Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Mycotherapy - Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

1. LION’S MANE

Hericium erinaceus, better known as “Lion’s Mane” or “Yamabushitake” in Japanese, has a long tradition of use in Asian medicines and more specifically in China and Japan. Its health properties appear to be multiple and are supported by both scientific literature and traditional treatises. Its benefits on the neurological sphere in particular, are drawing an increasing interest in the scientific, medical and industrial world. Some are even going as far as to consider Lion’s mane as a nootropic fungus (= which increases cognitive faculties). Others highlight its properties on the digestive sphere, or even its potential for oncological applications.

As will be discussed in this review, numerous data points to a certain degree of versatility of Yamabushitake’s benefits. It should also be noted that the intestinal microbiota once again plays a key role in the benefits of this medicinal mushroom, which is generating a growing interest in the context of clinical nutrition.

2. MYCONUTRIENTS OF LION’S MANE

Like other medicinal mushrooms, Lion’s mane is rich in specific branched polysaccharides which play a crucial role in a large part of its physiological properties. While the structure and effects of these polysaccharides are indeed a common characteristic to all medicinal mushrooms, they should not be regarded as identical from one species to another. Each medicinal mushroom has its own polysaccharide fraction, the effects of which may vary from one mushroom to another, although they can be comparable in some cases. As an example, the polysaccharide fractions of several fungi have been evaluated for their effects on various cancerous lines and have shown greater or lesser efficacy on distinct cancers [1], thus attesting to the importance of specific molecular characteristics.

Lion’s mane also contains bioactive secondary metabolites such as erinacins (cyathan diterpenoid) and hericenones (benzaldehyde). While hericenones have been the subject of few studies regarding their potential benefits on human physiology, erinacins, and more particularly erinacin A, can already be considered as a critical factor in the characterization of a possible extract. However, it should be noted that the combination of polysaccharides (often extracted with water) and of erinacins (often extracted with ethanol), although promising, makes the characterization of an “ideal” extract quite difficult. As with many medicinal fungi and adaptogenic plants, molecular diversity can easily make an extraction process detrimental to efficiency.

3. HEALTH POTENTIAL OF LION’S MANE

3.1. Neurological properties

Like in most cases when it comes to mycotherapy, the benefits of Hericium erinaceus on the neurological sphere are due to both a direct and indirect action of its constituents. The direct effects of Lion’s mane are mainly due to secondary metabolites such as erinacins and hericenones, whereas the intestinal microbiota plays a role in its indirect health properties. This double action with an emphasis on the neurobiotic (gut-brain axis) dimension leads to a wide range of benefits which are far from being limited to a classic nootropic effect.

There is thus abundant literature on the neuroprotective effects of Lion’s mane [2-4] and on its ability to partially suppress neuroinflammation by modulating microglial activity [5-7]. These properties seem to be mainly associated with erinacins [8-10], although, as we will discuss later, the influence on the gut-brain axis could also play a significant role in the overall neurological benefits. It should also be noted that this neuroprotective action of erinacins is a common characteristic of several other molecules of the diterpenoids cyathans family.

An association between a demonstrated nootropic effect [11-14] and a neuroprotective action obviously raises the question of this active ingredient’s potential for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Several in vivo models [15-19] (as well as a pilot study on humans [20]) have demonstrated the benefits of Lion’s Mane in this regard. While Yamabushitake polysaccharides cannot be completely excluded in this context, it remains more likely that they only intervene indirectly via the gut-brain axis, since they are not directly bioavailable for the brain.

The interest of Hericium erinaceus in a neurological framework does not stop there: it seems that it is also able to stimulate neuronal deployment (Neurite outgrowth) [21-25] and even promote neurogenesis [26-27]. However, the effects on neurogenesis should be considered with caution due to the limited amount of scientific data and the difficulty to assess the health impact of such mechanisms in complex organisms.

Finally, the potential of Lion’s mane on stress and depressive states also seems to be significant [28-30]. It is also interesting to note that these potential benefits could be a consequence of the BDNF pathway stimulation[31], also responsible (partially at least) for the effect on neuronal deployment. This constitutes further proof that psychological and neurological health are intrinsically linked.

3.2. Microbiotic regulation

As we have already discussed in the previous section, microbiotic balance is a key factor of Lion’s mane health benefits. This is obviously due to the abundant presence of specific polysaccharides [32-36] but there is more; other fractions also seem to be of interest in that regard, in particular extracts with secondary metabolites [37]. Studies that highlight the effects of the protein fraction [38-39] should also be noted.

3.3. Digestive health

Considering the significant data on the microbiotic effects of Hericium erinaceus, the digestive dimension of its benefits is no surprise. This health axis is particularly well-documented (perhaps even more than the neurological effects) and could become the predominant application in clinical practice. Indeed, digestive disorders, in particular those linked to sensitive digestive mucous membranes, are known to cause a great deal of health issues, the symptoms of which can range from side effects to pharmacologically active dose variability (as a damaged digestive tract can strongly influence bioavailability).

The data are numerous and attest to a great potential of Yamabushitake on the digestive sphere, both in the context of intestinal [40-42] or gastric [43-46] inflammation and in the case of Helicobacter pylori colonization [47-49].

3.4. Oncology

As discussed in the article about Reishi, the use of medicinal mushrooms is often considered as treatment aid for cancer patients. The association of both a strong microbiotic dimension and a modulating action of inflammation can indeed be of interest in the specific context of medical nutrition. Given the effects Lion’s mane has demonstrated on the digestive sphere, gastro-intestinal (as well as hepatic) cancers have first been investigated. There is thus significant data of the effects of Hericium erinaceus in stomach [50-53], Colon [54-57] and liver [58-59] cancer models.

3.5. Metabolism

The combination of hepatic benefits [60-61] and microbiotic action is often a sign of metabolic potential. Lion’s mane is no exception since several studies have highlighted its benefits for carbohydrate metabolism [62-63], an action that could partially be due to an inhibitory effect of some of its components on the alpha-glucosidase [64-66]. Other studies also reveal a significant effect on lipid metabolism [67-68]. This double action thus opens up many more opportunities [69].

3.6. Immunity

Although it is rarely emphasized, the immune dimension of Lion’s mane benefits should not be overlooked. Again, this effect is likely a consequence of the microbiotic impact as well as the immunomodulating action, in which the polysaccharide fraction plays a crucial role [70-73].

CONCLUSIONS

Although it has many similarities to other medicinal mushrooms, Lion’s mane is distinguished by an emphasis on neurological benefits. It is thus presented as the active ingredient of choice to boost cognitive faculties in the field of mycotherapy.

Everything points to the nootropic activity of Lion’s mane. However, Hericium erinaceus’ benefits seem to extend far beyond just cognitive performance and could be pictorially described as a “mindfulness enabler”. If the name of Lion’s mane is indeed well suited for its looks, we may prefer its Japanese name of “Yamabushitake” looking forward, which translates to “mountain priest mushroom”. Legend has it that these ascetics used mushrooms for meditation. 

On the basis of molecular characteristics, we can also hypothesize that this neurological effect is largely linked to the impact on the gut-brain axis, which therefore takes longer to appear (diffuse long-term effect). The use of Hericium erinaceus should thus be considered for long-term cures rather than in fast-acting “cognitive booster” applications. As for other medicinal mushrooms, the combination of Lion’s mane with an adaptogenic plant such as Ginseng or Rhodiola may enhance its benefits.

In terms of Medical Nutrition, Lion’s mane could have valuable potential in supporting people with cognitive decline, as well as in digestive disorders linked, for example, to oncological treatments. Indeed, the food nature (that is, very low toxicity in chronic consumption [74]) of Lion’s mane, as well as its demonstrated beneficial activity on both the digestive mucous membranes and in digestive oncology, open up many opportunities for future health applications.

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