Lion's mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is an edible mushroom with a large native range in North America, Europe and Asia. At the end of summer and during the fall, it is a common mushroom on American beech and other hardwood trees. It belongs to the group of tooth fungus mushrooms and can be identified by several characteristics: it can usually be found on hardwood, it tends to produce only one cluster of hanging spines and the spines are very long. It can still be confused with other species of Hericium that can be found in the same areas but there is no danger of poisoning since all are very popular edibles, none of them toxic.
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The lion's mane mushroom is both a saprotroph and a parasitic fungus. It can grow as a parasite on trees that are alive releasing enzymes and toxic compounds that kill the tree, which then becomes a source of food for the fungus. Like all saprotrophs, it can eat dead matter, both from the trees it kills itself and from the ones that die from other causes.
The lion's mane has a unique appearance, which gives it its name and makes it very distinct from other mushroom species. It has a white color when young but will usually become yellow when old and brown as it starts to decay. It has long, soft and dangling spines, flowing all around a globular cluster. A single clump can produce spines longer than 1 cm, whose role is to generate and release the spores that propagate the mushroom.
While the appearance of lion's mane makes it a spectacular sight when encountered in a forest, it is very valuable as an expensive food. It tastes a lot like seafood, with an amazing chewy flesh. The medicinal properties of the mushroom, caused by bioactive compounds, makes it even more valuable.
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In Japan, the mushroom's name is inspired by a sect that lived in the mountains, the monks of the Shugendo cult. They consumed large quantities of the mushroom and its appearance looks a lot like the long flowing clothes worn by this sect. For this reason, in Japanese it is called "people who sleep in the mountains", or the Yamabushitake mushroom.
Like many other beneficial mushrooms, Hericium erinaceus is rich in polysaccharides, antioxidants and beta-glucan. These bioactive compounds have a direct effect on the immune system and cause the so-called "deep immune health". In order to extract these substances, the lion's mane mushroom needs to be heated or prepared as a hot water extract.
Even in ancient medicine, the lion's mane extract was known to have a positive effect on the health of internal organs like the heart, liver, kidney, stomach or the spleen. It can delay or prevent cancer, as well as improve physical condition, increase energy levels and restore healthy digestion.
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Historical records as well as modern research have not detected any sign of toxicity of this mushroom. Quite the opposite, it is believed to decrease sensitivity to allergies, or even alleviate allergies completely. Studies have also discovered that consumption of the mushroom reduces the level of sugar and cholesterol in the blood stream.
In traditional Chinese medicine, supplements made from lion's mane are thought to be a cure for cancer of the stomach and esophagus. This is because the mushroom appears to repair the membrane of mucus that protects the stomach and other internal organs. This is thought to help against gastritis, ulcer of the stomach, Crohn's disease and duodenum issues. It could also be effective against the worst form of ulcer, atrophic gastritis.
From ancient times, the mushroom was known by Buddhist monks to enhance the capacity of the brain. They used it to increase focus and the capacity to meditate. Prepared as a tea, it was consumed by the monks who wanted to increase their mental powers.
Modern research has confirmed the ancient Buddhist knowledge and studies have revealed that bioactive compounds in Hericium erinaceus are beneficial for mental health in several ways.
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A team of researchers from Japan have reported that lion's mane mushroom might have a variety of benefits in the treatment of neurological problems. Among others, it could be used to combat Alzheimer's disease, repair the damage done to peripheral nerves, as well is increase IQ and enhance memory.
Numerous nerve problems can be treated or at least alleviated using lion's mane mushroom. Its action mechanism seems to be extremely effective against multiple sclerosis, dystrophy of the muscles, autism, degeneration of the neurons, dementia and the already mentioned Alzheimer's disease. Ongoing studies might prove its effectiveness as a treatment for obsessive compulsive behaviour. Other researchers focus on its potential as a treatment from depression and anxiety, given its already known benefits on long-term memory and as a general brain tonic.
The most impressive health benefit of Hericium erinaceus is its ability to increase the production of the growth factor of the nerves (the so-called NGF). Because of this quality, some authors have named it "Nature's Nutrient for the Neurons".
Scientists have isolated two entire families of compounds from lion's mane mushrooms that boost the production of NGF. It must be said that the level of NGF is a critical factor in neural health, since lower than normal levels have been proven to start serious neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The crucial role of NGF on the structure of the central and peripheral nervous system is well-known, since it ensures the survival and differentiation of many neural cell populations. One of the active compound families is diterpenoid erinacines, which can be isolated from the mycelium of the mushroom. The second, aromatic hericenones, can be found in the fruiting bodies. All of these bioactive compounds cause an increase in cell myelination and their small size allows them to cross the barrier between blood and the brain.
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Besides its well-research benefits on neural health, NGF has many other therapeutic properties that might have even more important prospects for modern medicine. Perhaps the most relevant is in the balance of body homeostasis. The relation between NGF and the immune system could yield a major research breakthrough. Cells of the immune system have specialized receptors for NGF, which proves it has a role in the control of the immune response. Immune cells generate cytokines after brain injury, which boosts the production of NGF, yet another mechanism that has to be investigated in depth.
Studies have discovered that low levels of NGF in blood plasma are characteristic to a variety of metabolic problems, like type 2 diabetes. It is also a sign for heart diseases. NGF has proven antioxidant properties, as well as insulinotropic and angiogenic ones.
Other benefits of NGF are the treatment of skin and corneal ulcers but the healing rate of wounds is also accelerated by it. Studies on animals have revealed significant benefits on asthma symptoms and airway inflammation. Serum from patients with asthma and the one from bronchoalveolar lavage have identified an increased content of NGF.
It has been noticed that some of the compounds in lion's mane mushroom inhibit the formation of amyloid plaque, which prevents and treats numerous problems caused by the plaque. Beta-amyloid proteins contained in the amyloid plaques form a bond with the brain cells, with very dangerous effects. The proteins are produced in the membranes of fat that surround the tissues of the brain. The plaque hampers and delays efficient brain neurotransmission and prevents it from working in a normal way. As a consequence, amyloid plaques contribute to the onset of neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Compounds in lion's mane mushroom decrease the formation of these small proteins that become detached from their cells and form clusters with the ones in the brain, thus preventing and treating these diseases.
In Asia, the mushroom was known to grant people "a lion's memory and nerves of steel" and has been used as an energizer in traditional medicine for thousands of years. The Chinese in particular have used pills prepared from the mycelium in the treatment of gastritis, ulcers of the stomach and duodenum and even some forms of cancer of the esophagus and the stomach.
Lion's mane has the potential to become one of the world's super foods, since it has a wide range of positive effects on the brain, nerves and the immune system and can be qualified as a strong adaptogen.
Hericium erinaceus has an extended native range and can be found in Europe, North America, China and Japan.
More than 32 distinct bioactive compounds have been identified so far in lion's mane mushroom. These provide numerous health benefits, in particular to the brain. The most important of these are hericenones and erinacines, which increase the content of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the brain. Studies have shown that NGF stimulated the repair of neuron cells and is important in the growth and balance of the nerves.
In addition, Hericium erinaceus contains several types of polysaccharides and polypeptides, all the relevant amino acids, as well as a rich quantity of essential minerals like iron, potassium, zinc, selenium and others.