If you suffer from lower back pain, neck pain, headaches, sciatic pain, shoulder pain or any other common type of pain that we often see here at the clinic you might have tried a number of ways to find some relief. But, do you think that a mushroom could help you with your pain? Often, people can be skeptical that something other than traditional over-the- counter medicines can provide them with relief. However there’s a growing body of research suggesting that one mushroom, known as the lion’s mane mushroom might hold potential to help with pain relief alongside many other health benefits.
What are Lion’s Mane mushrooms?
Lion’s mane mushrooms get their name from their long and shaggy spines that look like a lion’s mane. Also know as hou tou gu or yamabushitake, the mushroom can either be eaten, drunk as a tea or taken as a supplement. People often say it tastes like seafood, comparing it to crab or lobster.
For centuries, lion’s mane has been valued in countries such as as China, India, Japan and Korea for it’s fierce medicinal properties (1). Interestingly, research over the past decade has started to back up these observations.
While more research is needed on the effects of lion’s mane on humans, animal studies so far have been promising and make for what we think is extremely interesting reading. For the record – we don’t particularly like animal experiments. It could be considered sad that we can’t just draw from the long observed benefits of healing herbs like lions mane without devising cruel animal experiments to verify their effectiveness. But science is that it is and if we can learn from it we had might as well do so.
Now that we know what they are – let’s take a look at some of the potential benefits of taking lions mane mushrooms.
5 Potential Benefits of Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
Enhances Nerve Function
One of the most revolutionary discoveries about lion’s mane is that it can induce nerve growth factor (NGF) and repair cells quicker. (2) NGF is a protein that plays a major role in the maintenance, survival and regeneration of neurons that are responsible for nerve function.
A 2012 study showed strong support for the regenerative properties of lion’s mane by demonstrating that consuming the mushroom can regenerate damaged cells from peripheral nerve injury. (3). In this study, rats were surgically given an injury to their peripheral nerves that severely imparied their ability to walk. After this, some of the rats were given water containing lion’s mane while others were given plain water. After a period of 14 days, the rats that had been given lion’s mane were able to walk again due to significantly better recovery to their peripheral nerves compared to those that hadn’t been given the mushroom.
What’s interesting about this study is that some rats were given more lion’s mane than others – but this didn’t change the rate of peripheral nerve recovery. That is, the improvement was seen even in smaller doses. If these findings could be replicated in humans, it may have a profound impact on the treatment of people with damage to their peripheral nerves, which can cause significant back pain, shoulder pain and neck pain.
Inflammation and Oxidation
Another powerful property of lion’s mane is it’s ability to reduce inflammation and oxidation. This has to do with the antioxidant properties of the mushroom. Although we hear the term thrown around often, not many people know what exactly antioxidants are. Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals (unstable molecules that damage cells) in your body. High levels of free radicals in the body are associated with inflammation.
Inflammation contributes to many medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases. Acute inflammation can also cause pain of varying types and severity. Pain may be constant and steady, throbbing and pulsating, stabbing, or pinching.
A 2012 study evaluating the therapeutic benefits of 14 different mushroom species found that lion’s mane had the fourth-highest level of antioxidant activity (4). Because lion’s mane mushrooms are high in antioxidants, it’s believed that they are able to reduce inflammation and cellular damage throughout the body.
This idea is supported by a 2014 study where rats who were given lion’s mane demonstrated a significant reduction in inflammation of the brain. In fact, these same rats also showed a reduced risk of stroke (5). Another study showed mice with ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease) had a significant reduction in intestinal inflammation after a period of consuming lion’s mane (6).
Anxiety and Depression
The anti-inflammatory properties of lion’s mane may also help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in mice (7,8). Other animal studies have also demonstrated that lion’s mane extract can also help regenerate brain cells and improve hippocampus function, an area of the brain vital for processing memories and emotional responses (9,10). It’s thought that an improved ability to process emotional responses might play a part in the reduced anxiety and depressive behavioiurs seen in mice.
In a 2018 study, mice who were given a high dose of lion’s mane mushroom for one month performed better on tests designed to measure both anxiety and depression. After treatement, mice who had been given lion’s mane spent more time exploring when placed in an open arena. They also swam for longer when forced to swim in a pool they couldnt escape. In other words, the mice felt more confident in open spaces and were less willing to give up when placed in a tricky situation – both signs of a reduction in anxiety and depression.
Although lion’s mane’s ability to reduce anxiety and depression isn’t directly linked to pain, chronic pain is often closely associated with stubborn emotional conditions. Research suggests that patients with depression are not only more emotionally reactive to pain, but also are less able to modulate their perception of pain once it develops (11). A reduction in anxious and depressive symptoms then, might set people up to better deal with pain in everyday life. We all know how back pain, shoulder pain and neck pain can impact our mood, and have discussed how the surprising science of enduring pain in a pervious blog. Taken together, the ability for lion’s mane to not only impact nerve growth and inflammation, but mood as well makes them potentially very powerful when it comes to pain treatment.
Improves Brain Function
Lion’s mane’s impact on brain function is also seen in research suggesting it could help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2016 study suggested that lion’s mane mushroom and its extracts prevented neural damage caused by plaques that often clump together and damage neurons – causing memory loss. Indeed, the researchers also found that the extract decreased symptoms of memory loss in mice with Alzheimer’s disease (12).
Although there’s no research currently showing whether the mushroom can do the same for humans, it does appear that the mushroom have positive effect on brain function. Older adults who took three grams of the mushroom daily for four months showed improved mental functioning (13). What’s the most interesting part is that the improvement’s disappeared once they stopped taking it, strongly suggesting the improvements were due to the mushroom.
The antinflammatory properties of lion’s mane may also help skin wounds heal quicker. Although further research is needed on humans, there’s evidence from animal studies to suggest the mushroom may have beneficial effects.
In a 2011 study, rats who were given a neck wound healed quicker when the wound was treated with a topical application of lion’s name extract. When the researchers looked at the wounds they found that they had less scar tissue area at the wound enclosure, fewer white blood cells (indicating less infection or pus formation) and greater levels of collagen. They also contained a greater density of new blood vessels (14).
Although they didn’t measure levels of pain in the study, it’s easy to suggest that having a wound that heals quicker means that the rats also spent less time in pain. A infected wound, or one that’s slow healing would have meant that any associated pain continued for longer.
The Take Home
The current evidence that the lion’s mane mushroom has a wide variety of medicinal properties is extremely compelling and makes for very interesting reading.
It would be unsurprising many of the findings within animal studies translate to humans. After all, the mushroom has been used in traditional medicine for centuries and it seems as if the science is now simply catching up to what people have been observing for a long time. However, to provide further clarification if there are any differences between what has been observed in animals, more research is needed in humans.
From a pain perspective, the idea that lion’s mane can help with reducing inflammation and nerve regeneration alongside improving brain function and mood means we think that they could be a powerful alternative to traditional pain and mood medications – which can often come with a bunch of side effects that impact quality of life further. Lion’s mane has proven to be safe in even reasonably large doses in rats with little side effects (22, 23), and if the same held true with humans it may provide an alternative to medicines that can sometimes come with a cost.