First of all, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how caffeine works in our body from the neuroscience standpoint – not the attractive addiction – but instead, how it gives out bodies the jolt we crave. Now, let’s throw mushrooms into the equation. Yes. Mushroom coffee is a thing now, and here’s why you might love it.
I’m a researcher at heart and have to know why everything works the way it does (yeah, sometimes I just accept that some things can’t be explained, but that’s for a different article). I’ve dug into my neuroscience textbooks from college and other research papers/videos to reveal what happens when you drink mushroom coffee.
But, let’s separate it all out first.
Caffeine is a white crystalline purine – meaning it’s a methylxanthine alkaloid. Well, what is that?! LOL. Methylxanthines are found in dozens of plants, you know like teas, coffee, cocoa, etc… It’s actually a psychostimulant, aka psychoactive drug.
In our bodies, we have a chemical component called adenosine. Adenosine plays a role in signal transductions, energy transfers (you may have heard of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is literally a unit of energy), regulation of vasodilation, and also suppression of arousal and promotion of sleep and natural circadian rhythms. But, in order for adenosine to work in our bodies, it needs to enter through its receptor sites.
But, caffeine binds to adenosine receptors. (It’s actually similar in structure to adenosine. That’s why it can bind to the receptor.) It blocks the receptor, kicking or repelling any of the adenosine that tries to get in. As a result, nothing can tell the brain to rest or go to sleep. You’ll end up being more awake and alert.
So, what do you think is happening to all of the adenosine that’s just hanging out in your body building up? Our body is amazing, and it senses that there’s something wrong with the caffeine-bound adenosine receptors, so it builds new receptors for adenosine to get in.
This explains why our brains need MORE caffeine to get the jolt – tolerance builds up, my friends. And, this would also explain withdrawal effects (overtiredness from your body now having more adenosine receptors and adenosine to fill those spaces). Don’t worry, after a while of being caffeine free, your body will reset.
Continuing on…caffeine also blocks the breakdown of certain messengers, like cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate). cAMP plays a big role in helping regulate our neural synapses. In a normal synapse (where our neurons are translating or transferring information), our neurons are able to go back into their resting period in a certain amount of time, but when there’s a higher concentration of cAMP due to the presence of caffeine, it takes a longer time for ions to repolarize (resting state). This also leads to an increase in glucose production within cells – resulting in more readily available energy, aka the coffee jitters!
That’s not all folks. cAMP is also in charge of norepinephrine (in your heart) and epinephrine (in your adrenal glands). If you aren’t familiar with those chemical names, they are the drivers of your fight or flight response, aka survival mode. You can now probably understand why people say they need coffee to survive!
BUT, of course, our bodies can’t differentiate from being attacked by a cougar and needing to stay up to finish a term paper. Well, shoot… It sure does help us survive with the demands of our modern life! When the fight or flight response is turned on, we get more oxygen to our brain, aka, more focus, and this increases heart rate and slows down digestion (hmmm… well, coffee being a form of a laxative is for another article!).
To get back on track (thanks ADHD… I mean…caffeine), coffee makes us feel good because it halts or prevents the dopamine and glutamate (from the triggering of the fight or flight response) from being reabsorbed. Feeling wired, jumpy, and happy yet? LOL. My goodness gracious!
But, scientists say that “it’s not the caffeine that’s doing the stimulating. Instead, it’s keeping the doors blocked while the real party animals of the brain do what they love to do.” Now onto…
So, how the Heck might you find a nice balance with your coffee jolt? Mushroom infused coffee (yes, there’s mushroom tea, too!)
You may have heard of one of the more popular mushroom coffee brands, like OrganoGold, but if you stop in your local health food store, you’ll see some pretty cool boutique ones, like Four Sigmatic and Moon Juice in the coffee aisle. And, if you prefer to have it in tea form, I love Blissful Being’s hand-crafted herbal tonics.
You can even make it yourself from the sustainably sourced supply from Mountain Rose Herbs. (My favorite store on the planet!)
In my personal experience, mushroom coffee creates a nice balance and takes away the jitters, but it still leaves you with a strong sense of focus. So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty on how mushroom-infused coffee theoretically works in the brain/body and see what other benefits mushrooms have.
First, we need to familiarize ourselves with the major players of the mushroom world that we might see on the coffee/tea shelves and their benefits: Cordyceps sinensis, chaga, Ganoderma lucidum (reishi), lion’s mane, and maitake. All are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients which have been shown to assist with:
- Allergies and asthma
- Blood pressure regulation
- Blood glucose regulation
- Brain health
- Cancer cell apoptosis and suppression of angiogenesis
- Hormone balance
- Immune system function
- Kidney and liver health
- Sexual health
With this impressive list of benefits, you bet medicinal mushrooms have been and still are being widely utilized to treat many ailments, especially in Asia. (We’re starting to see it become popular in the United States as well, especially in cancer treatment and prevention!)
Medicinal mushrooms are also considered adaptogens, which are natural substances that help your body get back to homeostasis, which could explain why people who drink mushroom coffee may feel much calmer than drinking just coffee. So, how does this work?
Remember I mentioned that caffeine turns on the fight or flight response? Cortisol is the major hormone that gives us that coffee jolt or anxious feeling. But, research suggests that since mushrooms are adaptogenic, one of the processes they counter is inflammation. And, guess what hormone is involved in inflammation…cortisol. So, it is very likely that the mushroom in mushroom coffee tells the body to level out or to break down unneeded cortisol. And, this also helps calms the nervous system, promoting the reduction of stress as well!
Now, you can probably imagine what else is happening inside your body when you drink mushroom coffee: Total focus! OMG, like majorly. Let’s take lion’s mane for example. Lion’s mane possesses a substance that promotes neural (myelin) sheath regulation, protection, and growth stimulation. This helps pave a smooth way for our brains to send signals up and down the body!
But, did you also know that mushrooms contain a lot of vitamin B? Vitamin B is a water soluble vitamin that’s essential for brain function, including the synthesis of numerous neurochemicals and signaling molecules. If you’ve ever taken B12 and noticed you’ve had more focus and energy, that’s why. While mushrooms do contain trace amounts of B12, they’re B vitamins mostly consist of B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), and B5 (pantothenic acid). These vitamins help with cognition, headaches, depression, energy level, nerve health, hormonal function, and metabolism – which all affect our ability to focus.
And this is what happens when you drink mushroom coffee! Pretty cool, huh?!
Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2011). An introduction to brain and behavior. New York, NY: Worth.