According to Norse mythology, a Viking turned into an invincible berserker after consuming a decoction of Amanita muscaria – commonly known as fly agaric. Can mushrooms also serve as a stimulant today?
“If I had to choose between ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I would say: ‘yes’. But it is not easy, because mushrooms are not simple,” says Andrzej Pokrywka from the Medical University of Warsaw, who has been dealing with doping for a number of years.
No substances found in mushrooms appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List. The authors of the list emphasize, however, that the athletes’ test results can also be improved with other specifics. “Only examples of doping substances are listed, currently over three hundred. The use of other agents with a similar chemical structure and similar biological effect is also prohibited,” explains Pokrywka. “Some species of mushrooms have proven hallucinogenic properties. Research is underway to find out whether they have psychoactive effects. If they do, they might turn out to be a doping agent. There are already reports of athletes using micro-doses of psychedelics to improve balance, reflexes and concentration, as well as the ability to overcome fatigue.”
Another example is the Chinese Cordyceps. It is a mushroom, although it looks more like a root. It grows exclusively in the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 3500–5000m above sea level. It has been used in Chinese medicine for millennia, mainly thanks to the yak. The animals eating this fungus became stronger and more enduring. When people realized this, they began to ingest it to fight weakness and fatigue. Some say that Cordyceps increases testosterone levels, promotes muscle development, and increases VO2 max – the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. However, WADA has not included the ingredients found in Cordyceps on the Prohibited List, and its effects haven’t been fully investigated.
“A huge part of reality can be represented in the Gaussian curve. In almost every case, there is a percentage of the population that deviates from the norm. Caffeine is usually stimulating, but for some it may have the opposite effect. I am not saying that this is definitely the case with Cordyceps, but I would take this into account,” adds Pokrywka.
In this case, the situation is clear, and athletes should simply pay attention to Cordyceps supplements. The situation is more complicated with mushrooms that are not easily visible. A few years ago, scientists examined female athletes (names and discipline undisclosed) suspected of taking zeranol – a banned substance that improves, among other things, muscle mass. They were exonerated because it was proven that they had not consciously ingested this substance. It turned out that they ate products infected with fungi of the Fusarium genus. They produce a mycotoxin called zearalenone, which is metabolized in the body – to zeranol. “Please answer the question as to whether this is evidence that fungi can be a doping agent. On the one hand, no-one will deliberately eat spoiled food, and on the other hand, an athlete may unknowingly get into trouble,” Pokrywka sums up.
“And the Nordic legend about the wonderful Amanita muscaria makes sense. The bufotenine found in the fungus shows hallucinogenic and stimulating properties. It raises blood pressure and helps fight fatigue. But again: this does not mean that doping fans will rush for fungal decoctions. There are definitely more side effects than potential advantages,” the expert observes.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
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