BY NOAH BERMAN & JUSTIN FAERMAN
Most of us would love to be smarter, happier and healthier. And while there are many things needed to accomplish that, the research emerging around the highly medicinal Lion’s Mane mushroom is showing that it actually could be a big part of the puzzle. Revered in many ancient cultures and used medicinally for thousands of years, this powerhouse fungi can do everything from protect your brain against cognitive decline, boost memory, support immunity, reduce anxiety, boost mood and enhance a sense of focus throughout your day, among many other things.
Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) grows abundantly throughout North America, Europe and Asia. While native to all four continents, it has been only recently used amongst Western culture, although its value has been widely known and understood throughout Asia in regions like China and Japan for millennia. The mushroom physically looks like the mane of lion—long, white and shaggy—with rich tentacle-like dreadlocks of mushroom wisdom bursting out from all sides. It resembles spongy neuronal tissue, just like that of the brain (often in nature plants very conveniently provide visual cues to the things they are good for). It generally grows on harder surfaces rich in plant cellulose, namely trees in wooded areas.
Lion’s Mane benefits have been studied fairly extensively in animal models and more recently in clinical trials with humans. While Lion’s Mane has revealed itself as a solution for various health concerns, this mushroom has rapidly grown a reputation for its brain-health benefits and mood- and cognitive-boosting properties. While there are more studies needed in humans to truly establish this as one of the great medicinal herbs of all time, there has been fairly extensive research in animal models that are showing some promising results. However, because of its remarkable safety, its use has grown widely in recent years amongst biohackers and wellness seekers, with rave reviews across the board and more research slated to be published on the way.
So what exactly is so special about this superstar mushroom? Read on to find out.
Lion’s Mane is truly one of a kind. There is no other herb or mushroom that’s been found in nature that seems to have the same effect on stimulating the production of nerve growth factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). [1,2] These are two remarkable compounds that essentially stimulate the growth of new nerve tissues and brain cells. Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey describes BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for your brain.” BDNF is a powerful protein that essentially stimulates the production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones. More specifically, when your body releases BDNF, it flips the switch on a series of genes that grow brand new brain cells and pathways. High levels of BDNF make you learn faster, remember better, age slower and rapidly rewire your brain.
As if that wasn’t enough, BDNF also increases your brain’s neuroplasticity. When your brain cells get damaged or if you are facing a stressful situation, BDNF protects them and helps them come back even stronger. It causes your neural pathways to become more flexible instead of shutting down.
And that’s just BDNF. This mushroom is also the closest thing that’s been found in nature to a solution to regenerate nerve cell functioning via its stimulating effects on the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF is similar to BDNF, but it works throughout your nervous system—not just in the brain. It has been shown to repair damaged nerve tissue, cause regeneration of nerve fibers and also improve the communication between neurons and axons. It is currently being tested as an experimental treatment for depression, Alzheimer’s, Multiple sclerosis and other illnesses resulting from nervous system degeneration. [3,4,5] These compounds, among others, are also thought to help protect the brain against environmental toxins and defend against the natural effects of aging. 
If you’re looking for natural, non-toxin brain steroids, then you need look no further than our fungal friend Lion’s Mane. Mounting evidence points to this mushroom as helping to support cognitive functioning, boost mental focus and improve memory. Research in humans found positive results on mental functioning in the elderly,  and the mushroom’s mood-boosting properties (more on that soon) help to promote a focused, calm and peaceful state of mind. Animal models show reduction in beta-amyloid plaque , a major bio-indicator that this mushroom can help to restore brain health; and there is also evidence that Lion’s Mane interacts with parts of the brain’s reward circuitry, specifically kappa-opioid receptors in the brain, that are related to learning and memory.  The biologically active compounds in Lion’s Mane are thought to easily cross the blood-brain barrier for optimal neural-activity.
It’s important to understand too that memory is innately tied to how neurons and nerves function in the brain. If Lion’s Mane has the potential to protect these through its stimulation of NGF and BDNF, then it can improve a lot of different functions, memory included. Early research is indicating this is possible and happening to varying degrees—in one study where test subjects were given extracts of Lion’s Mane mushroom, they demonstrated significant improvements in short-term memory. 
A few recent studies seem to indicate a positive, mood-boosting effect from Lion’s Mane. Recently, a study conducted on Japanese menopausal women (they gave them either Lion’s Mane cookies or the control placebo) found positive results in supporting emotional well-being and alleviating stress.  Other compounds such as Amycenone (a patented Lion’s Mane extract) have been tested in mice and have been found in animal models to help reduce depression and anxiety.  Additional studies in mice have also shown that the mushroom boosts levels of acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter that’s important for mood and mental functioning. 
Lion’s Mane mushroom benefits may also help to alleviate anxiety and depression through its powerful effects on reducing inflammation. A growing body of research is showing clear links between mental illness and brain inflammation, and Lion’s Mane has been shown to reduce the production of inflammatory proteins. [14–15]
And, finally, preliminary studies on mice are showing that it may achieve its effects on the mood front by upregulating neurogenesis in the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is the area of the brain that neuroscientists believe to be responsible for regulating things like emotional stability and memory.
Lion’s Mane, like most medicinal mushrooms, contains beta-glucans and polysaccharides indicated to help support healthy immune functioning. 
Studies in animal models have found enhanced immune functioning, particularly via antimicrobial activity in the gut and even anti-cancer activity from use of Lion’s Mane. Because of its bacterial effects in the intestines, it has been shown to induce positive changes in probiotic gut bacteria, which in and of itself has numerous positive effects in terms of immunity. The mushroom also has beneficial effects on insulinemic response and blood sugar response  and seems to have various anti-inflammatory properties, all of which largely work together on various pathways in tandem to keep the body’s immune system in tip-top shape.
Like many herbs and mushrooms that work in myriad ways throughout the body, one of Lion’s Mane health benefits is that it shows anti-aging effects both directly and indirectly by generally supporting overall health and well-being, as well as specifically stimulating bodily processes that are connected to slowed aging. In addition to slowing aging (and increasing the repair rates) of the brain and nervous system, Lion’s Mane polysaccharides have been shown to increase the activity of superoxide dismutase (a powerful antioxidant and cell protectant) in the brain and the liver  and have also exhibited anti-aging properties in human cell cultures. 
One remarkable study even found that giving mice who had been injected with a lethal dose of salmonella bacteria daily doses of Lion’s Mane extract nearly quadrupled their lifespan! 
Taking a high potency extract of Lion’s Mane on a regular basis confers many health benefits, not least of which is helping to protect the gut in a number of ways. It has been shown both anecdotally and in studies on mice to protect and heal the lining of the intestines from developing ulcers and generally help with inflammatory conditions of the intestines like gastritis, Chron’s disease and colitis. [22,23,24]
One human study, focused on people with ulcerative colitis, found that taking a mushroom-based supplement containing 14% Lion’s Mane extract significantly reduced symptoms and improved quality of life after three weeks. 
When it comes to medicinal mushrooms, one of Lion’s Mane greatest benefits is that it is hands down one of the best for fighting inflammation. One way to measure inflammation-fighting capacity is through antioxidant activity. In that realm, it’s is a superstar: one study examining the antioxidant capacity of 14 different mushroom species found that Lion’s Mane had the fourth-highest antioxidant activity. 
However, it takes more than just antioxidant activity to be an inflammation-reducing powerhouse, as there are many other pathways in the body that mediate it, including reducing excessive nitric oxide, prostaglandins, reactive oxygen species, and pro-inflammatory factors such as NF-κB, among others. It’s a good thing then, that Lion’s Mane works on all of these aforementioned pathways quite powerfully. [27,28,29]
Cancer is a complex disease, and Lion’s Mane should absolutely not be considered a cure by any stretch; however, early research is showing it holds promise and definitely warrants further investigation in this area. Lab and animal studies suggest that the mushroom has cancer-fighting abilities thanks to several of its unique compounds. [30–31] In fact, when Lion’s Mane mushroom extract is mixed with human cancer cells in a test tube, it causes the cancer cells to die at a faster rate. What’s more, is that this has been demonstrated with several types of cancer cells, including colon, stomach, blood and liver cancer cells. [32,33,34] Another fascinating study discovered that an extract of Lion’s Mane was actually more effective than traditional cancer medicines at slowing tumor growth in mice and also had fewer side effects.  But it’s also important to note that the cancer-fighting effects of Lion’s Mane have yet to be tested in humans, so more research is clearly needed.
In keeping with its reputation as a whole-body health tonic, Lion’s Mane mushroom benefits heart health in a number of ways, in particular, by balancing cholesterol levels as well as improving circulation throughout the body. One study done on mice found that consuming an extract of the mushroom reduced total cholesterol, in addition to the bad LDL variety and triglycerides, while also increasing the good HDL cholesterol. Further studies in rats and mice have found that Lion’s Mane also improves fat metabolism systemically. [36–37] In fact, in one of the papers, rats that were fed a high-fat diet while simultaneously being given daily doses of Lion’s Mane extract were found to have 27% lower triglyceride levels and 42% less weight gain after 28 days of the therapy.  Finally, it may also improve circulation by inhibiting platelet aggregation and preventing the thickening of arteries characteristic of atherosclerosis.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Lion’s Mane mushroom has been revered all through history for its culinary, spiritual and medicinal properties documented primarily within Asia. A long-time favorite of royalty and Buddhist Shaolin monks, the mushroom has been used historically to enhance and support meditation practice to generate “Qi”—a form of life force energy essential to an effective spiritual practice and for overall health and well-being—in the body. It was also referred to in Japan as “yamabushitake,” which means “Mountain Priest Mushroom,” a reference to its known effects on centering the mind and increasing spiritual potency.
Whenever possible, look for USDA-certified organic Lion’s Mane products or those certifiably harvested sustainably in the wild. Mushrooms always consist of an inner and outer network. The inner network is generally known as the mycelium, and the outer network is known as the fruiting body. Products grown in the wild generally have both of these parts, while products grown indoors often, but not always, contain only the mycelium. Ideally, look for a full-spectrum inner and outer network product, whenever possible.
Sometimes fruiting body-only products have richer levels of active compounds; however, these ingredients are often grown outdoors (meaning that the growing environment isn’t always controlled properly). This makes it important to be sure that the source doesn’t have airborne heavy metals contamination. This can be avoided by seeking US-grown products or making sure those that come from India or China are certifiably grown in rural, pollution-free areas.
Also, keep an eye out for products that use a heat-based or enzyme-treated mushroom extract as these methods help breakdown any potential anti-nutritional factors the mushroom may have produced in self-defense against predators that sometimes can slightly impede absorption.
As far as dosages go, depending on the extract and source, benefits can be achieved with as little as a few hundred milligrams and can exceed up to several grams daily. Benefits can also be achieved when taken every other day, rotating with other medicinal mushrooms.
The Lion's Mane Mushroom grows in the woods in the Pittsburgh PA area and north of here. I haven't found it yet but I haven't done that much looking for it, I know that it is good for you in many ways. Thanks SunKat for the great post!