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
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 ) 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, 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
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].
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 ) 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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