Can Lion's Mane Mushroom Improve Brain Function?

Jordan Bishop has always been interested in working more efficiently. The 29-year-old, New York-based founder of Yore Oyster, a personal finance site, first heard about lion’s mane from some friends looking into nootropics: substances claiming to improve thinking and memory. After looking into different nootropics companies and what they offered, Bishop opted to try lion’s mane in coffee form, meaning he purchased coffee mix pre-made with lion’s mane included.

© (Getty Images) a basket of Lion’s mane mushrooms at the farmer’s market

“I’ve been using it for several years now,” Bishop says. “The effects (of lion’s mane) are subtle to the point where you’re not even sure it’s working. But looking back on the day, you notice the increase in productivity.” Bishop continues, emphasizing the subtle, but undeniable improvements in cognitive function. Of course, the effect of lion’s mane may vary from person to person.

Lion’s mane, or Hericium erinaceus, is an edible mushroom native to North America, Europe and Asia. Identified by its long, white and fluffy top that looks similar to a lion’s mane – hence the name – this fungi has long been harvested for culinary purposes.

In recent years, lion’s mane has seen an increase in popularity for its potential health benefits, including:

  • Improved cognitive function.
  • Decreased mental health symptoms, such as more manageable depression.
  • Gut health benefits.

“The possibilities with medicinal mushrooms like lion’s mane are endless,” says Sharon Brown, a clinical nutritionist, founder and president of Bonafide Provisions in Carlsbad, California. So, can lion’s mane really improve brain function? Early research suggests it might.

Benefits of Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane “has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help with stress and work as an antidepressant,” says Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a double board-certified psychiatrist and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California.

There is research to support Dimitriu’s analysis. For example, a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences concluded lion’s mane supplementation normalized changes in behavior, such as loss of appetite, nervous behaviors and procrastination, frequently triggered by high stress. According to the study, “this offers new pathways into depression treatment, and lion’s mane may constitute a strong alternative therapy for depression.”

“With lion’s mane, and most other medicinal mushrooms, we see it passing the blood brain barrier,” Brown says. Many supplements aren’t able to pass this barrier, making it part of the reason lion’s mane may hold such potential for improving brain function. And it’s in the brain itself, claim proponents of lion’s mane, where the cognitive effects can be seen. Without lion’s mane ability to pass this barrier, it may not have such a powerful impact.

Dimitriu agrees, noting “most interestingly, it has been proposed that (lion’s mane) may increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus,” the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory. Neurogenesis is your brain’s way of forming new connections – such as thoughts, ideas and memories. “Lion’s mane mushroom powder is believed to improve this process of neurogenesis,” Dimitriu adds.

A 2019 review published in the third volume of Current Developments in Nutrition found that dietary supplementation with lion’s mane and other medicinal mushrooms may have a beneficial effect for people who have Alzheimer’s and other impairments of brain function.

“There are clinical trials with lion’s mane products on their protection against both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The results are promising and more (research) needs to be done,” says Dr. Patrick Fratellone, integrative cardiologist and founder of Fratellone Medical Associates in New York. He’s also the previous chief of medicine and director of cardiology at the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in Ithaca, New York.

These studies are looking into lion’s mane’s effectiveness in preventing these diseases and improving symptoms of those already diagnosed with Alzehiemer’s and Parkinson’s.

Side Effects of Lion’s Mane

If you have mushroom allergies or sensitivities, this may not be the best option and should be avoided. As with any new supplement or changes to your diet, you should consult with a registered dietitian or your primary care physician first. Similarly, women who are pregnant should consult with their health care provider beforehand.

Brown notes, though, that lion’s mane is “one of the safest (medicinal mushrooms) you can take, and there have been no proven adverse side effects.”

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Restorative Medicine concluded that no toxicity was found in lion’s mane. The results show lion’s mane is safe and has significant potential to protect against nerve damage and promote the growth of nerve tissue. This is especially significant for individuals with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and more. However, more studies are needed to confirm the conclusions.

There’s no best age to start using lion’s mane, but as memory declines with age, it’s never too soon to start. Dimitriu recommends this supplement to patients for its low side effect risk and high potential gain when it comes to improving brain function.

Where Is Lion’s Mane Available?

Lion’s mane is available as whole mushrooms, which can be included in daily recipes, or as a powdered supplement, which may be easier to find.

Lion’s mane is considered alternative medicine, meaning it’s not regarded as a traditional medical solution, but has become more commonly recommended for its potential benefits for the brain and gut. Unlike most medications, it’s not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulations, meaning it hasn’t been federally approved for its safety and effectiveness.

Brown notes the importance of knowing where you’re buying from, saying “with everything you need to be careful with the quality of mushroom you’re getting. If you purchase the physical product online, it needs to be an organic, certified grower.”

If you’re using whole, fresh mushrooms, lion’s mane can last up to a week. She recommends you don’t wash the mushrooms until you’re about to cook them. Store them in the fridge until then.

As for supplements, Dimitriu recommends taking lion’s mane earlier in the day as it is known to boost energy.

Fratellone agrees, and even prefers lion’s mane as a supplement as it’s often easier to find in this form.

Cooking With Lion’s Mane

As with any supplement, it’s recommended to take the indicated dosage on the bottle. For mushrooms you’re cooking with, however, it can be difficult to find consistently recommended dosages and the suggestions of each expert varies.

Brown suggests starting with ¼ cup in every recipe, increasing the amount as you’re comfortable. Dimitriu suggests taking 2 to 4 grams of mushroom powder daily, which can be consumed with food, a smoothie, coffee or tea with hot water.

Additional Remedies for Memory Improvement

Decline of memory and overall brain function with age may seem inevitable. While lion’s mane offers great potential for improved brain function, there are many other ways to keep your brain sharp:

By continuing to challenge your brain and supplementing nerve growth with supplements like lion’s mane, brain function can be improved and stabilized.

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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