This story could start in a lot of places—the mountains of Bhutan, in Prague or Vienna or Venice Beach, but ultimately, all roads lead to my kitchen, where I’ve just used the lukewarm remainder of my morning coffee to wash down $11 worth of rare Himalayan mushrooms. It’s 10 am on a Wednesday, and I’m not sure what’s about to happen, but I hope something does. These mushrooms won’t get me high in a psychedelic sense, but instead carry the vague but promising notions of increased vitality, immunity and mental and physical stamina.
“Somebody asked me at the beginning, what do you want to do?” says Joel Einhorn the founder of HANAH, the Venice, California-based company that makes Cordyceps+. “I was like, ‘I want to create the Chanel of herbal medicine.’” It’s a sexy notion, particularly in a natural health and wellness industry crowded by tinctures, lotions, vitamins, crystals and Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s infamous yoni egg, which led company GOOP to be sued after it instructed women to put chunks of jade up their vaginas. With varying regulations and products making claims often untested by the FDA, supplements are a $37 billion dollar a year wild west industry that’s exploded with the mainstreaming of holistic and nature-based wellness.
But even to those who are obsessed with achieving optimal health, cordyceps has an almost mythical reputation. This has something to do with its commensurately mythical origin. The mushroom grows exclusively on the Tibetan Plateau—a thousand mile stretch surrounded by the world’s highest mountains and populated primarily by yaks—that runs from Western China to Nepal. Here, the cordyceps sinensis fungus feeds on caterpillar larvae of the ghost moth. First, the caterpillar buries itself a few inches in the soil, then the fungus enters it, and in time, kills and consumes it. It's a process not unlike several of my romantic relationships. Cordyceps grow from the mummified remains of this caterpillar—imagine a regular caterpillar, but dead and with a narwhal-like mushroom horn growing from its head. This horn is the cash crop plucked from the ground during the three to six week cordyceps harvest that happens each spring, after the snowmelt.
Cordyceps grow from the mummified remains of this caterpillar—imagine a regular caterpillar, but dead and with a narwhal-like mushroom horn growing from its head.
In hopeful aim for contentment, Einhorn started his own investment fund, made even more money for himself and his partners. With paycheck after paycheck, he opened a Czech nightclub called The Roxy, took up DJing, competed in triathlons, launched a clothing line, opened a travel agency servicing the Czech film industry and served as Tom Cruise’s stand-in in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. He was making six figures, snowboarding a lot and existing in a circuit of low-level Czech celebrities. Life was good, but still, Einhorn felt he had a greater purpose than impersonating to be Tom Cruise.
Then he fell off his bike. His head hit the ground, and when he came to, his collarbone was sticking out of his back. “If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, Einhorn says, “I’d either be dead or eating through a straw for the rest of my life.” When he was released from a Prague hospital after the accident, he was depressed and constantly dizzy. But a chance meeting with Ayurvedic master Dr. V.A. Venugopal thrust him into the world of Ayurvedic medicine, and even after this holistic regimen helped him heal from the accident, Einhorn was keen to keep taking the supplements that had fixed his brain and delivered him to a new level of mental clarity and physical stamina.
The problem was that high-quality, low cost herbal supplements were almost impossible to get. Most companies grow them in bulk rather than harvesting them from their natural environments, thus compromising their effectiveness. It’s a practice even more common now as the industry has grown, and one Einhorn calls a massive swindle. “Imagine if you took Pinot Noir grapes and planted them in Arizona,” he says. “You're going to get grapes; you’re going to get wine, but it's going to have nothing to do with actual Pinot Noir.”
“As Bhutan becomes more of a destination and a really cool place on the planet, not only for tourists but for herbal remedies and other exports,” Einhorn says, contrasting Bhutan with the Amazon where many Indigenous populations have been plundered by the pharmaceutical industry. “[The people in charge] in Bhutan want to make sure locals get a piece of the pie.”
Indeed, the demand for cordyceps is significant. The mushroom is considered a status symbol throughout Asia and is becoming increasingly popular among athletes, CEOs and the Silicon Valley crowd always looking for that competitive edge as they march humanity kicking and screaming into the future. The jars in each batch of Cordyceps+ is individually numbered and when the batch is gone, the product is legitimately unavailable until the next shipment arrives to Venice—the biohacking, juice cleansing, microdosing bleeding edge of the wellness frontier—from Bhutan. HANAH’s last batch sold out in days. And while you can walk into any Whole Foods or Erehwon and find myriad cordyceps products, Einhorn says most of these mushrooms are lab grown and less likely to offer the full benefits of the cordyceps obtained 7,700 miles away on the Plateau.
As for me, in the 14 days it takes me to consume my cordyceps, I feel fairly life affirmed. I wake up feeling rested and am increasingly compelled to try to inhale the pheromones of any semi-attractive man within a 20-foot radius. I get a cold but rebound quickly. My digestion improves and I feel calm, despite the general state of things. Most significantly, I’m focused. I’ve never taken Adderall, but this must be what Adderall feels like. When I sit down to work, instead of texting or looking at Instagram, I actually work. I get things done within a reasonable enough timeframe that at the end of the workday I’m not feeling anxious about the next one. By day four, I’ve deleted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram from my phone and find that in their absence, my brain feels better, like someone has poured coolant on it. And when my little jar runs out I’m like Cinderella when her carriage turns back into a pumpkin—my digestion goes sluggish, I’m less keen to smell the general male population and I reinstall all my social apps.
Ultimately, Cordyceps showed me what life is like with an energy and focus that’s hard to achieve on my own. It’d be great to feel so good again, if I could afford the luxury.