Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus), named for its shaggy appearance, is also known as Yambushitake in Japan and Shishigashira in China. It’s both a culinary and medicinal mushroom that is native to North America, Europe and East Asia, but to date, is consumed widely only in Asian countries for its nutritional and health benefits. In fact, it has been used for its medicinal properties for millennia in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This mushroom with an impressive list of demonstrated benefits grows wild on deciduous trees and is also extensively cultivated on sawdust substrates.
The exceptional nutritional and health-promoting aspects of Lion’s mane, derived from its fruiting body and mycelia, are largely attributed to a number of polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, and secondary metabolites such as erinacines, hericerins, hericenones, steroids and terpenes. As a result of its demonstrated medicinal potential, Lion’s mane has been the subject of extensive studies to investigate a number of its reported health-promoting properties, including antibiotic, anti-cancer, cardioprotective, liver-protective and neuroprotective actions, as well as its ability to support depression, anxiety and cognitive function. It is suggested that the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunostimulating properties that have been demonstrated in cells, animals and humans are likely responsible for Lion’s mane’s health-promoting properties.
Lion’s mane has been found to be a source of antioxidants, compounds which play a vital, health-protecting role in human life. Antioxidants have been shown to help protect against various metabolic diseases, heart disease, brain disorders and age-related syndromes, as they help the body combat cellular damage caused by free radicals (reactive chemicals containing oxygen).
Lion’s mane is the subject of ongoing studies involving the immune system, as it’s been found to be a source of fungal polysaccharides with immune-enhancing properties. Preliminary studies are also demonstrating potential anti-cancer effects. Suggested mechanisms of action include that these polysaccharides trigger an immune response in affected cells of the host by activating certain signal pathways, and also activate macrophages (immune cells that engulf and digest cancer cells).
Lion’s Mane is said to have been used as a tea for thousands of years by Buddhist monks to enhance brain power, heighten their ability to focus during meditation and to generate “Qi” (vital energy or life force). Fast forward to today, and one of Lion’s mane’s most extensively studied features is its impact on nerve and brain health and cognitive function.
Research on isolated cells, animals and humans has demonstrated a number of neurological effects: in mice, prevention of recognition memory impairment in an Alzheimer’s model, and in another study, significant improvement in recognition memory. In cells, its ability to stimulate the production of a substance known as Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a specialized protein required for the development of sensory neurons. Finally, a trial performed on Japanese men and women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment found that supplementation significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale, although this improvement did not last after subjects ceased supplementation.
What remains unclear is which bioactive compound(s) are responsible for these effects. A number of isolates are being studied (including erinacines and hericanones), and recent research also suggests that polysaccharides are likely involved because crude extracts of Lion’s mane’s fruiting bodies have been reported to induce NGF biosynthesis and protect neuronal cells.
Research in this area is early days, and large scale human studies are lacking. Yet, the positive results displayed to date on brain cells have fuelled ongoing studies as researchers work to determine whether Lion’s mane will prove helpful for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative neurological conditions.