Is there magic in mushrooms? Maybe when it comes to their nootropic qualities.
Nootropic supplements are neuro-enhancing substances that improve the mental performance or brain health of an individual. Based on its loose definition, any supplement or substance that boosts cognitive performance, contains exceptionally low levels of toxicity and is suitable for long term usage may be categorized as a nootropic supplement.
One such example of natural nootropic supplements are mushroom nootropic supplements. Mushrooms have long been known, perhaps more than 3,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine, to be packed full of vitamins and macronutrients. Some beneficial effects of nootropic mushrooms may include: enhanced cognitive functioning and protection from oxidative damage or neuronal cell death.
In this article, we will explore the benefits of mushroom nootropic supplements and provide evidence of their studied capabilities. Generally, mushrooms are packed with a vast array of medicinal elements. Nonetheless, the medicinal value of each mushroom varies greatly. There are four mushrooms that have been looked at for their nootropic qualities in some detail, those being lion’s mane, cordyceps, reishi, and chaga mushrooms. Highlighted and explored below in more detail are the 3 different nootropic mushrooms with more notable cognitive benefits to improve memory. The chaga mushroom is not explored in more detail here as it is not usually considered a nootropic, though it has gained a strong following for its anti-cancer and anti-aging properties, which are gained from its impact against DNA damage.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
The Lion’s Mane Mushroom possesses a distinctive appearance. Unlike other mushrooms with the typical cap and stem formation with gills on the inside; the Lion’s Mane mushroom is sphere-shaped with overlapping miniature spikes, looking more like a cheerleader’s pom-pom.
More affectionately known by its Japanese name, Yamabushitake due to its ease on the tongue, other nicknames such as “sheep’s head” or “bear’s head” have been associated. Scientifically, the mushroom is known as Hericium Erinaceus and it has been a regular fixture in ancient Chinese medicinal history. Commercially, the Lion’s Mane mushroom has increased in popularity amongst gourmet food chains due to its high protein content and exquisite taste comparable to lobster meat.
The mechanism in which Lion’s Mane has been suggested to improve cognitive functioning is through possible expression of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF is a neuropeptide responsible for the growth and maintenance of certain brain neurons. Enhancing NGF has long been suggested to have both cognitive-boosting and neuroprotective qualities making it a good candidate as a mushroom nootropic.
Scientists are particularly attracted to Lion’s Mane due to its impressive nerve regeneration and cognitive-boosting attributes. A scientific study conducted by the Hokuto Corporation in Japan established the connection between improved cognitive performance and the Lion’s Mane mushroom. Set in 2009, the research study consisted of 30 subjects aged between 50 and 80 years of age and with signs of mild cognitive impairment. The experiment split the subjects into two groups where one group was given the Lion’s Mane mushroom and the other a placebo.
The experiment revolved around the following parameters:
- 250 mg pills of Lion’s Mane Mushroom
- 3 times a day consumption rate
- Total period of 16 weeks
Throughout the trial, participants who had consumed Lion’s Mane Mushroom exhibited improvements in the cognitive function scale when compared to the placebo group. Surprisingly, these improved results reverted back to the norm at the end of the trial. This suggests that the Lion’s Mane Mushroom has a positive effect in enhancing cognitive performance but must be taken continually to receive nootropic effects, and that further research into the potential benefits could be warranted.
More detailed analysis of the validity for various claims for performance of the Lion’s Mane Mushroom is covered here, though it is safe to say that many more claims have been made on its behalf than are justified by the research. For the purposes of a discussion of a mushroom nootropic, valid research has been performed that needs to be followed up with more detailed work.
Cordyceps mushrooms are endoparasitoids, parasitic mainly on insects and other arthropods (they are thus entomopathogenic fungi); a few are parasitic on other fungi. Compared to the Lion’s Mane Mushroom, the Cordyceps Mushroom has enjoyed a wider target audience. In addition to bringing its medical benefits to the Chinese, it is also widely used in various Tibetan treatments. Tibetan medical practitioners have generally recommended the Cordyceps Mushrooms for all sorts of illnesses due to its extensive medicinal properties.
It is often included in the category of adaptogens, similar to rhodiola rosea. Several studies have been performed over the years looking at the use of cordyceps during strenuous activity and whether it improves recovery. While no improvement was generally found in aerobic response among cyclists, it may be of assistance in improving exercise performance among the elderly.
In an attempt to uncover the Cordyceps Mushroom’s effectiveness on brain health, a 2014 publication in the Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine provided that the Cordyceps Mushroom may be a great natural supplement for improving mood levels and increasing cognitive function. This might be due to its perceived effect on the part of the brain known as the hippocampus and its positive influence on Neurotrophic Growth Factor. In this regard, the Cordyceps Mushroom may act in a similar way to Lions Mane by increasing the secretion and expression of NGF. Polysaccharide components and cordycepin are under basic research and have been isolated from C. militaris. In addition to nootropic qualities, researchers have been studying the anti-cancer properties of the compounds in cordyceps.
Another mushroom with an established reputation in Chinese medicinal history, the Reishi mushroom, also know as the lingzhi mushroom, has been held in high regards by Chinese herbalists for thousands of years. It is believed to be one of the earliest mushrooms to be used medicinally. It is referred to as reishi due to the initial introduction to the western world via Japan, with reishi being the Japanese version of lingzhi. Due to its alleged effectiveness in promoting longevity, it has been aptly nicknamed as “The Mushroom of Immortality”. Scientifically known as Ganoderma Lucidum, the Reishi Mushroom has been openly attributed to improving physical and immunological conditions within the body.
In 2012, researchers from the Department of Pharmacology, School of Basic Medical Science from Peking University, Beijing, China, carried out an experiment on rats to explore the cognitive effects of the Reishi Mushroom. It was also found in a 2015 Cochrane database review that reishi may have benefit as an alternative means of treatment for cancer. And a separate review during the same time period found benefits for the treatment of cardiovascular risk factors for the reishi.
Over the course of 3 days, it was discovered that the Reishi Mushroom was capable of promoting the modulation of cytokines within the brain. Cytokines are cell signaling compounds that are involved in immune and anti-inflammatory responses. By modulating the activity of cytokines within the brain, the Reishi Mushroom may act as a neuroprotective nootropic agent. While the Reishi Mushroom may not interact with cholinergic, glutamatergic or monoamine systems, its effects on cytokines may contribute to improved brain function and health.
What Does It All Mean?
There is a great deal of potential for mushroom nootropic supplements in the modern world. Though more work and research is an absolute necessity for these products the overall biohacker universe can benefit from the nootropic qualities of mushrooms. In particular, the lion’s mane mushroom offers cognitive boosting and neuroprotective attributes, while the cordyceps has adoptgen properties to help with stress, and the reishi mushroom has been shown to have anti-inflammatory responses (including cardiovascular) that justify its having been held in high regard by Chinese herbalists for millenia. So maybe there is a bit of ‘magic’ in mushrooms after all, at least as it regards mushroom nootropic supplements.