While nearly all mushrooms have something to offer your health (fiber! B vitamins!), some species of mushrooms—referred to as “functional mushrooms“—contain unique compounds that are associated with some impressive health benefits. Lion’s mane is one example of a functional mushroom that is rich in health-promoting substances. Unlike mushrooms such as creminis or portobellos that are eaten raw or cooked, lion’s mane is typically taken in supplement forms, such as capsules or teas (though you can certainly experiment with it in the kitchen, too!).
Lion’s mane mushrooms have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine and have long been thought to support brain health and overall well-being. Today, mushrooms are a hot topic—and an area of growing scientific interest—with lion’s mane often at the center of the conversation. From cognitive function to energy to immune health, this funny-looking mushroom has a lot to offer. Here’s what to know about its origins, potential benefits, and who might want to give it a try.
What Is Lion’s Mane?
Lion’s mane mushrooms, also known as Hericium erinaceus, are a type of fungus that is large, white, shaggy, and resemble a lion’s mane (or beard) as they grow. They’re also described as looking like a “frozen waterfall.” They have long, dangling spines and can grow in a single clump or groups of clusters.
Hericium erinaceus is native to North America, Europe, and Asia and typically grows on hardwood trees in late summer and fall, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (Lion’s mane is often spotted in the forests there.) These mushrooms can be cultivated commercially, grown at home, or foraged.
In terms of taste, lion’s mane has a seafood-like taste and is often compared to crab or lobster. In fact, it’s considered a gourmet mushroom and can be used in various dishes, such as stir-fries or soups.
Compounds Found Within Lion’s Mane:
The more scientists learn about lion’s mane, the more magical the mushroom seems. Its various health benefits (more on those in a sec) seem to come from the following compounds present in the mushroom:
- Polysaccharides: These complex carbohydrates, including beta-glucans, are known for their immune-supporting properties.
- Hericenones and Erinacines: These are small molecules that are believed to stimulate the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which is essential for maintaining and regenerating neurons in the brain.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants found in these mushrooms include polyphenols, flavonoids, and ascorbic acid.
- Amino Acids: Like all mushrooms, lion’s mane contains a variety of essential and non-essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
- Terpenoids: These are a large and diverse class of organic compounds produced by a variety of plants and mushrooms, known for a wide array of biological activities.
- Sterols: Ergosterol, which is a fungal analog of vitamin D, is one type of sterol found in mushrooms.
- Glycoproteins and Lectins: These proteins that have sugars attached to them can have various effects on immune function.
What do these special compounds do once consumed by humans? Here are some of their health-promoting effects:
- Neuroprotection and neurogenesis: By stimulating the production of NGF, lion’s mane mushrooms can potentially promote neuroprotection and neurogenesis, or the protection and growth of neurons. This might support brain health and cognitive function, and protect them from decline.
- Antioxidant effects: According to a study published in the Journal of Food Biochemistry, lion’s mane mushrooms contain many antioxidants that can help manage oxidative stress and inflammation, factors that can contribute to various health conditions tied to cellular damage and aging.
- Stimulation of the immune system: Beta-glucans can help support the immune system by stimulating immune responses, which can be helpful when the immune system is faced with a threat.
Potential Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane
Functional mushrooms have been utilized for many years and the research on lion’s mane mushrooms is promising, though still somewhat in its early stages. Based on available research, here’s what we know about lion’s mane’s potential uses and benefits.
1. Supports Cognitive Health and Mood
Naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D., considers lion’s mane to be a good fit for individuals looking to support cognitive function, memory, and focus. In fact, it is referred to as the “smart mushroom” because of its unique ability to help support cognitive function, adds The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Karen Cooney, C.N., C.H.H.C.
“It is considered a natural ‘nootropic,’ or a supplement that is known to promote healthy neurological functions within areas of the brain that play active roles in memory, mood, and motivation,” Cooney explains. She often recommends it for those who want to support focus and mental clarity at work.
Read More: 6 Possible Culprits Behind Your Brain Fog
Interestingly, research suggests that lion’s mane mushrooms may benefit adults with mild cognitive impairment. Compounds in the mushrooms may stimulate the growth of brain cells to promote memory and cognitive function.
On the mood side of things, research has been mostly limited to animals thus far, but yields promise in the areas of depression, anxiety, low mood, and trouble sleeping. Both Cooney and Rose have found it helpful for supporting stable moods and managing feelings of anxiousness.
2. Aids Digestive and Gut Health
Lion’s mane is believed to improve digestive health by protecting the gut lining from damage and facilitating the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. It has also been used in traditional medicine to address digestive issues and support overall gut health.
3. Has Antioxidant Benefits
According to available research, lion’s mane mushrooms may provide antioxidant benefits. For example, compounds called polysaccharides found in these mushrooms can help support the body’s defenses against illnesses. “Lion’s mane has immune-modulating properties and may help support a healthy immune system by enhancing the activity of immune cells,” says Rose.
Who Should Try Lion’s Mane?
Lion’s mane mushrooms could potentially benefit a wide range of individuals thanks to their potential to support cognitive function, immune health, digestion, and mood. It seems to be most useful for these groups of people:
- Older adults: Those interested in supporting their cognitive health may want to consider taking lion’s mane, given its potential to stimulate nerve growth factor production and promote brain health.
- Those concerned about cognitive health: Some preliminary research suggests that lion’s mane may provide benefits for individuals dealing with cognitive impairments.
- People with mental health or mood issues: Functional mushrooms, including lion’s mane, are thought to support mental health, specifically by helping to balance neurotransmitters involved in mood.
- Those with gut health or immune concerns: Given its antioxidant properties and the potential to support immune function, individuals with poor gut health or immune system issues may want to consider lion’s mane.
Possible Side Effects and Interactions
“There is no research or anecdotal evidence to suggest that consuming lion’s mane mushroom extract is dangerous,” says Cooney. “It’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries and the only reported adverse effects seem to be an upset stomach and diarrhea.”
Still, as with any supplement, it’s crucial to talk to a healthcare provider or a professional with expertise in dietary supplements before taking lion’s mane, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are taking medications (such as blood thinners or drugs that affect immune function).
How To Use Lion’s Mane For The Best Results
Lion’s mane is now widely available as a supplement, often in powder, tea, or capsule form. When choosing a supplement, there are several factors to consider, including:
- Source and quality: Buy supplements from a reputable source that tests for purity, which ensures they are free from contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.
- Ingredients: Check the ingredients list to ensure there are no unnecessary additives, fillers, or allergens.
- Potency: The potency of supplements can vary, so check the amount of lion’s mane per serving and read dosage guidelines on products you’re considering.
- Certifications: Look for relevant certifications, such as organic, non-GMO, or third-party testing, which can help ensure a product is high-quality.
When it comes to dosing lion’s mane, there isn’t one officially established optimal amount. However, most studies use dosages between 500 to 3,000 milligrams total per day, often divided into two or three doses.
According to Rose, lion’s mane can be taken with or without food, depending on personal preference and whether you experience stomach upset when taking it (pairing it with a meal may help ease indigestion). And while you can generally incorporate lion’s mane at any time of day, “some individuals find it beneficial to take it in the morning to support focus and mental clarity throughout the day,” Rose notes.
Keep in mind that function mushrooms like lion’s mane may need to be taken consistently for at least a few months for their full benefits to take effect. (Many studies use a 16-week trial period.)
The Bottom Line
Lion’s mane is a versatile and promising supplement that’s best known for supporting cognitive and immune health. Try it in mushroom tea or capsule form for a potential lift in your mood, focus, and immunity.
Ready to get started? Check out KOS Organic Lion’s Mane Mushroom Powder if you want to add the functional mushroom to teas and smoothies, Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee with Lion’s Mane for a ready-to-go morning brew, Host Defense Organic Lion’s Mane Extract for a classic herbal tincture, or plnt Brand Organic Lion’s Mane if you prefer to keep things simple with capsules.