The Lions Mane mushroom, also known as Hericium erinaceus, has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but has only recently gained popularity in health and wellness circles in the west.
This blog post details my experience supplementing with this ancient mushroom. As you will soon learn, I noticed tangible benefits as well as some side effects.
Lion’s mane as a memory and mood booster
Lion’s mane is often described as a “nootropic,” a family of pharmaceuticals and supplements that boost cognitive ability. In fact, enhanced focus was one of the reasons I decided to experiment with Lion’s Mane supplements.
Sure enough, small doses via tuncture gave me a subtle, but noticeable boost in mood, and strangely helped me remember phone numbers, although the efficacy was brand dependent. I found the Montana Farmacy tincture to be very effective and the more expensive (by about double) Host Defense product much less so.
I could feel a difference in tangible boost in cognitive performance soon after talking Lion’s Mane. I was looking up phone numbers on my iPhone (which has the data turned off to preserve my sanity) and needed to walk over to my cell (a very crappy flip phone) to make a call.
I always try to remember the number without looking at it on my phone, basically as a test of how far my attention span has fallen in the digital age, and often will forget the last couple digits of a number I’m trying to remember. Not the case with Lion’s Mane. I felt like the numbers were sticky in my brain and could remember them hours after I took a small dose. This may sound odd to some of our readers, but it was actually a very cool to experience. Lion’s Mane helped me clear some mental clutter and gave me a cognitive boost that also resulted in a noticeable improvement in mood.
Lion’s mane, Nerve Growth Factor and brain health
There have been a number of studies done on Lion’s Mane, although the science is far from conclusive.
One mechanism of interest: Lion’s Mane has been shown to increase Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which is responsible for the maintenance and growth of neurons in the brain.
NGF is part of a larger family of biomolecules called neurotrophic factors, which support the growth and survival of neurons. Essentially, many neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, are linked to the degradation of neurons over time, and it is thought that neurotrophic factors, such as NGF, may play a future role in preventing these conditions. 1
Interestingly, a study by the International Journal of Medical Mushrooms (IJMM) found that Lion’s mane was effective at increasing NGF but that it was not protective against oxidative stress in the brain. 2 As a result, IJMM concludes that Lion’s mane has neurotrophic properties, but cannot be classified as neuroprotective because it failed to protect brain cells from oxidative damage.
Neurotrophic factor vs. neuroprotective
In case this sounds like a confusing distinction, I have this working definition: neurotrophic factors help to maintain the survival of neurons, presumably from a number of different mechanisms that can cause degradation.
By contrast, substances that are neuroprotective are effective at protecting against oxidative stress specifically. Therefore, a substance that is neuroprotective could also be a neurotrophic factor, but as is the case with Lion’s mane, it doesn’t necessarily follow that neurotrophic factors will also be neuroprotective.
To quote the study:
The combination of 10 ng/mL NGF with 1 μg/mL mushroom extract yielded the highest percentage increase of 60.6% neurite outgrowth. The extract contained neuroactive compounds that induced the secretion of extracellular NGF in NG108-15 cells, thereby promoting neurite outgrowth activity. However, the H. erinaceus extract failed to protect NG108-15 cells subjected to oxidative stress when applied in pre-treatment and co-treatment modes.
Lion’s mane and allergy
Lion’s mane should be contraindicated for people with allergy and asthma.
Times of allergy result in degranulation of immune calls known as mast cells, and NGF is one of the substances these sentinels of the immune system release when under threat. 3
When mast cells degranulate, they also release, among other things, histamine, which can cause anxiety and other issues. Remember, Lion’s mane increases levels of NGF, which is a good thing unless you are already making a ton of mast cell mediated NGF, as you would do when having an allergic reaction.
I took Lion’s mane primarily in California, probably 10 times, usually as stand alone supplement so I’d have an idea of how it was affecting me. In California, a place where I have very few allergies, I experienced no side effects from Lion’s Mane, only benefits (presumably because my NGF levels were in a normal range and the boost from Lion’s mane was therefore easily tolerated).
However, I did have one troubling episode with Lion’s Mane supplements, when I was back in Austin, where I experienced a brief racing feeling and itchy skin after a small dose via tincture. Itchy skin is one of the most commonly reported side effects of Lion’s mane. I am very allergic to Texas. I did not have issues until I entered an environment where my histamine load was challenged by the environment.
There are a handful of published case reports of Lion’s Mane causing severe allergic reaction to the point where a hospital visit was required.
Closing thoughts on nootropic mushrooms
In closing, I’m not sure how I feel about the shroom supplement world.
The neurotrophic factor angle for Lion’s Mane is potentially promising for long term neurological health, or even as a short term performance booster. A solid study looking at users over a period of many years would be useful. I won’t be using Lion’s mane in Texas but will everywhere else. I had multiple experiences ranging from positive to neutral, and it absolutely did help me remember phone numbers and boost overall cognition.