Who would have thought that a mushroom could act as a brain-enhancing food dish? Actually, for thousands of years the Chinese have. Mushrooms in general, and lion’s mane mushrooms in particular, have always played an important role in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
In TCM the unusual-looking lion’s mane mushroom has been believed to provide several health benefits, especially in the area of cognitive improvement. Only recently has the Western world, including the United States, caught on to the very real powers of this fungi to improve mood, memory, clarity, and focus.
About Lion’s Mane Mushroom
The lion’s mane mushroom — Hericium erinaceus as botanists call them — is unusual in that it doesn’t have a cap, stalk, or stem as is typical of most mushrooms. Rather, it is made up of white spines, or strands, that drop down from a large base.
You will find this mushroom growing throughout the world, but it most commonly grows on dead or dying hardwood trees in China, Japan, parts of Europe, and the United States south.
Lion’s mane mushroom is considered a nootropic. A nootropic is any compound that’s thought to improve aspects of cognition, such as problem-solving, judgment, imagination, planning, thinking, and remembering. Nootropics are also known as smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. Lion’s mane mushroom is considered such a powerful nootropic that it has been given the nickname “nature’s nutrient for neurons.”
Cognitive Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
Lion’s mane is a nootropic that contains several compounds that improve cognition in a few ways. Lion’s mane:
- Acts as an anti-inflammatory
- Has antidepressant features
- Is a powerful antioxidant
- Increases nerve growth factor
There’s a good reason for your body being able to produce inflammatories. Inflammatories are chemicals released in response to injuries, infections, and toxins — they kick your immune system into action to heal itself. Unfortunately, sometimes your body produces inflammatories at levels that are too high, or for periods that are too long. The result of this chronic inflammation is that your body ends up hurting, rather than healing, itself.
Lion’s mane mushrooms contain an anti-inflammatory compound called amycenone. Amycenone reduces inflammation, which has the effect of increasing blood flow to the brain. Higher blood flow means higher oxygen levels that improve brain performance — especially in the areas of focus and mood.
Amycenone, the compound that has anti-inflammatory properties, also has antidepressant properties. Because of this, the mushrooms can improve focus, mood, and motivation. Lessening depression and anxiety often results in improved sleep, which further benefits the ability to focus and concentrate during the day.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells. Having some free radicals is actually beneficial, but having too many causes oxidative stress — a situation where the free radicals attack healthy molecules including proteins, lipids, and DNA.
Antioxidants are chemicals that can limit and even reverse some free radical damage. Antioxidants contribute to overall cellular health, including brain cell (neuron) health. Beta-glucan is a kind of carbohydrate that has significant antioxidant properties. Lion’s mane is a rich source of beta-glucan, making this mushroom a potent free radical fighter.
Increases Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) Levels
Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a protein that is released into the nervous system to keep neurons (brain cells) healthy. Nerve growth factor is responsible for the repair and generation of neurons, the majority of which are located in the hippocampus. NGF also plays an important role in neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to reorganize and improve the efficiency of pathways and connections in response to learning.
The hippocampus can be considered the control center for memory and learning. Keeping NGF at adequate levels ensures healthy brain cells in the hippocampus, leading to improved cognition. Lion’s mane contains a compound called hericenones that increases the release of NGF. Hericenones is unique to lion’s mane — there’s no other natural source of this powerful NGF releaser. That’s key to what makes lion’s mane such a potent nootropic.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Supplements
Lion’s mane mushrooms taste good and are a powerful nootropic. However, they can be difficult to find in grocery stores, and you’d need to consume quite a lot of them to experience their many health benefits. That’s why it makes sense to purchase the mushroom in the form of a nutritional supplement.
Supplements are sold as capsules containing a mushroom extract. A source of confusion with extracts is that there are two different forms: 1:1 extract and 8:1 extract. Both forms provide good health benefits, but the 8:1 extract may be slightly better for a person primarily interested in the mushroom’s nootropic powers.
The 1:1 extract involves dissolving mushrooms in hot water to break down the mushroom’s cell walls. Doing this frees more of the beta-glucans antioxidants normally trapped within the cell walls. The 1:1 extract may be preferred by people mostly interested in the mushroom’s digestive and immune system benefits, though this form of the supplement does retain nootropic benefits.
The 8:1 extract uses a solvent to release some of the compounds that are primarily responsible for the mushroom’s ability to increase nerve growth factor (NGF) levels. The 8:1 extract is often preferred by people who are most interested in the improved cognitive functions that accompany increases in NGF levels.
Lion’s mane, or Hericium erinaceus, is a mushroom that has always been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and has only recently began to gain popularity in the Western world.
Lion’s mane mushroom is a nootropic, or “smart drug” — a substance that can enhance various aspects of cognition. In the case of lion’s mane, the cognitive benefits are numerous. Consistently taking a lion’s mane extract supplement can improve memory and recall, enhance planning and strategic thinking, increase focus and concentration, and lessen depression.
There are several ways in which lion’s mane provides these brain-building benefits. The mushroom acts as an anti-inflammatory, it has antidepressant features, it’s a powerful antioxidant, and, perhaps most importantly, it increases nerve growth factor (NGF) levels.