No ordinary mushroom, lion’s mane has both history and science to support its use as a cognitive and mood enhancer. Learn how it works and how to use it.
Not quite plant and not quite animal, mushrooms are some of the most fascinating organisms on the planet. (1)
And few mushrooms are as interesting as the lion’s mane mushroom.
Lion’s mane looks unlike other mushrooms by having “teeth” like tiny icicles rather than the typical cap.
It has some unique health properties as well.
Lion’s mane mushroom has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
It is said to bestow the “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion” to those who partake.
Let’s take a closer look to see how this unusual mushroom lives up to its reputation as a superb cognitive and mood enhancer.
Traditional Lion’s Mane Mushroom Benefits and Uses
Traditionally, lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) has been a mainstay in Chinese medicine for promoting healthy digestion and liver function. (2)
It is also considered an overall rejuvenating health tonic.
In China, it’s called “monkey head mushroom.”
In Japan, it is called yamabushitake which means “mountain priest mushroom.”
It’s named after the Yamabushi sect of hermit Buddhist monks believed to possess supernatural powers. (3)
According to legend, they used lion’s mane to stay focused during meditation. (4)
Lion’s mane is found not only in Asia.
It’s also native to parts of Europe and North America where it goes by many equally descriptive names such as sheep’s head, bear’s head, bearded tooth mushroom, satyr’s beard, bearded hedgehog mushroom, and pom pom blanc.
Interestingly, it also happens to look somewhat like a human brain. 😉
Lion’s Mane Benefits, Backed by Science
The latest science supports the traditional benefits of lion’s mane and has found some new ones.
The list of the reported benefits of lion’s mane is a long one!
Additionally, it is neuroprotective and can help with some of the most common mood disorders and neurological diseases.
So far, approximately 70 bioactive compounds have been discovered in lion’s mane. (7)
Others work by stimulating the formation of important brain chemicals.
Here are the main known ways that lion’s mane can positively impact mood and brain health.
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Lion’s Mane Is a Natural Antidepressant
It’s not fully understood what causes depression.
The most commonly held theory is that it’s caused by a lack of the brain chemical serotonin.
But one of the more intriguing alternative theories is that depression is the result of chronic brain inflammation rather than a neurotransmitter imbalance. (10)
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Amycenone is an anti-inflammatory compound found in lion’s mane that may be responsible for its antidepressant properties. (13)
A single dose of amycenone in mice showed a marked reduction in pro-inflammatory proteins.
Human studies confirm that taking lion’s mane for four weeks reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. (14)
Another study found that Amyloban 3399 improved general well-being and sleep quality in college students. (17)
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Halts Cognitive Decline
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage between normal age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
Being diagnosed with MCI increases your risk of eventually developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. (18)
In one clinical study, seniors diagnosed with MCI were given 3 grams of dried lion’s mane mushroom powder for 16 weeks. (19)
At the end of the study, their cognitive function scores had improved significantly with no adverse side effects.
Beta amyloid plaques in the brain are an important biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease and there’s evidence that lion’s mane can break them up.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How Acetylcholine Deficiency Impacts Memory
Researchers are hopeful that compounds found in lion’s mane may be useful for halting and even reversing dementia or Alzheimer’s.
One way lion’s mane might slow mental decline is by raising levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning.
Human studies have yet to be done, but lion’s mane extract has been found to increase acetylcholine levels in the brains of mice. (24)
Lion’s Mane Grows and Protects Nerve Cells
Lion’s mane mushroom contains two groups of compounds not found anywhere else — the hericenones and the erinacines. (25)
These unique compounds encourage the formation of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that acts like a super fertilizer for your neurons.
It not only heals and protects your nerve cells, but it also stimulates the growth of new ones in both the brain and the nervous system.
Experts believed that NGF deficiency is linked to Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, NGF is a large molecule that can’t pass through the brain’s protective barrier which limits its medicinal potential.
But hericenones and erinacines are smaller compounds that easily cross the blood-brain barrier, allowing them to increase the level of NGF in the brain.
Lion’s mane also helps to rebuild myelin, a protective coating surrounding nerve fibers that acts as the nervous system’s insulation.
Several central nervous system disorders are a result of loss of myelin, most notably multiple sclerosis.
There is currently no cure for these demyelinating diseases, but compounds that stimulate NGF such as those found in lion’s mane mushroom may be a key to such treatment. (28)
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How to Use Lion’s Mane Mushroom
You can eat lion’s mane mushroom as a food or drink it as a tea like the ancients did.
But now it’s most popular as a nutritional supplement or, strangely, as an ingredient in coffee.
Here’s a look at how to use lion’s mane mushroom, no matter how you prefer to consume it.
Choosing the Best Lion’s Mane Supplements
For many of us, the most convenient way to get our daily dose of lion’s mane is as a supplement.
Lion’s mane has become a trendy nootropic (cognitive enhancer) and many supplement companies have jumped on the bandwagon.
Supplements vary greatly in price and quality, but you won’t go wrong with lion’s mane supplements from Host Defense.
They are formulated by world renowned fungi authority Paul Stamets.
He has written books, published in peer-reviewed journals, been awarded patents, and even discovered a few new mushroom species along the way.
He calls lion’s mane “the first smart mushroom” that is “nature’s nutrient for your neurons.” (29)
Both contain sustainably cultivated organic mushrooms.
These are full spectrum supplements which contain dried fruiting bodies and mycelium, parts of the mushroom that each bring their own set of health benefits to the table.
Some of lion’s mane compounds are best extracted by water, others by alcohol, and others by heat, so Host Defense uses a triple extraction process.
Here’s a quick video of Paul Stamets extolling the benefits of lion’s mane in a greenhouse full of them.
Lion’s Mane Supplement Dosage and Side Effects
A typical dose of lion’s mane is 1,000 to 3,000 mg per day.
It is generally considered very safe.
The only reported side effect is itchy skin, but this is temporary and not serious. (30)
This is thought to be caused by an increase in nerve growth factor. (31)
And of course, like any food, it is possible to be allergic to it.
If you know you are allergic to any other mushrooms, this is one brain supplement you should probably skip.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Tea and Coffee
Mushroom tea and coffee straddle the line between food and supplement.
Lion’s mane mushroom tea is not at all common, but you may find loose tea where Chinese herbs are sold.
It’s easier to find lion’s mane powder to which you add hot water to make tea.
But mushroom-enhanced coffee is currently in the spotlight and has been featured on popular sites like Business Insider, Time, and Forbes.
The big name in shroom coffee, Four Sigmatic, got a huge boost when bestselling author and biohacker Tim Ferriss announced that he’s a big fan.
Ferris reports on his blog that drinking mushroom coffee “blew his mind (in the best possible way)” and that half a packet put him “on fire for an entire day.” (32)
Cooking with Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Before lion’s mane found its way into capsules and coffee, it was a prized culinary delicacy that tastes a lot like shrimp or lobster.
If you want to include lion’s mane mushroom in your diet, you may be able to find it at some specialty or gourmet food stores.
You can also buy it dried online.
Some mushroom enthusiasts enjoy foraging for it.
Lion’s mane can be found in some parts of North America, Europe, and Asia in the summer and fall.
Never forage for mushrooms unless you know what you are doing!
You can get help identifying mushrooms in your area from one of the North American Mycological Association’s local chapters.
Fortunately, lion’s mane does not look like any poisonous mushroom so you shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally picking a toxic look-alike. (33)
There are a few other similar looking Hericium species but they are all edible.
Another way to have a regular supply of lion’s mane is to grow your own with a do-it-yourself mushroom kit.
This is a hobby that requires patience.
According to 100th Monkey Mushroom Farm, it can take six months to a year for your first crop of mushrooms to be ready.
But once they’re established, you’ll be rewarded with mushrooms for years to come!
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Recipes
The most basic way to cook fresh lion’s mane mushroom is sauteed in butter or oil.
You might want to add a little garlic which not only tastes great but works synergistically to amplify lion’s mane brain benefits. (34)
You’ll find a step-by-step guide to basic preparation at Cascadia Mushrooms.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to these delicious lion’s mane mushroom recipes:
The Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom: The Bottom Line
Lion’s mane mushroom has a long history as both a culinary delicacy and a traditional medicine.
The latest science supports what the ancients already knew — that it is an overall health booster and brain tonic.
Its 70 bioactive compounds work by a variety of mechanisms.
Most importantly for the brain is that lion’s mane is anti-inflammatory and stimulates the formation of important brain chemicals like nerve growth factor and acetylcholine.
There’s substantial evidence that it can help with mood and neurological disorders, and potentially halt and reverse cognitive decline.
You can make it a part of your diet, but it works only when taken consistently and in therapeutic dosages.
For this reason, most people find it more convenient and effective to take supplements.