Awareness Magazine March/April 2010 cover

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Awareness Magazine
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Lion's Mane
A Medicinal Mushroom for Your Brain

By Ken Babal, C.N.

 

For centuries, mushrooms such as reishi, shiitake, maitake and others have been used throughout Asia to promote vibrant health, build resistance to disease and preserve youth. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are regarded as the highest of tonics.

In the U.S. mushrooms are sometimes viewed with suspicion because of certain poisonous or hallucinogenic types. This reputation, however, is rapidly changing as medicinal mushrooms become popular in holistic medicine and as nutritional supplements.

One cannot deny that mushrooms are unique, not to mention mysterious. Being neither plant nor animal, but members of the fungal family, they are sometimes referred to as the Third Kingdom. Their DNA actually puts them closer to humans than plants.

Among thirty-eight thousand species of mushrooms are about fifty that are poisonous and another fifty with scientifically-validated medicinal value. And, of course, there are the mind-altering "magic mushrooms" that produce hallucinogenic trips similar to those of LSD.

One way mushrooms differ from plants is that they contain no chlorophyll, and so cannot manufacture food energy from the sun. Instead of calories from solar energy, they are said to provide lunar energy, which is believed to nourish the brain with intuition and imagination.

THE MANE FOR YOUR BRAIN

Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceum) is an edible mushroom widely distributed in Japan and China. Its name comes from the beautiful white icicle-like spines. Regular consumption of Lion's Mane is said to give you "nerves of steel" and "the memory of a lion."

Scientific studies performed in Asia confirm its traditional use as a cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous system tonic. One variety of the mushroom is marketed as a remedy for gastric and duodenal ulcers and chronic gastritis.

In traditional Chinese medicine, Lion's Mane is used to promote strength, vigor and good digestion and for prevention of gastrointestinal cancer. Its beta glucan composition is very similar to some of the most potent anti-cancer mushrooms such as Agaricus blazei.

Also, a hot-water extract made from Lion's Mane is considered a health tonic and sports beverage. Most important, Japanese studies show that Lion's Mane is able to regenerate neurons by stimulating production of Nerve Growth Factor.

NERVE GROWTH FACTOR

Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) belongs to a family of proteins that play a part in the maintenance, survival and regeneration of neurons during adult life. As we age, NGF declines, resulting in less efficient brain functioning. In mice, its absence leads to a condition resembling Alzheimer's disease.

In 1986, two scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for the discovery and isolation of NGF. Since its discovery, researchers have been interested in ways of enhancing NGF. But because it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier, it cannot be administered as an oral drug.

Accordingly, scientists directed their attention to finding bioactive compounds with a low molecular weight that could penetrate the blood-brain barrier and be taken orally to induce synthesis of NGF within the brain.

HERICENONES AND AMYLOBAN

A breakthrough occurred when a Japanese research team discovered a class of compounds called hericenones in Lion's Mane that stimulate production of NGF, causing neurons to regrow.

These compounds offer great potential for repairing neurological damage, improving intelligence and reflexes and, even more significant, preventing and treating Alzheimer's disease.

What's more, hericenones are the first active substances found in natural products to induce NGF synthesis.

An additional compound isolated from Lion's Mane was found to protect against neuronal cell death caused by toxic beta amyloid peptide. Beta amyloid peptide is the main component of plaque that develops in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients, causing destruction of neurons as it progresses.

This protective compound in Lion's Mane is simply known as amyloban. Both hericenones and amyloban are protected by patents (Maitake Products, Inc.).

One experiment at a Chinese Pharmaceutical University compared a standardized Lion's Mane extract (PLM-Fraction) with a common Alzheimer's drug. One hundred rats were injected with beta amyloid peptide to create an Alzheimer's type dementia. The rats were then divided into groups to receive either Lion's Mane extract or the drug once a day for four weeks.

At the fourth week, an assessment of learning and memory related behavior was made for six consecutive days. Results showed that rats treated with the mushroom extract performed a water maze test equal or better to the Alzheimer's drug, depending on dosage of the extract. After completing the behavioral test, all rats were sacrificed for pathological examination to determine the NGF content in the brain. It was found that rats receiving Lion's Mane extract produced significantly more NGF.

TREATING DEMENTIA

A clinical study using Lion's Mane was conducted to investigate its effectiveness against dementia in a rehabilitative hospital in Japan. The study consisted of 50 patients in the experimental group (average age 75) and 50 controls (average age 77). Seven of the patients in the experimental group suffered from different types of dementia. The patients in this group received 5 grams of dried mushroom per day in their soup for a six-month period.

All patients were evaluated before and after the treatment period for their Functional Independence Measure (FIM), which is an international evaluation standard of independence in physical capabilities (eating, dressing, evacuating, walking, bathing/showering, etc.) and in perceptive capabilities (understanding, expression, communication, problem-solving, memory).

Results showed that after six months of taking Lion's Mane, six out of seven patients experienced improvements in their overall FIM score. In particular, three bedridden patients were able to get up to eat meals after administration. These results are very encouraging, and more extensive clinical studies are currently underway at other hospitals.

Presently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, and conventional treatments only address the symptoms of the disease. Approximately, one in ten people over age 65 are diagnosed with the condition. More troubling, half of those who make it into their 80s are expected to contract Alzheimer's.

It has been suggested that NGF may be used to treat Alzheimer's disease. For this reason, compounds in Lion's Mane are attracting great attention for preventing and treating various types of dementia. An effective way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia might be the daily intake of foods or dietary supplements that stimulate NGF and inhibit toxicity of beta amyloid peptide.

Lion's Mane supplements can be beneficial for maintaining neurological function while Amyloban™ 3399 (based on a proprietary standardized extract called PLM-Fraction) contains a therapeutic concentration of both hericenones and amyloban from Lion's Mane.

Ken Babal is a consultant to the natural food and supplement industry and has a nutrition counseling practice at Amrit Davaa Wellness Center at Golden Bridge in Los Angeles. He is author of several books including "Maitake Mushroom and D-Fraction" (Woodland 2004) and "Good Digestion: Your Key to Vibrant Health" (Alive 2000). For more information, call (323) 933-1673 or visit www.NutritionMusician.com