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Lion’s mane, chaga and cordyceps, oh my!

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I have a confession to make.

I’ve been experimenting with mushrooms.

That sounds bad, I know, but it’s not what you think.

These mushrooms are perfectly legal and have been used by healing traditions for hundreds of years. They’re called Lions Mane (Hericium erinaceus), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and Cordyceps, respectively.

Should you be using them as well?

Let’s find out.

Benefits of lion’s mane supplements

Lion’s Mane came on my radar through a friend who recommended it as a nootropic.

Memory and Mood Booster

Sure enough, it 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 cognitive performance with 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.

Why didn’t I have both devices in the same room?

I just didn’t.

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 of the primary benefits of Lion’s Mane has been the increase of 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.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. 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.

Do not take Lion’s Mane if you have allergy or histamine issues

Lion’s mane should be contraindicated for people with heavy allergies / overactive immune systems. Times of allergy result in degranulation of 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, a good thing unless you are already making a ton of mast cell mediated NGF.

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. I did have one troubling episode, when I was back in Austin, where I experienced a brief racing feeling and subtle itchy skin. 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.

I share my Lion’s Mane story in greater detail in our podcast episode on histamine and leaky gut.

Benefits of chaga supplements

Note: I didn’t use a tincture for Chaga, instead I tried Chaga tea by Four Sigmatic.

I first heard about Chaga through a sponsor on the Tim Ferriss podcast, FourSigmatic, but never ordered because I was under the impression that it contained caffeine. FourSigmatic does make a mushroom coffee, but it turns out they also offer an unleaded Chaga alternative for those of us who don’t drink much caffeine.

See also: ADORA2A and ADA genes

Even though I don’t regularly drink caffeine, my family drinks a lot of coffee. I love the morning ritual and the smell. However, I usually abstain because I find it disrupts my sleep. For me, Chaga was like coffee without the side effects. Nice crisp energy. I am a fan, but be cautious with dosing. Some people may have issues with a full packet of Chaga tea, especially if it’s consumed on an empty stomach. I felt almost a little too wired a couple times after having a full cup without eating first. It’s also important to realize that the “buzz” from Chaga lasts quite awhile, so be prepared for a hard charging day when taking this stuff.

What does it do for me?

It lights me up, giving me that “morning punch” to bang out blog posts, client emails and whatever else is on the agenda. It provides a clean, sustained source of energy and, like the Lion’s Mane, I also noticed elevated mood. Notably, the first time I drank a cup of Chaga tea was in the afternoon around 4. If I had coffee at that time, I would have been up all night. But I was able to get a good night’s sleep despite feeling the stimulant effect of Chaga, presumably because Chaga doesn’t disrupt our adenosine receptors like caffeine does.

The science of Chaga

For starters, I was impressed that Sloan Memorial devoted a page of their website to Chaga, saying it is deserving of more research as a cancer fighter.

The Sloan Memorial page is well worth a visit, especially the “for healthcare providers” section, which gives the highlights of the current science behind Chaga. There isn’t much I can do here to improve on that page, but I will list some highlights that our readers might find interesting.

High in oxalates

For starters, just like beets, vitamin C, and buckwheat, Chaga is very high in oxalates, which some people my have a hard time digesting. If Chaga is rough on your stomach, now you know why. If you’re a guy who has suffered from kidney stones, it’s fair to say that Chaga is contraindicated.

High antioxidant score

Chaga has a very high oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) score. The ORAC scale measures how effective a given antioxidant is at “soaking up” free radicals produced by oxygen energy metabolism. Remember that cells burn oxygen and leave nasty free radicals, like superoxide in their wake. Endogenous antioxidants, such as superoxide dismutase, then come along and convert these free radicals into less harmful substances, one of which is hydrogen peroxide. There is evidence that Chaga helps the body deal with these free radical waste products.4

Chaga mushroom treatment affords cellular protection against endogenous DNA damage produced by H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide).”5

This study, performed on mice, found Chaga to have a potent antioxidant effects and was also shown to increase levels of both SOD2 and glutathione.

From the study:

MEC treatment for 7 days significantly improved the learning and memory as measured by PAT and MWM paradigms. Further, MEC significantly reduced the oxidative-nitritive stress, as evidenced by a decrease in malondialdehyde and nitrite levels and restored the glutathione and superoxide dismutase levels in a dose dependent manner.

Cordyceps supplements

This is an after thought section because I had a little stomach upset with Cordyceps.

To be fair, I didn’t try a Cordycep tincture, just a tea, again made by Four Sigmatic. I didn’t experiment much with this mushroom as the very first cup of the tea I had was really hard on my digestion. It felt rough on my stomach almost instantly after drinking, so I never had a chance to play around with multiple doses over a few weeks as I did with Lion’s mane and Chaga.

For a good article on the reputed health benefits of Cordyceps, check out this article by Dr. Ray Sihelain. Supposedly, Cordyceps can increase sex drive.

Onnit has a Cordyceps pre-workout product I’ve heard Joe Rogan talk about on his podcast.

Apparently, it really helps Joe.

Closing thoughts on nootropic mushrooms

In closing, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole shroom supplement world.

The neurotrophic factor angle for Lion’s Mane is potentially promising for long term neurological health. 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 positive to neutral experiences, and it absolutely did help me remember phone numbers and boost overall cognition.

Chaga is a different story. For those of us who don’t drink caffeine, finding a dose of Chaga that your body can handle without feeling over baked might not be a bad idea. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, try a half packet of the tea to start.

For Cordyceps, you’re on your own. All that mushroom did for me was to make me poo.

Til’ next time…

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food. Read his full bio here.

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