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Lion’s Mane Mushroom: The Potential Brain-Boosting, Cancer-Fighting Powerhouse

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Lion's mane mushroom - Dr. Axe

What would you think about eating a mushroom that looks a little like the scruff of a lion? Not totally convinced about lion’s mane mushroom? What if I told you that it’s associated with major brain repair, potential cancer-fighting power and is undergoing research on dozens of other health benefits?

Lion’s mane mushroom is a nootropic food very popular in traditional Chinese medicine. A large body of research has focused around this brain-boosting mushroom in the last few years, and the results are nothing short of astounding.

One study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry lists the benefits by stating lion’s mane mushroom is “antibiotic, anticarcinogenic, antidiabetic, anti-fatigue, antihypertensive, anti-hyperlipodemic, anti-senescence [anti-aging], cardioprotective, hepatoprotective, nephroprotective, and neuroprotective, and improves anxiety, cognitive function, and depression.” (1)

Wow. That’s quite a list!

Whether you’re interested in trying out lion’s mane mushroom in your mushroom coffee or are just curious what this odd-looking fungus might be good for, I’m sure you’re going to be impressed.


What Are Lion’s Mane Mushrooms?

Known in Latin as Hericium erinaceus, lion’s mane is native to North America, Europe and Asia, although it’s not cultivated widely in areas outside of Asia. It’s sometimes referred to as Hedgehog Mushroom, Yamabushitake or Houtou, and it belongs to the tooth fungus, or hydnoid fungi group.

Lion’s mane mushrooms have long, dangling spines that are usually greater than a centimeter in length. Unlike most mushroom species, whose spines project from a branch, the spines of Hericium erinaceus projects outward, giving it that unique look of a lion’s mane. These mushrooms grow on both living and dead broadleaf trees and are common in the late summer and fall months.

Research shows that lion’s mane possesses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunostimulating properties in cells, animals and humans. It has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal mushroom, especially among traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. (2)


Lion’s Mane Mushroom Benefits

1. Enhances Brain Function

Maybe the most thoroughly researched feature of lion’s mane mushroom is its impact on brain cells and related functions. This incredible fungus may have revolutionary impact on neurodegenerative diseases.

One method by which lion’s mane affects brain function is by enhancing “neurite outgrowth” in the brain and related organs, according to research published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. (3, 4) Neurite outgrowth refers to the growth of axons and dendrites from neurons (anybody’s high school biology classes coming back?).

That’s a big deal in brain health research. By increasing this growth, it could potentially be possible to slow or reverse cell degeneration in the brain — the main characteristic of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A 2012 study conducted in Malaysia found that consuming lion’s mane mushroom could actually regenerate damaged cells from peripheral nerve injury, an injury affecting the delicate tissue between your brain and spinal cord. (5)

When studying how brain diseases might be affected by particular medications or treatments, scientists often use what is known as the PC12 cell line for testing. Extracts and various forms of lion’s mane mushroom seem to have a major impact on PC12 cells, protecting them from damage and delaying their cell death significantly. This finding may prove to be extremely relevant for prevention or treatment of brain conditions. (6, 7, 8)

In animal research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, lion’s mane mushroom stimulates cognitive function and helps improve memory in rats, both with and without an Alzheimer’s model. (9) Multiple studies have found an inverse correlation between lion’s mane and Alzheimer’s-related symptoms, meaning that after consuming the mushroom extract, the rats’ symptoms improved. (10, 11)

An improvement of mild cognitive impairment in humans was also found in research published in Phytotherapy Research after eight to 16 weeks of lion’s mane supplementation, although this improvement did not last after subjects stopped taking this supplement. (12)

The danger of ischemic injury (damage caused by a lack of blood flow) to neurons is also of significance when you’re talking about brain damage and disease. In laboratory tests conducted in Taiwan, lion’s mane mushroom has been shown to help prevent this type of injury. (13)

Taking supplements of lion’s mane has also been found to have potentially protective effects on the spread of Parkinson’s disease, another neurodegenerative disorder, according to research published in the Journal of Translational Medicine. (14)

While this research is still in its infancy and has not progressed to large-scale human trials in most cases, the consistent effect lion’s mane mushroom has been found to have on brain cells should not be ignored.

2. May Protect Against Cancer

Lion’s mane may also be significant in treating cancer, according to a host of research. (15) In varying degrees, compounds from or supplementation with lion’s mane mushroom has been found to potentially slow the progression or reverse the spread of:

In regard to leukemia, lion’s mane was shown to significantly reduce leukemia cells in a Korean study. (16) Further Korean research conducted by the Department of Molecular Science and Technology at Ajou University found that thanks to the phytochemicals in lion’s mane mushroom, it has “therapeutic potential against human leukemia.” (17)

As far as gastric cancer is concerned, a study published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules found that lion’s mane caused cell death and cell cycle arrest with gastric cancer. The researchers concluded, “our study provides in vitro evidence that HEG-5 may be taken as a potential candidate for treating gastric cancer.” (18)

Studies published in the Journal of Natural Products and Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Sciences unearth the ability of lion’s mane mushroom to treat lung cancer. (19, 20) Meanwhile, according the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology and the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, lion’s mane exhibits anticancer activity against colon, breast and other cancers as well. (21, 22)

Some studies actually suggest the use of lion’s mane mushroom supplements to treat cancer, although long-term and large-scale studies haven’t been conducted to prove that as a viable option.

Another interesting finding involved the metastasis (cancer spreading) from the colon to the lung. When a cancer spreads to more than the original organ in which it was found, a patient is considered to have stage IV cancer. In a study conducted on rats out of Korea, rats were given either hot water lion’s mane extract or microwaved ethanol extracts of lion’s mane mushroom. By consuming lion’s mane extract, the rats studied showed inhibited metastasis of cancer cells to the lungs by 66 percent and 69 percent, respectively. (23)

3. Supports Heart and Circulatory System Health

Lion’s mane mushroom might also help you in preventing heart disease. Research has found that extracts of lion’s mane can prevent the increase of LDL cholesterol (sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol), increase HDL, or “good,” cholesterol and lower triglycerides in the bloodstream, an early indicator of heart disease. (24, 25)

Stroke, a lack of blood supply to the brain from the heart, is sometimes caused by blood clots. It’s also related to atherosclerosis, a serious heart condition. An extract of lion’s mane mushroom may be able to prevent blood clots and help to reduce the risk of stroke, according to a study by from the Department of Cellular Signaling, Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Tohoku University in Japan. (26)

4. Might Improve Digestive Health

Due in part to its powerful anti-inflammatory properties, lion’s mane mushroom might improve the function of your stomach and digestive system.

In multiple studies, lion’s mane mushroom has been shown to protect from or shrink gastric ulcers. For instance, according a study conducted on rats by the Mushroom Research Centre at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, researchers concluded the bioactive compounds in lion’s mane extract may be responsible for the gastroprotective activity exhibited on the rats. (27) Research from China published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms confirms this, noting that “results indicate that the polysaccharide fraction is the active component of the H. erinaceus mycelium culture, which protects against gastric ulcers.” (28)

Lion’s mane may also significantly improve symptoms of two major inflammatory disorders of the digestive system, gastritis and inflammatory bowel disease. (29, 30)

5. Reduces Inflammation

Although it’s a relatively different way of looking at health, research on natural ways to reduce inflammation is a major way natural health practitioners help prevent disease.

A 2015 study out of Japan found that lion’s mane mushroom was able to reduce inflammation in fatty tissue. This is important because fatty tissue inflammation is a factor in the formation of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. (31)

Lion’s mane also has antibacterial effects against h. Pylori, often considered “the most successful pathogen in human history.” Many people never have symptoms of carrying the bacteria, but for some people it causes severe gastric conditions, like ulcers in the stomach and/or intestines. (32, 33)

 

Lion's mane mushroom - Dr. Axe

 

6. Acts as a Powerful Antioxidant

Fighting free radical damage has a number of health benefits, including the prevention of disease. The molecules in lion’s mane mushroom have antioxidant abilities and help prevent and relieve the oxidative stress caused by poor nutrition and exposure to chemicals in the environment. (34, 35)

One specific way these antioxidants may be useful is in the healing of wounds. A study at the University of Malaya found that a liquid extract of lion’s mane sped up wound healing significantly compared to natural healing in rats. (36)

These antioxidants may also:

  • Help prevent osteoporosis (37)
  • Protect from alcohol-induced liver damage (38)
  • Slow the aging of skin (39)

7. Improve Mental Health and Overall Well-Being

A lion’s mane mushroom supplement may also help you to feel better by improving sleep and reducing the effects of mental health issues.

The powerful polysaccharides extracted from lion’s mane have been shown to fight fatigue in mice trials. (40) They also might have the ability to adjust circadian rhythms back to normal, as they did on mice in a study conducted at the Department of Agro-environmental Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture at Kyushu University, which is particularly significant for people who are at risk for dementia. (41)

Consuming lion’s mane mushroom may also be a natural remedy for depression and anxiety. Thirty women were given either a placebo or lion’s mane for four weeks. Researchers concluded, “Our results show that HE intake has the possibility to reduce depression and anxiety and these results suggest a different mechanism from NGF-enhancing action of H. erinaceus.” (42) This seems to be related, in part, to the inflammation factor related to depression, as shown in mice studies. (43)

8. Improves Immune Function

It’s important to know how to boost your immune system so your body can fight infection well. Lion’s mane seems to have the ability to enhance immune system function in a manner also related to the polysaccharide content in the fungus, according to research performed on mice. (44)

9. Might Be Useful for Managing Diabetes

A 2013 animal study showed marked improvement in blood glucose levels, insulin sensitivity and various other diabetes symptoms when an extract of lion’s mane mushroom was given to them. (45)

Possibly because of the antioxidant activity of lion’s mane, administering it to animals also seems to relieve pain caused by diabetic neuropathy. (46)


Lion’s Mane Mushroom Nutrition Facts

Because of the limited amount of lion’s mane mushroom produced for mass consumption, it’s difficult to find specific nutrition facts. However, at least one source states that one serving (around 84 grams) contains 20 calories, 2 grams of protein and 3 grams of carbohydrates. (47)

Research suggests that lion’s mane is a source of at least 32 bioactive compounds. Although it’s hard to pinpoint the vitamin and mineral content of lion’s mane, it’s believed to be a rich source of potassium, zinc, iron and selenium. One reason lion’s mane has been researched for a wide variety of purposes is because of the polysaccharides it contains. Polysaccharides are complex carbohydrate structures, like glucose. (48)

Lion’s mane mushroom contains beta-glucan polysaccharides, which are known scientifically to have correlations with various health benefits, like heart health and immune responses.


Lion’s Mane in TCM and Traditional Medicine

Lion’s mane mushrooms have been used for centuries as a food source and herbal medicine in several Asian countries. In the last 10 years or so, this medicinal mushroom has attracted considerable attention because of its potential therapeutic capabilities in neurodegenerative diseases.

In the East, reverence for fungi dates back many centuries, with fungi known as “spirit plants” that were believed to provide longevity and spiritual potency. According to research published in the Journal of Restorative Medicine, in Chinese and Japanese medical systems, lion’s mane has traditionally been used to nourish the gut, fortify the spleen and also as an anticancer agent. In traditional medicine, it’s said to be nutritive to our five internal organs — the lung, heart, spleen, kidney and liver, and it’s used to promote good digestion, strength and general vigor. (49)

Lion’s mane mushroom is also used to improve symptoms of Qi deficiency (a lack of “vital energy”) in traditional Chinese medicine, and is often taken for issues involving the central nervous system, insomnia and weakness.


Lion’s Mane vs. Reishi

Both lion’s mane and reishi are fungi used in traditional Chinese medicine for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. They have many similar health benefits, including their ability to boost immune function and fight oxidative stress.

Lion’s mane is known and valued for its neuroprotective capabilities. It promotes cognitive health by enhancing “neurite outgrowth,” which plays a critical role in neural growth while reducing inflammation. Lion’s mane is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to maintain Qi, a person’s vital energy, and improve issues affecting the central nervous system. It may be recommended to patients dealing with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, insomnia and cognitive impairment. 

Reishi mushroom is known for its amazing healing properties. Like lion’s mane, it has powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. It’s also used to boost mental clarity and help the body deal with the negative effects of stress, which is why it’s considered to act much like an adaptogen herb. Reishi mushrooms also contain polysaccharides, like lion’s mane, which gives them their potential cancer-fighting capabilities.


Where to Find and How to Use Lion’s Mane 

Unfortunately for many of us Westerners, lion’s mane mushroom isn’t readily available at the grocery store, with the possible exception of Asian grocery markets in places like Chinatown.

However, there are two options you still have. For one, it’s possible to grow lion’s mane in North America, and kits are available online with seeds to grow it in your own personal garden.

If you go this route, be aware that many people liken the mushroom to a seafood-tasting, fleshy item. It pairs well with brown rice or quinoa, especially if you add some fresh flavors, such as bell peppers or sweet onion.

Not everyone has a way to grow personal crops, so you can also purchase lion’s mane mushroom in supplement form. Be sure to do your research and only purchase high-quality supplements from trusted manufacturers.


Lion’s Mane Recipes

To prepare lion’s mane mushroom, brush off any bits of dirt from the spines, cut off the part that was attached to the tree and cut it into half-inch steaks. Then using a dry pan, cook the steaks for about 5 minutes on each side, checking on them every few minutes. You want the water in the mushrooms to come out so they become a bit crispy.

Once the mushrooms have begun to brown, add in a bit of grass-fed butter, ghee or olive oil, plus salt and pepper, and continue to cook on low until the mushroom steaks turn golden brown.

When sautéing lion’s mane, you can also add in chopped garlic, yellow onion and other vegetables that you would typically pair with shrimp, as the two are known to have similar flavors.

Sautéed lion’s mane mushrooms would work perfectly in my vegetarian ceviche recipe, especially because it will add that traditional fish-like flavor of ceviche but keep the dish vegetarian-friendly.


Lion’s Mane Supplements and Dosage

Lion’s mane supplements are often used for their potential cognitive-enhancing and immune-boosting capabilities. You can find supplements in extract, powered and capsule forms online or in your local vitamin store.

You can find lion’s mane mushroom capsules with lion’s mane as the sole ingredient or as part of a combination that’s meant to promote brain health, including other nootropic foods and herbs like reishi, cordyceps, ginkgo biloba and ashwagandha.

When using any dietary supplement, you must read the label for the proper dosage, especially when there’s a combination of ingredients. The dosages recommended in supplements ranges from 300 milligrams to 3,000 milligrams, one to three times daily, so follow the instructions on the label carefully. If you aren’t sure how your body will react, start with a smaller dose and work your way up from there.

If you notice any allergy symptoms after using lion’s mane mushroom extract or supplements, like itchiness or digestive issues, stop using the supplement altogether.


History and Interesting Facts About Lion’s Mane Mushroom

Like many powerfully beneficial foods, lion’s mane mushroom has been known for some time in parts of Asia to be great for various body functions and conditions. Used in Japan for centuries and possibly millennia, the odd-looking fungus is revered by Buddhist monks and understood to be almost a mystical source of nutrition.

A sect of Buddhist monks known as the Yamabushi wear a garment known as the “suzukake,” fashioned from many long strands of fur, that bears a striking resemblance to the lion’s mane mushroom and probably accounts for why the mushroom is known in some areas as the yamabushitake.

Some sources state that it was reserved for royalty at different times in the past.


Precautions and Side Effects

Lion’s mane mushroom is a generally safe food item. Multiple studies have found it to be non-toxic at different dosages, even over extended periods of time. (50, 51)

There have been isolated reports of lion’s mane mushroom side effects, including one of contact dermatitis and another of respiratory distress related to consuming lion’s mane. (5253)

If you choose to eat this mushroom and have any symptoms, such as burning/itching skin, inability to breathe properly, or swollen lips, consult your doctor immediately.


Final Thoughts on Lion’s Mane Mushroom

  • Lion’s mane mushroom is an edible fungus grown in Asia, Europe and North America.
  • It has been used for millennia as a medicinal food in traditional Chinese medicine and other ancient medicinal practices.
  • Due to the presence of unique polysaccharides and other nutrients, lion’s mane mushroom has a large number of health benefits.
  • The two most well-known benefits of consuming lion’s mane are the potential ability to prevent or protect the spread of neurodegenerative disease and cancer.
  • Lion’s mane mushroom may also help improve heart health, protect from inflammatory digestive issues, reduce inflammation, relieve oxidative stress, improve mental health, boost immunity and prevent diabetes.
  • Lion’s mane is not available in most Western grocery locations, but you can grow your own or take it in supplement form.

Read Next: Chaga Mushroom: 5 Health Benefits of This Ancient Medicine


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