History of Lion’s Mane
“Lion’s mane, also known officially as Hericium erinaceus, is an edible fungus that has been used in East Asia for centuries as food and medicine,” says Monique Richard, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Johnson City, Tennessee, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In Chinese and Japanese medical systems, lion’s mane is traditionally used to fortify the spleen, nourish the gut, and, currently, to treat cancer, per a research paper published March 2017 in the Journal of Restorative Medicine.
Because of its effects on the central nervous system, lion’s mane is also used in traditional Chinese medicine for insomnia and muscle weakness — symptoms of low qi (life energy force), according to the same paper.
How Lion’s Mane Works
Many helpful plant compounds can be found in the lion’s mane fruiting bodies (the part we recognize as the mushroom) and mycelium (the mushroom’s root-like structure).
“Lion’s mane contains a number of compounds that may have beneficial effects on the body, including antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and nerve growth factors,” says Lindsay Delk, RDN, based in Houston, who specializes in the connection between food and mental health.
The active ingredients in lion’s mane include polysaccharides, erinacines, hericerins, steroids, alkaloids, and lactones. “These ingredients help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and inflammation, and they [help to] promote the growth and regeneration of nerve cells,” Delk says.
In particular, lion’s mane has been linked with stimulating a protein known as nerve growth factor (NGF). “Nerve growth factor is essential for brain health and neuron conductivity,” Richard says. Neuron conductivity refers to the ability of nerves to transmit impulses through the nervous system.
Lion’s mane is also used to support heart and immune health. “The polysaccharides may be the beneficial components in supporting cardiovascular and immune health, but many of the bioactive compounds together contribute to the potential benefits,” Richard says.
Where to Find Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
There are two primary categories of lion’s mane: food and supplements.
As a food, lion’s mane mushrooms frequently grow on dead and decaying trees throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, usually in late summer and fall, according to Forest Wildlife.
You can also purchase lion’s mane in supplement form: capsule, liquid, tablet, or powder.
Fresh lion’s mane and lion’s mane supplements can be found online and in health food and grocery stores.
Possible Benefits of Lion’s Mane
This fungus can bring many potential health benefits to your diet. Here are a few noteworthy ones.
May Improve Brain Function
One noteworthy benefit of lion’s mane is its effect on the brain. Past research found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain hericenones and erinacines, two compounds that may stimulate the growth of brain cells in the lab.
The brain-health benefits may make lion’s mane a promising treatment for dementia. In a study published in June 2020 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, people with mild Alzheimer’s disease who took three 350 milligrams (mg) capsules of lion’s mane daily for 49 weeks saw significant improvements in brain health. Meanwhile, those who took a placebo experienced a decline in several markers of cognitive function.
Additional research is needed.
May Help Lower Depression and Anxiety
Lion’s mane decreases inflammation, which may help alleviate depression, Delk says. Authors of a review published in December 2019 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences of laboratory and preliminary studies on the effects of lion’s mane on the brain and mood in a small number of patients wrote they felt it had promise as an effective treatment for depression and encouraged further research.
Delk notes that lion’s mane may also help with anxiety. She points to a past study (included in the above review) in which women with nonspecific health complaints and diseases were given four cookies containing 0.5 gram (g) of powdered lion’s mane daily for four weeks. Compared with the women who received placebo cookies, the lion’s mane group reported significantly less irritation and anxiety by the end of the study.
Because the study included only 30 women, it’s unclear how these findings might apply to larger populations, or how lion’s mane compares with mainstream therapies for anxiety, and research with larger sample sizes is needed.
May Support Digestive Health
Research done on test tube samples and mice suggests that lion’s mane may prevent the proliferation of H. pylori, a bacteria that can have negative effects on the gut lining. Research on humans is needed for scientists to fully understand the impact of lion’s mane mushrooms on our digestive system.
In a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, mice infected with H. pylori who were given lion’s mane extract ended up with lower levels of the bacteria in their stomachs than mice who weren’t given lion’s mane.
Meanwhile, a study published in May 2016 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that lion’s mane inhibited the growth of H. pylori in test tube samples.
Lion’s Mane Safety and Side Effects
In general, fresh lion’s mane carries few risks. Meanwhile, lion’s mane supplements are generally well-tolerated and noted as safe when up to 750 milligrams (mg) are taken orally daily for up to 16 weeks (some research has shown safety at higher doses), “but because research is limited, universal dosing recommendations have not been established [and potency differs in the preparation and source of mushroom],” Richard says.
“Each supplement will have specific dosing recommendations, and the range of lion’s mane content can be wide, from 300 mg and up,” she adds. For reference, 300 mg is 0.3 g.
Still, lion’s mane supplements bear some risks.
For example, a few people included in the 2020 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience Alzheimer’s study reported abdominal discomfort, nausea, and skin rashes from taking 350 mg capsules three times a day. The capsules contained 5 mg of lion’s mane per gram.
Lion’s mane may also slow blood clotting and blood sugar levels. For this reason, it may interact with blood-clotting medications and diabetes treatments, Richard says.
While rare, there’s always a possibility you’ll see the adverse effects we previously mentioned from fresh lion’s mane. Be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider whether it’s safe for you to take lion’s mane supplements, or eat fresh lion’s mane.
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