With a regal name like lion’s mane, this species of edible mushroom has been creating quite a buzz. Whether or not you’ve heard of it, when it comes to adaptogenic, functional mushrooms, lion’s mane tops the list as one of the most popular and well-studied.
But what exactly do “adaptogenic” and “functional” mean in the context of edible fungi? Are the touted benefits associated with lion’s mane mushrooms completely woo-woo, or based in actual science? Here’s what to know about the benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms, both nutritional and beyond.
What exactly are lion’s mane mushrooms?
Also known as the hedgehog mushroom, or by its scientific name Hericium erinaceus, the lion’s mane mushroom has a rich history. As a centuries-old cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine, it was used to improve overall health and longevity, lovingly referred to as the “monkey head” mushroom. Meanwhile, in Japan, this mushroom was alternatively named “mountain monk” mushroom, the powder of which Buddhist monks used to enhance focus during meditation. There’s also evidence dating back to as early as 450 B.C. to ancient Greece, where lion’s mane was utilized for its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties. This mushroom has traditionally been harvested through wild foraging, but cultivation of lion’s mane started in China in 1988, and ever since its popularity has steadily grown.
These mushrooms, like all other mushroom varieties, belong in the fungi kingdom and help to repurpose the nutrients of decaying plant matter as decomposers. Mushrooms are made of their fruiting body and mycelium. Similar to plants whose stems grow above ground and roots below, mushrooms’ fruiting bodies are what you’ll find above the surface of the growing medium and mycelium is below. What we typically eat are the fruiting bodies of mushrooms, though there equally as many health benefits in the mycelium.
Lion’s mane gets all of its quirky nicknames from its unique appearance. This white fungus has tiny dangling white threads, almost like a shag carpet, and takes a clumped form similar to that of a brain or a hedgehog or a monkey head (you get the idea).
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Benefits
With all of the names this mushroom has accumulated comes an even larger number of health benefits. Here are some of the top evidence-based health benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms that give it such a high reputation in the health and wellness world.
Lion’s mane is a functional and adaptogenic food.
Maybe one of the most compelling benefits associated with this fungus is that it’s considered to be a functional and adaptogenic food. A functional food has health benefits outside of its nutritional value.
Adaptogenic foods help the body to adapt to stress of any kind: physical, biological, or chemical. This enables the body to fight off illness and disease and return to internal homeostasis (a healthy balance) more quickly and easily. One meta-analysis published in Nutrients found that plant adaptogens, like lion’s mane, can help improve symptoms of chronic fatigue and cognitive impairment while reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system.
Lion’s mane can improve immune health.
Speaking of immune health, hedgehog mushrooms are effective at keeping our immune systems strong and functioning optimally. This is due, in part, to their bioactive plant compounds and zinc, both of which are antioxidants that help reduce inflammation in the body and fight off disease-causing free radicals. When it comes to lion’s mane, its protein and carbohydrate content also amplifies its immune-boosting powers. One animal study found that one type of protein extracted from lion’s mane was associated with modulation of the immune system through regulation of the gut microbiome in mice. While another found that the certain carbs in this mushroom also stimulated our intestinal bacteria, helping to enhance the body’s cellular immune system pathways.
While more human studies are needed to confirm, emerging research also suggests that these nutritional components add up when it comes to fighting off some of the scariest of illnesses, like cancer. One in vitro and animal study, for example, found lion’s mane extract to be effective against liver, colon, and even gastric cancer cells. Further studies and reviews echo these findings when it comes to this fungus’ potential to stand up to cancer.
Lion’s mane helps boost and protect brain health.
Where these mushrooms really shine, and what they’re most known for, is their ability to positively impact our brain health. This is primarily due to the neurotrophic factors and bioactive compounds found in this functional fungus. Neurotrophic factors are biomolecules made of protein that promote the growth and differentiation of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain that send and receive information. Lion’s mane has also been associated with reduced brain inflammation, offering neuroprotective benefits. Some of these benefits include symptom improvement of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. One animal study even found lion’s mane to assist in neurotransmission and recognition memory.
Lion’s mane supports gut health.
As already mentioned above, this edible fungi is also a champion for gut health. Many of the functional mushrooms, including lion’s mane, are excellent sources of beta-glucan, a kind of soluble fiber that benefits our health in a number of ways beyond just gut health, including immune, heart, and metabolic health. It also has a prebiotic effect in the microbiome, serving as food for our healthy gut bacteria. Beyond its beta-glucan content, animal studies suggest lion’s mane may potentially be beneficial in treating inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and H. pylori—a bacteria that can cause stomach infections, ulcers, and even cancer.
Lion’s mane promotes heart health.
Lion’s mane mushrooms can even help support heart health. Similar to other soluble fibers, their beta-glucans also bind to cholesterol in the small intestine and move it through the rest of the digestive tract for disposal. This means that cholesterol literally goes down the drain instead of being absorbed into your blood. Beta-glucans are also associated with reduced blood pressure levels and together, cholesterol and blood pressure make up some of the key conditions needed for heart disease to arise. Various studies reiterate these impacts, with one in vitro showing lion’s mane’s ability to help reduce bad cholesterol (or low-density lipoprotein, LDL) levels. While another review found edible plants, including lion’s mane (though it’s technically a fungus), to help promote healthy blood clotting in humans, another contributor to heart disease if functioning improperly.
Lion’s mane provides important vitamins and minerals.
Additionally, these fungi offer quite a few vitamins and minerals including potassium, iron, and B vitamins. These nutrients combine to support healthy fluid balance, immune function, red blood cell formation, and energy metabolism.
Lion’s mane may help regulate blood sugars.
These fungi also impact metabolic health, including the ability to regulate blood sugars. While this makes sense given this mushroom’s fiber content, there’s budding research to back it up. In one animal study, lion’s mane was found to help reduce blood sugars to normal levels while also providing a protective effect on the pancreas, liver, and kidneys. Another found this mushroom to help relieve diabetic nerve pain in animal subjects.
That said, more research on human subjects is required to say definitively its ability to help people with (and without) diabetes manage their blood sugar levels and aid diabetes-related nerve pain.
Cooking, Eating, and Drinking Lion’s Mane
Acknowledging that several of the studies examined above were conducted in animals, there’s enough human evidence for researchers to conclude that lion’s mane is a bonafide superfood. But how can you include it in your cooking and daily routine?
Lion’s mane is one of the few functional mushrooms that you can find in its whole form relatively readily these days, especially in specialty food stores and from local producers. You can whip up any of your favorite mushroom recipes, adding it to pastas, soups, eggs, and rice dishes. However, many feature lion’s mane in vegan “seafood” recipes as it can offer a flavor and texture reminiscent of lobster, shrimp, or crab. These mushrooms can even be steeped in hot water to make a deliciously earthy tea loaded with health benefits.
Lion’s mane can also be powdered and added to stews, soups, and gravies, not only as a way to boost the recipe’s healthfulness, but to add umami flavor. However, it can just as easily be added to smoothies, coffees, teas, and oatmeal in smaller amounts without compromising the overall flavor. There are also a variety of mushroom coffee and tea alternative brands that feature this fungus including MUD/WTR, Rasa, Ryze, and Four Sigmatic.
Supplement Safety and Tips
Otherwise, there are a number of supplements available that feature lion’s mane, including pills, powders, and tinctures. When buying supplements, however, it’s extremely important to know that while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors supplements in the country, it does not test or regulate each one for safety or purity. This means that products that are not reliable or safe are as readily available on the market for purchase, ultimately placing that risk and responsibility on the consumer.
That means it’s (unfortunately) our job as consumers to do our research before buying supplements to ensure their safety and purity. There are a few organizations conducting third-party verifications to help in that process including NSF and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). Look for their seal of approval on any products you’re considering
It’s also essential to consult your doctor before starting any new dietary or supplement regimen, as the ingredients may interact with current medications or medical conditions.