Lion's Mane: How the Mushroom Can Boost Brain Health

Learn about its science-backed benefits to brain health, gut health, and mood.
Lions mane mushroom

If you're lucky enough to come across the lion's mane mushroom while wandering through the woods, it may be time to gather some of this powerhouse fungi, the world's first "smart" mushroom, and even consider colonizing your very own log for future generations. Fortunately for the rest of us, lion's mane powders and capsules can be found at many health stores and even beauty retailers. But what makes this trendy mushroom special?

What is lion's mane?

It's not your average mushroom. No other mushroom species looks like it, but it's a lot more than just a handsome fungus. It's obvious where it gets its name from because it has white, cascading tendrils or spines and looks like a lion's big head of hair (or like a cluster of icicles, or like a landbound sea anemone). Other names for the fungi species include 'old man's beard,' 'pom pom,' and 'hedgehog.'

Lion's Mane is native to North America, Europe, China, and Japan. In the United States, it is most abundant in the Southern regions. It's fairly common and easy to spot—most frequently found on logs or stumps and growing on dead or dying hardwood trees. But it can also be cultivated indoors on sawdust (a popular spawning method among mycologists and mycophiles).

What are the health benefits of lion's mane?

Holistic doctors and nutritionists affirm there are potential healing capabilities of lion's mane mushroom. It's a great nutritional source of antioxidants and high in protein. Functional medicine expert Dr. Will Cole, FMCP, DC, regards lion's mane as "king of neuroprotective mushrooms" and believes anyone struggling with brain fog or memory impairment can benefit from using it. But the benefits to brain health don't stop there.

It may have nerve-protective and regenerative properties

Renowned mycologist, Paul Stamets, refers to it as the "smart mushroom" because of its nerve-regenerative properties. It contains two important medicinal compounds, hericenones and erinacines, that can stimulate the growth of brain cells and help protect brain tissue.

In a small clinical study from 2009, Japanese patients with mild cognitive impairment increased their cognitive function significantly after taking 750 milligrams of lion's mane powder a day for 16 weeks. The results of this study suggest that lion's mane is effective in improving mild cognitive impairment in humans. Considering the fact that as many as 5.8 million people are expected to be suffering from Alzheimer's in 2020, lion's mane may be a valuable health supplement in the future.

While there are few research studies focused on human subjects, lion's mane proves to be a valuable antidote in numerous studies conducted on mice. In a 2011 study lion's mane has been shown to reduce symptoms of memory loss in mice, and in a 2016 study, it was shown to prevent neuronal damage caused by Alzheimer's.

It may help relieve anxiety and depression

In addition to its brain-boosting capabilities, lion's mane has also been found to have anti-inflammatory effects that can reduce anxiety and depression. And in a promising clinical study on humans, it has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression in menopausal women. Lion's mane may help boost mood and boost memory, for those with cognitive impairments and healthy neural functioning alike.

It may support GI health

Lion's mane has also been studied for its benefits to human gastrointestinal health. It's been shown to inhibit the growth of H. Pylori bacteria, a gastrointestinal condition that could lead to the development of stomach ulcers.

Other research suggests that lion's mane can potentially reduce the risk of heart disease, may improve fat metabolism, could lower triglyceride levels, and help manage diabetes symptoms. Its anti-inflammatory effects may help to reduce heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. While more studies on humans are needed, Stamets believes the data from studies thus far suggest a number of positive outcomes for more widespread use in the future.

Cooking with lion's mane

This mushroom is a wonderful culinary ingredient, and some compare its flavor to that of lobster or shrimp. For vegans and culinary adventurists, it makes a great fish substitute or a vegan lobster roll.

Stamets recommends lion's mane caramelized in olive oil, and finished with butter to taste, first frying this mushroom covered over high heat until the fingerlike teeth are singed brown and become crispy. You can add tamari or chopped onions, but wait until the end to add the butter, allowing the mushroom's seafood-like flavor to blossom.

Ari Rockland-Miller, writer, lecturer, and co-founder of The Mushroom Forager, recommends wringing the extremely absorbent mushrooms after washing as you would a sponge because sautéing wet lion's mane spoils its impressive texture.

RELATED: Learn how to fire up your metabolism and lose weight the smart way.

Lion's mane health supplements

Los Angeles-based clinical herbalist and founder of Zizia Botanicals, Abbe Findley, loves using the nootropic mushroom for its numerous benefits.  She recommends first trying it as a tea, powder, capsule or tincture and playing with what works for you.

Years in the making, Zizia's Focus Tincture combines lion's mane with another adaoptogen, gotu kola, and rosemary, and was created for cognitive function and memory support. Findley swears by daily use to not only promote nerve cell regeneration and immune health, but also to get in the zone, especially during a long day at the office or just before taking on a big project.

In addition to Zizia products, Findley regards Host Defense Mushrooms Lion's Mane capsules as another great lion's mane supplement. In her practice, she also uses Gaia Herbs, which makes a couple of formulas where lion's mane is a star ingredient and can be found at many health food stores.

Bottom line: Should you try lion's mane?

Its numerous benefits prove it's definitely worth a test ride. One final note: I purchased Zizia's Focus Tincture and used one drop two times a day over the course of one week. In just a few days, I cut my coffee consumption down by more than half (and trust me, I drink a lot of coffee) and my ability to focus for extended periods of time has sharpened. Try it for yourself!

Get the New Book!

Want to lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds—all without dieting?! Get your copy of Eat This, Not That: The Best (& Worst) Foods in America!, and learn how to indulge smarter and lose weight fast!

Filed Under