If you’ve tuned in to the health world at all lately, you’ve heard of nootropics. It’s a fancy word for foods or supplements that enhance your brain’s health and function. And if you’re aware of nootropics, you’re probably also aware that there’s a lot of questionable, possibly dangerous supplements out being advertised as Miracle-Gro for your neurons. But you might not know that one of the world’s most powerful, scientifically-backed nootropics is likely growing in the closest forest or park.
Some call it lion’s mane. Others, satyr’s beard. In Japan, it’s known as yamabushitake. In laboratories, Hericium erinaceus — Latin for “hedgehog-hedgehog,” in reference to its prickly appearance. This hairy, white, bulbous growth that tastes kinda like seafood and grows in the woods turns out to have potent medicinal properties.
Identifying a lion’s mane mushroom is as easy as wild mushroom identification gets. They grow on trees, stumps, and logs, and the bright white color of fresh lion’s mane stands out in the forest. Look for their long, toothy structures dangling from a single fleshy core. Lion’s mane mushrooms seem especially prone to quick decay, so many are inedible by the time they’re found. But if you are lucky enough to spot a fresh lion’s mane, you’re in for some delicious ‘shroom. These funky fungi are praised for their excellent taste and unique texture. I recommended frying them up with just a little salt and butter.
But this isn’t an article about the culinary merits of lion’s mane mushroom, as delicious as they may be. I want to take a closer look at its impressive health benefits. What follows is my attempt, as someone with no background in medicine or science, to summarize some of the more compelling studies I’ve found. I did my best to pull out the most interesting information and report it accurately, and the URLs are provided to see each study in full.
Lion’s mane is commonly thought to promote brain health, and the science seems to support this reputation. One derivative of lion’s mane is called Erinacine A. When administered orally, it was found to have neuroprotective qualities for mice injected with an MPTP mouse-model of Parkinson’s disease. And in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in Japan, supplementation with lion’s mane mushroom for 16 weeks was found to significantly raise the test scores of older adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment. It is notable that these mental improvements faded just a few weeks after supplementation with lion’s mane was ended.
Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a neuropeptide that plays a critical role in promoting neuronal growth and immune function. Scientists think that Alzheimer’s disease may be due to a lack of NGF in the brain. And here’s the real problem: as of now, it’s very hard to devise a way to deliver NGF to the brain because it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. But that’s where lion’s mane comes into the equation: the hericenones and erinacines present in lion’s mane are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. And once they cross it, they appear to aid in NGF biosynthesis, making Hericium erinaceus a potential weapon against Alzheimer’s disease. Another study found specific erinacines present in lion’s mane to stimulate NGF synthesis in astroglilial cells (a type of cell present in the brain and spinal cord) with more potency than epinephrine.
In his excellent book The Fungal Pharmacy, Robert Rogers mentions a study in which 100 elderly Japanese patients suffering from a variety of neurodegenerative diseases and nerve injuries were given five grams of lion’s mane a day for six months. Rogers reports that after the six months were up, six in seven patients “demonstrated improvements in perceptual capacities, and all seven had improvements in the Functional Independence Measure” (Rogers, 214).
In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, two extracts of lion’s mane were used to treat human gastric, colon, and liver cancersin vitro. These in vitro tests showed significant anti-cancer activity. But here’s where it gets wild: the same extracts were administered orally to mice to treat cancerous tumors. These in vivo tests showed that the lion’s mane extracts were more effective than Fluorouracil, a drug used extensively to treat cancer, while being less toxic to the mice. Korean researchers found that lion’s mane contains a previously unknown cerebroside, called cerebroside E, which was shown to inhibit blood-vessel formation in cancerous tumors, while at the same time limiting the negative side-effects of conventional anti-cancer drugs.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, lion’s mane has also been shown to havestrong antioxidant properties, as well as potential anti-inflammatory properties. While none of these findings are considered conclusive science as of yet (relatively few studies have been conducted), lion’s mane is certainly starting to garner more attention from researchers. Hopefully this trend continues.
Although foraging your own is rewarding, collecting and processing enough lion’s mane is not always possible. So if you’re looking to try lion’s mane, but don’t have the ability to collect it yourself (which is certainly the ideal way to get it), I would recommend using the lion’s mane extract offered by Nammex. I have no affiliation whatsoever with them, but their company is the best when it comes to medicinal mushrooms. Unfortunately, Nammex only offers their product at wholesale. Real Mushrooms, however, uses exclusively Nammex product in their powders and capsules, so I would strongly recommend purchasing from them if you want to buy lion’s mane (again, no affiliation). I’m not crazy about supplements, but I take the stuff every day. If you want to taste lion’s mane without finding it yourself, I’ve heard that the fresh mushroom is becoming available at some specialty stores and restaurants, but I’ve never seen it.
If you’re looking to try a safe, wild-sourced nootropic that both traditional medicine and emerging science can agree on, lion’s mane fits the bill.