Lion’s Mane is a type of mushroom that has been gaining a lot of hype lately. Claims include boosting brainpower, memory, and improved nerve health.
You may have heard about it and are now wondering what this medicinal mushroom is good for and what it can do for your health.
Studies indicate that lion’s mane may improve mental performance, with purported benefits for cognition and memory. Some also suggest that it can have mood and immunity benefits.
To investigate if this is legitimate and understand how it actually works, let’s see the clinical research on these effects and look at the underlying molecules and their various mechanisms. This will also help us figure out what kind of lion’s mane supplement will be most effective.
To help us explore lion’s mane, we have Dorian Wilson to explain the ins and outs of this amazing mushroom. Dorian is a health and wellness guru with a YouTube channel that has over 14 MILLION views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers!
Because Dorian does the research. He digs deep to get the information you won’t see anywhere else. It’s safe to say, if you really want to know a health subject through and through, you go to Dorian. So, by the time you’re finished reading this article, you’re not only going to know lion’s mane pretty well, you’ll be able to make an educated decision on whether or not it’s right for you.
If you’d prefer to watch Dorian’s animated video on lion’s mane, click here.
Otherwise, put your reading glasses on, turn up the brightness on your screen, pour a cup of your go-to beverage, and enjoy this in-depth article on one of nature’s finest mushrooms!
Why do people take lion’s mane?
My name is Dorian Wilson and I’m super excited to dive deep into the minutiae of lion’s mane with you. That being said, let’s jump right in…
Today, we are going to be investigating a medicinal mushroom that has been getting a lot of attention recently. It’s called lion’s mane, and it’s said to have a strong positive effect on your mental performance, while also bringing powerful mood and immunity benefits.
In this article, we are going to dig into both the clinical research on these effects, as well as look at the underlying molecules and the various mechanisms behind how lion’s mane actually works. This, in turn, will also help us figure out — based on our own individual goals — what preparation will work best in the lion’s mane capsules we take.
My personal relationship with lion’s mane actually goes back several years. In fact, when editing the first video I ever put on my YouTube channel, I distinctly remember drinking a hot lion’s mane drink mix. I heard about it on a podcast and decided to give it a chance. When I first mixed it up, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
Despite my roommates thinking I was a bit crazy, I drank it, and about 10 minutes later I slowly noticed something…
Subtly, a mental energy and focus began to creep in. I can best describe it as a light buzz of mental power that carried me through the research I was doing.
This is, of course, just my anecdotal experience. Could it have merely been my imagination? Placebo?
These questions are why — rather than talking about individual experiences — we are going to focus on the clinical trials. This way, our data on effects and best supplement varieties will be tested against placebo control groups.
But first, we need a quick lesson on what lion’s mane actually is.
When you first heard of lion’s mane mushroom, you probably pictured it growing on a forest floor somewhere like I did, with that classic stalk and cap that most mushrooms have.
To spot this fungus in the wild though, you’ll actually need to look up. That’s because lion’s mane is what’s called a saprotroph. It feeds on decaying hardwood, so it’s most often found growing on the sides of dead trees. Occasionally, though, it will also grow from cracks and knotholes in living hardwoods
The most distinctive characteristic of lion’s mane has to be its long dangling spines, which start out short and white-ish, growing longer and more golden with time, giving it the appearance of a lion’s mane. Its scientific name, Hericium Erinaceus, was given by renowned French botanist Jean Baptiste François Pierre Bulliard in the late 1700s. Erinicious literally means hedgehog in Latin, and I mean I can kind of see where he got that.
The species is found across the northern hemisphere, throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Regionally, it goes by various names. In Japan, it’s called Yambushitake. In China, where it’s used in traditional medicine — reported to date back over a thousand years — they call it HouTou, which translates to monkey’s head. Further west, it’s also been called Lion’s Head Mushroom, Hog’s Head Fungus, White Beard, Old Man’s Beard, Pom Pom Mushroom, and Bearded Tooth Mushroom.
According to a review article published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, lion’s mane was mentioned in the traditional Chinese medical text “Zhonghua Bencao”. There, they wrote that lion’s mane is capable of fortifying the spleen, nourishing the stomach, and tranquilizing the mind.
So, it’s no surprise that today a wide range of sources promote it as a nootropic, with claims circulating that lion’s mane and its extracts can enhance cognitive performance, boost focus, and increase mental sharpness — especially as we age — along with improving mood and reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Researchers have also looked at it as an immune system booster, and it’s even currently involved in some very interesting cancer research studies.
What is lion’s mane made of?
Before we get into the research and potential benefits, we need to take a quick moment to break down the different parts of the fungus, since these different parts have a unique chemical makeup. This will also be helpful later as there seems to be a lot of confusion on the best way to take it as a supplement.
Lion’s mane, like most mushrooms, has two distinct parts…
First is the mycelia, which — despite being the part you don’t see — is the living core of the organism. This branching web of thread-like structures expands through the decaying wood. Even back to when the first spores settled on the growth medium, it was mycelia that they formed when they began growing. As it grows, the mycelia break down the wood, absorbing nutrients and expanding.
Second is the fruiting body. Despite being the part that’s most associated with the mushroom, it only forms once a fungus enters its reproductive phase. In the case of lion’s mane, this fruit structure forms quickly above the mycelia, providing a stable structure where spores can be produced. The spores eventually sail away to form their own lion’s mane fungi.
The mycelia and the fruiting bodies are each made up of a unique assortment of molecules, many of which have been shown to carry individual benefits.
Fungi in general are composed mostly of polysaccharides, with lion’s mane being no exception. They’ve actually done tests on dried lion’s mane powder and found that — in 100 grams of the powder — these polysaccharide building blocks accounted for 61-77 grams.
From here, the polysaccharides fall into two general categories…
Alpha-glucans and beta-glucans
Alpha-glucans provide the body energy, while beta-glucans are more bioactive, implicated in many of the other health effects. And lion’s mane mushroom has at least 35 unique beta-glucans!
Also, it contains two key terpenoids. These smaller low weight molecules may further affect cognitive performance:
Hericenones — which come from the fruiting bodies…
Erinacines — which are found in the mycelia.
Coming up, I want to investigate the benefits of lion’s mane across three major categories…
- The brain.
- And the immune system.
However, since the extent of these effects will depend largely on the quality of the supplement you’re taking, it’s important to first identify the major differences between the types of lion’s mane supplements out there. Then, as we review the research on the benefits, we can see firsthand which varieties have the most scientific backing.
What’s the best type of lion’s mane?
Unfortunately, some manufacturers have taken to selling just one of the lion’s mane parts, as opposed to both combined. This leaves out a bunch of molecules that are only found in the other part.
As you’ll see coming up, studies have shown that there are unique bioactive ingredients in both the mycelia and the fruit body. Leaving one out could mean leaving out many benefits.
No matter what the supplement brand includes, you’ll still usually see polysaccharides and beta-glucans on the label. But remember, “beta-glucan” doesn’t actually refer to one specific molecule.
It’s the same as if I ask someone to make me an airplane out of metal. Different metals come with different chemical structures. If the finished plane was made of lead, I’d be a lot worse off than if I had just asked for aluminum.
This oversimplified labeling can actually lead to an even worse little trick. Since, like metals, beta-glucans also come in a multitude of different chemical structures, distinct ones can be found in not just different parts and species of fungi, but in bacterias, plants, and even grains.
Do you know what else can be grown in cheap grains on a mass scale?
This creates the opportunity for sellers who are, let’s say — more entrepreneurial — to choose to grow it in a less expensive grain which they can then scoop up and include in the formula when they harvest the mycelia.
Their labels promoting their product’s high beta-glucan content aren’t necessarily lying. There are beta-glucans from grains. But the beta-glucans from grains won’t have the beneficial effects of the ones truly from lion’s mane.
So, logically, if we want a supplement that contains the full range of active molecules, it would need to contain both mycelia and the fruiting body. But by that same token, you’d want something pure, which doesn’t include a bunch of the growth medium mixed in with the mycelia.
As we get into the research now, I’ll first tell you what I’ve settled on so — as we go — you can see why it’s important. While the first time I had lion’s mane I bought a box of hot drink mix, since then I’ve switched to pre-dosed capsules which contain both the fruit bodies and mycelia in a far more effective dosage.
The brand I personally use grows its lion’s mane in a lab in the United States. It’s grown in an artificial growth medium and — most importantly — the finished product is rated as being comprised of 99.5% mushroom tissue. This alleviates the concern of a lower quality grain making its way into the capsules and diluting the effects. So, when you’re shopping around, you want to ask for the exact percentage of mushroom tissue. And don’t fall for decoy metrics like beta-glucan content, which can be swayed by added growth medium in the capsule.
To help out, if you’re looking for where to buy, you can click here to check out the lion’s mane supplement that I take.
Some people also choose to grow their own lion’s mane. While I’ve never done this myself, it could be an interesting experiment for sure.
I already know some of you are going to ask about extracts, but first I think it might be best to get into some of the research that’s shown the benefits. Seeing the form used in these studies indirectly addresses the question of extracts.
Lion’s mane studies
Let’s start with research into lion’s mane’s benefits on cognitive performance, neuroprotection, and its ability to fight age-related cognitive decline.
When a supplement starts getting attention as a potential cognitive enhancer, researchers are often eager to test it first in those who are already experiencing cognitive decline to see if it can help.
In this first study, researchers replicated the conditions found in one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases by injecting amyloid beta-peptide into the brains of mice. Amyloid beta-peptide makes up the plaques that build up in the brain of those experiencing Alzheimer’s disease.
Since Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, injecting the brains of mice with this peptide has been shown to result in similar mental impairments to what we see in humans when this peptide builds up and forms plaques. This would give them the chance to see if supplementing with lion’s mane would reduce the memory impairment triggered by the peptide.
Over 21 days, some of the injected mice were fed a diet that included the dried powder of lion’s mane fruiting bodies. Others were fed the same diet, except with no lion’s mane powder. They also had control groups that weren’t injected with the damaging peptide at all.
After 21 days they tested the mice’s memory.
First, they tested their short-term spatial memory using a Y-shaped maze. Placed in the center of the Y, the mice spent 8 minutes in a maze with three hallways. Over the 8 minutes, they measured for alternations. In this context, an alternation simply means that if a mouse has already gone into one of the three halls, it wouldn’t go right back in. It would instead visit the other two first because it remembers where it has and hasn’t been.
If a mouse explores the same hallways multiple times, while leaving others unexplored, its memory is more impaired.
Sure enough, mice with the Alzheimer’s peptide that didn’t get lion’s mane only alternated between all 3 different halls 55% of the time. The other 45% of the time, they would go back into a hall they were recently in and re-explore it.
Whereas the healthy mice — without the mental impairment — explored 3 different halls in a row, 62.5% of the time.
So if there is something to lion’s mane, it would help bring the mice with the damaged memories closer to the healthy ones.
And it did.
When given a diet that included lion’s mane, despite still having the harmful peptide in their brain, these mice successfully entered 3 different halls 60% of the time — bringing them much closer to the healthy mice.
They performed a few other tests as well, including one where they exposed the mice to an object for 10 minutes. Then, an hour later, they put that object back in front of the mice, along with a new one. The mice that had lion’s mane spent less time re-exploring the object they had seen before and spent more time on the new object.
But what about lion’s mane studies with humans?
Well, in 2008, one of the first double-blind clinical trials involving lion’s mane took place in Japan.
The researchers wanted to test lion’s mane in people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment. So, potential subjects 50-80 years old were all first given a cognitive function test. With a perfect healthy score being 30, participants needed to score between 22-25 in order to be included in the study.
Once chosen, half of them began consuming 250mg capsules of dried lion’s mane fruit body powder 4 times each day. The other half consumed 4 pills with no lion’s mane powder, to act as a placebo control group.
Their scores on the cognitive function scale were retested and documented every few weeks for 16 weeks.
Interestingly, over the course of the 16 week period, the placebo group’s average score slowly improved. This might be attributable to each time they took the tests working as practice.
But what about the group that consumed lion’s mane?
Well, after 16 weeks on lion’s mane, they were getting an average of about 27 questions right. Digging into their individual results, some of the subjects on lion’s mane were even getting perfect scores by the end!
So, how does lion’s mane boost cognition and the health of the brain?
In both of the studies we just covered, researchers pointed to increasing levels of key neurotrophic growth factors as the mechanism behind this effect. These molecules are synthesized in our body and stimulate the development and growth of new brain cells. They also support the survival of existing nerve and brain cells, which is referred to as a neuroprotective effect.
These two growth factors are…
BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) — a protein found in the brain and the periphery that supports the growth and health of neurons.
NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) — a neuropeptide found in the brain that is involved in the growth, regulation, and maintenance of certain neurons.
BDNF stimulates and controls the growth of new neurons from neural stem cells. This is called neurogenesis and is what makes BDNF fundamental to learning and long-term memory. BDNF shares 50% of its structure with NGF, which induces axonal growth and is critical for the survival and maintenance of sympathetic and sensory neurons.
A study on rats given nerve damage showed that a daily dose of lion’s mane promoted regeneration of injured nerves in the early stages of recovery by stimulating NGF production.
Interestingly, levels of these important growth factors fall with age.
Meta-analyses of clinical studies have noted that decreased levels of BDNF can be associated with a whole host of neurogenic disorders — including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even depression.
You may have heard about research showing that physical exercise can help alleviate symptoms of both depression and Alzheimer’s. Well, guess what? Studies also show exercise can increase levels of BDNF.
In cognitive studies on lion’s mane, researchers often point to an ability to increase levels of both of these neurotrophic growth factors as a mechanism of action. This is a big deal when you consider studies have shown the combined power of BDNF and NGF can be more effective than either one alone.
How does lion’s mane increase BDNF levels?
As far as how lion’s mane actually increases these levels, research has come a long way in the last ten years.
First, just see what the researchers in the 2008 Japan study said:
“The improvement of cognitive impairment observed in our trial may be attributed to the effects of hericenones, but further studies are needed to determine the active ingredients and the mechanism of action.”
This was over 12 years ago. As you can see, they aren’t really sure what it is in lion’s mane that’s exerting the effect. While they postulated that it might be hericenones — mainly because their low weight should let them easily cross the blood-brain barrier — they note that more studies are needed to determine the true mechanism of action.
Then another group of researchers decided to tackle this question. Their idea was to culture human brain cells in a dish and see if exposure to just the isolated hericenones would result in NGF secretion.
Their method was pretty clever. They took the dried powder of 4 mushrooms and put it through an ethanol extraction since they would be applying it directly to the cell. This would mimic the fermentation process that is able to partially break up the soluble fiber in the gut.
Once this was done, they tested these mushroom extracts. They applied the three extracts from the other mushrooms to the cells and observed an insignificant increase in NGF secretion.
But when it came to the general lion’s mane… that changed.
Something in the generalized lion’s mane extract stimulated the effect.
Well, to check this, they took the lion’s mane extract, isolated the hericenones, and tested them in the same way. Was there a similar effect?
Isolated hericenones C, D, and E didn’t significantly increase NGF expression. Clearly, something had worked before though. So, as a final part of their test, they fed the unextracted dry fruiting body powder to mice for 7 days, then checked the levels of NGF present in their brains against control mice that didn’t get lion’s mane.
NGF mRNA expression in the cortex and hippocampus of mice that were fed lion’s mane was significantly higher than in the control mice.
So, surely something in the fruiting bodies is able to promote neurogenesis. And more importantly, it’s clearly bioavailable in a dry powder that’s been fed normally — no extract required.
But what about the mycelia?
The mycelia contain their own beta-glucans, as well as their own type of low-weight terpene — the erinacines. If you remember from before, I mentioned that I take a supplement containing both.
That’s because there has been some very interesting research into mycelia. In fact, there have been so many studies showing mycelia benefits that an entire review article has been published on the neurological health benefits of just the mycelia.
This review points out that — while research on the hericenones may have come up a bit short — research on the erinacines has yielded some pretty impressive effects.
15 unique erinacines have been identified, with further studies showing that at least 8 of them have various neuroprotective properties — such as enhancing NGF release, reducing amyloid plaque deposits, increasing an enzyme that lowers insulin, and managing neuropathic pain.
Out of these 15, erinacine A seems to get some of the most attention for its proven ability to clearly increase NGF levels in the brains of rats.
So, what happens when you add mycelia into the mix in human studies?
Well, you’ll see in a moment that this is exactly what they are now doing in the newest clinical trials on mood.
But before we leave cognition behind, there’s one important thing I want to add. Based on my research, it appears that — while lion’s mane really does have beneficial effects on cognition — the effects appear to be most noticeable in individuals whose levels of those neurotrophic factors like BDNF are already low.
Upper age, chronic stress, and obesity are some of the conditions associated with reduced levels of these neurotrophic growth factors. So, presumably, these types of individuals would feel the biggest impact on their mental function when they start supplementing.
But even if not in these categories, remember that these growth factors also support the health of neurons — meaning that they can keep a healthy brain healthy.
How does lion’s mane impact mood?
Now that mycelia will be included in the studies, we’re going to be looking more into research linking lion’s mane and mood. This first study is fresh from 2019 and centers around the link between neurogenesis and mood.
Adult neurogenesis, as we mentioned before, is the process where new neural stem cells form and develop into healthy new cells. This is a key function in maintaining healthy cognition. As cells die, they need to be replaced, and as we think and learn, new cells need to form. Neurotrophic factors like BDNF and NGF promote this neurogenesis.
Separate research on the brains of those experiencing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression has found reduced levels of both neurogenesis and its triggers like BDNF.
Because negative conditions like obesity, stress, sleep deprivation, and inflammation are shown to worsen these mood disorders, while also being associated with a decrease in new neurons being formed, they realized that there very well may be a causative link.
The idea that reduced neurogenesis could actually cause depression is termed ‘the neurogenesis hypothesis of depression’.
Are there studies on lion’s mane and depression?
To study a potential link between lion’s mane and depression, researchers took a group of 77 obese individuals and set out to test whether spending 8 weeks supplementing lion’s mane mushroom — by enhancing neurogenesis — could also improve key mood indicators.
Subjects took 3 capsules per day. And, unlike the other human study we looked at, here the supplement they took was 80% bulk mycelia, with 20% fruiting body extract.
They wanted to compare depression, anxiety, sleep quality, and binge eating habits before and after supplementation.
Here’s what they found:
After supplementation, average scores for depression, anxiety, and sleep disruption fell dramatically across the board. The drops were even more noticeable when they focused the data on the specific patients who were suffering greatly in that category at the start. This is called selecting for symptomatology.
For evidence of a link, they also checked subjects’ blood markers for BDNF, and its precursor proBDNF, before and after the 8 weeks.
Interestingly, levels of proBDNF increased significantly in the blood. This correlated nicely with the improvement in mood.
Blood levels of BDNF itself remained statistically unchanged. Remember, though, that’s the blood, and doesn’t necessarily mean levels in specific brain areas didn’t increase. Numerous rat studies have shown increases in BDNF in specific brain regions after lion’s mane. Unfortunately, those tests rely on killing the rat to check — something they weren’t exactly looking to do for this human study.
I promised these studies would give us real-world advice for supplementing.
Well, you’ll notice that the specific preparation I take is very similar to the one used in the aforementioned study — containing both mycelia and fruiting body. The main difference is that instead of fruiting body extract, the one I take uses the same kind of dry unextracted powder used in the Japanese study, which showed benefits in that cognitive function study.
The final mood-related study that’s often referenced took place earlier. It was a bit smaller and was conducted on a group of Japanese women. Their average age was 41 and the researchers wanted to see if lion’s mane would be able to impact menopausal symptoms, as well as symptoms of depression, poor sleep quality, and general feelings of negativity.
These metrics were assessed with a battery of well-established tests.
The results showed a significant decrease in feelings of depression, as well as a reduction in negative feelings.
In this study, they supplemented lion’s mane in — of all things — cookies! That’s right, half a gram of dried fruiting bodies were baked into cookies and the lion’s mane group ate 4 per day. It’s a good thing the placebo group also got their own lion’s-mane-free cookies since I can imagine how getting 4 free cookies per day would probably improve anyone’s mood!
Depression was measured using the Center For Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, on which scores dropped from an average of 13.9 to 10.3 after just 4 weeks on lion’s mane.
Comparing their results on the indefinite complaints index, they mentioned ‘anxiety’ significantly less at the end of the study than at the beginning.
So now that we’ve covered the mental effects, let’s circle back and look at some other benefits of lion’s mane…
Is lion’s mane good for the immune system?
Research indicates that lion’s mane is good for general immune support, as well as overall health. But to better understand how, and what kind of supplement you should be looking for to reap these benefits, it helps to understand the fabric of the mushroom.
I think something missing from a lot of the discussion on lion’s mane is the generalized health pathways through which multiple medicinal mushrooms have their effects.
That’s because while researchers have known for some time that mechanisms exist in mammals that allow certain beta-glucan polysaccharides found in select medicinal mushrooms to signal powerful health effects, the majority of the published research on lion’s mane still chooses to focus instead on isolating individual low weight molecules.
To see why, you really just need to look at the huge number of pharmaceutical patent applications being put forth. Medicine and the research surrounding it is a business after all.
This is, in my opinion, why the research fixates on proving the effectiveness of individual patentable molecules despite these studies often coming up short, rather than seeking to actually understand the broad pathways behind how the complete mushroom achieves its effects.
YouTubers and bloggers who don’t really understand the broader principles of medicinal mushrooms and haven’t dived into the research also end up jumping on board, directing their attention at these small molecules.
Even worse, a lot of these studies are done in-vitro, meaning they aren’t done with living humans or animals, but in Petri dishes in labs. The mushroom is completely undigested, making extracts necessary. This decoys content creators and even sellers into sometimes thinking that only these extracts will work in supplements.
But I put more weight into the studies done with actual humans, where the supplement was taken orally. And, as we saw, they usually took an unextracted powder — powder, which we know is comprised primarily of the polysaccharides called beta-glucans.
So, let’s circle back to them. Because, once we understand their purpose in fungi, their health effects in our own bodies and the mechanisms behind most medicinal mushrooms will make sense too.
If you magnify any fungus, eventually individual cells will become clear. Like all organisms, fungi are made up of tightly packed cells. Surrounding every cell is a rigid layer of polysaccharides. Because this cell wall is so key to protecting it, the sugar molecules need to be bound incredibly tight.
Something you may not know is that simple sugar molecules like glucose and fructose can exist in two forms — alpha and beta.
In alpha glucose, the hydroxide on carbon 1 points downwards.
In beta glucose, it points upwards.
It’s a subtle change that has big implications. Because when two simple sugars bind together to form a polysaccharide, this is the site where they join.
All you need to know is this: whether it points up or down determines the strength of the structure it can form when joined.
And when two alpha sugars join, the bond is fairly weak. While their technical term is alpha glucans, we often call them something else — starches. This weak bond is why we know them so well. It allows us to easily digest them. And once broken apart, the individual sugar molecules can be burned by our cells for energy.
On the other hand, beta-glucans are the result of two beta glucose units joining. And the structure made possible by the shape of beta glucose is much stronger. This is where fungi, plants, and bacteria turn — opting to use their own styles of beta-glucan when building their cell walls, making them as strong as possible.
But with many types existing, why is it specifically beta(1,3)-D-glucan that triggers beneficial effects on our immune system?
At first glance, there’s nothing that should make them special, and they probably wouldn’t have effects on our bodies if it wasn’t for one very specific reason…
Beta(1,3)-D-glucans are the specific type of fungi that seem to have chosen to build their cell walls. And that, your body knows, makes beta(1,3)-D-glucans very dangerous.
See, to our bodies, grain and plant cell walls represent harmless food. But species of fungi come in all shapes and sizes — from delicious mushrooms to microscopic and deadly fungal infections. Take Candida albicans, a species of microscopic fungus that can cause serious infections in people. It carries the ability to even cross the blood-brain barrier and directly attack the brain.
Cue the dramatic music.
Over thousands of years falling victim to these deadly fungi, the systems that protect us patiently endured and adapted. Eventually, our bodies began to develop a complex immune response, encoding it into our very DNA.
This immune response needed to be complex and capable of rapidly responding with increased immune cell strength that could destroy attacking fungi. It also needed to trigger pathways that strengthened the areas of the body which were most likely to be attacked.
But there was one more thing it required — a cell surface receptor that could be embedded onto immune cells to trigger this new response.
And this is the genius part.
While some receptors in our body are shaped to a certain hormone or protein, these PRRs (Pattern Recognition Receptors) morphed themselves to pair with the very thing which makes the fungal cells so strong — beta(1,3)-D-glucans.
This means that the very molecule that gives the fungi strength is now our trigger to mobilize a response to destroy them. Any molecule that triggers immune responses because of an association with pathogens is called a pathogen-associated molecular pattern.
While this system does its best to differentiate between the beta(1,3)-D-glucans of a harmless mushroom or a deadly pathogen, occasionally beta-glucans in a simple food mushroom can be mistaken for these pathogens, and portions of this strengthening response activate.
Despite just a handful of mushrooms containing specific beta-glucans that get mistaken by our bodies as cause for a defensive response, this can work to our benefit.
The immune response can be so strong, in fact, that in the 1970s, certain fungal beta-glucans were discovered to actually prompt the body into attacking and shrinking tumors, kicking off decades of further research. Today, there’s a whole list of anti-cancer drugs which have been developed from various medicinal mushrooms.
While I can’t advocate using lion’s mane to treat any specific disease, preliminary research studies on lion’s mane in mice with tumors have indeed noted that this immune response caused major reductions in both tumor size and a 2.5 times increase in splenic NK (Natural Killer) cells — immune cells that attack cancerous tumors — making it a promising area for future research.
Beyond anti-tumor properties, the immune response itself is the other major area of research.
Since the defenses mount to strengthen many areas of the body in preparation for this false threat, when nothing actually attacks, individuals can be left stronger.
The stimulation of this innate and adaptive immunity results when certain fungal beta-glucans bind with Dectin-1 and other toll-like receptors found across various areas of the immune system including macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells. This enhancement would be especially useful to individuals whose immune system is currently weakened.
In terms of lion’s mane, research has found increased white blood cell activation, reductions in salmonella-induced liver damage, and stimulation of innate immune cells to fight off an existing infection.
How does lion’s mane support overall health?
There’s a bit of debate regarding where exactly in the body these responses are being triggered from.
The research is still in its infancy, with many diverging opinions.
Mostly everyone agrees that because beta-glucans aren’t easily split into their individual sugars during digestion, they can make it to the small intestine intact.
Research has shown that if they’ve previously been heated to cooking temperatures, available concentrations of beta-glucans will further increase, while concentrations of the chitin that binds them into cell walls are generally reduced.
Also, at least two enzymes have been identified in humans that can help further degrade this chitin.
Beta-glucans that are released can then be fermented to various degrees by the intestinal microbial flora. It’s a similar process to the controlled alcohol extraction that takes place to extract beta-glucans in the lab.
What happens next is where theories divert…
Some research stops at the gut and focuses on the prebiotic effects that these molecules have on the gut bacteria which respond to them. This has opened up an exciting field of research that demonstrates how these gut bacteria alterations alone can have impacts on mood, learning, and BDNF.
Others focus on the ability of beta-glucan to activate immune cell receptors directly from the intestines — with no need to enter the blood — outlining a mechanism where beta-glucan could pass through M cells (Microfold cells) in the Peyer’s patches of the small intestine. M cells act like a sampling site where resident immune cells would respond, kicking off the full-body immune response.
Lastly, some studies have shown small amounts of beta-glucan polysaccharides can indeed pass directly into circulation. There, they would exert further effects across the body.
This could include some specific beta-glucans in lion’s mane which have been shown to be neuroprotective, with their effect on delaying cell death 20-50% greater than the study’s control.
The same study even showed this specific beta-glucan to be more effective at enhancing the growth of adrenal nerve cells, neurite extension, and even BDNF itself.
What is the best way to take lion’s mane?
Based on all of this research, I predict that in the coming years we will see even more evidence that these beta-glucans are key to lion’s mane’s effects.
And after coming to this conclusion on my own, I loved seeing this sentiment backed up in a journal article just a few weeks old. In it, they pointed out that those same immune cells which get triggered play a large role in the neuroregeneration process. It really tied everything together for me.
Hopefully, you’ve gained a deeper understanding of not just the research behind lion’s mane, but also the mechanisms behind it (and medicinal mushrooms in general). This is something I haven’t seen talked about much on YouTube or in blogs, so I’m happy to have been the one to share it and clear up some of the confusion.
Whether you’re going to go shopping, or plan to grow it yourself, here are my personal thoughts on how to focus your supplements, based on the research.
Fruit body and mycelia — look for a supplement that contains both fruiting body and mycelia which is guaranteed as 99% mushroom tissue, and in a significant dosage.
Dried powder (not extract) — in the human studies, this is what they took to achieve the recorded effects.
A dose of 0.5 – 1.5 grams per day — human subjects took about a gram daily to see results.
Pre-heated/cooked — and the dry powder used in these trials had been heated at least once to cooking temperatures.
If you want to save time, just click here to check out the lion’s mane supplement I take.
Not only does it check all of the above boxes, but it also uses lion’s mane that is grown in the United States and has been tested by a third party for potency.
As we end, I’d like to say a huge thank you for taking the time to delve into this research with me. I love sharing in-depth looks on health and fitness across a range of topics. If you want more of that, please feel free to check out my YouTube channel. Just click here to see what other topics I’ve covered!
Until next time,
D-Man, signing off.