There’s a lot of buzz around the use of medicinal mushrooms these days — and for good reason.
Mushrooms are a pharmacy of useful compounds, many of which can be used to support optimal health to different organs around the body.
Some work on the immune system, like reishi or turkey tail, while others are more specific to the neurological system — which is what we’re going to cover in this article.
We’ll cover the following medicinal mushroom species and what makes them useful as a nootropic supplement.
- Lions Mane (Hericeum erinaceus)
- Chaga (Inotus obliquus)
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinenis)
Mushrooms & the Neurological System
There’s been a lot of research over the past few decades investigating the potential use of medicinal mushrooms as nootropics — substances that can enhance brain function. Most of this research revolves around one mushroom in particular — lion’s mane (Hericeum erinaceus) — which we’ll cover in more detail later.
There’s also a handful of other mushrooms with potential to benefit other areas of brain health as well that’s been gaining a lot of momentum for research lately.
One aspect of medicinal mushrooms that really makes them stand out is their unique ability to act “bidirectionally” — which means they can both stimulate, or reduce physiological processes in the body, depending on what’s needed.
This is a lot more complex than it sounds — and has been puzzling scientists for decades.
This ability comes from a powerful synergy found in the mushroom fruiting bodies. It isn’t just one compound that exerts these benefits — it’s a series of dozens, sometimes even hundreds of compounds all working together to produce a combined effect on the body.
Here are the main ways mushrooms exert beneficial effects on the brain and neurological system:
- Stimulate the repair and growth of new nerve cells
- Fight neuroinflammation that may lead to degeneration of brain cells
- Boost the utilisation of oxygen in brain and nervous tissue
- Mimic serotonin in the brain to support mood and sleep
Exploring Some Key Nootropic Mushroom Species
1. Lion’s Mane (Hericeum erinaceus)
Lion’s mane mushroom is characterised by its unique “shaggy” appearance — which resembles a white lion’s mane. It’s used as both a food and nutritional supplement. It’s by far the most popular nootropic mushroom species we have available.
This fungus grows in conifer trees in Northern climates like Canada, Northern Europe, and Russia — but can be cultivated around the world on wood shavings — making this supplement readily available around the world.
Lion’s mane owes many of its cognitive benefits to a series of aromatic compounds known as the hericinones. These compounds have been shown to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain .
As the name implies, NGF stimulates nervous tissue around the body to regenerate new nerve cells.
The impact of this is is huge, as lost nerve cells within the spinal cord and brain don’t come back. Stimulating NGF levels in the brain, even just a little bit, may have a profound protective action on the brain — especially in the face of neuro-degenerative disorders.
Lion’s mane has many other effects on the body as well — mostly revolving around its ability to support brain health and reduce inflammation.
The reported benefits of lion’s mane include:
- Boosts cognitive function
- Kills infectious bacteria
- Fights cancer
- Regulates blood pressure
- Lowers blood lipid levels
- Protects the cardiovascular system
- Supports liver function
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2. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Chaga is a fungus found growing on birch trees in cooler climates around the world. It’s not your typical “mushroom”. It has a very hard texture and dark appearance.
This fungus isn’t often listed as a nootropic supplement, but there are several important factors that make this mushroom great for supporting brain health, especially if taken over long periods of time as a supplement, or in the form of a tea.
Chaga is a potent immunomodulator — considered by experts in the use of herbal medicine to be among the best in the world for regulating the immune system. It’s a perfect example of a mushroom that exerts a bidirectional benefit on the body.
When the immune system is under-functioning, it gives it a boost. Other times, such as with autoimmune disease where a hyperactive immune system is causing inflammation and cell destruction, chaga is used to reduce immune activity instead.
When it comes to cognitive health, this is incredibly valuable. A lot of neurodegenerative disorders are the result of autoimmune-related inflammatory reactions of the blood-brain barrier. Over time, inflammation leads to the breakdown of this critical protective layer — eventually leading to infiltration by harmful compounds in the blood that shouldn’t be allowed in the brain. This can cause the death of important nerve cells in the brain and a reduction in things like memory, concentration, and executive functioning.
In this way, chaga isn’t so much of a “booster” for cognitive function as it is a “preserver”. It works preventatively to keep the brain in top working order throughout life.
This anti-inflammatory effect is also highly relevant for mood disorders — which has been shown to result from long-term inflammation in the brain .
3. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Cordyceps mushroom is best known as the “zombie fungus” for its strange life cycle. This fungus infects insects, causing them to behave erratically and either climb to the highest leaf, or burrow beneath the ground (depending on the species). From here, the insect dies, and the fungus consumes the body of the insect as food.
This mushroom is extremely useful as a health supplement for both cognitive purposes, and for athletes looking to push their body even further.
Cordyceps shares many of the same benefits to other medicinal mushrooms — such as its effects on supporting the immune system and relieving inflammation, but there’s something else that really helps this mushroom stand out from the pack.
Recent studies have shown that cordyceps mushrooms improve the body’s ability to use oxygen . Most of the research on this effect focuses on this application during exercise, but there’s also a lot of potential for this to be of major benefit for cognitive performance as well. More research is needed on this specific interaction.
Oxygen utilisation is a major component of brain function. If we’re not using oxygen within the brain efficiently we begin to feel lightheaded, dull, and tired. Hospitals will give oxygen to patients experiencing high levels of stress or fatigue to boost mood and awareness. Even casinos will often choose to pump more oxygen into the room to produce a greater sense of euphoria, and alertness among its patrons.
Final Thoughts on Using Nootropic Mushrooms
Mushrooms have a lot to offer us as food, supplements, and food. The greatest level of interest in this class of this class of compound is for immune function, such as during cancer, autoimmune disease, and for protecting the body from inflammation and infectious disease — but there’s a lot of interest more recently in the impact of these species on the brain.
Mushrooms like chaga may offer a powerful protective effect on the brain by keeping neuroinflammation at bay and resisting the infiltration of immune cells, and harmful compounds in peripheral circulation from entering the brain.
Cordyceps also provide support for neuroinflammation, but may also improve our ability to use oxygen in the brain to drive power-hungry cognitive processes.
Other mushroom species like lions mane are more direct, stimulating neurotransmitters like NGF to push the brain towards repairing damaged or lost nerve cells faster and more thoroughly — which in turn may have a profound impact on our ability to perform executive functions like higher thought, memory, and more.
The use of medicinal mushrooms as cognitive enhancers is a rapidly growing space with a lot of exciting potential. Watch this space!
- Ma, B. J., Shen, J. W., Yu, H. Y., Ruan, Y., Wu, T. T., & Zhao, X. (2010). Hericenones and erinacines: stimulators of nerve growth factor (NGF) biosynthesis in Hericium erinaceus. Mycology, 1(2), 92-98.
- Friedman, M. (2015). Chemistry, nutrition, and health-promoting properties of Hericium erinaceus (lion’s mane) mushroom fruiting bodies and mycelia and their bioactive compounds. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 63(32), 7108-7123.
- Walker, A. K., Kavelaars, A., Heijnen, C. J., & Dantzer, R. (2014). Neuroinflammation and comorbidity of pain and depression. Pharmacological reviews, 66(1), 80-101.
- Nagata, A., Tajima, T., & Uchida, M. (2006). Supplemental anti-fatigue effects of Cordyceps sinensis (Tochu-Kaso) extract powder during three stepwise exercise of human. Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 55(Supplement), S145-S152.