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

Article at a Glance
  • Nootropic mushrooms are becoming more and more popular as research is beginning to demonstrate health benefits.
  • Lion’s Mane increases Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which has been shown to aid in the survival of neurons in the brain. However, because NGF increases histamine levels, those with allergy and autoimmune conditions should be cautious and may experience side effects.
  • The Chaga mushroom is very high in antioxidants, but also oxalates, which some may have trouble digesting.
  • Cordyceps mushrooms have been touted for numerous health benefits, however, the author’s experience was that they caused stomach upset and multiple trips to the bathroom.
  • Of all the products we experimented with, our favorite was the Lion’s Mane tincture by Montana Pharmacy.

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.

My experience with Lion’s mane supplements

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

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.

Like I said above, 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. (R)

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. (R) 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 stress.

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. If anyone can shed more light on this distinction I would encourage comments.

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.

When not to take Lion’s Mane

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 has been shown to cause mast cell degranulation. When mast cells degranulate, they release, among other things, histamine, which can cause anxiety and other issues. 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.

My experience with 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 caffeine.

See also: ADORA2A and ADA genes

Even though I don’t do a lot of caffeine, my family drinks a lot of coffee. I love the morning ritual and the smell. However, I usually abstain because I find the jitters are not worth the energy boost. 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. (R)

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

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.

My experience with Cordyceps supplements

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 are thought to 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. Probably bullshit, but you never know.

Closing thoughts on 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 regularly because I had a bad experience when back in ATX. To be fair, I had multiple other positive to neutral experiences as well, and it absolutely did help me remember phone numbers, but I’m not a believer in taking 100 supplements a day, so Lion’s mane is off the list.

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…

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15 Comments

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  1. Donna says:

    Hi John. I found your blog post after searching “negative effects of four sigmatic mushroom blend.” I didn’t see any results mentioning negative effects. Maybe my experience will be of interest:
    After adding the Four Sigmatic Mushroom Blend powder to my morning matcha (with a blend of coconut and cashew nut milk that I make myself, without additives) I noticed that my mood became sort of low in a way that is not normal for me. The best way I can describe it is a very sudden and intense wave of depression that lasted for about 30 minutes. The connection to the mushrooms didn’t strike me at first, and I kept using the blend for several days before I put 2 and 2 together. When next I made my matcha mushroom free, I did not experience this negative effect. Do you have any ideas about this? I’m thinking it could be just one of the mushrooms in the blend that is causing this reaction. Do you have any ideas about which one (or ones) it could be? I’ve eaten many types of regularly available culinary mushrooms with no negative reactions at all.

  2. Donna,

    Since it was a mushroom blend that you drank, it’s tough to say which mushroom caused the issue. However, having tried all of these products, it’s not surprising to me that they would have negative impacts on some people as they are potent. As I mentioned in the post, one possible mechanism for reactivity to Lion’s Mane is an increase in NGF that drives up histamine levels. Do you suffer from allergy?

  3. Dan Sorenson says:

    I have MS and trigimneral neuralja. I have been taking Lions mane tinature and capsules for a couple of years now. Is that bad? As far as I know MS is a autoimmune disease. What do you think would be good for me? I also have chaga coffee I make about twice a week.

  4. naturespin says:

    I would buy all of these in bulk instead of teas. Cordyceps is by FAR my favorite out of the mix w/ Lions Mane coming in at a close 2nd. I find it much easier to just throw a teaspoon down w/ a glass of water than making tea.

  5. Lynn Kosecki says:

    I seem to get quite tired taking a least 3000 mi as they say to…If I cut that down will I still have the overall benefit from Lions Mane…? Is there something I could take with the LM to give me a little Zip…? Thank-you Lynn

  6. Annabella says:

    After eating fresh lions mane I came down with a terrible virus. All allergy symptoms. At a much later time, I may experiment to see if it was truly the culprit. Throat ache, headache, chest congestion, post nasal drip etc…

    • Scott says:

      I had the exact same reaction took me 2 weeks to fully recover, bed ridden for 3 of those days. Glands on my neck swelled up like golf balls. Had a heaped tsp Lions Mane 10 to 1 extract and a heaped tsp Cordyceps 10 to 1 extract in a cup of hot water. Was definitely too much to start on but didnt expect that reaction.

  7. Ben says:

    Dear Dr.,

    It sounds like it was a mixed yet not overly unpleasant experience for you. I just purchased Host Defense Lion’s Mane extract and have taken one serving, about an hour ago. Instantly, I noticed an abundance of activity in my mind, ostensibly as a result. I am a 27 year old student who took 5 years off of school and am finishing up this year. I’m just eclipsing 100 days of sobriety, yet I drank heavily for numerous years. Over remedied that with a plethora of water and tea consumption, healthy eating, exercise, sauna, steam, etc. I am also consuming a CBD extract. I saw a video that stated CBD and Lion’s Mane both lead to an increase in neurons, yet it is coconut oil that provides coating for the sheaths, or outside of neurons. I’m not sure of the precise physiology, but that’s how I think it was presented. Hence, I believe coconut oil qualifies as neuroprotective in this instance. Is that accurate?Thank you for sharing your experience. Best wishes your way.

  8. Nicki says:

    I drink DEFIANT COFFEE. Made in small batches in Post Falls Idaho. It’s delicious and has Lions Mane, Chaga and Cordyceps in it and I have zero gitters. My stomach has been fine! I have noticed a huge difference in my day to day attitude and how I feel! I really enjoyed this article, it really helped me understand more about these mushrooms!! Thanks!

  9. Deb says:

    Thank you so much for the information! I found to be an illuminating and easy read, with so, so much personal commentary. I have ordered my first batch of Lions Mane and am hoping for some fulfilling results. Again-thanks for taking the time to write this!

  10. Jim says:

    I have several food allergies, soy for one, and if I eat to much of the wrong thing, left over turkey from Thanksgiving for 6 day, my histamine level goes through the roof. Never had this with turkey before, but I have been taking the Turkey tail mushroom extract. Now that I read your post above on histamine levels I am wondering if that had anything to do with my attack. It’s day 4 now after eating the turkey left overs, and I have read that left over meats, even in the refrigerator, will increase in histamines as time goes on. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

  11. Tilly says:

    I took 1/2 tsp as recommended yesterday for the first time, I was tired all day luckily it was my day off so I coped by taking about 3 half hour naps, I slept so peacefully last night I thought I might take 1/4 tsp at night and see how that goes. Just wondering if anyone else has experienced this??

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