As a child, I was always fascinated with fungi- I’d pore over encyclopedias reading about the poisonous effects of differently-colored mushrooms, keep an eye out for toadstools in my garden during the rainy season and my friends would even quiz me about the various medicinal benefits of certain fungi.
The aptly-named Lion’s Mane mushroom was one of my favorites because of its distinctive look- imagine a long flowing white mane growing at the base of a tree- and although its value as a nootropic food is only slowly being recognized by modern science, its benefits were recorded much earlier, in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine.
In Chinese medical theory, Lion’s Mane mushroom was used to alleviate “Qi” or “vital energy” deficiency as it was believed that it would restore balance to the body and alleviate symptoms of insomnia, depression and low immunity. The very fact that Lion’s Mane is often referred to as “yamabushitake” in some medicinal accounts may be a reference to the ornamental garment “suzukake” that is worn by the “Yamabushi”, a sect of ascetic mountain hermits from Japan. The garment is made from long white strands of fur and has an eerie semblance to the mushroom, whose legendary healing powers would have been well-known to them.
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What Kind Of A Mushroom Is Lion’s Mane?
There’s a common belief that the more visually attractive a fungus is, the more poisonous it is likely to be. But Lion’s Mane which is easily recognized by its long thin white spines (that are over a centimeter in length and tend to grow together in clumps) is both edible and has medicinal value.
The fungi grows on hardwood trees, during late summer or autumn, belongs to the “hydnoid fungi” or the “tooth fungus” group and are also sometimes called the “Hedgehog mushroom” and “Satyr’s beard”. Its scientific name is Hericium Erinaceus and is commonly spotted all over Asia, Europe, and North America.
What’s So Special About Lion’s Mane Mushroom?
There’s a reason why this mushroom was used by the royalty in the ancient past- the fungus has several health benefits, many of which are being continually discovered. The mushroom is particularly rich in polysaccharides such as beta-glucans, heteroglucans, heteroxylans along with cyathane derivative compounds.
What this means is, the fungus, has repeatedly proved useful in treating issues dealing with digestion, inflammation, dementia, cholesterol and strengthening the immune system. Furthermore, the latest research suggests that it may even be a key ingredient in battling cancer and chronic depression.
How Can Lion’s Mane Mushroom Help Me?
The benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushroom can be broadly classified under mental health, cognitive function, immunity, heart and digestive health, its importance in various forms of cancer treatment, and its efficiency as an antioxidant. While most of the tests involving Lion’s Mane have been performed on mice, the findings look very promising.
Some of the benefits that have been discovered so far are extolled below:
1. Strengthen The Immune System:
The stronger one’s immune system, the better is the body at handling microbial infections and diseases. Lion’s Mane mushroom may actually boost the immune system as it can prevent oxidation and inflammation.
One study proved that Lion’s Mane contains polysaccharides that have immunomodulatory effects and stimulate mucosal intestine activity in mice. The fungus improves immune function is a number of ways- by stimulating the beneficial gut bacteria, “enhancing cell-mediated and humoral immunity”, macrophage phagocytosis and the like. Another study suggests that a protein in Lion’s Mane may be a crucial ingredient in immunotherapy.
It has also been proven to have a beneficial effect on the lifespan of mice. Mice that were injected with the toxic Salmonella Typhimurium were protected by the extracts of Lion’s Mane that was included in their diet. The study suggests that the mushroom works by protecting against bacterial stimulation by activating the innate immune cells of the organism.
2. Improve Heart and Circulatory Health:
Obesity and heart disease are some of the primary causes of death worldwide, and the chemicals in Lion’s Mane can actually reduce the factors leading to both.
As per an experiment done on obese rats, the mushroom has been shown to cure hyperlipidemia in them, and the same may be replicated in humans as well. This may something of a huge benefit for those with high cholesterol levels and by keeping those lipid levels under control one can reduce the risk of getting heart disease, stroke and other diseases.
This particular fungus also contains a substance called “hericenone B” which plays a vital role in blood clotting and can prevent heart attacks, strokes, and various vascular diseases.
3. Treat Digestive Problems:
For those who are constantly plagued with digestive ailments or are suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS), adding Lion’s Mane to one’s diet may, in fact, work wonders.
Lion’s Mane has already been proven to fight inflammation and stimulate the beneficial gut bacteria in one’s intestines which naturally improve digestion. Further research suggests that the fungus may also help prevent the growth of ulcers in the stomach.
As per a study on ethanol-induced rats, Lion’s Mane may have a gastroprotective effect, while another experiment which involved the patients taking a mushroom supplement proved that the supplement reduced the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, thereby confirming the medicinal benefits of several fungi.
4. Help Fight Cancer:
Numerous experiments have been performed to demonstrate the cancer-fighting properties of Lion’s Mane mushroom. However further research is still required before definite conclusions can be drawn.
For instance, one study has confirmed that the chemicals in the fungus can kill cancer cells at a faster rate, particularly in the treatment of leukemia or blood cancer. Another study focused on how Lion’s Mane extract can slow the growth of tumors and may effectively work in fighting human gastrointestinal cancers. It has also been proven that the mushroom extract can, in fact, inhibit the metastasis of cancer cells to the lungs in mice with colon cancer.
5. Manage Symptoms of Diabetes:
Diabetes is one of the most common and the most deadly diseases to affect mankind, and living with the symptoms can make life really difficult for some people. Fortunately, ongoing research into the field points to better cures and improved management of the symptoms.
One of such studies involves Lion’s Mane and it confirms that the mushroom extract can actually reduce the blood sugar levels of rats with diabetes. Another more recent study added to it, by proving how the chemicals increased antioxidant activity and decreased feelings of nerve pain.
6. Enhance Cognitive Abilities:
There are several “brain boost” mushroom tea recipes online that all involve Lion’s Mane because the fungus can actually improve brain function to a great degree.
A Japanese study proved that taking the mushroom extract regularly improved cognitive abilities in older people with mild cognitive impairment. It can also fight against neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and stave off dementia. Another test performed on mice showed how Lion’s Mane protected against memory loss that is caused by the accumulation of amyloid beta- a substance closely associated with Alzheimer’s.
In fact, this video on YouTube does a brilliant job of summarizing some of the key benefits of consuming Lion’s Mane Mushroom, particularly its brain-boosting and cancer-fighting abilities.
Will Lion’s Mane Mushroom Really Cure My Depression?
Another vital benefit of Lion’s Mane Mushroom is its positive effect on mental health. Lion’s Mane has been repeatedly proved to improve mood and reduce anxiety and depression in individuals.
As per a study, a group of thirty women was randomly assigned to have either placebo cookies or Lion’s Mane cookies and those who were assigned the latter reported reduced depression, irritation, and anxiety. Another study investigated the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects of Lion’s Mane on mice and it was found that “amycenone” which is one of the chemicals present in the mushroom can actually reduce inflammation-related depression.
Finally another study, this time performed on adult mice suggests that Lion’s Mane works its magic by improving hippocampal neurogenesis. As the hippocampus deals with the way we process emotions and memories, stimulating activity there may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.
So for those suffering from clinical depression, incorporating Lion’s Mane into their diets might even act as a holistic remedy, so long as it is approved by one’s physician or therapist.
Is Lion’s Mane Mushroom Safe?
There is little research about the long-term effects of consuming Lion’s Mane mushroom, and not much information about using it in the form of dietary supplements. Nevertheless, while most of the experiments have been tested on animals, no ill-effects have been noted as such, even in high doses. Moreover given that it has been used successfully in Chinese traditional medicine since millennia, it appears relatively safe for consumption.
However, for those suffering from asthma and allergies, there is a slight chance that it may worsen symptoms. Therefore it is always advisable to avoid a self-diagnosis and to consult a physician and inform them about your medical history, before including Lion’s Mane in your diet.
Where Can I Get Lion’s Mane Mushroom?
Lion’s Mane Mushroom is becoming increasingly popular and you can easily buy it in your preferred form (the mushroom itself or its extract in a dietary supplement) from online sites and from natural-food stores, especially Asian grocery shops.
You can even opt for a more organic approach, and purchase seed kits online and follow the instructions to grow them in your backyard.
How Should I Eat Lion’s Mane Mushroom & How Does It Taste Like?
There are many ways to consume Lion’s Mane Mushroom – you can cook it and have it with brown rice, add it to your mushroom coffee or have it as a dietary supplement.
Reports indicate that the mushroom has distinct “seafood” and “fleshy” taste, similar to shrimps. There are plenty of mushroom recipes online which you can refer to - just make sure that the spines are free of dirt and that they have been properly cut. You can add water to make them crispier and carefully cook them on both sides till they are golden brown.
You can also check out mushroom tea recipes, and steep some powdered extract of lion’s mane in hot water for 10-15 minutes and enjoy it as tea.
Although some people may enjoy it raw it isn’t really advisable on account of their texture and you will miss out on their health benefits.
Finally, if you find it difficult to purchase Lion’s Mane mushroom where you live or to grow it on your own, you can always get the same benefits by consuming dietary supplements that are available as capsules, powders, and extracts. Make sure you read the labels carefully and start off with a small dose every day. If you notice any form of itchiness or problems with digestion, discontinue immediately. Also do inform a physician, if you’re making changes in your diet suddenly.
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Lion’s Mane Mushroom has been historically proved to have numerous health benefits and recent research only confirms the same, particularly in improving cognitive brain function and treating neurodegenerative diseases. The various chemical compounds that it contains have also been shown to treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and therefore it makes for an excellent nootropic in dealing with mental health issues.
If you’ve always been curious about nootropics and the medicinal value of mushrooms, including Lion’s Mane in your diet is a good place to start.
Remember you can cook it, drink it or have it as a dietary supplement along with your regular meals, in order to improve your immunity and your mental health as well as reduce inflammation and stave off brain-degenerative diseases. You can even keep a food or a health diary for a few months - recording how often and in what form you have eaten Lion’s Mane, and notes about your general health, and you will be able to see for yourself if there have been any positive changes.
By doing so, not only will you be able to track any changes in your health and diet, but you’ll also be prompted to be more aware and to place a greater focus on both your physical and mental health.
Archita Mittra is a freelance writer, journalist, blogger and artist, based in Calcutta, India. A student of English Literature at Jadavpur University, she also has a degree in Multimedia and Animation from St. Xavier’s College. She’s passionate about feminism, pop culture, poetry and magic, and enjoys dabbling in calligraphy, photography and baking, among a million other hobbies.