Tero Isokauppila is a Finnish foraging expert, self-experimenter, founder of medicinal mushroom company Four Sigmatic, and one of the smartest cacao experts I know. He is also the author of Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health.
What I discuss with Tero in this episode:
Mushrooms have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for centuries, and there are likely thousands of undiscovered species that could provide us with yet-untold benefits.
Tero Isokauppila didn't start medicinal mushroom company Four Sigmatic as a fad -- he comes from a multi-generational line of mushroom foragers. He's got fungi in his blood!
The three criteria of adaptogens and how they were discovered by the Cold War era Soviet Union looking for an edge in optimizing human performance.
The mysterious properties of not-quite-plant, not-quite-animal fungi.
Why coffee and chocolate work well in combination with mushrooms.
And much more!
I've been a fan of mushrooms my whole life—from big portobellos that my family and I would throw on the grill every summer drenched in salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil to the raw, sliced mushrooms I drop into a salad. They have a flavor and texture that are at once highly amenable to whatever they're being eaten with, but also retain a delectable taste all their own.
The research on the health benefits of mushrooms is just as compelling. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a large family of organisms from the fungi kingdom, distinct from the animal and plant kingdoms but just as wide and diverse. In fact, there are 22,000 mushroom species that we know of, but it's estimated there are likely 140,000 distinct species on Earth. Of the known mushrooms, about five percent are of either culinary or medicinal use to humans, but if that proportion holds true for the vast number of unexplored mushrooms, this implies there are 6,000 mushrooms out there that could provide us with yet-untold benefits.
On this episode of the show, I'm joined by someone who knows a lot about the medicinal power of mushrooms: Four Sigmatic founder Tero Isokauppila, author of Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health.
Four Sigmatic (discount code MAX gets you 15% off!) is well-known for making mushroom coffee, mushroom tea, mushroom superfood blends, mushroom hot cacao, and even mushroom lemonade with charcoal and chaga. Which might lead some less enamored of such fungal splendor to wonder: what's the obsession with mushrooms?
"I first fell in love with normal, good old culinary mushrooms," says Tero. "I grew up in Finland. My mom took me out foraging. My mom taught physiology and anatomy and taught me about nutrition in general. [We've had] a family farm for quite a few generations, and my great-great grandfather started an environmental school where we also forage for mushrooms.
"As I was playing soccer and running, I got into all kinds of performance-boosting things beyond just your classic creatine and whey protein that worked, but I wondered 'What's the next level? And the next next level? And the next, next, next level!' And I discovered this mushroom called cordyceps that is shown to improve the maximum oxygen intake, and there's also pretty fascinating studies on ATP production that it can improve 18 percent or more of just how we produce energy in our cells and the mitochondria, so that got me deeper into the world of medicinal mushrooms."
Other benefits of cordyceps include fatigue reduction and up to 10 percent increase in lactic acid threshold in the body—especially helpful during high-intensity workouts. Cordyceps are also the only fungi in a category of herbs known as adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogens and Beta-Glucans?
"Adaptogens" is a word that gets thrown around a lot on the herbal medicine market today, but Tero defines them by these three criteria:
They are safe and non-addictive.
They are non-specific—meaning they'll work in multiple parts of the body.
They have the ability to modulate—that is, they'll help normalize bodily parameters against pathological conditions.
In the 1940s, the Soviet Union became the first nation to understand the role adaptogens can play in stress reduction thanks to the work of Dr. Nikolai Vasilievich Lazarev. While adaptogens may not have helped the Soviets win the Cold War, they're a great way to bolster the body's own ability to heal.
Beta-Glucans are immunity-boosting complex carbohydrates that are found in many bacteria, plants, and fungi—reishi being one reliable source.
"Most of the research is around cancer, autoimmune [diseases], and diabetes," says Tero, "because those are the big problems in our society. But I think just for general health, I look at them like chlorophyll. You want to have greens in some form every day. You want to have polysaccharides in one form or the other every day. You don't need a lot—it's a really important building block and something our body's very quick to handle."
Culinary and Medicinal Mushrooms
Not quite plant and not quite animal, mushrooms occupy a pretty unique place in the biosphere. Sometimes even scientists can't help but wax poetic on their qualities, as we see from the opening to this paper from Shu Ting Chang and Solomon P. Wasser in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms:
"Mushrooms are part of fungal biota characterized by wonder. They rise up from lignocellulosic wastes: yet they become so bountiful and nourishing. Mushrooms are environmentally friendly. They biosynthesize their own food from agricultural crop residues, which would otherwise cause health hazards."
When was the last time you saw a scientist use the phrase "characterized by wonder" in a paper? I can't help but think Amber Rae would approve.
While fungi are less studied than the other kingdoms, it's understandable: they're bountiful almost beyond comprehension. "If you think of all the varieties of plants," says Tero, "there's six times more fungi than there are plants."
While some mushrooms overlap the boundary between culinary and medicinal categories, it's helpful to know the difference.
"Culinary mushrooms are good for fiber, some level of iron, copper, potassium, B vitamins, D vitamins -- pretty much the only non-animal based source of vitamin D is in mushrooms because they share a lot of the DNA with animals, so they have the same way of getting it from the sun. So mushrooms build vitamin D in their skin the same way humans do.
"Medicinal mushrooms have a lot of those same properties, but they also have this intelligence—ninja skills—very specific compounds that can potentially help penetrate the blood-brain barrier or they could help ATP production. They could help improve the gut biome. They have these stronger skills. They tend to be more bitter; they tend to grow on trees, whereas culinary mushrooms tend to grow on the ground. A lot of the benefits of the medicinal mushrooms come from the trees themselves."
Give your ears a listen to this entire episode to learn more about Tero's top seven mushrooms, why Otzi the Iceman (the well-preserved mummy of a man who was murdered 5,300 years ago) was probably carrying medicinal mushrooms at the time of his death, why coffee and chocolate are ideal candidates to combine with mushrooms, fungi Tero recommends avoiding, why Tero prefers wild mushrooms over cultivated mushrooms, and much more.
Resources from this episode:
Four Sigmatic (15% off discount code automatically applied!)
Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health by Tero Isokauppila and Four Sigmatic
The Green Dawn of Adaptogens: Performance Herbs from Back in the USSR, Supplements in Review
Effects of Beta-Glucans on the Immune System by Dalia Akramiene et al., Medicina
The Role of Culinary-Medicinal Mushrooms on Human Welfare with a Pyramid Model for Human Health by Shu Ting Chang and Solomon P. Wasser, International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms
The Maitake Mushroom: A Powerful and Promising Medicinal, Mushroom Appreciation
5 Surprising Facts About Otzi the Iceman by James Owen, National Geographic
Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies Meet Modern Science by Paul Stamets and Heather Zwickey, Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal
How to Make a Decoction, WikiHow
Guide to Making Tinctures, Mountain Rose Herbs
The Ghrelin Gremlin, or Why You Can’t Always Trust the Body’s Wisdom by Kelly McGonigal, Psychology Today
What Is Candida and What Does It Have to Do with Toxic Mold Exposure?, Surviving Toxic Mold
Mushrooms Are Full of Antioxidants That May Have Anti-Aging Potential by Matt Swayne, Penn State
Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal M.D.
Join my mailing list and get access to the free PDF of 11 supplements that can help boost your brain function!