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Lion's Mane: The Mushroom Capsules That Can Energize and Sharpen Your Memory and Mood

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There’s growing interest in mushrooms (not just the psychedelic kind) because of their outstanding health properties. The lion's mane is a rising star of the mushroom world, with its 10,000 species, dubbed “The Smart Mushroom.” It’s been given this name because it has a well-earned reputation for boosting cognition.

Whether you’re a young adult wishing to heighten mental clarity, concentration, and reaction time or a senior wishing to maintain your cognitive health and safeguard yourself from the ravages of dementia, lion’s mane has much to offer.

Key Takeaways

  • Both as food and medicine, lion’s mane has been prized for centuries for its incredible healing abilities.
  • Modern science has backed up its historical use and extended it, finding that it can support the immune system, protect the heart, liver, and other organs, combat metabolic disorders, and more.
  • Lion’s mane uniquely contains compounds that can maintain brain health, protect against cognitive decline, improve brain performance, raise mood, and protect against anxiety and depression.

What is Lion's Mane?

With its long, dangly spines and shaggy appearance, this large white mushroom (Hericium Erinaceus) has been given the name lion’s mane because to many it resembles the long, flowing mane of a lion. But some cultures around the world see it differently, so this highly regarded fungus is also affectionately known as Monkey’s Mushroom or Monkeyhead, Bear’s Head, Hog’s Head Fungus, White Beard, Old Man’s Beard, Pom Pom, and Bearded Tooth.

It’s used extensively both as food and medicine in Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and India but can also be found in forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere including in the American south. The mushroom can be eaten raw or cooked; its mild, sweet flavor is said to resemble seafoods like crab or lobster.

Because of its extensive medicinal qualities, it’s also available as lion’s mane mushroom capsules, tablets, liquids, and powders.

Revered Since Ancient Times

The mushroom has been used for centuries in Japan and in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) where it’s said to combat a lack of Qi, or “life force”, and is capable of "fortifying the spleen, nourishing the stomach, and tranquilizing the mind." [1]

In TCM it’s used to promote the health of the liver, kidney, spleen, lungs, and heart, to aid healthy digestion and act against cancer. In Eastern Asia lion's mane is taken as a tonic for people who are physically and mentally exhausted and suffer general malaise. It’s also used for gastric and duodenal ulcers, chronic gastritis and insomnia.

Lion’s mane was also historically prized by Buddhist monks for its cognitive powers. They made a powder out of the mushroom to increase focus and concentration during many hours of meditation.

Lion's Mane Mushroom Health Benefits

Modern research shows lion’s mane has a huge number of health benefits that are believed to come from some of its novel compounds as well as the many other metabolites and polysaccharides that contain antioxidants and bioactive compounds shown to promote health.

In two separate papers, one from Chinese scientists [2] and another authored by Mendel Friedman [3], a research chemist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), they wrote that the medicinal mushroom:

  • Possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Acts against pathogens
  • Curbs stomach ulcers
  • Protects the liver
  • Safeguards the kidneys
  • Regenerates brain cells and supports cognitive function
  • Protects the cardiovascular system
  • Counters high levels of unhealthy blood fats, high blood sugar and high blood pressure
  • Combats fatigue
  • Provides immune support
  • Improves wound healing
  • Fights cancer
  • Impedes aging and promotes longevity


How can a humble mushroom achieve all this?

Much is still unknown but Dr. Friedman writes: “The described anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, and immunostimulating properties in cells, animals, and humans seem to be responsible for the multiple health-promoting properties.”

Some of the reasons that lay behind these sizable health properties are the mushroom's ability to transform single compounds into 70 different and more complex ones, called secondary metabolites, which is incredibly high compared to other species of mushroom. The most researched of these secondary metabolites are hericerins and erinacines and these are thought largely responsible for the mushroom’s best-known property – supporting the health and function of the brain.

Improving Brain Health With Nerve Growth Factor

Fifteen forms of erinacines have been identified so far. A, B and C forms are derived from a network of thin fungal strands called the mycelium (the hidden root structure of the mushroom, as distinct from the fruiting body or head of the mushroom). The importance of these erinacines, as well as Hericenone E, lie in their ability to stimulate a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF).

NGF has powerful effects on the maintenance, survival, growth and regeneration of nerve cells in the central and peripheral nervous system. If we want to keep our nervous system in good shape, we need NGF to be optimized, but with aging the brain’s ability to make it declines and this is proposed as a major reason for age-related cognitive decline and the development of neurodegenerative diseases.

NGF can’t be given by mouth or injection because it’s unable to cross the blood brain barrier. That's why the neuroscientist who was awarded the Nobel prize for discovering it, Rita Levi-Montalcini, took it in the form of eye drops. Her animal research suggested it could pass through the optic nerve into the brain. [4]

Whether this explains why she lived to the great age of 103 and was working right up until her demise, isn’t possible to say, but NGF is clearly a very important substance.

And that’s where lion’s mane comes in.

Lion’s Mane Boosts NGF

Although NGF isn't commonly available as eye drops there’s another way to boost it-- with lion’s mane. Why? Because lion's mane is able to stimulate production of NGF in the brain itself. [5]

A world-leading authority on lion's mane, Dr. Hirokazu Kawagishi of Shizoka University in Japan, states that hericenones and erinacines can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier to set off processes that stimulate the release of NGF. In cell cultures these secondary metabolites boosted NGF five-fold and they also increased NGF in the hippocampus of mice, a key area for memory. He wrote that "the erinacines are the most powerful inducers of NGF synthesis among all currently identified natural compounds."

Multiple Brain Benefits

Other animal research has shown the active ingredients in lion's mane:

  • Prevent brain cells dismantling and dying prematurely
  • Protect against cognitive decline from amyloid beta, the protein that aggregates and forms plaques in Alzheimer's
  • Promote brain cell growth following injury
  • Enhance myelin production, the sheath that protects the nerves and is needed for healthy brain function
  • Improve memory and other cognitive abilities

The big question is whether positive findings that come from cell culture and rodent research is reflected in people. The answer to this is a resounding yes.

Benefits Older Folks With and Without Cognitive Disorders

Mild Alzheimer’s: After 49 weeks, patients taking 3 x 350 mg/day of lion’s mane mycelia capsules demonstrated higher scores on three scales that measure cognitive abilities such as memory, language, and concentration, compared to the placebo group taking capsules containing sugar. [6]

Dementia: Seven patients taking lion’s mane mushroom supplements saw improvements in walking, eating and dressing and six out of the patients saw improvements in memory, understanding and communication abilities.

Mild Cognitive Impairment: Fifteen men and women over 50 saw a significant increase in cognitive function after taking lion's mane supplements in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, scoring higher on memory and thinking tests compared to the placebo group. [7]

Cognitively healthy: Volunteers took supplements containing the fruiting body of lion’s mane for 12 weeks. After taking a battery of cognitive tests, findings showed they enjoyed significantly improved cognitive functions compared to the placebo group. [8]

These remarkable benefits are why lion's mane is considered to be a nootropic, a target="_blank" natural compound that enhances brain and memory function. What's more, brain benefits are not just seen in older adults. The young benefit too.

Better Mood and Reduced Anxiety in Young Adults

A trial published in 2023 involved 41 healthy adults with an average age of 26 who were asked to take either a daily dose of 1.8 grams (3 x 600mg) of lion’s mane mushroom supplement or placebo for 28 days. They were given cognitive tests on day one and day 29. Results showed that following a single dose of lion’s mane, participants performed significantly quicker on a test of information processing and reaction time. After 28 days the lion’s mane group said they felt more relaxed compared to the placebo group and also at day 28 compared to day one.

The UK psychologists who conducted the study wrote that “this is the first study to demonstrate cognitive benefits of H. erinaceus in a young, healthy sample following a single dose of H. erinaceus, thus adding to the growing body of literature which has shown cognitive improvements following chronic supplementation in older adults with diagnosed mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer’s disease and no cognitive impairments." [9]

Another 2023 trial involved 40 healthy men and women aged 18 upwards, with an average age of 34. After taking a single dose supplement containing 1000 mg of lion’s mane fruiting bodies, working memory, attention and reaction time all improved two hours later. They also reported they felt happier. [10]

Lifts Depression

A study of 30 women aged 41 on average over four weeks found those eating lion's mane cookies containing 0.5 g of fruitbodies powder alleviated the symptoms of depression, anxiety, frustration, and palpitation compared to placebo cookies. [11]

Another found taking three capsules containing 80 percent mycelium extract and 20 percent fruiting body extract daily for eight weeks decreased anxiety, and sleep disorders compared to placebo. [12]

As we’ve seen, NGF plays a key role in the brain, but more recent research suggests brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is activated by lion’s mane. [13]

BDNF is a protein involved in the maintenance, development, and function of the central nervous system. In fact, it's considered so important, some researchers have dubbed it "Miracle Gro" for the brain. Enhanced BDNF protects brain cells from free radicals, lifts mood, speeds up learning and improves memory.

Although it’s too early to say for certain, activation of the BDNF pathway is one of the reasons suggested for how lion’s mane is able to alleviate depression.

Consuming Lion's Mane Mushroom

There are various types of Hericium that look similar to Hericium Erinaceus so if you go foraging for the mushroom in the forest it could be mistaken for something else. However, these alternatives are not toxic so will be safe to eat. Nonetheless it’s best to take a guidebook with you to make sure you’re picking the genuine article.

The mushroom fruits in late summer and early fall and likes to grow on dead or decaying hardwood logs. Spines are pure white when the mushroom is young but fades with age. If foraging doesn’t appeal to you, grow kits are available online, but most people prefer to receive its health benefits by consuming a nutritional supplement.

Supplementing With Lion's Mane Mushroom Capsules

Mushroom extract supplements come in different forms such as liquids or powders that can be added to foods and drinks or as tablets and capsules. Supplements can be derived from the mycelium or the fruit body, or both. As can be seen from the above studies, there’s no standard dosage, so they vary from one manufacturer to another. They recommended range tends to vary from half a gram to 2 grams per day.

What’s important is to make sure the product meets specific quality standards by ensuring a standardized dose of the active ingredient in each tablet or capsule. Lion’s mane is sometimes combined with other nutrients known to support brain health. As they work in synergy the dose of lion’s mane can be much less than the range mentioned. One such supplement is Green Valley Natural's Maximum Memory Support.

How Safe Is Lion's Mane?

Side effects such as skin rashes or breathing problems have been reported so anyone sensitive or allergic to mushrooms should avoid anything containing lion's mane or other medicinal mushrooms. For everyone else they appear safe. In rodent studies even mega doses induced no adverse effects, so sticking to dosage guidelines should present no problems. [14]

Summary

Lion's mane has be used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years and many of its uses have been backed up by modern research where it's been found to have multiple affects that benefit most of the body but especially the brain. It contains unique factors that enable the brain to increase NGF. This in turn supports brain cell maintenance, growth and development. NGF, plus other compounds and polysaccharides, enables the brain to perform better and protects against cognitive decline.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is lion’s mane?

It’s a medicinal mushroom that can boost cognitive function. Because of this it’s considered a nootropic like another mushroom, turkey tail, or the amino acid l-theanine and a number of others.

What does lion’s mane do for the body?

Lab research suggests it supports most body organs, aids metabolic functions, improves immunity and can even fight a serious medical condition like cancer. Human research also supports its value in various aspects of brain health, energy, and cognitive performance.

What is the best form of lion’s mane to take?

There is no single best form of dietary supplement to take, but you may not reap all the benefits unless you choose a reputable supplier that uses a standardized dose of the key ingredients. Please note that mushrooms are sometimes grown on wheat so may not be entirely gluten free and non-gmo.

Should you take lion’s mane in the morning or at night?

To boost cognitive performance it's best taken in the morning. To aid sleep, it's best taken at night.

Does lion’s mane work for ADHD?

It should theoretically help but there are no human studies to support it.

  1. Spelman et al. Neurological Activity of Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) Journal of Restorative Medicine, Volume 6, Number 1, 12 March 2017, pp. 19-26(8)
  2. He X et al. Structures, biological activities, and industrial applications of the polysaccharides from Hericium erinaceus (Lion's Mane) mushroom: A review Int J Biol Macromol. 2017 Apr;97:228-237
  3. Friedman M, Nutrition, and Health-Promoting Properties of Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane) Mushroom Fruiting Bodies and Mycelia and Their Bioactive Compounds J Agric Food Chem. 2015 Aug 19;63(32):7108-23
  4. Kalra S et al. Celebrating life with Rita Levi-Montalcini: A hundred years and more Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2012 May-Jun; 16(3): 327–328
  5. News Medical Active compound in Lion’s Mane mushroom improves nerve growth and memory Feb 13 2023
  6. Li IC et al. Prevention of Early Alzheimer’s Disease by Erinacine A-Enriched Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Pilot Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study Front Aging Neurosci. 2020 Jun 3:12:155
  7. Mori K et al. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial Phytother Res. 2009 Mar;23(3):367-72
  8. Saitsu Y et al. Improvement of cognitive functions by oral intake of Hericium erinaceus Biomed Res. 2019;40(4):125-131
  9. Docherty S et al. The Acute and Chronic Effects of Lion’s Mane Mushroom Supplementation on Cognitive Function, Stress and Mood in Young Adults: A Double-Blind, Parallel Groups, Pilot Study Nutrients. 2023 Nov; 15(22): 4842
  10. La Monica M et al. Acute Effects of Naturally Occurring Guayusa Tea and Nordic Lion’s Mane Extracts on Cognitive Performance Nutrients. 2023 Dec; 15(24): 5018
  11. Nagano M et al. Reduction of depression and anxiety by 4 weeks Hericium erinaceus intake Biomed Res. 2010 Aug;31(4):231-7
  12. Chong PS et al. Therapeutic Potential of Hericium erinaceus for Depressive Disorder Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Jan; 21(1): 163
  13. Viona L et al. Hericium erinaceus Improves Mood and Sleep Disorders in Patients Affected by Overweight or Obesity: Could Circulating Pro-BDNF and BDNF Be Potential Biomarkers? Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019; 2019: 7861297
  14. healthline 9 Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Plus Side Effects) January 12, 2024
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