How Can Lion’s Mane Mushroom Improve My Cognitive Function?
Lion’s Mane Mushroom will be a novel name for even seasoned nootropics users. But for practitioners of traditional or herbal medicine, Lion’s Mane will be a very familiar name indeed.
Its proper name is Hericium erinaceus, although it has a long list of pseudonyms, owing to the fact that it is found in many places around the world.
This fungus has a long history of use as a general promoter of good health throughout the world, but it seems to be most popular in China, where it is known as “monkey head mushroom”, Japan, where it is called “mountain priest mushroom”, and in Korea, where it’s name literally translates as “deertail mushroom”.
The belief that it is a good promoter of all-round health is actually well supported, especially when compared to other “traditional” medicines. But what about its nootropic properties?
A lot of really exciting claims are circulating at the minute regarding Lion’s Mane Mushroom and its ability to significantly improve your cognitive abilities.
But are these claims substantiated?
Let’s take a close look at Lion’s Mane and find out for ourselves.
What is Lion’s Mane Mushroom?
Lion’s Mane is a fungus belonging to the tooth group. It is easily identifiable due to its long spines, and it can be found in damp forests across North America, Europe, and Asia.
It tends to grow in one, big, self-contained lump on hardwood trees in late summer; these lumps can get quite big in the right conditions.
You might actually see Lion’s Mane Mushroom all the time in your local Chinese supermarket. They can sometimes be found next to the Shiitake mushrooms in a dried, chopped form.
It is actually used in many asian countries as a replacement for meat, as when cooked its texture is somewhat similar to seafood like squid or octopus.
If you’re a serious connoisseur of vegetarian Chinese food, you might have had Lion’s Mane Mushroom before as part of a stir fry. It’s quite rare though so it’s doubtful that most of you will have ever come across it.
How Does It Work?
Lion’s Mane Mushroom’s main nootropic mechanism seems to stem from its ability to boost the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
It is a neuropeptide first discovered in 1956, and it was the first growth factor to be described.
Nerve Growth Factor is what we would call a neurotrophic factor – it is responsible for controlling the growth, maintenance, and programmed death of neural cells.
Put simply, increasing the expression of Nerve Growth Factor can stimulate the proliferation of new neurons.
Perhaps more importantly, maintaining full and proper expression of NGF is thought to be crucial for preventing unnecessary cognitive decline, as sensory neurons undergo apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the absence of NGF.
The relationship between Lion’s Mane Mushroom and NGF exposure is well established, and NGF’s effect on neural cell maintenance, survival, and proliferation has been well tested.
For instance, the relationship between NGF and apoptosis was observed in this study, published in Science in November 2001.
This study, published in the Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin in 2008, concluded that: “H. erinaceus contains active compounds that stimulate NGF synthesis via activation of the JNK pathway.”
Researchers writing in Progress in Brain Research in 2004 studied the role of other genes in preventing apoptosis in the absence of NGF. They stated confidently that, “in the absence of NGF, these neurons undergo protein synthesis-dependent apoptosis”.
So, clearly, that Lion’s Mane Mushroom, or at least some compound present in Lion’s Mane extract, is able to reliably increase the expression of NGF.
It is also clear that increased NGF expression has a direct and positive impact on both the proliferation and programmed death of neural cells.
This is why Lion’s Mane Mushroom is held up as one of the most promising natural treatments for cognitive decline. Its ability to help with the proper maintenance and proliferation of neurons is why it is thought to be one of the most effective natural nootropic substances around for enhancing cognition for otherwise healthy individuals.
Does It Really Improve Brain Efficiency?
Of course, this is all well and good, but so far we have covered a lot of theory.
What we need to begin making our mind up about Lion’s Mane Mushroom is some observed instances of it producing real cognitive improvements.
Well, we needn’t look to hard for those.
A study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2009 looked at the positive effects of Lion’s Mane Mushroom for those with mild cognitive impairment.
The double-blind, placebo controlled trial was conducted with 50- to 80-year-old Japanese men and women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.
You may not have mild cognitive impairment, but you need to remember that cognitive decline is not a dichotomous condition, where you either have it 100% or you don’t. It is much more of a sliding scale, with the effects building over time.
In cases such as this, prevention is always the most effective treatment, and we always want to be as far towards the “good” end of the spectrum as possible.
The results of this study were really quite conclusive. In fact, I was so impressed on hearing about this study that I sought out a stack containing Lion’s Mane for myself to try.
The participants were given Lion’s Mane extract for 16 weeks, and they were tested every 4 weeks to assess their cognitive function.
“At weeks 8, 12 and 16 of the trial, the [Lion’s Mane] group showed significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group”
The researchers concluded that: “the results obtained in this study suggest that [Lion’s Mane] is effective in improving mild cognitive impairment”.
I really advise you to take a look at this study yourself. Very few nootropic compounds are able to actually deliver palpable benefits in such a short space of time. This is particularly true of 100% natural substances that seem to have no adverse effects whatsoever.
Interestingly, this study found that the benefits of Lion’s Mane lingered for as much as 4 weeks after the end of the 16 week trial. However, after the 4 weeks the test results of the group who had taken Lion’s Mane dropped off significantly.
What does this tell us?
Well, for me, it confirms that it was in fact Lion’s Mane Mushroom extract that was responsible for the significantly improved test results.
It confirms that the benefits are more structural than those that come with taking stimulants or any other short-lived nootropics.
It also tells me that more study is needed to examine the effects of longer duration supplementation in terms of retaining the benefits after you stop.
What Else Can Lion’s Mane Mushroom Do?
The fact that Lion’s Mane Mushroom is seemingly able to boost the expression of NGF is more than enough to make it one of the most exciting, promising and intriguing nootropic substances around today.
But the benefits of supplementing with Lion’s Mane Mushroom extend beyond boosting NGF expression.
Some of these benefits might be thought of as a secondary consequence to increasing NGF synthesis. Arguably the most important of these in terms of enhancing long-term cognitive performance is the regulation of myelination.
Myelination is the process of forming a myelin sheath around a neuron, which allows it to communicate more efficiently. Myelination basically allows electrical impulses produced by a neuron to travel much more quickly. The carry-over benefits of this for enhancing cognition are obvious.
This study, published by researchers in the Ukraine, examined the influence of Lion’s Mane extract on myelination.
The study concludes: “extract of H. erinaceus promoted normal development of cultivated cerebellar cells and demonstrated a regulatory effect on the process of myelin genesis process in vitro.”
Another benefit associated with increased NGF expression is an acute reduction in anxiety and depression.
This relationship is not so soundly established, but initial research seems to suggest that it may be an undiscovered nootropic benefit of Lion’s Mane supplementation.
This study, published in Biomedical Research in 2010, found that “HE [Lion’s Mane] intake has the possibility to reduce depression and anxiety and these results suggest a different mechanism from NGF-enhancing action of H. erinaceus”.
Obviously more analysis is needed, but this is a promising side-benefit of this potent natural nootropic substance.
Should I Take Lion’s Mane Mushroom?
Whether or not you need to consume more Lion’s Mane Mushroom is entirely dependent on what you think your cognitive weaknesses are.
However, if you’re designing your own natural nootropic stack, I would definitely recommend including at least some Lion’s Mane extract.
It simply has too much proven worth as a promoter of brain function, not to mention long-term brain health and overall wellbeing, for you to leave it out.
One of the most compelling reasons to include Lion’s Mane in your own stack is the long-lasting nature of its nootropic benefits.
By promoting NGF, in conjunction with the other, peripheral benefits discussed above, Lion’s Mane has the potential to boost your brain power in the long-term. Crucially, benefits can linger long after you stop supplementing with this substance.
It seems to be very safe and well tolerated, being completely natural and widely used as a meat replacement in vegetarian societies.
I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would want to leave this out of their natural nootropic stack, assuming that the expense of this highly prized extract isn’t a problem.