Lion’s Mane: Tasty Mushrooms with Cognitive Health Benefits

Written by Andy Mobbs
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Delicate, tender, juicy, and meaty… these are but a few words used to describe the taste of Lion’s Mane mushrooms. But its benefits go beyond the palate. As you’ll soon learn in this article, they also have scientifically-backed cognitive health benefits, which is why we’ve added lion’s mane extract to our Seneca Nootropic Complex!

Here are a few highlights from our research:

  • Lion’s Mane may help increase levels of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the brain and central nervous system. NGF stimulates the growth and repair of the neurons a.k.a. the cells of the brain and nervous system.
  • Lion’s Mane supplementation may help improve memory function.
  • Lions Mane supplementation may also help improve mood and reduce anxiety, as well as stimulate the immune system response, but at the same time, reduce chronic inflammation.

What is Lion’s Mane Mushroom?

Lion’s Mane, aka Hericium Erinaceus, must win the prize for the coolest-looking medicinal plant. It has flowing ‘locks’ similar to a real lion’s mane, which is where the name comes from. It is edible, grows on trees, and belongs to the tooth fungus group. It’s actually known as Monkey Head Mushroom in China and Yamabushitake in Japan.

It’s been used for several thousand years in Chinese medicine. Rumor has it that Buddhist monks take it to increase focus during lengthy meditation sessions. And there may be merit behind this age-old rumor…

Modern science has revealed a number of bioactive compounds in Lions Mane. These compounds include hericenone A, hericenone B, xylan, glucoxylan, and heteroxyloglucan. They can act as nootropics, as immune system modulators, and may even help stimulate the growth of neurons.

What are the health benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom?

1) Cognitive health and neural protection

Prior to the 1990s, lion’s mane cognitive benefits were mainly anecdotal. Dr Hirokazu Kawagishi led the first studies that established its potential to stimulate NGF production (1).

NGF refers to Nerve Growth Factor. It’s a signaling molecule that supports the growth and repair of brain cells. And is essential for learning and brain plasticity (i.e. when brain cells form new connections) (2).

NGF is also too big a molecule to pass the blood-brain barrier. This means it can’t be taken orally and has to be produced in the brain to have positive effects. Fortunately, as Dr Kawagishi discovered, lion’s mane can help stimulate the production of NGF.

The results of Dr Kawagishi’s experiments were repeated 15 years later by Mori et al (3) with the same results.

Also, Kolotushkina’s study showed that this mushroom could stimulate the growth of the myelin sheaths (4). Myelin sheaths surround the axons of neurons and allow electrical signals to travel at very high speeds. Damage to myelin sheaths is associated with the development of Multiple Sclerosis.

normal nerve vs multiple sclerosis

All of these experiments were conducted ‘in vitro’. This means the studies were conducted with cells grown in labs outside their normal environment in people, plants, or animals. However, ‘in vivo’ studies (i.e. in humans, plants or animals) have shown that these theoretical ‘in vitro’ studies were correct.

2) Improved memory, neuronal repair, and recovery from cognitive decline

Several studies have looked at lion’s mane mushroom’s effects on memory, neuronal repair, and cognitive health.

Mori’s animal and human studies

Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a sharp decline in cognitive skills. Alzheimer’s patients have large numbers of amyloid plaques in their brains, impairing their learning and memory skills. Mori and team studied the effects of lion’s mane on mice with Alzheimer’s. The mice fed with the mushroom daily scored better on memory tests than those who weren’t (5)!

Mori also went on to study the mushroom’s effects on humans, specifically those with mild cognitive impairment. The subjects were men and women between 50 and 80 years old. They were given 1 gram of a 96% pure lion’s mane powder 3x daily for 16 weeks or a placebo. The subjects underwent cognitive testing at 4, 8, 12, and 16 weeks. At each point, the subjects who took the mushroom had significantly better scores on cognitive tests!

At the end of 16 weeks, the subjects stopped taking the mushroom. But returned for further cognitive testing 4 weeks later. Researchers found that after a 4-week break, the subjects’ scores had all decreased (6).

Wong’s animal study

Wong and colleagues reported that this mushroom may help regenerate nerve cells. They studied rats with damaged sciatic nerves. They found that mice fed with the mushroom recovered their back leg function and ability to spread their toes (7).

Peripheral neuropathy illustration

Brandalise’s animal study

The researchers studied healthy mice and found that supplementation with lion’s mane increased performance on memory tasks. After dissection, they found significantly more brain cells in the hippocampus of the mice fed with the mushroom. The hippocampus is associated with many areas of cognitive function, especially memory (8).

3) Anti-inflammatory, depression, and anxiety

The immune system produces signaling molecules called cytokines that tell immune cells to either increase or decrease their activity. TNF-α is one of the major pro-inflammatory cytokines and IL-10 is perhaps the biggest anti-inflammatory cytokine. It helps to turn off the immune system when the immune reaction has finished dealing with invaders, thus preventing unnecessary collateral damage.

Yao’s 2015 animal study found that lion’s mane significantly increased levels of IL-10 and reduced TNF-α levels in mice. The mice were treated with LPS, a highly inflammatory molecule that’s part of the cell wall of bacteria (9).

Also, the mice taking the mushroom exhibited much less depression-like behavior. They underwent a tail-suspension test and a forced swimming test. Both tests are used in mice and rat studies because they tell researchers if mice/rats are feeling happy or anxious.

Another study that looked at stressed mice found fewer TNF-α and IL-6 (also a major inflammatory cytokine) cytokines. They also found less NF-κB signaling in the group supplementing with lion’s mane. NF-κB is a gene transcription factor that ‘turns on’ inflammatory genes (10).

Moreover, Nagano’s study showed that 4 weeks of lion’s mane reduced depression and anxiety in 30 menopausal women (11).

Related article: What are nootropics and cognitive enhancing supplements?

4) Immune system modulation

The strong anti-inflammatory effect of lion’s mane seems to be a full immune modulation effect. It can reduce immune activity when it’s too high. But also stimulate it when it’s too low and the body needs more activity to deal with invaders.

For example, a 2017 study found lion’s mane can increase lymphocyte, macrophage, and natural killer cell activity. It also promoted the secretion of immunoglobulin A (the main antibody in the gut) in the intestines of mice (12).

5) Lion’s mane may help with cardiovascular health

Studies on rats and mice have also shown that this mushroom can potentially improve cardiovascular markers.

Choi et al fed rats a high-fat diet and supplemented them with lion’s mane. This resulted in lower triglycerides, lower total cholesterol, and higher HDL (aka good cholesterol) (13).

Another study, again by Mori et al, found that the platelet cells of rabbits showed less clumping or clot-forming behavior when treated with lion’s mane (14).

6) Management of diabetes

Lion’s mane mushroom has also shown potential in helping people with diabetes manage their condition.

Liang’s study on diabetic rats found that the mushroom helped reduce blood glucose levels and increase their insulin levels, too. This suggests that lion’s mane can help improve insulin resistance and insulin production in the pancreas (15).

One common side effect of diabetes is peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes pain and numbness in patients. It damages the nerves in areas such as the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Fortunately, lion’s mane may be a promising treatment option, as evidenced by Yi’s animal study.

So, Yi and colleagues treated diabetic rats for 6 weeks with lion’s mane. They found it successfully reduced nerve pain and lowered blood and urine glucose levels (16).

Conclusion

Lion’s mane has shown great promise in its health benefits. Though most of the studies done so far have been on animals, they’ve demonstrated that this mushroom can help out in many areas. As we’ve learned, it may stimulate NGF, slow cognitive decline, provide nootropic benefits, boost immunity, and even help with diabetes management.

Because of all these potential health benefits, we’ve added lion’s mane (fruiting bodies) extract to our Seneca Nootropic Complex. Every serving of Seneca contains 500mg of lion’s mane as well as other natural nootropic compounds. Seneca is formulated to give your mental and cognitive faculties a boost – the natural way!

Related article: Seneca Nootropic Complex 101: What Makes This Nootropic Stack So Good?