On Nutrition: Lion's mane, a mushroom roaring with health benefits

Who says unusual foods can’t also be good for you?

Strolling around a farmers market in San Francisco, I spotted a display that looked like a pile of fuzzy white brains. They were wrinkled and looked less like food and more like something you could use to scrub away dead skin in the shower. A sign in the middle of these loofah-looking edibles read, “Lion’s Mane, $12.50 a pound.”

What are these? I asked the vendor.

“Mushrooms,” he said. “They are supposed to have some kind of health benefits.”

Sure enough, my homework later discovered that these mushrooms—also called Yamabushitake (scientific name Hericium erinaceus), contain natural substances that show promise for their possible beneficial effects on the body.

For instance, animal studies have shown that this type of mushroom contains substances that helped repair nerves after a brain injury (in rats). Another study reported that older Japanese men and women with mild cognitive impairment—loss of memory beyond what is normal for age—experienced significant improvements in thinking ability after taking supplements made from lion’s mane mushroom.

With a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, this type of mushroom is perfectly safe to eat, say experts. And while you’re enjoying this culinary adventure, your health may benefit as well.

Researchers report that many types of mushrooms, including the funny-looking one I saw at the grower’s market, impart important functions to humans, including favorable effects on blood cholesterol and glucose levels, according to a review article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Reportedly, more than 70 active compounds in lion’s mane mushroom have properties that protect against infections, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and dementia ... quite a laundry list.

How does it taste? Some say the taste and texture of lion’s mane is similar to shellfish. Others say it is not as “woodsy” as other types of mushrooms.

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