Mushrooms are having a moment. The global mushroom market was valued at a whopping $50.3 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow nearly 10 percent per year until 2030, according to a market analysis report by Grand View Research.
One mushroom making its way into the spotlight is the aptly named lion’s mane (also known as hedgehog mushroom). It’s a large, white, shaggy mushroom that resembles a full-grown lion’s mane, and while it’s not the prettiest fungus out there, people are mixing it into soups, brewing it into teas, taking it in tinctures, and swallowing it in capsule form, all in hopes of reaping its many potential health benefits.
“Lion's mane, also known officially as Hericium erinaceus, is an edible fungus that has been used in East Asia for centuries as food and medicine,” says Monique Richard, RDN, an integrative dietitian-nutritionist in Johnson City, Tennessee, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In Chinese and Japanese medical systems, lion’s mane is traditionally used to fortify the spleen, nourish the gut, and, currently, to treat cancer, per a research paper published March 2017 in the Journal of Restorative Medicine.
Because of its effects on the central nervous system, lion’s mane is also used in traditional Chinese medicine for insomnia and muscle weakness — symptoms of low qi (life energy force), according to the same paper.
Many helpful plant compounds can be found in the lion's mane fruiting bodies (the part we recognize as the mushroom) and mycelium (the mushroom’s root-like structure).
“Lion’s mane contains a number of compounds that may have beneficial effects on the body, including antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and nerve growth factors,” says Lindsay Delk, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Houston, who specializes in the connection between food and mental health.
The active ingredients in lion's mane include polysaccharides, erinacines, hericerins, steroids, alkaloids, and lactones. “These ingredients help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and inflammation, and they [help to] promote the growth and regeneration of nerve cells,” Delk says.
In particular, lion’s mane has been linked with stimulating a protein known as nerve growth factor (NGF). “Nerve growth factor is essential for brain health and neuron conductivity,” Richard says. Neuron conductivity refers to the ability of nerves to transmit impulses through the nervous system.
Lion’s mane is also used to support heart and immune health. “The polysaccharides may be the beneficial components in supporting cardiovascular and immune health, but many of the bioactive compounds together contribute to the potential benefits,” Richard says.
There are two primary categories of lion’s mane: food and supplements.
As a food, lion’s mane mushrooms frequently grow on dead and decaying trees throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, usually in late summer and fall, according to Forest Wildlife.
You can also purchase lion's mane in supplement form: capsule, liquid, tablet, or powder.
Fresh lion’s mane and lion’s mane supplements can be found online and in health food and grocery stores.
This fungus can bring many potential health benefits to your diet. Here are a few noteworthy ones.
One noteworthy benefit of lion’s mane is its effect on the brain. Past research found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain hericenones and erinacines, two compounds that may stimulate the growth of brain cells in the lab.
The brain-health benefits may make lion’s mane a promising treatment for dementia. In a study published in June 2020 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, people with mild Alzheimer’s disease who took three 350 milligrams (mg) capsules of lion’s mane daily for 49 weeks saw significant improvements in brain health. Meanwhile, those who took a placebo experienced a decline in several markers of cognitive function.
Additional research is needed.
Lion's mane decreases inflammation, which may help alleviate depression, Delk says. Authors of a review published in December 2019 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences of laboratory and preliminary studies on the effects of lion’s mane on the brain and mood in a small number of patients wrote they felt it had promise as an effective treatment for depression and encouraged further research.
Delk notes that lion’s mane may also help with anxiety. She points to a past study (included in the above review) in which women with nonspecific health complaints and diseases were given four cookies containing 0.5 gram (g) of powdered lion’s mane daily for four weeks. Compared with the women who received placebo cookies, the lion’s mane group reported significantly less irritation and anxiety by the end of the study.
Because the study included only 30 women, it's unclear how these findings might apply to larger populations, or how lion's mane compares with mainstream therapies for anxiety, and research with larger sample sizes is needed.
Research done on test tube samples and mice suggests that lion’s mane may prevent the proliferation of H. pylori, a bacteria that can have negative effects on the gut lining. Research on humans is needed for scientists to fully understand the impact of lion’s mane mushrooms on our digestive system.
In a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, mice infected with H. pylori who were given lion’s mane extract ended up with lower levels of the bacteria in their stomachs than mice who weren’t given lion’s mane.
Meanwhile, a study published in May 2016 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that lion’s mane inhibited the growth of H. pylori in test tube samples.
In general, fresh lion’s mane carries few risks. Meanwhile, lion’s mane supplements are generally well-tolerated and noted as safe when up to 750 milligrams (mg) are taken orally daily for up to 16 weeks (some research has shown safety at higher doses), “but because research is limited, universal dosing recommendations have not been established [and potency differs in the preparation and source of mushroom],” Richard says.
“Each supplement will have specific dosing recommendations, and the range of lion’s mane content can be wide, from 300 mg and up,” she adds. For reference, 300 mg is 0.3 g.
Still, lion’s mane supplements bear some risks.
For example, a few people included in the 2020 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience Alzheimer’s study reported abdominal discomfort, nausea, and skin rashes from taking 350 mg capsules three times a day. The capsules contained 5 mg of lion’s mane per gram.
Lion’s mane may also slow blood clotting and blood sugar levels. For this reason, it may interact with blood-clotting medications and diabetes treatments, Richard says.
While rare, there’s always a possibility you’ll see the adverse effects we previously mentioned from fresh lion’s mane. Be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider whether it’s safe for you to take lion’s mane supplements, or eat fresh lion’s mane.
Whether you get it fresh or in a supplement, lion’s mane may offer perks for heart, brain, immune, and digestive health.
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid lion’s mane, because there isn’t enough safety information available yet, Delk says.
In addition, lion’s mane may slow blood clotting. This may cause excessive bleeding or increase your chances of bleeding, especially if you have a clotting disorder. “Anyone who is preparing for surgery or who has a bleeding disorder should avoid lion's mane,” Richard says.
And while some research suggests lion’s mane may help prevent oxidation of cholesterol in the arteries — part of the process that causes cholesterol to harden and become plaque in the arteries — Michelle Routhenstein, RDN, CDCES, a preventive cardiology dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at Entirely Nourished in New York City, doesn’t recommend using lion’s mane if you have heart disease.
“Many individuals with heart disease or risk factors for heart disease may be taking several medications, like antidiabetic or anti-clotting medications, which can negatively interfere with lion’s mane,” she explains.
“We can prevent oxidation of cholesterol through other safe and effective science-based nutrition strategies,” Routhenstein adds.
Finally, don’t consume lion’s mane if you’re allergic or sensitive to mushrooms.
In temperate climates, you can forage for fresh lion’s mane mushrooms that grow on decaying hardwood trees throughout North America, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. If you’re not a forager with extensive training to be safe, check for fresh lion’s mane in grocery stores in your area. Availability varies depending on your geographical area and time of year, Richard says.
Lion’s mane supplements can be purchased online and in grocery and health food stores. The type you choose (capsule, powder, tincture, tablet, liquid) will depend on what’s available and which you prefer.
Be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements as food and not as drugs, which means that supplements don’t have to go through FDA approval before they’re sold, per the FDA. As a result, there’s always a risk that supplements contain hidden ingredients that make them less effective at best, and dangerous at worst.
When shopping, look for lion’s mane supplements that have been tested for safety by a third-party agency like NSF International, ConsumerLab, and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
There are so many lion’s mane supplements on the market, it would be wise to meet with an integrative registered dietitian-nutritionist or your professional healthcare provider to evaluate your needs and identify a high-quality product that works for you, Richard says.
If you’d like to try lion’s mane, first decide if you’re interested in taking it as a supplement, consuming it as a food, or both.
You have many options for eating lion’s mane as a food. Add it to soups, rice, quinoa, or pasta dishes, or sauté the mushroom with garlic and herbs. “Cook until the outside is slightly crispy to avoid potential bitterness,” Richard recommends.
Since fresh lion’s mane has an umami taste (savory and characteristic of broths and cooked meats) and fleshy texture, some people recommend using it as a replacement for seafood such as crab and lobster, Richard says.
If you’re intrigued by the potential health benefits of a lion’s mane supplement, consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian first. They will be able to address any potential interactions and contraindications you may encounter, Richard says.
Forest Wildlife
Run by a group of wildlife enthusiasts, Forest Wildlife spearheads wildlife conservation campaigns. Their website is a great place for information on mushrooms and any other fungus, plant, or animal you may be curious about.
The Mushroom Council
The Mushroom Council is a professional organization that promotes fresh mushrooms to consumers and the food service industry. Thanks to the council, mushrooms are honored and celebrated during National Mushroom Month throughout September. Peruse the organization’s website for mushroom news and events, info on mushroom varieties and sustainability, tips and tricks for mushroom preparation, and a variety of mushroom recipes.
Eat the Planet
Learn everything you need to know about foraging mushrooms and eating off the land through Eat the Planet. This site offers informational blog posts, videos, and a roundup of foraging tours throughout North America and the United Kingdom.
Mushroom Mountain
Find a variety of organic mushroom extracts and tinctures via Mushroom Mountain, a self-described “ecotourism hot spot for everyone interested in learning about the amazing world of fungi.” If you want to grow your own mushrooms, they provide tools for that as well. They also offer mushroom cultivation, cooking and nutrition, and camping and survival classes and workshops.
Om Mushrooms
Based in Carlsbad, California, Om Mushrooms grows 11 species of mushrooms, which it then transforms into capsules, powders, broths, and other formats. Browse products by desired benefit (immune support, memory and focus, stress relief and sleep, and more). You can also find information about the various mushroom varieties, the benefits of functional mushrooms, and common mushroom myths.
Fungi Perfecti
This family-owned business is dedicated to promoting the cultivation of high-quality mushrooms. Fungi Perfecti sells a variety of mushroom supplements, gardening and foraging tools, and indoor mushroom growing kits. They also offer mushroom resources like articles and blogs, seminars, and books.
Christopher Hobbs’s Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide
Winner of the 2021 American Botanical Council James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award, this book provides everything you need to know about mushrooms. From details on the nutritional and medicinal compounds in each mushroom variety, to instructions on growing, foraging, and sourcing mushrooms.
Fantastic Fungi Community Cookbook
This cookbook features mushroom recipes representing cultures from all over the world. A few droolworthy examples: chaga chocolate chip cookies, black trumpet and fig pizza, and lobster mushroom chowdah. The cookbook includes essays that explore a range of topics, such as mushroom cultivation and foraging.
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