In 1955, an American ethnomycologist and banker by the name of Robert Gordon Wasson, travelled to Mexico to take part in an ancient shamanic healing ritual – a Velada – with Mazatec curandera María Sabina. He was one of the first Westerners to take part in the ritual, which used psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms as a vehicle for enlightenment (it later transpired that Wasson was funded by MK Ultra). Returning home, he wrote of the “magic mushroom,” coining the term now synonymous with psychedelic mushrooms in the Western world and unwittingly inspiring other Westerners to seek out Sabina and experience the magic for themselves. Blamed for attracting unwanted attention to her community, Sabina was ostracised and her house was burnt down.
Now, decades later, the West is finally harnessing on mass scale the magic that was once considered nothing more than counterculture, a trend driven by growing bodies of research by the likes of Paul Stamets of Netflix’s Fantastic Fungi, which touts the life and planet-saving potential of fungi, and Michael Pollan, whose book How to Change your Mind explores first-hand the psychological benefits of psychedelics, including magic mushrooms.
Categorically speaking, the West is late to the game. That’s why, when holistic nutritionist Tonya Papanikolov tells Semaine, matter-of-factly, that “mushrooms have always been mainstream,” there’s no arguing. In the Global South, mushrooms have been used, both spiritually and medicinally, for thousands of years. Significant fungi varieties, like reishi, were noted in the ancient Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) text, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, which dates back to 200 AD. In TCM, mushrooms are used to cure ailments like digestive conditions, anxiety and insomnia.
In other cultures, such as the Khakas, who were indigenous to Siberia, psychedelic fly agaric mushrooms were used in shamanic rituals on the Winter Solstice – a ritual which some, including Wasson, say has influenced our own Christmas traditions. These large, red and white mushrooms would appear in the days leading up to the festival, often under fir or pine trees (our modern day Christmas trees). Due to their toxicity, fly agarics had to be dehydrated, either by being hung on the branches of the trees, like Christmas baubles, or placed in socks and hung over the fire, like Christmas stockings. Tonya is right when she says that mushrooms “have always been here”. And yet, she adds: “They’re this quiet and invisible species that have so much more than what meets the eye.”
Having been driven by curiosity since being a little girl, Tonya can trace her interest in nutrition all the way back to her teen years, when she was dealing with a number of digestive issues and allergies relating to food. “I quickly realised I couldn’t eat the same things as my family,” she recalls, adding that, in a time before the “wellness space” had really boomed, she had to do a lot of exploration and decision making on her own. She gained an undergraduate degree in Nutritional Sciences before taking a slight “detour” into the world of fashion. But, working an intense and stressful corporate job, Tonya’s health issues began to reemerge, in some cases becoming much more serious. “I had to make a decision to really change my life and my lifestyle, and so I did that, and I decided to go back to what I was really passionate about – food.” At 23, she went back to university to study Holistic Nutrition.
It was within that time frame, in 2016, that she began to explore mushrooms and fungi and, while out on a healing protocol, was introduced to a high dose of reishi mushroom – a nonpsychedelic, medicinal mushroom native to East Asia. She took the mushroom every day over an eight week period – her life changed. “My digestion changed, my skin changed, my liver stagnation cleared up, I gained newfound clarity on an emotional issue I’d been going through.” This was Tonya’s first “big ‘aha’ moment” with mushrooms.
And so, in 2018, she founded Rainbo, a functional mushroom company with a mission of using fungi to “upgrade humanity.” For Tonya, what’s interesting about fungi is just how similar they are to human beings: “We have similar digestive structures and ways that we breathe, so exchanging oxygen with the environment.” Functional mushrooms are species that are both edible and, vitally, have properties that will benefit the body beyond nutrition. “They have compounds like beta glucans, sterols and antioxidants and tons of different compounds,” says Tonya, fondly. “And they have a range of different benefits on the body, from the immune system, our energy, nervous systems, brain health and beyond.”
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By Ella Glover for Semaine.
truffle hunting with their hound.”
messages emanating from our thoughts does however control our biology. This is
empowering because we can change this!”
and radical understanding of the nature of the self, reality, and the sacred.”
Teachings of Plants
What does the word “taste” mean to you?
Do you have a life motto that you live by?
Understand with compassion or you will misunderstand the time.
What was the last thing that made you laugh?
Driving in the car and looking at the dash exactly as the podcast I was listening to was at 11:11:11. A cosmic giggle.
What are your favourite qualities in a human being?
Integrity, honesty, humour, kindness, open-mindedness, curiosity.
Who is your hero?
What is your biggest flaw?
What is your best quality?
Relentless optimism and capacity for love.
What would your last meal on earth be?
My grandmother’s spanikopita.
What does success mean to you?
Creating positive impact while being joyful every day.
If you had the power to change anything you wanted in the world, what would you change?
For everyone in the world to experience inner peace and vibrant health.