Lion's mane

I discuss the benefits of and my experience with lion's mane mushroom, a natural nootropic.

I've recently found myself falling down a YouTube rabbithole of mushroom-related content. My most recent fungal fascination has been in Hericium erinaceus, or more commonly, lion's mane mushroom.

I first heard of lion's mane during my freshman year of college, when I had a short phase of watching Tim Ferris' content. One of his videos covered his 'nootropic stack.' Lion's mane extract was one of the nootropics he strongly vouched for, but at the time I was scared away by sheer amount of substances he was taking, so I didn't bother researching it any further.

I rediscovered lion's mane after encountering an excerpt video of Paul Stamets on Joe Rogan's podcast. Stamets is a world-renowned mycologist and entrepreneur who is well-known by many for his TED talk, 6 ways mushrooms can save the world. In the JRE excerpt video I watched, he mentioned the mushroom as a sort of miracle food for brain health. So this time I decided to research it further.

Two special compounds in lion's mane, hericenones and erinacines, are very beneficial to nerve health. They stimulate the growth of nerve cells by inducing NGF (nerve growth factor) production within them. By regenerating the myelin sheath on the axons of neurons, they promote faster communication between them. During the development of neuropathic diseases such as Alzheimer's, amyloid plaques build up in the brain, rupturing the myelin sheath and thus interrupting neurotransmission. Lion's mane has been shown to directly reduce the formation of amyloid plaques.

In the JRE video, Stamets mentioned two mice studies which he found particularly illustrative of the benefits of the mushroom. For the sake of brevity, I'll summarize the study which impressed me the most. In this study, mice were put in a Y-maze where one route led to food and another led to no food. Very quickly the mice learned which route led to food, and would routinely take that route. Then the mice were injected with a neurotoxic polypeptide, promoting the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain. The mice quickly developed neuropathy, and began to forget which route to take to get food. After just a few weeks of being supplemented with lion's mane extract, the mice nearly renormalized, and began to remember again. Upon sacrifice, a representative sample of the mice showed that the amyloid plaques had completely dissolved, and the myelin regrew.

Lion's mane is also known for promoting gut health and immunity. It is rich in oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate with antioxidative and antitumor properties. These carbs stimulate the immune system, leading to less inflammation during an immune response.

The mushroom is also known to help mild cases of anxiety and depression. A Japanese study on women with menopausal symptoms and poor sleep found that those given lion's mane extract reported lower levels of stress and anxiety than those in the placebo group. Chronic inflammation is thought to be a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression, so the anti-inflammatory properties of the mushroom could explain its beneficial effects to those who are mildly anxious and/or depressed. Another explanation for these benefits could be the increased functioning of the hippocampus (a brain region central to memory) brought about by the neurogenerative properties of the mushroom.

As if this list wasn't impressive enough, lion's mane is also known to fight cancer pretty effectively. One study found that mixing a lectin isolated from lion's mane with hepatoma and breast cancer cells showed a strong antiproliferative effect, meaning that the cancer cells died more quickly in its presence. Another study in mice with colon cancer found that lion's mane extract reduced the spread of cancer to the lungs by 69%, and reduced the formation of tumor nodules in the lung by up to 55% (!!!).

Of all the supposedly miraculous benefits of this mushroom, I was most interested in its neurological effects. So I decided to do a little $15 experiment and ordered a bottle of lion's mane extract pills.

The first day I took the supplement, I noticed that my clarity of thought and willingness to continue work extended beyond my usual hours of focus. Usually, I start to clock out by 4 in the afternoon. But this day, I felt my energy and mental clarity carry all the way through to around 6pm. To be clear, I definitely didn't feel like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, although a part of me really wanted to. But I was pleasantly surprised with the difference it made.

I've been using the extract for about a week now, and it's hard to tell how much of the perceived effect is due to the immediate health benefits of the mushroom. If I had to estimate (in a very unscientific fashion), I'd say the extract's benefits are just above that of a placebo. It's not enough to be like, "Wow! I've found the new NZT!" but it's just enough to feel like you're performing at a level noticeably higher than is usual.

The sad part of it all is that, according to studies, the benefits to mental functioning that the mushroom and its extracts provide disappear shortly after use.

I'm not sure if I'll continue to supplement lion's mane after I finish this bottle. Maybe I'll have a better idea in a few months, when I start to actually run out – but for now, the immediately perceivable benefits seem a bit subpar to my expectations. Maybe my expectations were just too high.

I think a part of my hesitation is in committing to adding an entirely new supplement to my daily routine. It's a big decision, and not one that I want to take lightly. I might've felt differently if I committed to cook the actual mushroom and add it to my diet more frequently, instead of taking an extract. I feel like a part of me is immediately skeptical of any sort of supplement pills, and that could be clouding my judgement.

To be fair, the extract is quite inexpensive. I paid around $15 for 120 capsules each with around 2400mg of extract. For some reason, the bottle recommends taking 4 capsules a day, which is nearly 10g of extract. But with just a little bit of research, I determined that much less is needed to reap the benefits (anywhere from 300 to 3000 mg a day). So I've stuck with just 1 capsule a day. That brings the cost per dose down to around 12 and a half cents. Not too bad.

Despite my slight hesitations, I do know Paul Stamets claims that consuming lion's mane is the "number one thing people can do, in [his] mind, to not only preserve cognitive function, but to expand it." So I think it is seriously worth considering adding this mushroom to your diet in some form.

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P.S. if any of this resonated with you, I'd love to know! Hit me up.