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What is lion’s mane, aka the smart mushroom?

Published on February 24, 2023 · Last updated February 27, 2023
white mushroom growing at base of tree amidst dead leaves
Lion's mane mushroom in a Dutch forest. (AdobeStock/fotografiecor)

Thanks to its myriad and far-reaching health benefits, people are gushing over the lion’s mane mushroom. 

Both in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and more recently in the west, this furry-looking fungi has been celebrated for its many abilities: Improving cognitive support, aiding digestion, providing relief from diabetes symptoms and boosting immune support. Unlike psilocybin or amanita muscaria, lion’s mane does not have any hallucinogenic properties.

Read on to learn more about the potential benefits of lion’s mane, its history, and whether it’s for you.

What is the lion’s mane mushroom?

Lion’s mane takes its name from its shaggy, fur-like appearance. The Suess-like shroom has amassed a series of similarly whimsical nicknames, including Monkey’s Head, Bearded Tooth, Satyr’s Beard, Bearded Hedgehog, and Pom-Pom Mushroom.

It’s also known by its botanical name Hericium erinaceus, or in Chinese as hóu tóu gū.

The mushroom grows in tendril-like clumps from dead or dying hardwood trees in temperate forests in North America. Unlike most other mushrooms, it does not have a cap or stem.

Lion’s mane qualifies as an adaptogen—in other words, it can be used to reduce stress, and help us adapt to our environment. 

Adaptogenic mushrooms: Not quite magic, but they’ll give your morning coffee a lift

Traditional uses of lion’s mane mushrooms

Lion’s mane has long been employed in traditional medicine and in various Eastern cultures.

“Traditionally in China, it was more of a nutritional thing, whether that was making broth or just eating them as part of the diet. It was used more as a food tonic rather than a quote unquote [medicine]. That line is not as well defined as it is in western medicine,” Zoe Linton, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine based in Missoula, Montana, told Leafly.

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“In Traditional Chinese Medicine you have five major organs: The heart, lung, liver, spleen and kidney. Different herbs treat different organs. It’s rare that you’d find an herb that treats all five. Lion’s mane is said to tonify, or nurture, all five organs. It builds qi. It builds life force energy,” Dr. Linton added.

Dr. Linton also noted that some Buddhist monks consumed lion’s mane to enhance meditation. One Japanese sect, the Yamabushi, even took to wearing a garment called the suzukake, which is made of strands of fur that bear a resemblance to lion’s mane.

white mushroom in hand
Lion’s Mane mushroom on an oak tree in the autumn forest.

What it feels like to consume lion’s mane mushrooms

To learn more about the effects of lion’s mane, I bought a bottle of capsules at my local natural foods store. 

The lion’s mane capsules came from Host Defense, the brand founded by famed mycologist Paul Stamets. I’d chosen them after googling the handful of products available at the store; they had the most favorable reviews.

Each capsule contains a half gram of lion’s mane extract, and the instructions on the bottle recommend taking two capsules, once a day.

I found the effects of the capsules to be both quick-acting and bold. 

Within a few days, I began noticing a surge in my energy levels, and felt a clear-headed mental buzziness that some folks associate with a sativa like Jack Herer. My ability to focus on both work and creative pursuits increased. I quickly tackled a house project that I’d been putting off and wrapped up a handful of creative writing projects that had been dragging on.

The change was uncanny, and striking enough that I figured it must be a placebo effect, or that my body was reacting to the longer days and additional sunlight of late winter. 

I asked Dr. Linton about this reaction to the capsules. She suspected I could in fact chalk up the shift to the lion’s mane, and confirmed that humans can in fact feel their effects within two to three days. “They’re pretty gentle but also very effective,” she remarked.

Please keep in mind: This is simply my personal anecdotal account. Another individual’s experience with lion’s mane is not guaranteed to be similar.

I tried amanita muscaria, the ‘delta-8 of mushrooms,’ here’s how it went

Benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms

Lion’s mane has gained a rapt following, both in traditional medicine and in western society, for its many benefits. Read on to learn about some of its most prominent effects.

Improving brain health and enhancing function

They don’t call lion’s mane the “smart mushroom” for nothing. 

Two of the active compounds in the mushroom—hericenones and erinacines—help regenerate nerve cells and promote a protein known as “nerve growth factor” that in turn supports brain health

As such, some professionals recommend it to combat early-onset Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. 

“If a patient has any sort of cognitive impairment, that would be my principal use for lion’s mane. I would prescribe it as a supplement for somebody who had an ischemic stroke and is recovering from that, or if they had some nerve damage or early onset Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Linton told Leafly.

It can serve a short-term purpose as well. “I might recommend it for a student who’s starting to study for exams: Take lion’s mane for two weeks until your exam and see how you do,” she added.

Immune system support

Research on mice indicates that lion’s mane mushrooms boost the immune system by stimulating gut bacteria in the intestines.

Digestive aid

On a related note, research shows that the mushroom may prevent ulcers from forming in our digestive tract.

Depression and anxiety

As research with mice has shown, lion’s mane can reduce inflammation in our bodies, which in turn can limit depression and anxiety. 

Diabetes management

Substantial research has shown that lion’s mane can reduce blood sugar levels and also reduce nerve pain associated with diabetes.

Many ways to consume lion’s mane

You can safely consume lion’s mane in a variety of ways: Eating the mushroom fruits, taking a tincture or capsule containing an extract, or adding a powdered version to a beverage.

Eat them raw or cooked

If you can find ‘em, you can eat ‘em. 

Some grocery stores and farmers’ markets sell lion’s mane mushrooms, while other consumers prefer to forage for them in forests across North America. Fortunately, lion’s mane has no reported toxic look-alikes, so you don’t have to stress about second-guessing yourself. 

While you can eat lion’s mane raw, they are typically cooked.

The superfood retailer and blog site Rritual encourages consumers to wash lion’s mane thoroughly: The mushroom’s tendrils—sometimes referred to as “teeth’—can easily collect dirt and other unwanted items.

Consumers report that lion’s mane mushrooms both smell and taste like seafood: Many sources compare it to crab or lobster.

white mushroom on white background
The lion’s mane mushrooms, shown here in its raw state, is processed into capsules, tinctures, gummies, and powders. (AdobeStock / akepong srichaichana)

Extracts—capsules, tinctures, gummies

You can easily find lion’s mane extract for sale in natural foods stores or online. Retailers typically sell extract in capsule or tincture form, or in gummies.

Dr. Linton believes that an alcohol-based lion’s mane tincture will provide a more robust experience than simply boiling the mushroom fruits.

Add a powdered version to drinks

Some consumers prefer to add lion’s mane powder to tea, coffee, smoothies or other drinks. Retailers offer packaged lion’s mane powder at a variety of price points.

Side effects of lion’s mane

Lion’s mane mushrooms are considered generally safe to consume. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however. At least one individual reported trouble breathing after consuming lion’s mane.

Dr. Linton also recommended that anyone already taking blood thinners—and warfarin, which is also called Coumadin, in particular—should consult their doctor before consuming lion’s mane. She noted that lion’s mane itself has a “slight” blood thinning effect. “At its base function it helps get more blood to the brain,” she explained.

Yes. You can buy lion’s mane mushrooms and extracts at brick-and-mortar stores or online. The FDA does not recognize its benefits, however.

Can you grow lion’s mane at home?

Yes, you can grow lion’s mane mushrooms at home, either outdoors on logs or inside in a controlled environment.

Growers often contend, however, that growing lion’s mane requires some experience. According to the UK-based mushroom resource hub GroCycle, lion’s mane mycelium is very fine, which “makes it difficult to know when the lion’s mane is fully colonised and ready for fruiting.”

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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