Ever since Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon’s eccentric but oddly compelling food diary went viral — and people finally started taking Goop seriously — health editors, herbalists, and Instagram “Earth goddesses” everywhere have been waxing poetic about adaptogenic mushrooms Chaga, Cordyceps, and Reishi. I don’t blame you if you have no idea what any of these things are, or care about their health benefits. It might interest you to know, however, that taking a certain amount of them can get you high. A few weeks ago, as I was searching for something more interesting to do with these 'shrooms than throw them onto my morning oatmeal and say Hail Mary, I stumbled onto a deep-web drug forum. I read that the Reishi mushroom, specifically, was depicted in Taoist scrolls as a bridge between heaven and Earth, and believed to bring the dead back to life. It was described as “a supreme protector” and “the mushroom of spiritual potency,” and the ancient folk supposedly used Reishi to become capable of “spiritual transcendence.” Break me off a piece of THAT! When a few users with questionable avatars and a high chance of living in their mom’s basement confirmed that the mushroom did indeed, when drunk as a tea, chill them all the way out to Enlightenment with zero side effects, I decided it was my civic duty to bring this knowledge to all the mainstream party people. As one does when embarking on any profound drug experience, I wanted to have a guide. The problem is, there is almost no Western medical literature that thoroughly decodes Reishi’s anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects, as opposed to its documented healing powers against, say, tumors. Steven S. Gross, PhD, biomedical researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College — and very liberal-minded man — tells me that “the enormous chemical complexity of fungi and plants makes it essentially impossible to confidently ascribe any observed psychoactivity to a single molecular constituent, site of CNS action, molecular mechanism, or signaling pathway.” A few writings confirm that Reishi is exceptionally high in triterpenes, a class of compounds that can affect the nervous system through the liver. But even Iris Benzie, Reishi specialist and chair professor of biomedical science in the department of health technology and informatics at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, admits in her Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects that “very little is known about the enzymes and biochemical pathways involved in their biosynthesis.” (Prof. Benzie also refused to answer any of my desperate emails.) Herbalists, on the other hand, immediately praise its effectiveness. “Adaptogenic mushrooms restore your hypothalamus,” says Anima Mundi Apothecary founder Adriana Ayales. She’s referring to the region of the forebrain that controls the autonomic nervous system and some of our emotional activity. “I used to work at a [naturopathic] clinic in San Francisco where we would take in clients suffering from heavy depression, extreme mood swings, and schizophrenia. It was unbelievable to see the effect of these adaptogens on them; their mentalities would change in as little as seven days.” Reishi’s effects are gentle and, like all adaptogens, meant to be built up over time. Ayales insists that its immediate effectiveness can be influenced by a few factors, like the physical health and mentality of the consumer. As someone who regularly eats well and practices yoga, enjoys getting intoxicated (legally or illegally), and reluctantly has to take a regular dose of Klonopin, I figured I was a good candidate for success. For a regular mood-boosting and anxiety-relieving tonic — or, in my case, a pill replacement — Arielle Hayat, resident herbalist at New York City’s The Alchemist’s Kitchen, suggests 1 tablespoon of Reishi powder (which I purchased from Sun Potion) in a cup of hot liquid, ideally with a fatty base like almond or cashew milk to aid the body in faster absorption. But for anyone looking to mimic a Xanax pilled-out-chilled-out or weed-like high right away, that dosage should be doubled. I expressed concern over the idea that I’d be quadrupling the recommended 1/2 teaspoon, but Hayat assured me that the brand’s cautious dosage was partly because the powder is so expensive, and partly because some users may have lower tolerances. I partook in my first “sesh” while sitting alone on my bed. After finishing my cup of 2 tablespoons of Reishi powder, plus almond milk (which tasted pleasantly of weak hot chocolate), it took about 25 minutes for me to feel my reflexes slowing down and my body sinking back into my pillows, similar to the feeling you’d get after taking a few hits of a joint. I couldn’t stop giggling. Shortly afterward, my brother walked into my room and, without knowing I had “used,” told me I looked “absolutely blasted.” This tremendous sense of physical and mental slo-mo lasted for approximately two-and-a-half hours, during which time an expert from Cornell’s Mycology center responded to an email I had sent saying my inquiries for an explanation were “beyond her area of expertise,” which I took as a polite, “You are ridiculous, get some hobbies.” I felt shit-faced, but wondered if I was just imagining everything. The geniuses at Harvard believe in the power of the placebo effect. “It may have an element of psychological conditioning: Once someone benefits from an intervention, the person starts to associate that intervention with a benefit,” a Health Letter from 2012 reads. “The association, and therefore the benefit, may get stronger with additional exposures to the intervention.” Considering this, I decided to have another go at it. I took a quadruple dose of the mushroom milk the following day and, once again, got stoned out of my mind within 25 minutes. My clunky winter boots felt as light as flip-flops. I could feel the delicateness of my head balancing on my neck. My ex sent me a rude text that would normally have sent me into a tailspin, and I didn’t give a shit. Bliss.
One reason the Reishi might have worked so well for me: I really wanted it to.
Wanting some backup, I walked (at an alarmingly slow pace) over to my logical and extremely skeptical best friend's house, insisting she try a cup of Reishi for herself. As expected, her eyes eventually began to droop and the two of us ended up on our backs, nodding along to instrumental hip-hop records, staring up at the ceiling until 3 in the morning. Yet when I got home, I was once again rejected by science. “Sorry, no insights,” wrote Roy from the New York Botanical Garden’s department of mycology. “Cheers.” Damn. One reason the Reishi might have worked so well for me: I really wanted it to. “With plant medicine, setting an intention to move the adaptogenic chemistry is crucial,” Ayales says. “That’s why a lot of people dismiss plants as ‘ineffective,’ because they don’t set an intention but expect them to work like pharmaceuticals. People take prescription pills or hard drugs seeing them as the only guarantee, and who knows — that could be the reason why they’re 'working' so well, because they so badly want them to.” As for plants, Hayat says that using them with a specific purpose in mind is absolutely necessary to see results. Before you write off the concept of “intention” as ridiculous, consider what happens when people smoke weed, drop acid, or take legitimate hallucinogenic mushrooms with negativity or fear filling their minds: The chances of having a "bad trip" are high. On the flip side, hallucinogen users who experience “mind expansion” generally take the drugs with the intention of achieving that goal, and they’re usually done in a stimulatory but meditative environment, like a concert with light shows, or a destination such as Joshua Tree. The next night, I was determined to put my new discovery to the test in the real world. Having read that Reishi’s ability to open up one’s "third eye" made it a meaningful addition to a meditation practice, I consumed yet another quadruple dose of the concoction and signed up to see Aya and Tyler conduct a Friday-night Sacred Soundbath at Ishta, my favorite yoga studio. Unlike the singing bowls and gongs that dominate most sonic meditations, this pair of classically trained musicians use computers to combine multiple layers of R&B, jazz, electronica, and shamanic beats with live indigenous instruments and vocals to deliberately overload the senses and guide practitioners into the “hypnogogic state,” or the place between sleeping and waking. I figured that taking Reishi before an event like this could be an amateur version of taking E before a rave. I wasn’t wrong. When Tyler first cranked up his surround-sound speakers, I started having visuals…of my experience at Miami’s Ultra festival in 2010, crammed between thousands of sweaty, underage kids dripping in Ecstasy, huffing Vicks VapoRub out of a surgical mask. I was really terrified and had no idea what to expect, lying totally vulnerable in goddess pose. But as soon as Aya’s vocals started to flow and the rhythms bumped, I completely and utterly melted. I was experiencing the knockout high I had now become familiar with, but was totally, completely present. That blue, spiral emoji seemed to swirl in-between my eyes as I hung on to every chord and vibration. I felt the weight of the mask on my face, the cold of the floor beneath me. They had told us in the beginning that we were allowed to peek if we wanted to see the duo in action, or adjust our position to get comfortable again, but that just wasn’t an option. My body was glued to the floor, and the only time my mind wandered was when I had a small chuckle about how insane it was that an electric didgeridoo was circling my body. I went deep into the silence that exists beyond sound, and I left class feeling so elated, I literally stumbled home. Had I not been on Reishi, I can firmly say my fears and neuroses would have prevented me from experiencing that “sensory overload,” and as a result, truly shutting off my mind. Or, simply put, it would have been like going to see Phish at Madison Square Garden without any acid. Cool, but not UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE. You know? So what’s the verdict? Not to peer-pressure you, but you’ll have to try it yourself to find out. As Dr. Gross said to me, “Whatever you experience can only be considered real,” and judging by my experience, I’d say there should be Amsterdam-style coffee shops that exclusively serve this stuff. But what worked for me may not work for you. My advice is to take a chance; what’s the worst that could happen? And you know what — I think we could all use a little blind faith right about now.