Lion’s Mane Mushroom: The Ultimate Guide

As we continue our journey researching other powerful medicinal mushrooms, today we're looking at another fine example - Lion's Mane Mushroom.

Lion's Mane is a charming, almost otherworldly mushroom that may look alien but contains some of the best medicinal compounds of any food on earth.

Named for its flowing "hair," it is also called Bearded Tooth, Satyr's Beard, Pom Pom Blanc, and in Japan Yamabushitake. Its scientific name is Hericium erinaceus.

While Lion's Mane has been used in Asian folk medicine for centuries, it used to be reserved for the rich and powerful because of how uncommon it is in the wild.

Fortunately, it takes well to cultivation, so today everyone can benefit from its properties. It can even be grown at home with minimal effort using commercially available "fruiting blocks" as you can see in the video below.

In this article, we'll discuss the many ways the Lion's Mane mushroom promotes and supports good health, and offer a few recipes at the end, including how to make your own Lion's Mane extract.

Health Benefits of Lion's Mane Mushroom

1. The Immune System

Lion's Mane contains several compounds that positively affect the immune system in a number of important ways:

Antioxidants

You've probably heard of antioxidants, and that they're something we should get more of in our diets. Lion's Mane contains a number of these helpful compounds such as polysaccharides and oligosaccharides.

These antioxidants intercept destructive cellular wanderers called free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can kill cells or, worse, damage the DNA leading to mutations during cell reproduction. The effects of free radicals are wide-ranging, from causing premature signs of aging on the skin, to contributing to the beginnings of cancer. Here is a page that explains how antioxidants manage to neutralize free radicals.

The polysaccharides in Lion's Mane also boost the immune system more directly. Studies have shown that these compounds stimulate the production of T-cells and B-cells. They also increase the number of macrophages and "natural killer" cells, both of which patrol the body and destroy infected or abnormal cells, including cancer cells. This has led cancer researchers to investigate Lion's Mane, finding that it has significant anti-tumor properties.

Regulates Immune System

Lion's Mane does another remarkable thing for the immune system: suppressing it. This seems contradictory--we just established how it helps the immune system, so how does it suppress it? And how could that be beneficial?

The effect we're talking about is called immunomodulation, and it makes sure the immune system is deployed properly. Because while we all want a robust immunity, like a strong army fighting sickness on our behalf, sometimes this system overreacts and attacks our healthy tissues--like unwanted friendly fire.

When the immune system mistakenly targets parts of our body, it leads to inflammation, which is at the root of a laundry list of chronic diseases and disorders. Some of these are manifested as skin problems like eczema and psoriasis. Others affect the digestive system like Crohn's Disease and ulcerative colitis. Inflammation can even lead to heart disease and some kinds of cancer.

Immunomodulators like those in Lion's Mane stimulate the production of immune system components like T-cells and natural killer cells but inhibit the production of inflammation markers like tumor necrosis factor-alpha.

2. The Brain and Nervous System

Lion's Mane does something no other mushroom is known to do: stimulate the production of the protein Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF is critical to healthy development, but it also keeps nerve cells healthy and even repairs nerve damage.

The traditional problem with using NGF therapeutically is that it can't simply be given to a patient in a pill or an injection because NGF is too large a molecule to pass through the blood-brain barrier, so it doesn't reach the central nervous system. It has to be made in the brain.

Researchers have tried working around this using gene therapy but certain foods, like Lion's Mane, can affect enzymes that lead to increased NGF secretion. Ultimately, this trait may result in Lion's Mane being used as supplemental therapy in treating peripheral nerve damage, eye problems, and even Alzheimer's.

Amazingly, that's not the only way Lion's Mane might help fight Alzheimer's and similar diseases.

First, let's talk about nerve cells, otherwise known as neurons. Neurons aren't like other cells. As you can see in the image below, neurons have a cell body and a wire-like structure called an axon that varies in length depending on where it winds up in the body. So one nerve cell might be six feet long or more. 

That part of the neuron, the axon, has a protective insulation around it called the myelin sheath, made of the fatty protein myelin. Myelin is a critical part of a neuron that enables proper transmission of signals from one end of the axon to the other; from the brain to some part of the body.

In Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, and several other conditions, the disease progression involves the degradation of myelin, so that nerves don't work correctly anymore. It turns out that Lion's Mane promotes faster growth and regrowth of myelin, meaning that it may play a role in preventing and treating these vexing conditions.

Several other studies found that Lion's Mane consumption improved the mental abilities of people with a generalized age-related cognitive decline and had a positive impact on mood and focus, reducing participants' feelings of anxiety and depression.

Many of the neurological health benefits of Lion's Mane are believed to come from compounds called triterpenes, two of which are unique to Lion's Mane and are named after the mushroom's scientific name--hericenone and erinacine.

3. The Digestive System

Centuries ago, one of the first uses for the rare Lion's Mane mushroom was to treat digestive ailments, and modern science has validated this early folk medicine.

Researchers have found that Lion's Mane can prevent and treat one of the most common gastrointestinal problems--ulcers.

Ulcers can be caused by bacterial infection as well as long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. An ulcer forms when the protective mucus (called mucosa) in the stomach or intestines is degraded, forming a lesion on the organ lining that can lead to pain and dangerous bleeding.

Lion's Mane was shown to shrink ulcerated areas and promoted the enzymes that keep the mucosa from being degraded.

Additionally, Lion's Mane helps inhibit the growth of the bacteria responsible for most ulcers, Helicobacter pylori. This effect is separate from the other immune-boosting properties of Lion's Mane we've discussed above, which also help the body fight this and other infections.

Other Health Benefits

A pair of 2013 scientific studies concluded that Lion's Mane has antihyperlipidemic and antihyperglycemic effects. That's the long way of saying that Lion's Mane reduces cholesterol absorption and promotes healthier outcomes for diabetes patients.

An alcohol extract of Lion's Mane tested on rodents lowered their bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels similarly to commonly prescribed statin drugs. It also caused an increase in good high-density lipoprotein (HDL levels).

Metabolism of lipoproteins is also a major issue for those with diabetes, making Lion's Mane good supplemental treatment for that condition as well.

Another factor leading to complications with diabetes is called oxidative stress and is the result of too few antioxidants being produced in the body. Of course, we've already seen how Lion's Mane supplies these important compounds. Its consumption reduced biological markers of oxidative stress in test subjects.

Lion's Mane also seems to have a direct effect of lowering fasting blood glucose levels after several weeks of use.

Recipes

Homemade Lion's Mane Dual-Extract

As we talked about above, many of the Lion's Mane's neuroprotective properties are due to compounds called triterpenes.

These triterpenes aren't like the other components of Lion's Mane, which are pulled out of the mushroom by hot water. Triterpenes have to be released by soaking in alcohol. Because of this, commercial Lion's Mane products are often prepared by combining the results of hot water and alcohol processes, called dual-extract.

The dual extract method gives you the benefits of every aspect of the mushroom's ingredients. The great thing is that you can create a dual-extract at home with only basic equipment and a little bit of time.

Note that because the final product here contains alcohol, it may not be suitable for everyone even though it's only taken in small doses.

Adapted from: Mushroomers Club

  • Serving: Varies, about 750 milliliters (25 ounces)
  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 3 hours for hot water step, 2 weeks for alcohol step

Ingredients

  • 100 grams (3.5 ounces) Lion's Mane mushrooms
  • 500 milliliters (17 ounces) water
  • 500 milliliters (17 ounces) grain vodka

The Lion's Mane should be in small pieces, the smaller the better, for the fullest extraction. You could even grind the mushrooms in a coffee or spice grinder, but small pieces should be okay.

Equipment Required

  • 10 grams (.35 ounces) Chaga chunks
  • Hot water
  • Saucepan
  • Stovetop or other heating surfaces
  • Coffee filter, fine sieve, or cheesecloth
  • 500ml (17 ounce) jar with lid
  • Funnel (optional, but helpful)
  • Dark bottle for storage

The size and type of filter you'll need depends on how small the mushroom pieces are. Ideally, it should be fine enough to keep all the pieces out of the final product.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Hot Water Extraction

1. Pour the water into the pan and bring to a simmer, below boiling.

2. Add the Lion's Mane and let it cook for 3 hours.

3. Remove from heat and let the liquid cool to room temperature.

4. Strain the liquid (keep the mushroom pieces) and put it in a dark bottle. Refrigerate.

Alcohol Extraction

1. Take the mushroom pieces you saved from the hot water extraction and put them in a jar.

2. Add 500ml of alcohol, or as much as the jar will hold, and put on the lid.

3. Place the jar in a warm, dark place and let it sit for 2 weeks.

After waiting two weeks:

4. Pour the liquid from the dark bottle (the water extract ) into a pan.

5. Strain the alcohol extract from the jar into the pan with the water extract.

6. Pour this mixture back into the bottle, or multiple bottles, and store in the refrigerator.

You may be tempted to boil the mixture down, but if the dual-extract becomes too high in alcohol content it can destroy the polysaccharides you spent so much time releasing in the water extraction.

The Mushroomers Club blog suggests taking a teaspoon of the dual-extract before meals every day for up to 3 months then taking a 2-week break.

Spicy Shallot Lion's Mane

When pan-fried, the flavor of Lion's Mane is often compared to lobster. Try this easy one-pan recipe to unlock this rich mushroom's culinary potential.

Adapted from: Much Ado About Fooding

  • Serving: Serves 2
  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 10-15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 100 grams (3.5 ounces) Lion's Mane mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 4 diced shallots
  • Dash of ground black pepper

For this recipe, you'll want to cut or pull the mushroom apart into small, bite-sized pieces.

Equipment Required

  • Frying pan
  • Stovetop or other heating surfaces
  • Measuring spoons
  • Spatula
  • Knife

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Heat the oil in your pan over medium-high heat.

2. Once the oil is hot, add the paprika and crushed pepper and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add in the Lion's Mane and the shallots, cook until the mushrooms are golden brown. Stir and turn frequently.

4. Move to a plate and season to taste. Enjoy!

This preparation is great by itself or with some sides like rice or roasted vegetables.

Summary

We hope this article has shown you the remarkable characteristics and benefits of the Lion's Mane mushroom.

Whether its flowing tendrils remind you of a mane, a beard, or a Tribble from Star Trek, this medicinal mushroom's rich, seafood-like interior holds unique compounds that can help people ward off and fight some of the most terrible chronic diseases.

Lion's Mane is also simple to work with in the kitchen, making it both a health food and a culinary delight.

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