The Healing Power of Mushrooms
Since the early 1600’s, Tero Isokauppila’s family has owned a farm in Finland, where he spent his childhood foraging for mushrooms. And not because of a burgeoning interest in psychedelics: His father is an agronomist and his mother teaches nursing, and so he was schooled from early on in the healing power of eating close to the earth.
And when it comes to the idea of food-as-medicine, nothing quite encapsulates the concept like mushrooms, for, as Tero explains, “medicinal mushrooms have given us many important pharmaceutical medicines, from penicillin to the first statin drugs, and several anticancer treatments.” These days, he’s proselytizing the power of the superfood and foraging for mushrooms on his family’s farm in support of his company, Four Sigma Foods, which makes everything from chaga and cordyceps coffee to reishi tea. Below, we asked him some more questions about why fungi are so good for us.
A Q&A with Tero Isokauppila
Which part of the mushroom is the most valuable?
The whole mushroom is valuable. There is not a defined difference in the medicinal effects present in the stem or the cap. I prefer to use the whole mushroom, thus combining both just to utilize it all and not waste any of the good stuff.
Keep in mind that the “mushroom” is the visible part of the fungi in the forest (the fruiting body), or the kind you would buy from the grocery store. The root (the mycelium) is the part one shouldn’t eat, even though many supplements and capsulated products on the market are made from this cheaper mycelial biomass. The fruiting body is the part where the fungi collects all of its reproducing energy just like an apple tree collects it in the apple we eat.
Do all mushrooms have the same healing properties, or are different varieties beneficial for specific things?
Are mushrooms as beneficial when they’re dehydrated as when they’re fresh?
Medicinal mushrooms—like chaga and reishi—need to be extracted in hot water and alcohol in order to extract the fat soluble compounds and make the bioactive components bioavailable. It doesn’t matter if the extraction is done with fresh or dehydrated mushrooms.
The process is not overly-complicated, but it does take a long time. It’s almost like making bone broth at home. Essentially, you need to cook/boil the mushroom pieces for 12 to 24 hours for the water soluble benefits to become available (mostly good for the immune system). This is called the decoction. The fat soluble compounds (mostly “adaptogenic” which help balance the hormones) can be extracted with alcohol (called tincture) by putting the same mushroom pieces you had cooked into any strong alcohol for 4-8 weeks.
With edible mushrooms like porcini, the flavors tend to become concentrated when dehydrated. Even edible mushrooms unlock their flavor and health benefits when they are cooked with some fat (coconut oil, ghee, etc.) as a lot of their power is also in the fat soluble compounds, like with the more medicinal tree mushrooms.
If you dry any mushroom in direct sunlight, they convert the sun’s UV-rays into vitamin D, which is a great thing. Vitamin D is one of the most studied compounds in the world for our health, as many people are actually deficient in it. Mushrooms are also one of the only and best sources of vegan vitamin D supplementation.
You mentioned that stronger tasting mushrooms (reishi, chaga) have more health benefits—are cultivated mushrooms like white button mushrooms still good for us?
We all know the saying “tastes like medicine,” and the same goes with strong tasting, bitter mushrooms. There are differences between each mushroom species, and some contain more of the healthy components, which can be identified by their bitter taste. With today’s optimized cultivation techniques it doesn’t make a big difference with most mushrooms if the species are wild-crafted or cultivated. For example reishi mushrooms grown on real logs in greenhouses are as potent as the wild ones.
White button mushrooms or Portobello mushrooms cultivated on farms can still be great food and contain some valuable nutrients, but they are not even close to as medicinal as the more potent species are.
Do mushrooms need to be cooked in order to extract their value? If so, what preparation is best?
The cell walls of mushrooms consist of a hard compound which our digestive system cannot break down. It is the same stuff that lobster shell is made of, chitin, which I bet you wouldn’t want to chew on either. The good news is that high heat melts this down and allows the good stuff to dissolve from within the cells. The process is somewhat similar to making bone broth.
The medicinal mushrooms, in particular, are most often woody and hard polypores—they have to be boiled for several hours in water to get the value out of them.
For some of the soft mushrooms, such as button mushrooms or porcini, a good, long marinating in an acidic liquid can take care of some of this “cooking,” but exposing any of these edible mushrooms to heat by boiling, frying, or steaming will ensure that we get all of the nutrition and health effects we are looking for.
Lemon or vinegar based marinades tend to be the most popular ones. The spice part is a whole art form, but usually people add salt, pepper, oil, and fresh herbs. You could also use soy. The mushrooms are typically left in the marinade liquid for 1-12 hours (I wouldn’t keep them in the marinade for more than 24 hours). Essentially, it requires a lot of experimentation with flavor, type of mushroom, and the dish they are served with.
To switch gears, you make a mushroom coffee and hot chocolate—is that because you believe straight-up coffee is bad for us?
Coffee is the #1 source of antioxidants in the United States, so one could argue that it’s extremely vital to the nation’s well-being. With heart disease alone killing over 600,000 people annually in the U.S., having antioxidants from any source is essential so that the number doesn’t increase.
So I don’t think coffee is bad, unless you overdose it. Just like with anything, the dose makes the poison. I do find it funny when people say that they don’t like bitter flavors while sipping on a cup of pitch black, dark-roasted, burned, and over-infused bitter coffee. If one functions well with the adrenaline kick from coffee, I say go for it. But make sure to add mushrooms to it at least every now and then!
What’s the thesis of making mushroom coffee? Is it to add something more nutritious to the habit?
Medicinal mushrooms are alkaline-forming in our bodies, so when combined with acidic coffee, they ease stomach burn and prevent other long-term problems coffee might cause. Because the flavors of the medicinal mushroom extracts are also bitter and they have a dark, smooth mouth feel like coffee, the amount of coffee can be cut down with the addition of mushrooms while still enjoying the flavor of coffee. This lowers the amount of caffeine and allows one to reap the best benefits of both!
Both mushroom coffees that we make are based on chaga mushrooms, which were used as a coffee substitute during the second world war and which were later shown to be the highest sources of antioxidants gram per gram.
One coffee that we make also contains cordyceps mushroom, which can support adrenal glands—this is good because adrenal fatigue is a common issue with regular coffee drinkers.
The other coffee contains lion’s mane mushroom and rhodiola root (also called the Nordic ginseng or Roseroot). Both of them have shown to support cognitive functions, which is one reason why people enjoy coffee (as it gives a mental boost).
Ideally, how often should we all eat mushrooms? Are there easy ways to add them to the daily routine?
You should think of your immune system as a muscle: The more you work it out, the better it will function. Because mushrooms give the immune system a safe workout, I find it beneficial to ingest medicinal mushrooms daily, sometimes small doses, sometimes big, depending on what my body is telling me.
On top of taking a dose of medicinal mushrooms every day, I make sure to eat a wild mushroom dish at least a couple times a week.
The easiest way to add mushrooms to the daily routine is with ready-made extracts of medicinal mushrooms. These powders can be simply dissolved in hot water, or added to a daily smoothie. There are also several encapsulated mushroom products: They can be potent in big doses, but they are not as fun to use and they skip an essential part of our body’s natural recognizing system, which is the taste buds.
You describe your mushroom products as wild-crafted? What does that mean exactly?
Our chaga mushrooms are wild-crafted, meaning that the actual raw material has been collected from the wild forests, where the chaga’s have been growing on that same birch tree for up to 20 years. Because these mushrooms take such an extensive time to grow to a harvestable size, they have had to survive the freezing cold winters and steaming hot summers of the arctic Siberian forest.
A lot of tree mushrooms are successfully farmed, but it takes great skill and knowledge to grow the actual mushrooms, the fruit of the fungi, instead of just the mycelium, the root system of fungi. Our red reishi mushroom, for example, is grown on tree logs, as it’s very hard to forage this mushroom wild in large amounts—it has a very short time period of being “ripe”, from a medicinal-value point of view.