Lion's Mane Mushroom

For many years, mushrooms have received most of their attention as a popular pizza topping. But recently, these members of the fungi kingdom are getting a lot of spotlight as a “superfood” and functional mushrooms, like lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), are becoming increasingly popular.

These days mushrooms are being studied for their wellness properties and are consumed not just as nutritional food, but also as nutraceuticals, food supplements that have wellness benefits (Sabaratnam et al., 2013). The average consumer is also becoming more aware of the health benefits of different mushroom species.

While many of the edible varieties of mushrooms have health benefits, a few have stand out qualities. Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) has been getting special attention for its potential benefits of supporting nerve regeneration and brain health (Sabaratnam et al., 2013).

I don’t know about you, but as I am aging, and also as a mother, I am finding I need all the brain power I can get! So I’m very interested in supporting my mental capacity and keeping my nervous system nourished. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of lion’s mane mushroom and the best sources of this fungi powerhouse.

Lion's Mane Mushroom: What You Should Know | Herbal Academy | Lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushroom is most recognized for its important work in supporting brain function, memory, and mood.

What is Lion’s Mane?
Lion’s mane, historically known as an edible mushroom, was given its name due to its white, fluffy, cascading white spines (Stamets, 2005) resembling the long tresses of a lion. Hericium erinaceus grows in a formation that resembles a giant snowball and is sometimes referred to as monkey’s head, old man’s beard, hedgehog mushroom, pom pom (Stamets, 2005), and yamabushitake, a Japanese word that translates as “those who sleep in the mountains” (Rogers, 2011).

Lion’s mane is most abundantly found in the southern regions of the United States but has also been reported in other areas of North America, as well as Europe, China, and Japan (Stamets, 2005).

In the wild, lion’s mane can grow up to 40 cm in diameter (Stamets, 2005). This fungus does not have the same appearance as your typical mushroom, with no stalk or cap. Its white, cascading spines grow downward in a fork, changing color to brown or yellowish-brown with age (Stamets, 2005). If you were to encounter this white, spiny fungus in its natural habitat, it would likely be growing on dying or dead oak, walnut, beech, maple, or sycamore stumps or logs (Stamets, 2005).

Previously, mushrooms were considered to be part of the plant kingdom, but now they carry their own distinction as members of the kingdom of fungi. Mushrooms are usually recognized by their fruiting bodies, which is the part that we see with our naked eye; however, most of the magic occurs under the surface or at a cellular level with the mycelium. The mycelium is a web of cells called hyphae that is usually hidden in the soil or tree bark (Utah State University, n.d.). This web travels throughout a multitude of habitats, taking with it nutrients from soils, plants, and other organisms, to ultimately cycle nutrients through the food chain (Stamets, 2005). I recently enjoyed reading this sweet poem about the beauty of mushrooms:

“Without leaves, without buds, without flowers;
Yet they form fruit.
As a food, as a tonic, as a medicine;
The entire creation is precious” (Chang & Miles, 1989, p. 345).

Lion's Mane Mushroom: What You Should Know | Herbal Academy | Lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushroom is most recognized for its important work in supporting brain function, memory, and mood.

Benefits of Lion’s Mane
As mentioned, lion’s mane is most recognized for its important work in supporting brain function, memory, and mood. Many studies have been conclusive that lion’s mane can assist individuals with mental focus and retaining knowledge, and even support degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, by stimulating nerve growth factor (NGF) (Chong et al., 2019). Nerve growth factor is a family of proteins that maintain and assist in the growth and regeneration of neurons during our adult life (Sabaratnam et al., 2013). In a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, the interaction between Hericium erinaceus and NGF was studied and was found to induce the synthesis of NGF cells and promote brain neurite outgrowth activity in vitro (Lai et al., 2013).

As humans age, certain cognitive functions start to decline, and we begin to lose our ability to form connections in the brain, learn new skills, retain information, and recall memories (Burke & Barnes, 2006). Lion’s mane is a powerful brain tonic and has increasingly been studied for its neuroprotective properties (Zhang et al., 2016). As world-renowned mycologist and author Paul Stamets says, “Lion’s mane may be our first ‘smart’ mushroom. It is a safe, edible fungus that appears to confer cognitive benefits on our aging population” (Stamets, 2017, para 16).

In a 2009 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in Japan, 50-80-year-old men with mild cognitive impairment were given four 250 mg tablets containing 96% lion’s mane powder three times a day for 16 weeks (Mori et al., 2009). The results of this study showed marked improvement on the cognitive function tests compared with the placebo group, concluding that lion’s mane may be effective in improving mild cognitive impairment in humans (Mori et al., 2009).

Lion's Mane Mushroom: What You Should Know | Herbal Academy | Lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushroom is most recognized for its important work in supporting brain function, memory, and mood.

In our fast-paced society, I think most people would benefit from reduced stress and increased peace or happiness overall. Many studies are finding that consuming lion’s mane can be helpful not only for supporting brain health, but also for easing anxiety and depression (Nagano et al., 2010).

Depression is a common and serious illness with broad impacts across the globe (Chong et al., 2019). The effects of lion’s mane on brain function may also prove to be beneficial in supporting those who suffer from depression and anxiety. In a 2010 study, 30 post-menopausal women who consumed lion’s mane in a controlled dose baked into cookies over a period of 4 weeks showed less anxiety and depression and also showed improvement in mental focus (Nagano et al., 2010). Even though there have not yet been many studies to date utilizing lion’s mane as an alternative for the treatment of depression (Chong et al., 2019), we can be hopeful that more research will be done in this area in the future. Lion’s mane may help calm our nervous system and make us feel happier overall (Nagano et al., 2010).

In addition to all of its cognitive and mood-enhancing benefits, lion’s mane also has significant nutritional value. Hericium erinaceus is composed of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fats, amino acids, as well as many vitamins and minerals (Bacha et al., 2018). Lion’s mane has also been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a digestive tonic for thousands of years (Stamets, 2005).

As most fungi do, lion’s mane also contains a particular type of complex branched-chain polysaccharides called beta glucans. Beta glucans make lion’s mane an excellent choice for boosting immune health (Hobbs, 1986). In fact, the polysaccharides found in fungi are similar to the ones found in more commonly recognized immune-supporting herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) (Hobbs, 1986). Complex polysaccharides found in herbs and mushrooms can also aid in imbalances with blood pressure, cholesterol, ulcers, cancer, diabetes, liver problems, and more (Bacha et al., 2018).

While the possibility of lion’s mane providing support for many imbalances of the body and mind is quite exciting, currently most of the research on the benefits of lion’s mane has been performed on animals. As we find more evidence that lion’s mane can help boost mental function, we can assume that more studies will be done with humans as well. Although more research stands to be done on the side effects of lion’s mane, aside from a case of reported respiratory distress linked with the consumption of lion’s mane extract (Nakatsugawa et al., 2003), it has been found to have very few side effects and is considered safe (Zhang et al., 2016). However, if you are allergic or have a sensitivity to mushrooms, avoid ingesting lion’s mane in any form.