Medicinal Mushrooms and Their Unique Health Benefits, with Dr. Christopher Hobbs
In this episode, we discuss:
- How Dr. Hobbs became interested in mycology
- Ways in which mushrooms can benefit our health
- The concept of food as medicine
- Therapeutic effects of beta-glucans
- Health benefits of terpenes
- How to forage for mushrooms
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Dr. Christopher Hobbs as my guest. Dr. Hobbs is a fourth-generation, internationally renowned herbalist and mycologist, and he earned his PhD at UC Berkeley with research and publication in evolutionary biology, biogeography, phylogenetics, plant chemistry, and ethnobotany. He’s now on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
I first encountered Dr. Hobbs many years ago when I was studying Chinese medicine in the Bay Area, and I attended a talk that he gave on the medicinal use of culinary and edible mushrooms, and on psilocybin. He’s been one of the foremost experts on the health benefits of mushrooms for several decades. He’s been foraging for mushrooms, cultivating mushrooms, and using mushrooms to make medicine since the late 1970s. He has almost 50 years of experience in this field, and, as I mentioned, he comes from a family of herbalists and traditional medicine practitioners. So this is in his blood. He is a true expert and [has] a wealth of knowledge on this really exciting topic of mushrooms and how we can use mushrooms to improve our health.
We talk about Dr. Hobbs’ history as a mycologist. We talk about the nutritional and health benefits of mushrooms, particularly their role as prebiotics and the impact that they can have on our gut microbiota. We talk about beta-glucan, a special type of soluble fiber that is present in mushrooms, and the research on the immunomodulatory effects of beta-glucan. We talk about the phenolic compounds and terpenes that are present in mushrooms. You may have heard of terpenes in recent discussions of the benefits of medical cannabis, and also in essential oils. These are quite powerful compounds that are being studied in a variety of different contexts, and they have some exciting potential health benefits. We talk about how to get started with foraging for mushrooms and [how to] do that in a safe way, and many other topics.
This was one of my favorite podcast conversations because I’m so fascinated personally with the health benefits of mushrooms, and Dr. Hobbs is one of the best people in the world to talk [with] about this subject. So I hope you enjoy the show. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Dr. Hobbs, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve really been looking forward to this.
Dr. Hobbs: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Chris Kresser: All right. Let’s just dive right in. We both share [a] common background in Chinese medicine, and, of course, mushrooms have a long history of use in Chinese medicine, perhaps mentioned in the oldest medical textbook, and in many other traditional forms of medicine, as well. What got you interested in mushrooms in the first place?
Dr. Hobbs’ Background in Mycology
Dr. Hobbs: My dad was a professor of botany, and his dad was a professor of botany. So I’m a third-generation botany person. But they didn’t dabble in fungi too much. Then, because I liked being in the woods a lot, naturally, you’re going to eventually start stumbling over the mushrooms and wonder, “What are these strange creatures?” Then in 1977, I saw a notice for the first or second mushroom conference that Paul Stamets did on Orcas Island. This was in . And I just decided to go on a whim. A couple of friends of mine were going. They invited me, so I said, “Okay, why not?” I went, and Dr. Guzman was there, the world’s leading researcher on psilocybin, and Dr. Smith, who wrote all the old field guides in the [1950s], [1960s], and [1970s], [and was a well-known] university professor, and a number of other really hot mushroom identifiers and researchers and hunters. We had a great time. It was really one of the best conferences I ever [attended]. That really got me going like a rocket ship, and I wanted to know more. From then on, I took off on mushrooms, and my interest never flagged, year after year after year.
Chris Kresser: At that point, initially, were you mostly interested in them for their health uses? Or just as a third-generation botanist or an avid nature enthusiast or all of the above?
Dr. Hobbs: All of the above. I’ve always had this central question in my mind since I was very young. And that is, “Why do some people get sick and some people stay healthy? What causes that?” Even as a young child, I was interested in that. I think probably why is that something came through my grandmother. My grandmother was a community herbalist and my great-grandmother [was a] community herbalist, on my mom’s side. It skipped [my mom]. She was a concert pianist and artist. But definitely, my grandmother’s notes and notebooks. She was a community herbalist in Pasadena, California, and had an herb garden and went down into Chinatown in [Los Angeles] on the red line and studied Chinese medicine. And this is back in the [early] 20s.
I never met her because she died before I was born, but my mom told me about her and used to tell me a lot of stories about her. I have a spiritual connection with her because I’ve always been really keen on music and piano, and she studied in Paris. So [my grandmother has] been my connection with my ancestors. Bringing that lifelong interest in health and disease to nature got me interested in herbalism, and then, eventually, in 1986 [or] something like that, I came up with the idea [that], “Well, mushrooms must be healing, too.” At that point, I hadn’t studied Chinese medicine, so I started looking in the world literature. I was an avid researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, because I lived in Santa Cruz at the time for many years. I’d always go into the science library, and I’d be trying to dig out stuff, and I found out mushrooms do have healing properties and they are used in other cultures.
I did some research and I came out with my first little pamphlet, Medicinal Mushrooms, in about 1988 or something like that. Then the second edition [in] 1995, and now my new edition, which is [from] 2021. So I put it together, and I have to benefit my ancestors, really.
Chris Kresser: It sounds like you have quite a lineage of ancestors in [the] plant medicine world who’ve inspired you and motivated you to continue this work. You mentioned the health benefits of mushrooms, and that’s something I’m particularly interested in, as well, although fungi are so amazing in so many different ways. I know Paul Stamets has written a lot about their potential for supporting the environment, and even cleaning up toxic waste, and so many other properties. But in this episode, I’d love to dive into the health benefits a little further since a lot of our listeners are interested in that.
I’ve read your book [and] I loved it. I actually saw you speak in the Bay Area many years ago, when I was studying Chinese medicine. This is more than 20 years ago now, I think, or 15 years ago. I’ve been fascinated with the healing benefits of mushrooms since I was a student in Chinese medicine, and even a bit before that. From your perspective, from a 30,000-foot view, what do mushrooms have to offer from a health perspective? Why should people be eating or consuming mushrooms in other ways in the modern world?
Ways Mushrooms Can Benefit Our Health
Dr. Hobbs: After teaching workshops and writing about it for so many years, I’ve simplified it down to what I consider the most crucial and helpful parts of the medicine that mushrooms are offering. Certainly, I can name them pretty easily and quickly. Number one, just getting to know our forests better. There’s a long tradition of going out in the forest and hunting mushrooms and learning about them, as a family, for instance, in many, many cultures throughout the world. That’s a big deal to go out on a weekend and spend the day hunting mushrooms, find some porcini, and the kids get all excited. I certainly took my son out. Forest therapy is a real thing. The trees are exuding so much terpenes and phenolics out there. When we’re in the forest, we get the serenity [and] the beauty of the sound of the wind in the trees. All of that is so healing. But they’re also pumping out all these chemicals, which are relaxing and calming us. These terpenes have a lot of calming properties on the nervous system.
So we’re getting that medicine from the forest. Then, it’s so important for us to make a connection with the natural world in the forest because so many [people] live in cities and don’t understand what we’re losing when the forests are being cut down and burned. I think that’s number one because we all know very well that the health of the planet and our environment and our community is going to directly affect our health. We have to look at a wider scale of how vital it is to maintain and support the natural processes and web of our world and not pollute so much. We have to look at how we’re polluting this world.
Chris Kresser: I’d love to linger on that a little bit because I think it’s such an important point, especially now in the modern world as we get more and more connected to digital devices, and people are spending more and more time on those devices and feeling less and less connected to the natural world. Yet as you pointed out, that’s really built into our DNA. We evolved in a natural environment, and we don’t really know what the long-term implications are of a life that is spent completely divorced from the natural world, as many people are today. I come across studies almost every week about the impact that being in the wilderness or spending a lot of time in green space has on our health and well-being. It’s profound. It’s not a small effect. I’m sure you’ve heard of Richard Louv’s work. “Nature deficit disorder” is a term now that I think is legitimate, and there’s a lot of evidence to back it up. I think a lot of people are suffering from that.
Dr. Hobbs: Very much so. I go backpacking myself to the wilderness every year, and I know what you’re saying. Just getting out in the wilderness, away from everything. I was recently in West Virginia and, boy, it’s mile after mile after mile of gorgeous, green, leafy forest, and a few meadows here and there. I was staying at a cabin that was way, way up high, and you could see for miles and miles, and there was no sign of habitation anywhere. The sound at night was dead quiet and dark, and the stars were out. It was really quite refreshing and healing. So I know what you’re saying. Nature is so important. So, just the fact that mushrooms are out there in the forest and they’re an integral part of the forest. The forest couldn’t really exist without them.
When you say forest, that’s a system. It’s not just a bunch of trees planted in a plantation or something. A forest [has] so many parts to it. [There are] the insects and beetles, which interact with the trees, and the plants and other organisms that feed on and use the carbon that fungi break down when the tree recycles and dies, and also takes the sick and weak ones out. Fungi are an integral part of what we call the forest. So that’s probably number one, I would think—how important the natural world is. Like you [said], we have to understand [and] protect our forests. These are our legacy. So many creatures on planet Earth depend on the forest being healthy. That’s our responsibility.
Chris Kresser: Yes, agreed.
Dr. Hobbs: There are a number of parts to fungi as medicine. Number two, you could say that they have chemicals in them, [that] they have active constituents if we ingest them. That’s one typical way of looking at what we’re getting out of mushrooms—the active constituents. It turns out that there’s something even more fundamentally important than that, [which] is mushrooms as what I call food medicine. This is a very important concept that we have to talk about more [and] we have to teach about more, is that food is medicine. We eat so much food every day. If someone said, “I want to be healthier,” or if they have a lot of chronic illnesses, they might say, “I want to be healthy. I’m not healthy; I feel sick. What’s the one thing I can do to be healthier?” Well, the one thing you can do is redefine what medicine is. Medicine is not pills. It’s not chemicals. Medicine is so much more than that. In this case, the medicine is the totality of the fungi. Of course, in the forest, that’s part of the medicine that we discussed first. But secondly, medicine is the food that we can eat. We eat so much food every day. We could start incorporating more mushrooms into our diet and less animal products. Because animal products, as far as creating protein and nutrition, vitamins, minerals, and so forth, [are] so inefficient. [They take] so much land. And of course, there’s the emissions. There’s the methane gas that comes out of cows and other livestock. There’s the chemicals, the feeds, and so forth. It’s not the most healthful way for our planet or our bodies.
Because we’re consuming so much food every day, we want to make that food count. I think it’s important to keep a journal and say, “How much of the food that I’m eating are low-nutrient, high-calorie foods?” Study after study shows that if we can lower our calories and keep our calories in a narrow band, then we’re going to live longer. That’s probably the single most powerful way that we can extend our lives and have less illness.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, about 60 percent of the calories that the average American consumes come from ultra-processed and refined foods that are, like you said, devoid of nutrients and full of lots of ingredients that we don’t want to put in our bodies.
When you think of mushrooms and their nutritional value and medicinal value, there [are] several things to consider. There’s the mineral content, which as you pointed out in your book; many mushrooms are really high in minerals and other essential compounds [and] nutrients. Then there are the phenolic compounds, terpenes, [which] you mentioned earlier in the context of the forest discussion, [and] which I want to come back to and discuss in more detail because, thanks to cannabis and essential oils being more common, people are starting to become aware of terpenes and their medicinal effects. Then there are things like the beta-glucan[s], [which are] the soluble fibers that are present in mushrooms [and] are being intensively studied for a whole range of beneficial effects, particularly around activation of the immune system. I’d love to dive into those kinds of components of mushrooms, and if there’s anything I missed in terms of general categories of the benefits of mushrooms.
Thinking of Food as Medicine
Dr. Hobbs: Well, as far as number one, environment and forests. Number two, food medicine. And if you were to take the most important part of that, [it] is fiber. You mentioned terpenes and phenolics, and those are small molecular weight compounds. But mushrooms have an abundance of cell walls because both fruiting bodies and mycelium are made up of these strings of cells, which have a pretty thick and tough coating, the cell wall of the fungi. The cell wall is composed of proteins and chitin, which is a very hard polymer. Thirdly, it’s composed of beta-glucan. And a few other things, but those are the three main polymers. Glucan is simply a glucose polymer. It’s a long string of glucose molecules, which are one of the main sugars. So, beta-glucans are important, yes. That’s one of the most important parts of the medicinal qualities of mushrooms. But the chitin in the cell wall is also very, very important. My point being that all mushroom cell walls are full of soluble and insoluble fiber, which form an incredible prebiotic. So when we eat more mushrooms, we’re probably getting the best prebiotics available out there. There’s more soluble and insoluble fiber in mushrooms than any vegetable. Turkey tail, for instance, is up to 60 percent beta-glucans [and] around 90 percent soluble and insoluble fiber. There is no other food out there that has that much usable, prebiotic fiber.
Chris Kresser: Not even close, no.
Dr. Hobbs: Not even close. There [have] been some new studies I’ve been talking about lately, which I’m so excited about. We see more and more studies investigating our microbiome and how it plays a role in our health, digestion, [and] nutrition, by tweaking and activating and regulating our immune response body-wide. It’s so crucial to many parts of our body’s health and function. But recently, they’ve shown that it can actually affect our mood and cognition, and that’s when it starts getting really interesting. It turns out that there’s a new study that shows that when people ate a lot of mushroom prebiotic fiber in their diet, they had much higher microbiome diversity. And many of the new studies show that species diversity in our microbiome is the number one factor as to how we’re going to get health benefits from our microbiome.
Chris Kresser: That’s such an important point. I had Dr. Justin Sonnenburg from Stanford on the show a couple of years ago. He’s a microbiologist [and] studies the microbiome, and most of the show was talking about the importance of microbial diversity and eating a broad range of different types of what he calls microbiota-accessible carbohydrates, which is a fancy way of talking about fiber that can be fermented by gut bacteria versus some fibers, which can’t be fermented and still play other important roles, but are not as useful in terms of promoting bacterial diversity.
Dr. Hobbs: Exactly. That’s why fungal fiber is so good because it’s not digestible in our upper [gastrointestinal] tract.A lot of it ends up getting down into our lower tract where the microbes can work on it. One quick sidebar on that, if you’re a big oats fan like I am, [is that] oats contain beta-glucan, too. Oats are one of the [healthiest] foods out there. Here’s a couple of facts. First of all, all oats are pre-cooked. If you buy oatmeal, or you buy oat groats, or steel cut oats, and then pour some almond milk on it and let it soak and soften up and then put fruit on it and eat it, and [you think] you’re getting raw oats, you’re not getting raw oats. [They] are already cooked. There are raw oats available out there, oat groats. If you take those pre-cooked oats, and then cook them again by making oat porridge or a bowl of oatmeal, all those complex fibers are getting broken down, and then they’re highly absorbable in our upper [gastrointestinal] tract. You’re not getting nearly the full benefit of the oats if you’re going to buy pre-cooked oats or if you’re going to double cook your oats. That’s just a quick sidebar there.
Chris Kresser: I think the fiber question is one that has gotten, like you said, a lot more attention recently. I’ve been talking about it for years and even telling patients [that] when you’re choosing what food to eat, you need to think about how it’s going to nourish you, and also how it’s going to nourish your gut microbiota. Because there are certain foods that are much more important in terms of nourishing us that we’re actually able to digest and absorb. And then there are other foods that we don’t actually digest and absorb those carbohydrates. But that doesn’t mean they’re not tremendously valuable. The bacteria and other microbes are digesting and absorbing those complex polysaccharides, and they’re turning those into compounds like short-chain fatty acids and other molecules that, as you pointed out, can lead to changes systemically throughout the body, the gut–brain axis, and the relationship between the gut and the brain. There’s even a lot of research now that suggests that depression and anxiety could be primarily gut disorders. That inflammation that originates in the gut suppresses activity in the frontal cortex and ends up causing all the telltale symptoms of depression. So it’s a pretty exciting time that we get to better understand all this stuff and to have these fungi that we can use to modulate our health in a really powerful way.
Dr. Hobbs: And there’s so much availability out there. That’s the other thing.
Medicinal mushrooms have become a hot topic, with claims that they can do everything from boost our defense against viruses and other pathogens, to protect us against cancer, support healthy brain function, and improve our response to stress. Hear expert Dr. Christopher Hobbs discuss all the ways we can benefit from mushrooms, in this episode of Revolution Health Radio. #chriskresser #medicinalmushrooms
Therapeutic Effects of Beta-Glucans
Chris Kresser: Let’s talk a little bit about the beta-glucans. You go into tremendous detail on this in your book, which I really appreciate because I’m a geek and I like to learn about this kind of stuff. It sounds like, from my research and from reading your book, that one of the primary actions that [beta-glucans are] being studied for is as an immunomodulator. They activate innate immune cells like macrophages, dendritic cells, granulocytes, [and] natural killer cells, and they can trigger the effector cells like CD4+ and CD8+ and patrol the blood, sense potential pathogens, and prime our immune system for a more effective response. I think over the past couple of years, [it] has become really obvious why that’s important for all of us.
Dr. Hobbs: That’s absolutely right. As you mentioned, the beta-glucans, and to a minor degree, the chitin, is one of the main things you think of when you think [about] the therapeutics of medicinal mushrooms, is immunomodulation, anti-cancer, antibacterial, [and] anti-infective actions of medicinal mushroom[s]. That’s probably one of the first things you think of when you really think [about] the nuts and bolts [of] biological activity. But the other really big piece of that is that this has been so widely studied throughout the world. There are literally thousands and thousands of research papers on the action of the beta-glucans in at least 50 species of fungi all over the world, especially in Japan [and] China, but [in] other places, as well. There is incredibly deep scientific literature and body of research on the medicinal effects of beta-glucans and how [they affect] our immune system. All the ins and outs of it, how deep you want to go down to the level of T cells and B cells and so forth, as you mentioned. It’s pretty exciting. Don’t forget that yeast also is a mushroom, and there are some studies showing that yeast supplementation can also activate that immune response.
The other big advantage of beta-glucans, or other biological activity groups, is anti-inflammatory. For instance, [in] lion’s mane and chaga, their beta-glucans have been studied for easing gut inflammation like gastritis, gastric ulcer, [and] things like that. That’s been well-studied. Those two species are widely used in Russia and China for easing stomach distress. That’s probably the number one thing that lion’s mane is used for in China is stomach distress and [gastrointestinal] distress because of its powerful, soothing, and anti-inflammatory effects.
Chris Kresser: Right. So we’ve got mushrooms, [and] they’re a great source of some essential nutrients. I think the highest sources [are] turkey tail and reishi.
Dr. Hobbs: Sixty percent in turkey tail and about 55 percent in reishi.
Chris Kresser: I know that there are, of course, other sources of beta-glucan in the diet, but none that are that high as a percentage of the weight of that food that I’m aware of.
Dr. Hobbs: Well, not fungal beta-glucan. All fungus has fungal beta-glucan. These are highly branched and impossible for us to digest in the upper digestive tract. Grains have beta-glucans, as well, but they aren’t highly branched; they’re more linear. And they don’t have the immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory effects that fungal beta-glucans do.
Chris Kresser: They act more [like] the typical soluble fiber acts. They have some benefit for the gut flora, but not as potent in terms of their immunomodulatory effects.
Dr. Hobbs: No, but they do have some anti-inflammatory effects.
Health Benefits of Terpenes
Chris Kresser: You also mentioned another component, which are phenolic compounds and terpenes. Tell us a little bit about the action of those compounds in mushrooms. And are they found in all mushrooms in similar amounts? Are there some mushrooms that are higher in those compounds than others?
Dr. Hobbs: First of all, the beta-glucans, by the way, are in various levels in each species. Not every species is going to have the same amount of beta-glucans. We mentioned that. But all edible mushrooms like shiitake, porcini, chanterelle, all those that you might find in the woods, all have a significant amount of beta-glucan. Wild mushrooms have [beta-glucans], and ones that you would buy in the store have beta-glucans. They are irregular, but there’s still a significant amount of beta-glucans in all fungi. Whereas, with terpenes, that’s a completely different category of compounds. Those have a wide variety of biological effects. To a lesser degree, they’re found as monoterpenes, which are C10 compounds. Those are smaller terpene molecules, which are volatile often and have an aroma. So some mushrooms have a volatile terpene kind of smell, and those can have a sedative effect on the nervous system.
Then you get the diterpenes, and those are C20, a 20-carbon molecule, so those are bigger. Those are not typically volatile. Those are best characterized by the diterpenes hericenone and erinacine in lion’s mane. Those compounds are at a pretty high concentration—about 5 percent to dry weight basis, and those compounds are pretty exclusively found in the genus Hericium, which are the lion’s mane. Those have been shown to have mood modulating effects. There have been a couple of clinical trials showing that it can help people [ease] anxiety or depression. It’s not a drug, remember. If they’re eaten regularly, then it’s going to have a much stronger effect.
Chris Kresser: I had a patient with essential tremor syndrome who we [tried] a lot of different [treatments on] and got some help and benefit from various interventions. But the thing that almost completely stopped the tremor was lion’s mane. It’s been studied for nerve [regeneration] and neuroregenerative effects, as well.
Dr. Hobbs: It has, yes. And there is some really good research. It’s been shown that a number of mushrooms, including lion’s mane, [which] is probably the best studied, have neurogenic properties. However, that’s all laboratory research, remember. There are no clinical trials to support that. However, a lot of people are picking up on that and trying it, so that’s really good. Because it’s a food, it’s a very safe medicine to use. It’s a food medicine. So definitely, we can experiment with that. If you do have nerve damage or nerve injury, or nerve inflammation, it’s very much worth a try as a supplement or a powder.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely, [there’s] no real downside there. You mentioned monoterpenes, diterpenes, that are primarily found in lion’s mane, and then there are countless triterpenes, right, in reishi?
Dr. Hobbs: Countless triterpenes. Triterpenes are more widespread in mushrooms than ergosterol, which is the precursor for vitamin D. It’s found in all mushrooms, [and] it’s part of the cell wall that adds fluidity. It’s a lipid type substance. When you get a compound that big, it turns out that it’s not water-soluble anymore. It’s more of a lipophilic compound. There’s a massive variety of triterpenes found in the glycoside form, which the mushroom might attach a sugar to so that it can more freely move around the water-based environment inside the fungi. Also the same in plants, those are called glycosides. Or it could be just as the aglycone, a plain triterpene. These compounds definitely have been incredibly well-studied in reishi. This is one of the main active components of reishi mushrooms.
There are a vast, vast amount of different ones in there. There are a number of different species that can be used for reishi-like mushrooms. Each species might have a different mixture of triterpenes. That’s why it’s interesting to try different ones and see how they work. Triterpenes are very well-known as anti-inflammatories, but also immune modulators. They do add to immune modulation of the beta-glucan. Definitely very strong, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antinociceptive, [and] pain relieving.
Chris Kresser: Right. Blood sugar, metabolic effects.
Dr. Hobbs: Blood sugar regulation, liver support, hepatoprotective. Those are only some of the many. If you read a list of all the different biological activities that have been shown with reishi triterpenes, it’s a long, long list.
Chris Kresser: I’ll quote from one passage from your book. “It’s anti-cancer, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, liver protective, anti-obesity, blood sugar regulating, and antimicrobial effects, to name a few.” It almost sounds too good to be true, right? It’s just a remarkable spectrum of activity.
Dr. Hobbs: It is, and that’s why it’s [been] used for such a wide variety of ailments in China for over 2,000 years.
Chris Kresser: I want to go back to something you said about the antioxidant properties because I wasn’t aware of this. I learned when I read your book that the antioxidant potential of mushrooms is much higher than in the most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables that people typically think of as having a high antioxidant value. That was news to me. I knew mushrooms had a lot of beneficial properties, but I didn’t think of them as really potent antioxidants until I learned that from your book.
Dr. Hobbs: Right. That’s one of the many facets of reishi. Quite a few other species have triterpenes, too. A lot of the conks, like boletus and, for instance, zhu ling. Zhu ling has a lot of triterpenes in it. Chaga has some. Probably most mushroom species have some triterpenes in them. Turkey tail definitely has triterpenes.
Chris Kresser: This has been fascinating [and] so helpful to really understand all the different medicinal effects that mushrooms can have. It’s also particularly fascinating to understand how those effects can differ across different mushrooms. Eating a number of different species of mushrooms will give you different benefits. Some mushrooms are much higher in beta-glucan. Others might be higher in certain types of terpenes or specific terpenes that are going to give you a particular benefit that you’re looking for.
Dr. Hobbs: And cordyceps have amines, which can affect our nervous system.
Chris Kresser: So cordyceps, let’s talk a little bit about that because I find it’s such a fascinating organism. Tell people what cordyceps is, to begin with, because that’s the fun part. And then we can talk a little bit about the unique health benefits of cordyceps.
Dr. Hobbs: Cordyceps, in its original form, is attached to an insect. There are two main species that we should quickly discuss. The first one is Cordyceps sinensis.
Cordyceps sinensis is composed of a moth caterpillar that lives in the Tibetan Highland underground for three years. When the larva hatches, it feeds on roots underground, and then after three years, some of them become infected with cordyceps, [and] some don’t. Cordyceps [are] in the soil, and many other organisms are in the soil, too. So some of them are infected by Cordyceps sinensis, which seems to be like the caribou and the wolf, [in] that the Cordyceps sinensis’ job is to take out and basically digest the ones that it somehow senses are not very fit for the population. It infects them in the soil, invades them, and then before it kills the larvae, it changes its neurochemistry so that the caterpillar moves up toward the surface and orients itself just below the surface. Then the fruiting body projects out of the top of the head of the moth caterpillar. So if that’s not freaky enough for you.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I would sometimes explain this to patients, and they’re like, “There’s no way I’m going to take that.” But then once [I explained] the benefits, I got some to come around. It’s always fascinating to talk about that. Cordyceps, of course, in Chinese medicine and other systems of traditional medicine, has a long history of use as a tonic for sexual health and vitality, well-being, energy levels, and it’s used in some traditional cultures for athletic performance and recovery. I think there [is] even [a] limited amount of modern research that supports that use, as well. It seems to me [that out] of a lot of the mushroom species that we talked about, cordyceps has some unique benefits in that regard. It seems to be particularly targeted in that direction.
Dr. Hobbs: Perhaps because of the amines that are found in there, perhaps because of terpenes in there that contribute, and, of course, the beta-glucans. Then the other species is Cordyceps militaris. This is the one that you should buy. You should not buy Cordyceps sinensis because there really are no authentic Cordyceps sinensis outside of going to Chinatown [and] buying the caterpillars with the fruiting bodies coming out of their heads for hundreds of dollars. So just go ahead and focus on Cordyceps militaris. They have many of the same benefits as Cordyceps sinensis. I’ve tested them myself in the laboratory for authenticity with DNA, and the products that I’ve tested have been pretty authentic. They are Cordyceps militaris. That’s the way to go.
Chris Kresser: And if someone’s taking a mushroom supplement or something like that, it’s going to be Cordyceps militaris and not Cordyceps sinensis.
Dr. Hobbs: Right. It took us a while to get that all straightened out in the industry, but now, I think it’s pretty settled.
Tips for Foraging Mushrooms Safely
Chris Kresser: I’d love to finish by asking you for some tips for someone who wants to get started with mushroom foraging and doing it in a safe way. How can they learn more about that? I’d love to talk a little bit about your book as a resource. For those who are interested, like you said, [it’s] a great way to get out into the forest and collect your own food and get a little bit more intimate with that whole process. How can folks get started with this?
Dr. Hobbs: Well, get my book, for one thing.
Chris Kresser: We’ll put a link to it in the show notes. It’s Christopher Hobbs, Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide, for those of you who are listening.
Dr. Hobbs: Also, check into my website because I have a lot of stuff on there, medicinal mushroom-wise. [It’s] www.ChristopherHobbs.com. Easy to remember.
Chris Kresser: Your book has fantastic information about the benefits of mushrooms, [their] history, and also information about how to prepare mushrooms. How to eat them, how to make tinctures [and] extracts, which mushrooms are better to cook and eat because they have a better flavor, [and] which mushrooms tend to be very bitter or chewy, [where] you might want to make them into an extract or something else.
Dr. Hobbs: How to grow them, of course.
Chris Kresser: How to grow them. Yeah.
Dr. Hobbs: How to identify toxic ones, though you should get a good field guide, as well. Mine isn’t an absolute, end of the line [identification] book.
Chris Kresser: That’s what I was going to ask. I know a lot of people are nervous about that, and rightfully so. I think a substantial percentage of calls that go into poison hotlines are from mushrooms. There is some risk.
Dr. Hobbs: The book I recommend first and foremost is a field guide, David Arora’s All That the Rain Promises and More. That is a fantastic book. There’s nothing better. [It’s] easy to put in your pocket. He’s got decades and decades of experience. He shows you the toxic lookalikes, [and] he really [goes] into depth on the edibles. He doesn’t touch on medicinals too much, but he will give you some really good basic information. And then other than that, I’d say, look for a local field guide. It makes it easier to identify. Don’t try to get the Mushrooms of the United States. You’re better off getting Mushrooms of the Northwest United States or Northeast, or wherever you are. Try to find your regional mushroom guide, which has pictures. And also, join a mushroom society or club. We have so many [here] in California, and there are more popping up all the time. Join a local mushroom club or society if you can. Go on some forays. There are usually some really seasoned mushroom hunters out there, and [they] can identify your collections. There should also be mushroom fairs. We have a number of mushroom gatherings and fairs where you can bring your mushrooms in and have them identified. Or look for local walks, even with one individual that’s well-seasoned. Get some direct, hands-on stuff going on with someone who really knows what they’re doing. That’s important.
Chris Kresser: That’s really, really helpful. For the last question I’m going to ask you, if you had to pick only three mushrooms, what would be your top three for medicinal value?
Dr. Hobbs: Well, that’s easy. One, two, three. Reishi, turkey tail, and psilocybin.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, we’ll have to do another show on psilocybin because I’m also very interested in that and the psychospiritual, emotional, and even physical benefits of psilocybin. How about for eating? Top three culinary mushrooms.
Dr. Hobbs: Porcini is definitely number one. Beyond that, I love chanterelles. I love candy caps. There are so many good edibles out there. I’m in love with shiitake. So those are my handful—porcini, shiitake, and chanterelles. I love oysters, too. There are probably 10 really well-known edibles. And that’s another class, just talking about the 10 top edibles and how to prepare them and how to find them and so forth.
Chris Kresser: Well, I definitely would love to have you come back and talk about psilocybin on another show. And I think the audience would love that, too.
Dr. Hobbs: Can I mention my upcoming class series?
Chris Kresser: Please do. We have a lot of listeners in California and the Bay Area.
Dr. Hobbs: I’m really, really delighted to be doing a seven-week medicinal mushroom course. A to Z, everything you would like to know, in depth, [with] PowerPoints, and a big Q&A period at the end. That’s one of the biggest benefits of doing it live. And it’s not in person; it’s live on Zoom. We did it last year, [and] it was totally incredible, so I hope you can join us. It’s through the BotanicWise Network. It’s going to be in late June and July. And then I wanted to mention that I’m doing a seven-part psilocybin course that is going to be everything you ever wanted to know about psilocybin, including how it works in the body, the clinical trials, how to become a guide, how to work with a guide, how to find them, how to grow them, and [how to] dry them. Everything you would want to know. How to microdose, all that is going to be covered in my seven-week course with the Shift Network. So look for that in August and September.
Chris Kresser: Fantastic. And are these on your website, as well?
Dr. Hobbs: They will be on my social media, so follow me, especially on Facebook and Instagram. I’m posting on Instagram quite a bit. Dr. Christopher Hobbs.
Chris Kresser: And again, I highly recommend Christopher’s book. Christopher Hobbs, Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide. I’ve read it twice, and it’s a phenomenal resource for all things mushrooms, from understanding their medicinal value to understanding how to cook and prepare them and make medicine out of them.
Christopher, it’s been a fascinating conversation. I’m so grateful for your time. You’re a wealth of knowledge on this topic, and [I] look forward to having you back to talk about psilocybin in the future.
Dr. Hobbs: Thanks, Chris. Much appreciate the invitation and your good questions and interaction. That was a lot of fun. I appreciate it and hope to be back another time.
Chris Kresser: Look forward to it. Okay, everybody. Thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion.
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