Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Hericium Erinaceus also known as Yamabushitake, Houtou, Lion’s Mane, Monkey’s Mushroom, Bear’s Head, Hog’s Head Fungus, White Beard, Old Man’s Beard, Pom Pom, and Bearded Tooth is a wild fungus often growing on tree trunks and easy to be noticed. It can be found is found in Europe, Asia and North America and generally throughout the North temperate latitudes. Medicinal properties of Lion’s Mane have been recognised in ancient Chinese medicine especially in the treatment of gastric problems such as ulcers.
In this article, we’ll go through some of the few available studies on humans and see what can we learn from those.
A small study from Tokyo enlisted 34 participants (over 50 years old) and divided them into an active group (receiving LM) and a placebo group for 12 weeks. Researchers wanted to find out what was the effect of LM on overall cognitive function. The testing included: verbal recollection, calculations, language memory, visual retention, memorisation and recollection, as well as short term memory. The difference in results was insignificant and not particularly impressive, with only a tiny little bit of improvement in the LM group.
Another small study in Japan (30 participants) assessed the effects of LM on patients with mild cognitive impairment (50-80 years old) throughout a period of 22 weeks. The LM groups initially showed great improvement during weeks 8, 12 and 16. However, towards the end of the study, the results decreased. At the end of 22 weeks, there was no significant difference between LM and the placebo results. While this does not suggest a complete failure of the LM, it may be an indication that only gradually increasing dose may have an effect that would last or perhaps much longer studies (22 weeks +) would be needed to show a long term effect since the cognitive decline is a condition that develops for decades and it would be unlikely to expect a reversal in few months time.
A small study on menopausal women (n=30) assessed the effects of LM vs placebo on menopausal depression and sleep quality. While the group taking LM has somewhat decent results, so did the group taking placebo; hence it is possible that the positive results occurred by chance or simply by a general placebo effect (being surrounded by experts and believing the person is receiving a natural cure may, in itself, reduce depression regardless of whether the person had a placebo or the real thing). It is worth considering that this study did not have non-menopausal participants and neither did it have male participants. There are significant hormonal changes happening in women who are approaching and undergoing menopause, and it is possible that results would have been different in younger, non-menopausal women or in men however, this study is the only one if its kind so we do not have anything else to compare it to.
"WAIT…I HEARD LION’S MANE IS A REALLY POTENT NOOTROPIC, ISN’T IT?"
A nootropic is basically a substance that can promote general cognitive capabilities in the user which includes memory, attention and executive functions. A large amount of the nootropic claims about Lion’s Mane come from in-vitro studies in labs. It has been found that LM (in-vitro) improves something called NGF – Nerve Growth Factor, a protein responsible for stimulation of neuroplasticity and neuron branching (similar to BDNF – see previous posts). This is why LM is believed to be a potent neuro-regenerator and brain stimulant. However, these studies were NOT human studies. We cannot interpret in-vitro studies as human studies because our bodies are infinitely more complex than a solution in a dish observed in the lab. As you may see from the tiny amount of studies we have (above), when LM was fed to humans, the results were mediocre at best.
This does not mean that LM is useless in humans, personally, I don’t believe it is useless, but I am not convinced of its “magical” effects either. It is possible that once we start to create powdered extracts out of LM and sell it in capsules, a large portion of the benefits is lost that would have otherwise been present if the mushroom was eaten as a whole. It is also possible that these studies are too short of showing any therapeutic effect and that we should not just be recruiting older people with already diagnosed cognitive impairment, but we should have trials using younger, healthier participants. It may also be possible that the doses used in these studies are too small, and we need studies having ten times the dose. And maybe medicinal mushrooms work better synergistically, such as using LM with other known beneficial fungi such as Reishi, Shitake, Maitake and others. From my personal experience, I partially attribute my cure of allergies to a complex of 8 medicinal mushrooms I took for several months (along with other things). I have also taken Lion’s Mane for several months to experiment with its cognitive-enhancing benefits but have seen no benefits from it whatsoever.
To summarise this chapter, at the present moment, based on the small number of available studies on humans, the effects of Lion’s Mane are mostly mediocre and insignificant. Because all these studies are only taken on older people who already have a diagnosed cognitive impairment, it is possible that results would have been different in young individuals with better brain performance and with longer studies. The majority of popular claims are 100% based on non-human lab studies and while these cannot be discounted, we should not be formulating bold claims and selling overpriced supplements based on these because they have, so far, not been proven on real humans. Everything in medicine, starts of in the lab but a successful lab experiment does not mean something works in real life. As it stands, we need more human studies that will take longer and have more participants if the real effects of LM are to be known. At the moment, the research on Lion's Mane is very small and insufficient.
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He, X. Wang, X. Fang, J. et al. (2017). ‘’ Structures, biological activities, and industrial applications of the polysaccharides from Hericium erinaceus (Lion's Mane) mushroom: A review, International journal of biological macromolecules, 97, pp.228-237.
Kushairi, N. Phan, C.W. Sabaratnam, V. et al. (2019). ‘Lion's Mane Mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Bull.: Fr.) Pers. Suppresses H 2 O 2-Induced Oxidative Damage and LPS-Induced Inflammation in HT22 Hippocampal Neurons and BV2 Microglia’, Antioxidants, 8 (8), pp.261.
Li, I.C. Lee, L.Y. Tzeng, L.T. et al. (2018). ‘Neurohealth Properties of Hericium erinaceus Mycelia Enriched with Erinacines’, Behavioral Neurology, 21.
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Chng, P.S. Fung, M.L. Wong, K.H. et al. ‘Therapeutic Potential of Hericium erinaceus for Depressive Disorder’, International Journal of molecular sciences, 21 (1), pp.163.
Saitsu, Y. Nishide, A. Kikushima, K. et al. (2019). ‘Improvement of cognitive functions by oral intake of Hericium erinaceus’, Biomedical research, 40 (4), pp.125-131.