April 19, 2024/Nutrition

Health Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushrooms

These trendy fungi may promote a healthy brain, heart and gut, but more research is needed to say for sure

Close up of lion's mane mushroom growing on a tree

They’re called “lion’s mane” for a reason. These big, white incredible, edible (they taste like seafood) mushrooms have icicle-like spikes that dangle downward, resembling the king of the jungle’s shaggy mane. Other nicknames include monkey head, bearded hedgehog and pom pom mushrooms.

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Definitely the cooler cousin in the fungi family (move over button and shitake), lion’s mane mushrooms (hericium erinaceus for the scientific set) have a long history in traditional Chinese medicine and in Native American healing practices. And because of the impressive benefits they may have to offer the mind and body, lion’s mane mushrooms have become increasingly popular.

“People are looking for alternatives for things before they go on medications,” says registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD. “It’s in this holistic attitude that we find food is medicine.”

Lion’s mane mushrooms have a mild, sweet flavor that people often say is similar to lobster or crab meat. You can eat them raw, dried or cooked. They also come as a supplement in capsule, liquid and powder forms, so you can sprinkle them in your soup or add them to your morning cup of joe or smoothie. There are even lion’s mane capsules and gummies for added convenience.

But is the hoopla worth the hype? Are lion’s mane mushrooms really all that? Czerwony sheds some light on the mushroom of the moment.

Are lion’s mane mushrooms good for you?

Lab studies sure point that way, but research on humans is very limited. It’s important to keep that in mind. “Things like this are almost never approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA),” says Czerwony. “So, we can’t really say if the potential benefits for humans are reliable in the long term, and we have no real guidelines for consumption.”

Czerwony recommends similar steps before starting any supplement: “Ask yourself why you want to take it, what are you expecting it to do what are your goals? Then, if there are no known side effects, it’s really up to you.”

Fortunately, lion’s mane seems to be safe to take unless, of course, you’re allergic to mushrooms. But Czerwony strongly recommends talking with a healthcare provider first.

Lion’s mane mushroom health benefits

As you consider whether to give these fungi a try, you might want to know more about their health claims. Here are five potential health benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms:

1. Help support brain health

Non-human studies show that lion’s mane mushrooms have compounds that stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which helps grow brain cells and may enhance memory and focus. Lab research also suggests that lion’s mane may help grow and repair nerve cells after a traumatic brain injury (TBI), like a stroke. While we need more studies to know if these claims are true in humans, it’s no wonder lion’s mane is sometimes referred to as the “smart mushroom.”

Another study included two groups of 50- to 80-year-olds with mild cognitive impairment. One group took 250-milligram tablets containing lion’s mane dry powder three times a day for 16 weeks. The other group was given a placebo (a supplement with no active ingredient) for the same amount of time. Results showed that those taking lion’s mane scored higher on cognitive tests than those who didn’t. After stopping lion’s mane, the first group’s test scores went down.

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2. Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress

Chronic inflammation is a symptom of many conditions like heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and even certain cancers. Lab research shows that the anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidant properties of lion’s mane may help minimize inflammation and guard your cells against damage. “Anytime we can add an anti-inflammatory into our bodies, that’s a good thing,” says Czerwony.

3. Protect your gut

Lion’s mane mushrooms contain probiotics, which support your immune system and promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your digestive system. They also prevent the growth of a bacteria called H. pylori, which can cause stomach ulcers. A 2019 non-human study showed that lion’s mane mushrooms might help treat ulcers. But more research is needed before we know if it can be helpful for treating stomach ulcers in humans.

“Improving immune function is directly related to gut health,” says Czerwony. “When your gut microbiome is healthy, your immune system works better. Lion’s mane mushrooms seem to quiet down inflammation in your gut.”

Another non-human study also suggests that lion’s mane may reduce liver inflammation from excessive alcohol consumption. And other lab study shows that it may help treat ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But these studies need to be done in humans before we can know for sure.

4. Support heart health

Non-human studies suggest that lion’s mane mushroom extracts may help keep cholesterol numbers in check. Another non-human study showed they could reduce high blood pressure, too. They were noted to do this by improving lipid metabolism (how the body breaks down and stores fat for energy) and circulation, as well as helping blood vessels stay healthy and work better. To know if the same effects will be true in humans, more research is needed.

5. Help fight cancer

Because of its unique ingredients, lion’s mane mushrooms may help fight off cancer cells and slow the spread of certain types of cancer, at least according to some non-human research. No human studies have been done as of yet, though, to test the effectiveness of lion’s mane mushrooms in treating cancer.

What to consider before trying lion’s mane mushrooms

While lion’s mane mushrooms aren’t stocked in all supermarkets, you might have better luck finding fresh or dried varieties and supplements in specialty grocery and health food stores. And of course, like almost everything else we consume these days, they’re available online, too.

“But no matter where you buy them and in whatever form — fresh, dried or as a supplement — make sure it’s from a place you trust that has good reviews,” warns Czerwony. “If you’re going to put anything in your body, do your research first.”

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