Lion’s mane is one of nature’s gifts to your nervous system. It’s the only mushroom possessing not one but two potent nerve growth factors, showing potential benefits for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, multiple sclerosis, leg cramps, anxiety, and more.
Lion’s mane mushroom has been used medicinally in Asia for centuries, but for some reason it’s all but unknown in the West.
Besides being called “lion’s mane,” Hericium erinaceus is known by other names including bearded tooth mushroom, bearded hedgehog, and bearded tooth fungus. In Japan, it’s known as yamabushitake, which means “mountain priest mushroom.” It has a variety of other names, depending on the country.
In Asia, it is said that lion’s mane gives you “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion,” and from what science is revealing, that’s apt prose. Thus far, evidence exists that lion’s mane mushroom confers the following health benefits: improved cognitive function; nerve regeneration, remyelination, and increased nerve growth factor; improved digestive function and relief from gastritis; and immunosupportive, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. It also acts as an anticoagulant, mild ACE inhibitor, and grants improved lipid profile.
The science about lion’s mane is in its infancy, but evidence already points to significant therapeutic benefits for numerous diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system.
Conditions that may benefit from lion’s mane mushroom include:
- Dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Muscle cramps and spasms
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Stroke recovery
- Seizures and seizure-like post-stroke episodes
- Anxiety and depression
Mother Nature’s First “Smart Mushroom”
According to world-renown fungi expert Paul Stamets, lion’s mane may be the first “smart mushroom,” providing support specifically for cognitive function, including memory, attention, and creativity. It is reported that Buddhist monks have consumed lion’s mane tea for centuries before meditation in order to enhance their powers of concentration.
This unique fungus contains a group of compounds that regenerate myelin along the axons, which opens the door to a world of neuroprotective benefits.
In one of the few human studies to date, older adults with mild cognitive impairment were given 250 milligrams of powdered lion’s mane three times a day for 16 weeks and compared to another group receiving a placebo. The lion’s mane group scored significantly higher on the cognitive function scale compared with placebo, with no adverse effects. This study should prompt scientists to investigate the therapeutic efficacy of these fungi for dementia patients.
Lion’s Mane Regenerates Nerves and Stimulates NGF
One of the reasons for this mushroom’s exceptional neuroprotective powers is its ability to stimulate synthesis of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is a protein that plays a major role in the maintenance, survival, and regeneration of neurons in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Lion’s mane contains two unique types of compounds: hericenones and erinacines. The erinacines found in Hericium erinaceus mycelium are among the most powerful NGF inducers in the natural world, able to cross your blood-brain barrier and stimulate the production of new neurons within the brain itself.
With many neurological disorders, the brain is unable to manufacture NGF—in fact, this is thought to be one of the primary mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease. Making matters worse, myelin sheaths and the blood-brain barrier prevent your body from accessing external sources of NGF, and this contributes to the progressive deterioration of brain neurons over time.
Lion’s mane is the only mushroom to demonstrate significant potential for nerve regeneration. In a groundbreaking 2014 study, an oral extract proved effective in promoting peripheral nerve regeneration after surgically-induced crush-injuries in rats.
NGF also plays important roles in myelination, including protecting oligodendrocytes (myelin-producing cells) and the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). In 2003, lion’s mane extract was found to stimulate nerve myelination, which was confirmed by a later study in 2013. This finding has huge implications for helping individuals with multiple sclerosis, a disease characterized by progressive demyelination.
As an aside, there is actually another mushroom that may prove helpful with demyelination—Phellinus igniarius, otherwise known as willow bracket. One study found its extract suppressed demyelination as well as suppressing many of the immune cells active (or overactive) in multiple sclerosis.
Amyloid Plaques, Anxiety, and Depression
Lion’s mane has also been shown to reduce beta-amyloid plaques. Beta-amyloid plaques are proteins that form in the fatty membranes that surround nerve cells, interfering with neurotransmission. These plaques are thought to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
In a compelling animal study, mice were injected with neurotoxic peptides (to induce plaque formation), in order to assess the effects of lion’s mane on the type of amyloid plaque seen in Alzheimer’s sufferers. As the plaque developed, the mice lost their ability to memorize a test maze, but when they were fed a diet containing a lion’s mane mushroom, their performance in the maze significantly improved. In addition to regaining their former cognitive skills, they gained new cognitive skills—something akin to curiosity, as measured by greater time spent exploring novel objects compared to familiar ones. The reduction of beta-amyloid plaques in the mushroom-fed mice was remarkable.
Lion’s mane also shows potential in the treatment of anxiety and depression. In a study involving menopausal women, the mushroom reduced depression and anxiety by some mechanism other than its NGF-enhancing properties. The effects were particularly strong in lowering anxiety, reducing feelings of irritation, and enhancing concentration. So it looks like the Buddhist monks were right.
Benefits Beyond the Nervous System
As with many mushrooms, lion’s mane has a number of other therapeutic actions resulting from its anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive properties, including the following:
Cancer: One animal study found an extract of lion’s mane inhibited the spread of colon cancer cells to the lung by 66 to 69 percent; the mushroom has also been shown to induce apoptosis in leukemia cells and inhibits angiogenesis.
Thrombosis: Hericenone B appears to “potently and specifically inhibit collagen-induced platelet aggregation.”
Mild ACE Inhibitor: The exact molecule underlying this effect is not currently known, but it is thought to be a bioactive peptide.
Lipids: Lion’s mane mycelium is reported to reduce triglycerides and improve LDL and HDL levels.
Fat Metabolism: It increases the expression of several genes involved in fat metabolism.
Wound Healing: Topical application of the extract was found to accelerate wound healing.
Lion’s mane mushroom has earned its right to be in your kitchen pantry and medicine cabinet. I’m sure we’ll be seeing many more studies illuminating its therapeutic potential in the near future.
Although the mushroom’s availability is limited to hardwood forests and a few gourmet food shops, kits are available that allow you to grow your own lion’s mane at home. Lion’s mane mushrooms are 20 percent protein and can be prepared using standard culinary techniques, just like any other edible mushroom. Mushroom Forager describes this oddball’s appearance as sort of like a “faceless hedgehog,” or a truffula tree out of “The Lorax.” In other words, they’re easy to spot. Does it taste like chicken? No, in this case lobster … or so they say, as I’ve not partaken myself.
According to Mushroom Forager: “Lion’s mane has no look-alikes, edible or poisonous, and all forms are edible and delicious in the kitchen.”
You can find lion’s mane in the forests of North America, Europe, and Asia during the summer and fall, typically attached to dead or dying hardwood trees and logs, including maple, beech, oak, birch, walnut, and sycamore. Lion’s mane is also widely available as a supplement and comes in powders and liquid extracts. Some serious allergic reactions have been reported, so please take ample precautions.
Valerie Burke is a freelance health writer in Olympia, Wash., with backgrounds in both allopathic and integrative medicine and a master’s degree in nursing science. Her areas of interest include nutrition, energy psychology, EMF protection, and integrating principles of holistic health to create balance in mind, body, and spirit. You can learn more about her at shungitequeen.com. This article was first published on GreenMedinfo.com