch up, says Rashmi Mullur, an integrative endocrinologist at UCLA Health. For instance, while lion’s mane is often cited anecdotally for its cognitive benefits, “there’s very little evidence of its effectiveness,” Mullur says, and while there have been clinical trials of reishi in immunity and Alzheimer’s disease, they’ve involved only a few dozen patients.

Plus, mushroom coffee often includes a combination of different mushrooms, sometimes among various other ingredients. “When you have a big blend with a lot of ingredients, it’s going to come out in a wash,” Mullur says. “Some people may feel better. Some people may not feel a difference. It’s hard to know if it’s going to clinically result in any improvement.”

Whether mushroom coffee contains enough mushrooms to have an effect also remains hazy. For instance, a cup of Four Sigmatic’s Ground Mushroom Coffee contains 250 milligrams of lion’s mane, which is too low to have any real clinical effect, says Mikhail Kogan, medical director of the George Washington University Center for Integrative Medicine. Most likely, they’re not trying to treat anyone, Mullur says. She adds that there's also not enough mushrooms in there to cause any negative effect. Cafes may not list the dose they add, but Mullur has a hunch they use small doses, too. Then again, drinking several cups could add up to a dose that has a real, clinical effect, Kogan says.

But besides dosage, the potency of the mushroom extract used also factors into what effect, if any, the mushroom coffee will have, and the potency of a given dose could vary from one company to the next, depending on how they made their extract, Kogan says.

Aren’t mushrooms adaptogens, though? Don’t they help with stress?

Much of the buzz around mushroom coffee comes from the adaptogenic properties of several medicinal mushrooms. As the term suggests, adaptogens are plants and fungi that help the body adapt to physical, biological, and mental stressors. (Besides mushrooms, you’ve probably heard of ashwagandha, ginseng, and rhodiola, a few of the more popular ones.) Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have long included adaptogens in their repertoire.

There hasn’t been any specification of how long to drink mushroom coffee, which may lead people to consume it indefinitely — but “when you take the adaptogens for a prolonged period of time, they stop being effective,” Kogan says. “The body adapts to the effect.”

We know many adaptogens act on the endocrine or immune system along some sort of stress trigger pathway, and that major stressors like critical illness can impact these systems, Mullur says. “But when someone is well, and they’re exposed to work stress, is drinking that mushroom coffee going to help them? I’m not so certain.” She adds that the evidence isn’t strong or conclusive enough to make such a sweeping claim. Indeed, research on adaptogens include mainly studies done in lab-grown human cells and animals, as well as small human trials, which often get printed in lesser-known scientific journals.

Also, there hasn’t been any specification of how long to drink mushroom coffee, which may lead people to consume it indefinitely — but “when you take the adaptogens for a prolonged period of time, they stop being effective,” Kogan says. “The body adapts to the effect.” He usually recommends that his patients take a given blend of adaptogens for only a couple of weeks, followed by an evaluation of its effects, or a few weeks off the adaptogens. Patients also typically take an adaptogen blend personalized to their needs, alongside other dietary approaches, Mullur adds.

So, should I try mushroom coffee?

If you have liver or kidney disease, you might want to speak with a medical professional before deciding to sip mushroom coffee to avoid further damaging these organs, Mullur says. Definitely don’t drink it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, since medicinal mushrooms have endocrine activity and could therefore affect babies’ hormonal development.

When you take the adaptogens for a prolonged period of time, they stop being effective.

As with any food product, do your research and confirm the company has conducted safety testing. Many of the mushrooms used can be toxic at high concentrations, and may have toxic byproducts, Mullur says. Also make sure the company eliminates any active mushroom spores, which can contain toxins. If you’re healthy, and not pregnant or breastfeeding, and if you’ve done your homework on the safety of the brew you’re considering, you should be fine sipping on mushroom coffee, Mullur says. While it may not benefit you, “it probably wouldn’t hurt you.”