Hericium erinaceus (H. erinaceus) is an edible mushroom with distinguished medicinal value that has a long history of usage in Traditional Chinese Medicine and an established process of artificial cultivation in Asia since the late 1980’s. More recently, it has earned scientific attention as a potential source for a variety of therapies including cancer, depression, diabetes, and diseases of the heart and nervous system.
H. erinaceus is referenced by several names, including Yamabushitake in Japanese Medicine, Houtou in Chinese Medicine, or more broadly as Lion’s Mane mushroom. It is considered a saprotroph or weak parasite and naturally occurs on dead wood, and occasionally on the cracks of living hardwood across Asia, Europe and North America. The mature fruiting body of the mushroom can be identified by its fleshy, semi spherical shape and off-white colour, with it gradually changing to yellow-brown with age.
Lion’s mane contains high amounts of protein, carbohydrates and minerals. Additionally, a significantly large number of structurally different bioactive molecules have been identified and isolated from the mushrooms’ fruiting bodies and mycelia. These include hericenones, erinacines, glycoproteins, polysaccharides, steroids, lactones and volatile compounds.
While the majority of medicinal properties of lion’s mane can be attributed to the activity of polysaccharides, and more specifically β-glucans, research on hericenones and erinacines has also revealed beneficial properties, with a focus on the nervous system.
Research on the therapeutic properties of lion’s mane demonstrates the potential to help prevent, alleviate or treat major diseases, including cancer, depression, diabetes, atherosclerosis and disorders of the nervous system.
In vitro (outside of organism) studies on various cells including lung, liver and spleen have shown the anticancer and immune system modulating properties of polysaccharides in lion’s mane. One study demonstrated the ability of polysaccharides to stimulate the activation of macrophages, which provide defense against tumor cells in the immune system. The likely mechanism was through the increased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines like tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α and interleukin (IL)-1β in macrophages. Another study demonstrated the ability of bioactive extracts of lion’s mane to induce apoptosis in human leukemia cells, suggesting a potential therapeutic role of lion’s mane against leukemia.
Of particular interest to researchers today is the neuroprotective and neuroregenerative potential of lion’s mane, given the deep pharmaceutical and medical interests in finding therapies for age-related brain disorders. Both cellular and animal studies have exhibited the promising role of hericenones from fruiting bodies and even erinacines from mycelia in stimulating the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which is involved in the growth, maintenance, proliferation and survival of the neurons which commonly degenerate during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (dementia). Further research is needed to replicate current studies and develop a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of action, in order to determine the role of lion’s mane in the treatment for Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the nervous system.
Polysaccharides in lion’s mane have also demonstrated the potential to improve various types of nervous system injury in cellular and animal studies. One animal study demonstrated the restoration of sensory dysfunction by polysaccharides after peripheral nerve injury. The mechanism likely involved the activation of the critical protein kinase signaling pathways and the restoration of the blood-nerve barrier.
In another study, a double-blind trial was conducted with 50-80 year old Japanese women and men diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, in order to examine the potential of orally consumed Lion’s mane to improve the condition. Subjects in the Lion’s mane group took four 250mg tablets of Lion’s mane dry powder three times a day for 16 weeks. Cognitive function, as measured using a validated scale, increased with the duration of intake, with no adverse effects observed. This study suggests the potential for Lion’s mane to improve mild cognitive impairment.
Polysaccharides in lion’s mane have also been shown to protect against liver damage in in vitro and in vivo studies, likely through antioxidant effects. In one study, polysaccharides from Lion’s mane protected against liver toxicity by decreasing reactive oxygen species and free radical damage. Studies on diabetic rats also point to the antioxidant capacity of lion’s mane in decreasing serum glucose and lipid profiles, and increasing insulin levels. Cellular studies on the ability of polysaccharides to protect against both heart and kidney injury may also, in part, be attributed to the antioxidant activities of the mushroom. One study looking at the beneficial properties of lion’s mane against cardiovascular complications identified hericenone as the active compound responsible for improving lipid metabolism.
Human studies have also looked at the therapeutic potential of lion’s mane to reduce depression and anxiety. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-control trial conducted over 4 weeks with 30 female subjects, the group who consumed lion’s mane scored better on epidemiological-based questionnaires on depression, menopause and sleep quality, compared to the placebo group. Whether or not the results point to a NGF stimulating effect or another mechanism remains to be understood.
A number of studies have also shown the antimicrobial activities of bioactive polysaccharides and erinacines against both antibiotic-resistant and non-resistant (susceptible) bacteria. One study demonstrated that polysaccharides in lion’s mane were effective against Helicobacter pylori, which is responsible for many gastric disorders. Another study showed the protective effects of lion’s mane against salmonella-induced liver injury, likely due to the stimulation of the immune system. Studies demonstrating the anti-fatigue and anti-aging activities of polysaccharides in lion’s mane further illuminate the widespread therapeutic potential of this medicinal mushroom.
While the antitumor and immune system modulating activities of lion’s mane are backed by strong evidence in cellular and animal studies, in-depth in vitro, in vivo and clinical studies on the potential mechanisms for protection against neurodegenerative diseases and for the promotion of learning and memory still need to significantly increase. The extensive therapeutic applications discussed, however, do point to the multifunctional health properties of lion’s mane mushrooms, and with negligible adverse effects, which validates the need for deeper scientific and medical attention.
Given the lack of research on the effects of lion’s mane mushrooms on higher risk groups, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those taking strong medications for chronic diseases reported to be influenced by the medicinal mushroom, it is highly recommended that you consult with your medical doctor or healthcare practitioner before supplementing with the mushroom.
When I first learned about the brain-boosting effects of lion’s mane, I was inspired to research further and self-experiment. Since then, more studies and products have come out, thereby contributing to widespread attention and curiosity by holistic practitioners and biohackers on the potential of the mushroom as a preventative agent. I continue to use lion’s mane sporadically, either standalone or as part of a brain supplement stack, and what I want to emphasize is that quality matters.
Due to the unregulated nature of this industry, no two products will be alike. Therefore, I urge anyone considering using lion’s mane as a supplement to do your homework and learn about the companies who are using high quality extraction methods, as well as ethical and sustainable practices, to ensure what you are ingesting is going to do you and the planet more good than harm.
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