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Boost your brain with Lion’s Mane

Fungi are having a moment. Research into their therapeutic and medicinal properties continues to expand rapidly like a mycelial web. Their influence on brain health is garnering increasing attention and interest

Potential benefits of Lion's Mane mushroom for the brain

Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal-culinary mushroom considered a delicacy in East Asian cuisine, where it is also known as Yamabushutake or monkey’s head mushroom, and it has a long history of usage as a medicine. Bioactive compounds such as corallocins, erinacines and hericenones have been extracted from the mycelia and fruiting bodies of the fungus which have been found to promote the expression of neurotrophic factors, small protein molecules associated with neuronal cell proliferation including NGF, GDNF, and pro-BDNF. NGF promotes myelination of neuronal axons – these are essentially the nervous systems’ wiring, and the myelin plays a protective, insulating role while stimulating communication between neurons. Lion’s mane extract has been found to promote myelination. The loss of myelin from brain neurons has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. GDNF promotes the survival of many different types of neuron, while pro-BDNF acts as a precursor to BDNF, while also having its own specific functions – together they regulate many processes in neuronal cells, with BDNF playing a key role in promoting neuronal survival, differentiation and synaptic plasticity.

Lion's Mane benefits as a neurotrophic

Neurotrophic compounds such as BDNF have also been implicated in neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the process of growth and development of neurons from neural stem cells. This process is also thought to become disrupted in depression, and a reduction in volume of the hippocampus has been associated with depression and decreased neurogenesis has been proposed to be a key factor underlying cognitive decline associated with aging. It should be noted however that the occurrence and relevance of neurogenesis in the adult human brain is currently fiercely scientifically debated, and research is still in its early stages.

Why is consuming mycelium and fruiting bodies so important

Different parts of the fungi contain varying amounts of these bioactive compounds, with the mycelium of the fungus being a richer source of erinacines, and the fruiting bodies containing hericenones. To gain the maximum full-spectrum benefit of this fungus, it may be wise to ingest both together. While both sets of compounds have been implicated with neurotrophic effects, the evidence is stronger for the influence of the mycelial erinacines. If one grows their own lion’s mane, it is important to use an extract, or cook it if using it fresh, or powder it if using it dried. This helps liberate the bioactive compounds from behind the tough fungal cell walls.

Fighting cognitive decline with medicinal Mushrooms

Low levels of neurotrophic compounds such as BDNF have been implicated in depression. Neurotrophic factors play an important role in synaptic and neuronal growth, development and survival, and diminishing levels of these factors have also been linked to the cognitive decline associated with aging. By boosting naturally declining levels of these compounds as we age through lion’s mane supplementation, there is the potential to bolster cognitive capacity and stave off age-related cognitive decline. Lion’s mane can influence brain neuroplasticity by increasing the growth of neurites from neuronal cells, these forming the basis of nerve fibres or branched extensions between neurons that facilitate chemical communication between them. These neurites may become shrivelled and atrophied in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during depression. Neuroplasticity is a key mechanism underlying neuronal adaptation and refers to the brain’s ability to form and reorganize neuronal connections, particularly in the wake of experience and learning. This dynamic capacity of the brain becomes disrupted during depression and other mental health conditions.

Research and studies are increasing for Lion’s Mane medicinal mushroom

While research on lion’s mane in humans is still in its preliminary stages, a number of different studies have yielded promising findings. Research conducted so far suggests it may have the potential to treat cognitive impairment, nerve damage, age-related hearing loss, depression, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and aid in recovery from stroke. One study examined the effect of an eight-week course of lion’s mane supplementation and found it to hold promise in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety-related mood disorders and improving sleep quality. Another study found that a four-week course of lion’s mane reduced feelings of depression and anxiety and a small pilot study examined the effect of a four-week course of lion’s mane extract and found that it was effective in improving sleep quality. A double-blind clinical study found the supplementation with lion’s mane fruiting body was associated with significant improvements in mild cognitive impairment in 50-80 year olds. People supplemented with lion’s mane daily for 16 weeks, with no adverse effects noted. 4 weeks after finishing supplementation, the gains started to drop off.

Cacao with Lion's Mane may be a perfect combo in bioavailability and neuroplasticity development

Cacao might make for a worthwhile addition when supplementing lion’s mane. The flavonoid compounds cacao contains have been associated with neurogenesis and widespread stimulation of brain perfusion (the process by which blood is forced to flow through a network of microscopic blood vessels), which in turn may aid in the distribution of the lion’s mane compounds deep into the brain. Cacao has also been linked to neuroplasticity and found to be supportive of brain health and enhanced cognition.

Lion's Mane benefits in mycotherapy for the future

Research into lion’s mane is still in its early stages, and given the obvious difficulties of accessing a living human brain, much of the studies on its neurotrophic potential have been conducted using animals. While on a biochemical, cellular level, there is a great deal of overlap between humans and other mammals, we must be cautious when making inferences from this research when applying it to humans. Still, while it’s early days in terms of the science, it certainly appears to hold great potential as an agent of mycotherapy - transcending treatments, having the potential to promote wellbeing and healthy ageing.

Written by Sam Gandy. Sam has a PhD in Ecological Science from the University of Aberdeen, and he has a life-long interest in nature, wildlife, and the outdoors. He also runs Lion's Mane cultivation workshops. You can connect with Sam on Twitter and Instagram

Sam Gandy and Lion's Mane fruiting body

2 comments

Jan 15, 2022 • Posted by Janet Conroy

Interested to try different lions mane products.

Jan 15, 2022 • Posted by Jessica Coote

Even more reason not to cut down trees

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