Lion’s mane, also known as Bearded Tooth, Satyrs Beard, Bearded Hedgehogs and Pom Pom mushroom, is a large white shaggy mushroom that resembles a lion’s mane as they grow, belonging to the tooth fungus group, which has been hailed as one of the best medicinal mushrooms in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
They have both culinary and medical uses in Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and Korea. They can be enjoyed raw, cooked, dried or steeped as tea. The flavour is often described as seafood-like, with many comparing it to crab or lobster, it has recently gained popularity as a vegan alternative to seafood.
The fungus feeds largely off dead hardwood trees, particularly favouring beech, and have been observed to fruit for over 20 years from the same dead tree. The fruiting bodies are found in late summer to autumn, and are a great mushroom for beginner foragers as the only lookalikes are from the same genus and are safe to eat, however be sure to check they are not protected in your country, as despite being native to Europe Lion’s Mane has been red listed in 13 European countries due to poor germination and over harvesting.
History in Chinese Medicine
Once known as the ‘Mountain Priest’, Lion’s Mane has been a part of Asian culture and Traditional Chinese Medicine long before it was introduced to the West.
2,000 years ago, Lion's Mane grew abundantly on many different tree species in the mountainous regions of Asia. The mushroom is known as Hou Tou Gu (Monkey Head Mushroom) in China and Yamabushitake in Japan, after a sect of Buddhist monks who made mushroom powder tea to enhance brain power and heighten their focus during meditation. The mushroom is so central to this sect of monks' practice that they wear long strands of fur around their neck to resemble the Lion's Mane mushroom. It was the Chinese in 1988 that first started artificial cultivation of Lion’s Mane for its health benefits.
In Chinese medicine it is used as a good all rounder, supporting overall health and longevity, to fortify the spleen, nourish the gut, fight cancer and combat the deficiency of Qi or ‘life force’.
How Lion’s Mane works
Protecting the Brain and Nervous system
Lion’s Mane is Nootropic, or a ‘brain enhancer’ and has the ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier, stimulating the growth of neurons and protective cells. Lion’s Mane mushrooms produce two types of compounds called einacines and hericenones, which are important for Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), aiding in learning and memory. This means Lion’s Mane can be helpful in treating multiple types of problems with the brain and nervous system.
A study in 2008 gave Lion’s Mane powder daily to subjects aging from 50-80 diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, after just 8 weeks they showed significant increases in their brain function.
Most of our society unfortunately will experience dementia at some point in their life. We think that the brain's ability to grow and form new connections declining the older we get is a huge contributing factor to why we develop dementia and Alzhiemers, so Lion’s Mane’s ability to regenerate brain cells could be extremely helpful for preventing dementia. Another cause of Alzheimers is a buildup of amyloid-beta plaques, which damage neurons causing memory loss; animal studies have shown that taking Lion’s Mane prevents the build up of these plaques and stops damage to the neurons.
It is such a loss to our society that our elders forget, sometimes losing a whole lifetime of knowledge and wisdom before they have a chance to pass it on. More widespread use of Lion’s Mane in our elderly could end up having widespread positive results throughout our whole society, as well as exponentially aiding science and medicine in the management/prevention of degenerative diseases.
Helping a variety of mental health issues
As Lion’s Mane helps regenerate brain cells, this also improves functioning of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for processing memories and emotional responses. Poor memory processing is thought to be responsible for a lot of symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, poor memory and dissociation. Additionally, poor hippocampus function is seen in people with anxiety and depression, so Lion’s Mane could be massively beneficial for those with a variety of mental health problems. Scientists believe this improved hippocampus function is responsible for the observed reduction in depressive behaviours in mice when given Lion's Mane mushroom.
May speed recovery from Nervous System injuries
Injuries to the brain, spinal cord and nervous system can be devastating, often causing paralysis or loss of mental functions, harbouring an often long and difficult recovery.
Research has found that Lion’s Mane mushrooms may help speed recovery from these types of injuries by stimulating the growth and repair of nerve cells. Lion's Mane mushroom extract has been shown to reduce recovery time by 23-41% when given to rats with nervous system injuries.
(Note: The author of this article started taking Lion’s Mane after surgery left them with nerve damage so severe they couldn’t move their hand at all for 4 months, two weeks later they had full movement back)
May help reduce the severity of brain damage after a stroke
Yet again, Lion’s Mane's ability to regenerate brain cells may reduce the severity of brain damage after a stroke. A 2014 study gave high doses of Lion’s Mane mushroom extract to rats immediately after a stroke and found it decreased inflammation and reduced stroke related brain injury by 44%.
Reduces inflammation and oxidative stress
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to be the root for many modern illnesses, with some thinking it could be another contributing factor to anxiety and depression. Lion’s Mane contains powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, and therefore may be useful in the management of illnesses like inflammatory bowel disease, liver damage and stroke, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
Protects against ulcers in the digestive tract
One common cause of stomach ulcers is the overgrowth of a bacteria called H. pylori. Studies have shown Lion’s Mane can prevent the growth of H. Pylori in a test tube, so Lion’s Mane may protect against the development of stomach ulcers by preventing overgrowth in the stomach.
Lion’s Manes anti-inflammatory properties will also help reduce inflammation and prevent tissue damage in the intestines, helping to treat often difficult conditions like ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease. One study in people with ulcerative colitis found that taking a Lion’s Mane supplement significantly reduced symptoms and improved quality of life after just 3 weeks.
Reduces heart disease risk
Research shows that Lion’s Mane can influence some of the factors that contribute to heart disease risk.
One way it helps is by reducing oxidation of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Oxidized cholesterol molecules tend to attach to the walls of arteries, causing them to harden and therefore increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, so reducing oxidation is beneficial for heart health.
Studies in rats and mice found that Lion’s Mane improves how the body metabolises fat, and lowers triglyceride levels, both of which are associated with lower heart disease risk.
Lion’s Mane also contains hericone b, which decreases the risk of blood clotting and lowers the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Helps manage diabetes & lower blood sugar levels
Lion’s Mane has been praised as a natural way to help manage diabetes symptoms, having multiple beneficial qualities for diabetics.
The alpha-glucosidase enzyme is responsible for turning starch into simple sugars, Lion’s Mane blocks the activity of this enzyme, therefore lowering blood sugar levels, even at lower doses.
As well as treating the cause by lowering blood sugar levels, Lion’s Mane may help with some of the symptoms of diabetes, like diabetic nerve pain in the hands and feet.
May help fight cancer
Early Lion’s Mane studies have shown some promising results for cancer patients.
When Lion’s Mane extract is mixed with human cancer cells in a test tube, they cause the cancer cells to die at a faster rate, this has been demonstrated with liver, colon, stomach and blood cancer cells.
In addition to killing cancer cells, Lion’s Mane extract has also been shown to slow the spread of cancer. One study in mice with colon cancer found that Lion’s Mane reduced the spread of cancer to the lungs by 69%. Another study found it was more effective than traditional cancer medications at slowing tumor growth in mice, whilst having fewer side effects.
Boosts the immune system
Animal research shows that Lion’s Mane increases the activity of the intestinal immune system, which protects the body from pathogens that enter the gut through the mouth and the nose and therefore boosts immunity. They think this boost might be due to Lion’s mane causing beneficial changes in gut bacteria that stimulate the immune system.
Unfortunately there currently aren’t many human studies available on the effects of Lion’s Mane. This is most probably due to the fact that Lion’s Mane is a natural product and therefore cannot be patented. If it can't be patented it's very hard for drug companies to make money off of the product, therefore they have no interest in funding the studies, and human studies are very expensive to carry out, meaning it's almost impossible for doctors to fund the studies themselves and studies don’t get done into potentially life-changing compounds.
However, the couple of human studies that have been done are very promising and if the results of the studies done on mice were to be repeated in humans Lion’s Mane would dramatically change how we treat cancer, diabetes, dementia, stroke victims and nervous system injuries.
Whilst more human trials need to be done, Lion’s Mane shows promising results for treating a variety of health conditions that western medicine struggles to treat. Its potential for treating and preventing dementia could have a serious positive impact on society if use was more widespread.
If looking to use Lion’s Mane for serious conditions like cancer and diabetes, please consult your doctor first. We do not recommend you replace your regular treatments and medications with Lion’s Mane alone.
No studies have been done on Lion’s Mane and pregnancy, so as always avoid in pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.
There are no known drug interactions for Lion’s Mane, but if you take regular medication consult your doctor before taking.
If you have allergies to mushrooms or serious asthma, avoid taking Lion’s Mane.
Written by Jay Dykes. For more herbalism content follow my instagram @greenhairbitch