The Power of Lion's Mane: The Brain Boosting Mushroom
Lion’s Mane Mushroom has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. It's only recently that it has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity across the globe, but the results from studies make it easy to understand why this humble little shroom is earning the title of SUPER SHROOM.
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The Mane of the Lion
If you see a picture of Lion’s Mane, you’ll immediately see where this shroom got its name. It belongs to the tooth fungus group, and while it also goes by the name of Hericium erinaceus, the most fun thing about this mushroom is the various other names it goes by, like yamabushitake, hedgehog mushroom, bearded hedgehog, satyr’s beard, houtou, bearded tooth fungus, monkey head mushroom and lastly, lobster of the woods, for its distinctly seafood-flavour when cooked in dishes.
Regardless of what you call this Mufasa of Mushrooms, its uses and benefits are broad and impressive. It is, quite literally, a “smart mushroom”, being the only non-psychedelic mushroom with compounds that are shown to stimulate not only brain growth but also neuron repair.
Beauty of the Brain
The reason why Lion’s Mane can do this is because it promotes the creation in our brains of two important things (due to being rich in beta-glucan polysaccharides), namely nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Quite simply put, NGF and BDNF are proteins that can assist the brain to produce new cells and strengthen the ones that you already have. If you consider that together with ageing, we often experience memory loss and a host of other brain-related concerns which are the result of neurons shrinking and brain cells which become damaged or less efficient, what could be more potent than compounds which reverse this very process?
BDNF - In Our brains.
Let’s take a step back and consider what role BDNF plays in our brains. There is a BDNF gene which gives the instruction for making BDNF, which means we all have this ability to varying degrees. Once the protein BDNF has been made, it promotes the survival of neurons by helping them with growth and maintenance. BDNF is active where cell-to-cell communication happens (at what we call the brain synapses), which means that BDNF assists in regulating that synaptic plasticity, which when strong and pliable, helps us with learning and memory. Increased brain plasticity means your brain cells are resilient to stressors.
Interestingly, BDNF is present in the areas of your brain that control eating and drinking and your control over these functions, making it even more important to our general wellbeing. Because Lion’s Mane can cross the blood-brain-barrier, it can directly support these functions.
A Malaysian study in 2012 showed that Lion’s Mane could regenerate cells that were damaged in a peripheral nerve injury.
Protection of cells is one thing, but regeneration is quite impressive! If we consider that the main characteristics of brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are cell degeneration, this Mighty Mushroom deserves to be taken seriously.
More Than Just Brains?
The benefits of Lion’s Mane seem to extend beyond its brain-boosting abilities. In traditional medicine, Lion’s Mane is said to support our five internal organs, namely the heart, lungs, spleen, liver and kidney, which encourages general strength and vitality. Recent studies seem to support these views, with research showing that the vitamin and mineral content of Lion’s Mane is a source of at least 32 bioactive compounds and a rich source of potassium, zinc, iron and selenium.
While research remains in its infancy outside of brain health, results of purported benefits are impressive. A Korean study showed that Lion’s Mane significantly reduced leukaemia cells. Other areas of study with positive results have included:
- Improvements in immune functioning
- Powerful antioxidant properties (which provides protection from free radicals and supports the production of BDNF)
- Supports heart and circulatory system health
- Reduces inflammation in fatty tissue (heart disease, stroke, diabetes)
- Mood and general mental health benefits
- Improves digestive health due to improvements in inflammatory gut disorders
Human studies have convincingly shown that Lion’s Mane has the ability to enhance cognitive functioning where there has already been some level of deterioration, but interestingly also to assist with reducing depression and anxiety. However, with its ability to stimulate NGF and BDNF, interest has turned to whether Lion’s Mane can assist with promoting better sleep.
Lion’s Mane for Sleep?
In a recent study at the IRCCS Foundation Policlinico Hospital of Milan, patients with existing mood and/or sleep disorders and/or binge eating habits were given Lion’s Mane to supplement with for eight weeks. The results showed decreased depression, anxiety and sleep disorders and “improved nocturnal rest”.
Nocturnal rest you say? To date, Lion’s Mane studies have not looked at the impact of this edible fungus on sleep. However, following significant anecdotal support for this purpose, we are seeing more n=1 studies and the results are very promising!
My personal Journey
For my own part, I’m always looking for ways to improve my sleep. Sleep is probably the single greatest medicine that we can give our bodies in support of health & wellness. I track my sleep with an Oura ring, which measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, skin temperature and importantly, sleep and sleep stages.
To make my results as reliable as possible, I kept variables as consistent as possible (regular sleep/waking times, diet, alcohol, exercise time and intensity, time in cycle etc.). There are four to five sleep stages depending on how you classify them, but other than sleep time, biohackers focus on maximising their deep sleep and REM sleep.
My study was 6 weeks long and I supplemented with 1,000mg of Lion’s Mane before going to bed. The study was long enough to notice a significant improvement in REM sleep, with the period of supplementation showing REM sleep almost always being over my “average REM sleep” line, without any of the big dips I had without any supplementation.
There seemed to be no discernible impact on my deep sleep scores. However, I think the improvement in REM sleep (the fourth and deepest stage of sleep) is very impressive. Adults should aim for 20-25% of time asleep spent in REM sleep, as it is important for stimulating the areas in your brain responsible for memory consolidation and learning.
A lack of REM sleep has been tied to a myriad of health conditions, including brain diseases, obesity, cancer and depression. This noticeable impact on my REM sleep scores is therefore seriously impressive!
I have seen numerous similar accounts, with most people reporting improvements in REM sleep rather than deep sleep or sleep latency (how quickly you fall asleep). However, the ability to improve REM sleep is just another little feather in the mushroom cap of this exciting little shroom!
Closing Thoughts: Yay or Nay?
I find that as with most things in the world of health & wellness, you will find strong advocates for something and dissenting voices. With Lion’s Mane, the positive feedback is overwhelming. However, there are people who report no significant change to their overall wellbeing. I suspect these may be genetic variances or perhaps even inconsistent usage. Whatever the reason, this Mighty Mushroom has some impressive qualities worthy of our attention.
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Please note that this is not medical advice and you should always consult a doctor when starting any new supplement regime. While Lion’s Mane has not shown adverse effects at any dosage in studies, this does not mean that it is safe for everyone and is not for use in anyone who is pregnant or lactating. If you have a medical condition or take pharmaceutical drugs, please consult your doctor prior to use.
- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!