Lion’s mane (Latin name Hericium erinaceus) is an edible and medicinal mushroom native to North America, Europe, and Asia. The species fruits from hardwood trees between August and November, and produces brilliant white fruiting bodies that possess long spines. The structure of these fleshy tendrils may hint towards their function—they almost look like the branched extensions of brain cells.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are prized for their culinary use. Their sweet flavour and meaty texture lead many diners to compare the experience to eating lobster or scallops. But lion’s mane provides more than just a hearty meal. These mushrooms are packed with interesting molecules that have demonstrated serious potential in the lab. So far, researchers have tested the fungus against cognitive diseases and mental health conditions. The results point towards lion’s mane as a tonic for the nervous system.
Currently, over 6 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and one in nine people over the age of 65 experience the condition. These scary figures point towards a tough reality: Many of us are destined to experience neurodegeneration during old age. But why is this happening?
Genetics plays a role in the formation of the disease, but it turns out that poor lifestyle choices, environmental pollutants, and restricted access to education (stimulating the brain through learning) are all tied to an increased risk of developing the condition. The fact that external variables contribute to the disease means we have the chance to turn these statistics on their head, and lion’s mane mushrooms might help us achieve that goal.
Lion’s mane exerts a neuroprotective effect. The fungus contains two groups of substances called hericenones and erinacines that appear to increase the levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain. This vital protein regulates the development and function of certain neurons, and reduced levels of this key molecule are thought to contribute to the cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer’s disease.
Research published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms tested the neuroprotective effects of lion’s mane extract on brain cells. The preparation managed to drive the production of NGF and also caused the cells to develop new projections. During brain cell development, these outgrowths typically form complex neuronal architecture that helps to establish nervous system function.
The build-up of toxic plaques in the brain also contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. This debris builds up between nerve cells and impairs signalling between them. A study conducted at Tohoku University in Japan revealed that lion’s mane might help to treat this aspect of Alzheimer’s disease, too.
The researchers administered plaques to mice while feeding them a diet containing the fungus. Amazingly, the mushroom managed to prevent the memory and learning impairments usually associated with the plaques. The team concluded that lion’s mane may be useful in the prevention of cognitive dysfunction. No studies have yet tested the effects of the mushroom on humans with Alzheimer’s, but these findings show great promise.
Mild cognitive impairment
The term “nootropic” describes a substance that enhances cognitive function. It turns out lion’s mane may serve as a reservoir of natural nootropic molecules. As well as helping to protect the brain against more serious cerebral diseases, the mushroom may help to improve brain function in healthy individuals and those with minor cognitive problems.
A human trial conducted at the Hokuto Corporation Mushroom Laboratory in Japan gave lion’s mane tablets to participants diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. They split 30 subjects into two groups. One group took mushroom tablets three times a day for a total of 16 weeks. The other group received a placebo.
At the end of the trial, the participants underwent testing for cognitive function. The group that received lion’s mane achieved significantly increased scores during testing. However, after they stopped taking the mushroom, their scores decreased significantly.
This research shows us that lion’s mane mushrooms clearly increase brain power in humans. While human trials in this area are few and far between, scores of anecdotal accounts detail how people feel their brains working better when taking lion’s mane while reading, writing, and creating.
Depression & anxiety
Depression and anxiety have reached epidemic proportions. Millions of us experience low mood, despair, hopelessness, fear, and even panic on a regular basis. But the human brain isn’t designed to function this way. We’re supposed to experience these emotions when they are useful to our survival, not on a chronic basis to the point where they destroy our wellbeing.
These sensations are the symptoms of a deeper malady. In many ways, we’re living out of alignment with our natural state. Spending hours working in an office cubicle, only to spend the majority of our free time staring into a screen, doesn’t exactly cultivate a healthy state of mind.
While we pray for change and ride out the current situation, natural gifts such as lion’s mane might help us to endure these mental challenges. The mushroom shows potential when it comes to relieving the symptoms of the most prevalent mental health conditions of our time.
Research conducted in Taiwan tested the **antidepressant effect of lion’s mane extract on mice. During the beginning of the study, the mice experienced high levels of stress and low levels of dopamine and serotonin. The mushroom extract managed to reverse all of these detrimental changes to their behaviour and neurochemistry. **antidepressant effect of lion’s mane extract – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29364170/
A human study that took place in Japan explored the clinical effects of the mushroom on 30 female participants experiencing a range of complaints, including anxiety and depression. While one group received a placebo, the other consumed cookies containing lion’s mane. At the end of the study, the women who received the mushroom scored lower on depression, irritability, and anxiety, and higher in concentration.
One of many healing mushrooms
We’ve already covered the immune-enhancing properties of turkey tail mushrooms. Now, we’ve examined the ability of lion’s mane to serve as a tonic for the nervous system. This tasty and medicinal fungus has the ability to improve mood, enhance brain power, and even protect us against raging neurodegenerative diseases. These ancient life forms sit upon a pantheon of healing fungi that appear to offer something truly restorative where the pharmaceutical paradigm fails.
Luke Sumpter is a freelance journalist that specializes in health, wellness, and alternative therapies. Currently, he’s working on a dissertation exploring the emerging role of the endocannabinoid system in orthopaedic medicine.