EDITORS NOTE: This article was medically reviewed by Kailey Proctor, MPH, RDN, CSO, a board-certified oncology dietitian at the Leonard Clinical Cancer Institute with Mission Hospital.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are white, edible mushrooms with thin, shaggy hair that slightly resemble a lion’s mane. They have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, but have become increasingly popular in the West for their culinary and medicinal uses.
You can eat lion’s mane mushrooms raw or cooked, or consume them as an extract, powder, tea, or dietary supplement.
“Lion’s mane is a very promising natural remedy for many aspects of health including digestive health, metabolism, and cognition. Unfortunately, there are very few studies on humans that would allow us to make any definitive conclusions [about their benefits],” says Gary Soffer, MD, integrative medicine physician at Yale Medicine.
Many of the following benefits have only been observed in animals, which generally isn’t a good metric for how humans will react since the two have different metabolisms. However, it does show lion’s mane has therapeutic potential, but more extensive research in humans is needed.
Important: “For those with any medical condition, it is important to consult your primary care provider prior to using lion’s mane or any other supplement,” says Spees. That’s because it could interact with your medications.
Here are the potential benefits and risks of lion’s mane mushrooms.
1. Protects against dementia
A small 2009 study in Japanese adults aged 50 to 80 found that taking four 250 milligram tablets containing 96% lion’s mane powder three times a day for 16 weeks increased scores on a cognitive function test.
“However, within 4 weeks of stopping supplementation, mental function declined,” says Colleen Spees, PhD, RDN, associate professor in the division of medical dietetics at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Researchers have found similar — even more powerful results — in animal studies, suggesting that lion’s mane mushroom can protect against neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and prevent cognitive and memory dysfunction in mice.
However, it’s clear that more studies are needed to determine the protective effects of lion’s mane mushroom on human brain health and mental functioning.
2. May protect against cancer
Lion’s mane mushrooms contain compounds that may slow tumor growth and reduce the spread of cancer in mice lungs.
In addition, lion’s mane extracts may fight human liver, colon, and gastric cancer cells in vitro. However, further studies are needed to understand the mechanism behind this anti-cancer effect before it can be applied to humans.
Medical term: In vitro means the study was conducted in test tubes with human cells, but not in humans themselves.
3. Improves digestive health
Lion’s mane mushroom has been used to treat digestive problems like indigestion for more than 2000 years.
For example, a small 1985 study in patients with chronic atrophic gastritis found that taking lion’s mane extract before meals for three months improved upper abdominal pain and inflammation in the treatment group, compared to the control group that had a placebo.
Additionally, a small 2016 study found taking an oral mushroom supplement with 14.7% lion’s mane extract may reduce mild to moderate symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a disease that causes inflammation and sores in the digestive tract.
The herbal supplement did contain other mushrooms, so the findings can’t be entirely attributed to lion’s mane. However, these studies show promise about the benefits for digestive health.
4. Relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety
A small 2019 study in overweight or obese participants found that taking three capsules a day of a lion’s mane dietary supplement for eight weeks reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by about 34.9% and 49.6% respectively.
Additionally, a 2018 study in adult mice found that lion’s mane extract may reduce anxiety and depression, possibly by promoting the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus.
Medical term: The hippocampus is a brain region essential for processing emotions and memories.
5. May repair nervous system
Several animal studies showed that lion’s mane mushroom improved the growth of nerve cells in rats, as well as reduced their recovery time after nerve injury, and provided neuroprotective effects following brain injury. However, more studies are needed to see if the same is true for humans.
Side effects of lion’s mane mushroom
Lion’s mane mushrooms appear to be quite safe, but more research is needed to fully understand its side effects. However, some people should avoid lion’s mane mushrooms, like:
- Individuals with mushroom allergies: Lion’s mane mushrooms can cause a skin rash or a lung condition in those with a mushroom allergy.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding people: “As with most botanicals and supplements, lion’s mane should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” because their safety and effectiveness haven’t been extensively tested, says Spees.
- Individuals taking other supplements or medications: Lion’s mane mushrooms may interfere with medications since it is not extensively studied.
Several studies show that lion’s mane mushroom may provide health benefits, such as enhancing mental function, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving digestive issues.
However, more human studies are needed to have a complete understanding of its therapeutic effects such as its anti-cancer effects.