No no, we’re not talking about looking after your lovely locks, there’s another blog for that around here somewhere. At the onset of International Brain Health Month, we are mostly concerning ourselves with helping you get the most from your grey matter - preserving it, helping it operate at peak efficiency, keeping it cool and collected and generally helping it to support you! So what’s the ‘Mane’ reference from the title you ask? Well for those of you who haven’t guessed it yet, either you need more Sudoku practice, or - you have yet to enter into the domain of… the medicinal mushroom.
Lion’s Mane, as its name suggests, carries itself on the side of dead or dying deciduous trees like oak or beech - and it sports a bloody great shaggy mane. It grows well in Europe, and at a recent foraging event in St Anne’s park, it was identified amongst many other edible mushrooms. The lovely thing is that, although there are a good few species belonging to the Lion’s Mane family, there are no known poisonous ones, so no chance of misidentification leading to prolonged toilet time.
However if you’re not a fan of fumbling about in the woods, there are other options for consuming this (apparently) delicious mushroom. But we’ll get to that later…
We should probably start with a bit of background on the ‘shroom kingdom. We’ve likely all heard the old adage about swimming with sharks, when you’re out there in the deep blue, you’re in ‘their world’. Well in a very different, and much less threatening manner, there’s a world beneath our feet, and it is totally the empire of the mushroom. What do we see when we dig up a chunk of earth? We see… well soil obviously, and hopefully worms, and lots of tangled roots and… if we look really closely (and maybe with a little help from a magnifying glass) we should see lots of little white hairs.
These hair-like structures are what’s known as mycelium. If we separate them out, we’re likely to find around seven miles of this mycelial network in one pinch of soil. The mycelium is essentially the root structure that mushrooms put out. And compared to the fruiting body (that’s the bit we see above ground), the mycelium spreads out over a vast area, like if you go and google ‘what is the largest organism on earth?’ your computer will tell you that it is indeed a mushroom. Again this isn’t a creature you’ll go and see, the ridiculously huge organism that is basically one cell thick covers over 2.5 thousand acres below ground. And that network is not just for show…
The mycelial network of the mushroom kingdom demonstrates possibly the most intricate and sophisticated interspecies communication network, and truly leaves me in awe of nature. Plants and mushrooms have a completely interdependent relationship, plants providing polysaccharides that are the result of their photosynthesis, while mushrooms (expert foragers in themselves) go on the hunt for nutrients in their network to donate to the plants. So little is understood of this relationship and its complexity - however studies have been done that demonstrate, for instance the mushroom’s ability to break down and carry tiny particles of decayed salmon carcass in their hyphae to trees miles away, and somehow on demand, the trees soften their roots, allowing the hyphae to penetrate and carry out the exchange of goods.
It is this ability of the mushroom as a facilitator in nature, a translator of dead rocks into living matter that plants can consume that describes their most subtle and profound action when we consume them. We know a certain, limited amount regarding their nutritive value as a food, but their benefit to us goes waaaaay deeper than this - to a point science has yet to reach. But enough about what we don’t know, here’s what we do know, or at least a taste of it. As you’ll read, one blog won’t even scratch the surface of these outrageously intelligent organisms…
Actually one tiny last fact of pure wonderment that hints towards their affinity for consumption and assimilation by humans. We share much of our DNA (up to 60%) and RNA (around 85%) with mushrooms, and they (like us) “breathe” oxygen - we digest proteins in much the same manner too… anyway, I digress.
All mushrooms provide a rich source of beta glucans, a type of sugar that feeds specific immune system cells we produce known as the macrophage. Activation of the macrophage, part of innate, non-specific immune system allows us to more effectively scavenge bacteria and viruses as they invade our body. Even the humble button mushroom, found on all the crappiest takeaway pizzas from here to Chicago, contains wicked amounts of this nutrient - but far be it from us to encourage a regular Four Star habit, there may be more harm than good in there.
Even as we start to break down the magical world of medicinal mushrooms, we do them all a disservice, linking specific mushrooms to specific body functions and organs. But, in order to make this in any way accessible to us, studies have focused particular mushrooms on sections of our physiology to better allow us to understand some of their mechanisms of action.
Please see just a few of these soundbytes below…
Reishi: the anti-anxiety mushroom - calming for the nervous and immune systems it’s the one we recommend before heading for a good night’s sleep.
Shiitake: the one for the liver - definitely not being fair on other ‘shrooms with properties in this department but shiitake has the largest body of research when it comes to managing cholesterol levels, thanks to its content of unique substance, lentinan, and supporting healthy fat metabolism too.
Chaga: the short term immune boost - it’s extremely rich in an antioxidant known as SOD (super oxide dismutase) which is the reason we all go silly over wheatgrass, so perhaps some crossover of the uses applies. We’re not saying too much here, but go and look at some of the studies and you’ll see what we mean.
Cordyceps: the energy mushroom - strangely although it’s chaga that gives a pseudo caffeinated kick, cordyceps is the mushroom with the greatest claim to supporting adrenal health and boosting energy levels in the short and long term. In TCM (traditional chinese medicine) it is used to enhance libido and athletic performance as well as support deeper energy restoration requirements. Cordyceps enhances the production of nitric oxide synthase - expanding the size of blood vessels hence aiding the transport of oxygen to tissues, helping you go just a bit further.
And finally… we get back to the point…
Lion’s Mane - the cognitive king - this mushroom has an almost unique ability in the plant/fungi kingdom to prevent cognitive decline, increase mental acuity and help to lift the brain fog. Remember back in the good ol’ days when we were told that feeling of a dull brain after a night of the fizzy drinks meant waving bye bye to whatever brain cells went missing in the haze. Well (and this is not an IPA endorsement) that old myth has truly been shown the door in recent years with the discovery that our body has the ability to produce something called BDNF, or brain derived neurotrophic factor, and it has some RATHER exciting implications…namely the potential for our brains to synthesise de novo (new) tissue.
Some great free (or nearly free) ways we can potentially enhance BDNF include exercise, fasting, experiencing joy, eating oily fish (have a quick google you’ll see). Bar the consumption of oily fish, very few foods have been shown to enhance BDNF, and that’s precisely why Lion’s Mane is receiving so much attention
We recently wrote a blog on other great, simple protocols for protecting/enhancing cognitive function in which we mentioned cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, l-theanine, phosphatidylserine and yummy yummy fats, so go and check that out for more mind un-melting methods. I truly believe that the issues we have with current studies is the inability to take into account the “entourage effect” - the result of trialling more than one approach at the same time, and the synergy that all these little things can have to affect a more profound outcome in the real world. So maybe we don’t take any of these things in high dose consistently for 6 weeks. But as we add these approaches to our lives little by little we will begin to see the spectrum of benefits slowly come back to us, helping us to live longer (and importantly healthier) lives.
There’s so many ways to get them into our diet these days too, as we have teas, capsules, tinctures (and whole powdered mycelium on the way), and because the extracts aren’t heat sensitive you can safely cook with them too.
Studies that have focused on Lion’s Mane have demonstrated some rather exciting potential, and it’s certain that we are only at the outset of discovering some of the major benefits that consumption of this powerful healthfood may confer. But we can trust that as humankind has gone to great lengths to seek these amazing mushrooms out in the wild over millennia, there is an innate trust and wisdom in continuing to make them part of our diet.