Originally published in Plant Healer Quarterly
Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) – Everything you’ve wanted to know but were afraid to ask
Yamabushi, “those who sleep in the mountains”, are ascetics in Japan who live…well, in the mountains. They seek enlightenment in nature in a Buddhist tradition that has elements of Shintoism, Taoism and nature worship (1). The mushroom Hericium erinaceus is called Yamabushitake in Japan because it resembles the robes worn by these monks. “Take” means mushroom, by the way. As in Maitake, Shiitake, Matsutake, Yamabushitake, etc.
Lion’s Mane is the common name I first learned, and it stuck. Though Lion’s Mane could just as well be called “the mushroom with many names”. The botanical name Hericium erinaceus came about in 1797 and means, redundantly enough, “hedgehog hedgehog”. The mushroom looks somewhat like an albino hedgehog if you use your imagination. Or maybe a toupee for an aging punk rocker. There are over 2 dozen taxonomic synonyms for H. erinaceus (2)…have fun doing a research literature review on it! Here’s a non-comprehensive list of additional common names:
• Pom Pom Blanc – “White pom pom”, a name created by a San Francisco chef
• Bear’s Head – More rarely “Boar’s Head”…perhaps a typo that got perpetuated??
• Old Man’s Beard – Not to be confused with the lichen, Usnea
• Bearded Tooth – This is a weird one
• Igel-Stachelbart – German. Igel is “hedgehog”, stachelbart is “prickly beard”
• Hou Tou Gu – Pin Yin for “Monkey Head Mushroom” in China
Where Lion’s Mane grows
It grows in my kitchen at the moment. In the wild, Hericeum species grow in broadleaf and coniferous trees in Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Remember that what we generally see on a tree or stump and call a “mushroom” are really just the sex parts. The actual organism lives within the host.
Lion’s Mane is saprophytic, growing in dead or dying wood, though Lion’s Mane may sometimes be parasitic on live wood. There is evidence that Lion’s Mane may also grow endophytically, with the fruiting body emerging from a crack or knot hole in the bark (2). An endophyte is a fungus that lives within the host’s tissues without causing damage. Endophytes may be responsible for many of the medicinal properties that we attribute to plants. For example, Taxol, the chemo drug originally extracted from the Yew tree, is made by an endophyte within the tree rather than by the tree itself.
We were taught in herb school to look up for Lion’s Mane. It’s often high up in the crook of a tree. Some years ago in Philadelphia of all places, I found a giant Lion’s Mane mushroom growing on a downed log. (A lesson: Don’t believe everything that you’re taught.) Anyway, I’d not encountered Lion’s Mane in the wild before and jumped up and down like an idiot. Aaaannnnnd….I picked it. I now feel like a jerk for gathering it. Though not rare back east, Hericium species generally aren’t the most common shrooms out there. Kits are easy to purchase online, and now I grow my own; and grocery stores are starting to carry the cultivated version as well.
Eating Lion’s Mane
Do it. It’s good. Lion’s Mane is popular for its mild lobstery scent and flavor. It’s a delicacy when properly cooked. The mild seafood scent comes from a few volatile oil components: 2-methyl-3-furanthiol, 2-ethylpyrazine and 2,6-diethylpyrazine (that are also anti-microbial….fighting food poisoning while you eat!) (3). I thought about eating what I harvested in Philly, but it would have taken maybe 5 minutes to snarf it down. Instead, I made a double extract that lasted a couple of years.
There are a slew of Lion’s Mane recipes online. Dry sautéing is a good way to start the cooking process. Slice the mushrooms in thin, even sections, 1/2 inch thick or less if you have good knife handling prowess. Heat a pan on medium, add the slices in a single layer and sprinkle them with salt to facilitate water removal without steaming the mushrooms in the process. Steamed mushrooms have the consistency of rubber. Cook for 5 or more minutes then flip them. Continue cooking until they are starting to brown on both sides. If you have a lot of mushroom slices to get through, remove the browned ones from the pan while repeating the cooking process until all of the slices are browned. Add them all back to the pan then add whatever else you are using for your recipe. Consider keeping it simple to showcase the delicate flavor of Lion’s Mane…maybe just some butter, salt and pepper. If feeling particularly spunky, you can add a splash of manzanilla sherry. And, Lion’s Mane is nutritious! For example, it’s 20% good quality protein and 5% healthy fatty acids by dry weight (4).
Traditional uses of Lion’s Mane
Not to miss out on the obvious, Lion’s Mane has been eaten as a valued food around the globe (7). In North America, Lion’s Mane was also used as to staunch the bleeding of wounds.
Hericeum species are valued in China and Japan to nourish the Spleen, Liver, Heart, Lung and Kidneys. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Lion’s Mane is a vitality tonic, and has been used for many centuries in Eastern Asia for treating neurasthenia and debility. It’s additionally used for insomnia and other aspects of Qi deficiency (5). Lion’s Mane improves weak digestion and is a remedy for other issues in the “middle burner” in TCM (6). The middle burner corresponds, metabolically speaking, to the Stomach and Spleen. The Stomach breaks down or “ferments” foods while the Spleen is responsible for nutrient assimilation and transport.
Moving into research, Lion’s Mane is not as well-studied as, say, Shiitake and Turkey Tails, but the situation is changing with more attention being focused on this tasty and chemically interesting mushroom. As usual in the botanical world, the emerging science supports the traditional uses.
Lion’s Mane & the Digestive System
Back to digestion. Lion’s Mane is used in Japan and China for gastritis, chronic reflux, epigastric pain, ulcers in the stomach and duodenum, and for digestive system cancers and cancer prevention. The mushroom nourishes the intestines and strengthens the Spleen (5).
Lion’s Mane may heal ulcers and reduce their incidence at least in part via anti-bacterial effects against Helicobacter pylori, a significant cause of both ulcers and gastric cancer. More than one mushroom component is active here, including water-soluble polysaccharide complexes (8) and components that come out in organic solvents (9, 10). The caveat is that these studies were in vitro, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the antibacterial effect happens in people. Given that the mushroom or its extract would, presumably, come into contact with the bacteria in the digestive tract after ingestion, the above studies may have relevance in the “real world”.
I like Lion’s Mane in a dynamic duo with Meadowsweet for hot, burning digestive issues such as those noted earlier; or with the addition of Mallow for a ménage à trois of digestive goodness. Lion’s Mane has been in formulas for multiple clients with reflux or epigastric or abdominal pain. For instance, a friend/client learned that her chronic throat clearing was due to “silent” reflux that had caused significant inflammatory damage to her lower esophagus. Her formula has been 50% Lion’s Mane, and 25% each Meadowsweet and Mallow. Between this and some dietary shifts, her throat clearing has gone down significantly, though she hasn’t yet been re-scoped to assess the esophagus. All 3 botanicals are for soothing and reducing inflammation, but the Lion’s Mane in particular was included for healing and to help prevent progression of the esophageal lesions to something more serious. Given that digestive issues are probably one of the most common thing we herbalists see in our practice, even in folks coming in for other stuff, Lion’s Mane is good to have in the tool kit.
Lion’s Mane also works further down the GI tract, reducing gut inflammation in part through effects on the gut microbiome and attenuating inflammatory bowel diseases in experimental models (11, 12). An older, placebo controlled study in people found that Lion’s Mane reduced signs and symptoms of atopic gastritis (13). Atrophic gastritis is an inflammatory condition that damages the stomach lining. Lion’s mane reduced epigastric pain, signs of intestinal dysplasia and infiltration of immune cells into the stomach lining (13).
Lion’s Mane & the Nervous System
In Asia, Lion’s Mane is turned to for dementia, sleep issues and other nervous system-related stuff.
Here in the Rockies, I live in a community full of cyclists and have worked with a few head injury cases. In the aftermath of head injuries, folks may experience cognitive impairment, fatigue, seizures, depression, mood swings, insomnia and other problems. For these (including my own occasional head bopping) I usually combine Lion’s Mane in equal parts with another fantastic anti-inflammatory and tonic for the brain, Skullcap.
One client started on Keppra after having a seizure following her cycling accident. A couple months later, she seized again after having stopped the Keppra. She resumed the Keppra and came in to see me 10 months after the crash. Her goal was to use herbs to wean off of Keppa because she was experiencing depression and fatigue, known side effects of the drug. Though it was also possible that the symptoms were residual from the crash. Either way, her mood and energy improved after a couple months on the formula. Since the depression and fatigue were impoved, she decided to continue the Keppra after all, being afraid of a future seizure. I’m guessing that her symptoms may have been from the crash itself rather than the Keppra because she eventually didn’t need her formula any more despite continuing the medication.
Another client crashed her bike and hit her head, though not particularly hard. She had a history of multiple head injuries and even though this was a comparatively minor accident, it apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath, she was severely fatigued and developed visual disturbances, mood swings, headaches and insomnia. She came in 2 months after the crash and has been on a formula based mainly on Lion’s Mane and Skullcap for several months since then. She is having chiropractic work done as well. Either this, her formula, the passage of time or all of the above helped enough that she regained some energy. And then started to “overdo it”, in her words. And her energy tanked again. She’s had to slow way down, but notices a difference when she takes her formula regularly versus when she runs out and doesn’t get a refill right away.
A young client has hand tremors that have gotten worse over the years. Her father has the same issue and it has been progressive. Her paternal grandmother had MS and dementia and the client feels that her dad is now showing signs of dementia. The client was also dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. So, she wanted nervous system support. The tremors decreased significantly after about a month on Lion’s Mane/Skullcap. After a few months, the anxiety eased a bit and the panic attacks seemed to be less, but it’s hard to tell if this is related to the formula or to changes in her life. At this point, she’s has been on the Lion’s Mane/Skullcap-based formula for a while. The tremors gain in intensity when she’s off her formula for more than a week or two, then subside when back on it.
Of course, in all of these examples, the effects can’t be attributed solely to Lion’s Mane, but I feel like I see better effects using Lion’s Mane together with Skullcap instead of just Skullcap alone.
On to some studies. Cookies laced with Lion’s Mane powder reduced levels of depression and anxiety in a month long placebo-controlled study (14). One gram of Lion’s Mane taken daily in tablet form improved mild cognitive dysfunction in elderly folks after 8 weeks of use, compared to placebo (15). When supplementation ceased, the cognitive gains started to be reversed (15). Neither are powerhouse studies; the statistics aren’t great likely due to small study size. But the results jive with traditional use. There are some smaller, uncontrolled studies and case studies using various forms of Lion’s Mane that support its efficacy in reducing anxiety, improving sleep quality and improving cognitive function (16-20). Not powerful data, but, again, consistent with what those of us who use the mushroom have observed.
In more mechanistic studies, Lion’s Mane promotes myelination of cultured nerve cells (21). The myelin sheath lines nerve cells and acts as insulation, insuring that electrical signals travel properly through the nervous system. Issues such as Multiple Sclerosis involve damage to the myelin sheath and resultant disruption of central nervous system function. Whether Lion’s Mane support the myelination in people remains to be seen…it’s not the easiest thing to test. I’m not going to be the one to volunteer: ”Hey, go ahead and excise some of my nerves and look at them under a microscope…Make sure you get some from my brain while you’re at it.”. Two of Lion’s Mane constituents that induce myelination in vitro are able to cross the blood-brain barrier in vivo. So maybe support for myelination is one of the ways that Lion’s Mane truly is supporting cognitive function.
Another nifty thing that Lion’s Mane does is stimulate production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NFG promotes the survival, growth and proliferation of certain types of nerve cell. Low levels of NGF are associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, other neurodegenerative diseases and nervous system imbalances. NGF doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier, so taking exogenous NGF either orally or intravenously won’t do anything for these issues. Ethanol and water extracts of Lion’s Mane fruiting body both induce NGF production in cultured cells, along with stimulating neurite outgrowth (5). NGF is increased in the brains of “Alzheimer’s “ mice that were fed powdered fruiting body, compared to controls, and the Alzheimer’s type symptoms improved (5). Not a fan of the rodent studies, but they do suggest the possibility that one of the ways Lion’s Mane may be benefitting people is via improvement in NGF levels. As mentioned, components of Lion’s Mane cross the blood brain barrier, and this may provide a way to increase NGF levels “for real”(5, 22). There is, indeed, mechanistic evidence for nerve regeneration in vivo by Lion’s Mane, but the experiments are particularly nasty and I’m not going to detail them (6).
One last nervous system-related blurb. Erinacine E is a component of Lion’s Mane and at least one other Hericium species. A study from a couple decades ago found that erinacine E is an opioid receptor agonist (23), though I’ve not yet come across any follow up studies, at least on the databases I use.
Immunity and Cancer
It’s hard to talk about medicinal mushrooms without getting into the benefits related to cancer. Many different mushrooms improve immune system function and some even have direct tumoricidal effects. A tumor represents a failure of the immune system to keep the growth of aberrant cells in check. It’s not the immune system’s fault. Cancer actually causes immunosuppression.
Lion’s Mane influences many aspects of immunity from inflammatory responses to the reduction of tumor size (in animal models). Hot water extracts and heated hydromethanolic extracts of Lion’s Mane are able to stimulate innate immune system activity (24), and a novel polysaccharide “HEP-S” from the fruiting body was able to influence both innate immunity (in the form of macrophage activation) and adaptive immunity (T and B cell mitogenesis) (25). Lion’s Mane polysaccharides also influence the function of NK cells and may enhance mucosal immunity along the intestinal tract (26, 27).
Lion’s Mane had traditionally been used in China and Japan for prevention and treatment of cancers originating in the digestive system; for example, gastric and pancreatic cancers. It’s also been used in Asia for reducing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation (2, 5). That said, there aren’t any clinical trials that I can find. In a more sensible world, we would be studying the hell out of mushrooms with respect to cancer and other of the chronic diseases…
There are multiple studies showing cytotoxic effects of Lion’s Mane in cultured cancer cells (28-30). As I frequently mention, this doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in the body. But, it’s hopeful and cell culture can provide clues as to what may be happening mechanistically. Either water or alcohol extracts of Lion’s Mane protect DNA from damage, reducing cancer causing mutations in cells. Alcohol extracts also inhibit angiogenesis in cell culture and animal models at least in part by down-regulating the signaling molecule VEGF (Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor) (31, 32).
Lion’s Mane has promising results in animal studies, as shitty as animal studies are. For example, feeding crude mushroom extracts significantly reduced tumor burden and was more efficacious and with fewer side effects than the chemo drug 5-fluorouracil. Water or 50% alcohol extracts of the mushroom also inhibited cancer spread (metastasis) in animal models, possibly through inhibiting the activity of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). MMPs break down “tissue barriers” and allow tumor cells to pass into circulation and spread (33).
Metabolic effects of Lion’s Mane
On the metabolic side of things, Lion’s Mane reduces elevated blood sugar and lipid levels in multiple rodent studies. Both water and alcohol extracts of the mushroom are hypoglycemic, suggesting more than one mechanism at play (34, 35). Similarly, multiple mechanisms are involved in the reduction of blood lipid levels by Lion’s Mane. These include enhanced breakdown of cholesterol into bile acids, influence on the gut microbiome and inhibition of HMG-CoA (37, 38). HMG Co-A reductase is the rate-limiting enzyme in cholesterol synthesis.
Moreover, cultured Lion’s Mane mycelia excrete a polysaccharide-protein complex that reduces serum cholesterol levels in rodent models (39). The mushroom also strongly reduced the oxidation of LDL in vitro, with ergosterol and octadecanoic acid being the most active components (38). We know that cholesterol itself isn’t the problem, right? It’s the inflammatory and oxidative damage to blood vessels that are the “fire”, with increasing cholesterol levels in response to the damage being the “smoke”. That said, if the shitty diet, smoking or whatever it is causing damage to the blood vessels continues, then the cholesterol that’s trying to be a “band aid” over the damage becomes oxidized (sticky) itself. Hence, plaque formation.
Lion’s Mane also reduced levels of obesity in a rodent studies. To continue the theme of multiple mechanisms of action, both ethanol and hot water extracts of the mushroom were active and each differentially regulated metabolic gene expression (36, 37). Good to remember that there is rarely only one “active” ingredient in a mushroom or plant.
More on what’s in Lion’s Mane
Mushroom polysaccharides get a lot of attention, and rightly so given their pleiotropic effects in the body. Dried Lion’s Mane fruiting bodies are about 60% polysaccharide by weight (6). Indeed, the double extracts (combined decoction/tincture) are super slimy! Lion’s Mane contains many bioactive principles that come out in water, alcohol and other organic solvents. In addition to polysaccharides, the list includes glycoproteins, lactones, lectins, steroids, alkaloids, terpenoids and lots of other interesting stuff that mycochemists lose sleep over.
At least 35 polysaccharides have been isolated so far (6). Various of the polysaccharides result in cell cycle arrest (stopping cell division), induce apoptosis (“programmed cell death”), are antioxidant, are neuroprotective, stimulate immune cell proliferation (“mitogenesis”), inhibit a key enzyme of HIV replication, induce macrophage activity, induce dendritic cell maturation,
reduce metastases in rodent models, and sensitize drug resistant tumor cells to chemotherapeutic agents (at least in cell culture) (6).
A large focus in Lion’s Mane research has been on hericenones and erinacerins, which are terpenoid benzyl alcohol derivatives (4, 5). Both hericenones and erinacerins thus far appear to be unique to Hericium species (4). Both classes of molecule are extractable by alcohol or other organic solvents, but not by water. And, both can cross the blood-brain barrier, contributing to the neurological effects of Lion’s Mane (5).
Another interesting component of Lion’s Mane is dilinoleoyl-phosphatidylethanolamine (DLPE…thank goodness for acronyms), which is not water soluble. DLPE reduces ER (endoplasmic reticulum) stress in cultured nerve cells (41). ER stress is a pathway that can lead to cell death and is associated with neurodegeneration. DLPE also protected the cells from death caused by the addition of?-amyloid peptide (a culprit in Alzheimer’s Disease). So yet another way that Lion’s Mane may be protecting that big blob of nerve tissue in our skulls.
Amycenone is another neat chemical found in Lion’s Mane. It’s a fat-soluble molecule with anti-inflammatory activity that may improve cognitive ability and sleep (42) and is active when used orally (43-45). Promising results, but from very small and/or uncontrolled studies.
HEG-5 is another interesting component. It’s a hemagglutinating glycoprotein that can be obtained from cultured mycelia (46). HEG-5 induces cell cycle arrest and cell death in cultured gastric cancer cells. As I endlessly say, the significance of this in vivo is not yet known but it’s a hopeful result (47).
Finally, the chemical composition of Lion’s Mane differs between mycelia and fruiting body and also differs based on developmental stage of the fruiting body. For example, polysaccharide content changes as the fruiting body grows and total levels increase while protein levels are lower in the mature fruiting body (40). Polysaccharides from mature fruiting bodies had the highest immune stimulating activity with respect to macrophage function (40). Polysaccharide levels are lower in the mycelia (2). Maybe this is why the double extracts I’ve made from cultured mycelia aren’t remotely as slimy as from the fruiting body! Also, the fruiting body contains hericenones but the cultured mycelia do not (2). Conversely, mycelia have a much higher level of erinacines than the fruiting body (2). Things to keep in mind when mushroom medicine making…
Aside from the fact that Lion’s Mane is a veritable cornucopia (sorry, I had to use that) of interesting mycochemicals, another point of this section is that relying solely on one form of extract means missing out on a lot of the chemistry.
In my practice, I use 20 drops to a teaspoon of double extract 3 to 4 times a day, depending on what’s going on. Start low…some folks get digestive upset from mushrooms or their extracts. In studies, 1 mg daily of powder (pressed into tablets) has shown effects neurologically, as has 3-5 grams of dry powder. Don’t forget simply to eat the mushrooms!
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