The brain is one of the most mysterious organs in the body. How the brain functions has intrigued doctors, scientists, psychologists and philosophers for centuries.
The brain receives inputs from our peripheral senses that informs what actions it needs to take and what neurons needs to fire to elicit an appropriate response.
When it comes to brain health, research and food science has shown with the right brain food (healthy fats and green leafy vegetables) and supplements, we can support and improve our memory, cognition, the health of our neurons, and stop the build up of plaque that drives neuroinflammation and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Dementia.
This is where medicinal mushrooms play a very exciting role in their ability to boost brain health.
Epigenetics is the study of how our environment impacts gene expression and, therefore, which genes are expressed.What this means is that although all of us have genetic “weaknesses” or predispositions to certain diseases, the way we live our life and what foods we consume (called nutrigenomics) can mute and override our genetic blueprint.
When it comes to brain health, if you have memory loss, find it difficult to retain information, experience brain fog, can’t focus or concentrate, suffer from brain fatigue, or have Alzheimer’s or Dementia running in your family, we may help prevent and combat all this by what you eat and how you choose to live your life (8, 9).
The incredible benefits of Lion’s Mane mushroom, Reishi mushroom and Chaga mushroom are three of the most popular and widely studied brain loving fungi which we will explore in this article.
Mushrooms for brain health are emerging as one of the most scientifically backed and powerful ways to boost brain health and mental wellbeing, and support mild cognitive impairment (1, 2, 3).
Studies show medicinal mushrooms may reduce neuro-inflammation and the development of beta amyloid plaque that drives Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as fatigue, depression, anxiety and mood changes (5).
Neuro-inflammation is when an inflammatory response occurs within and amongst neurons – our brain cells.
Neuroinflammation activates the immune system. This low grade immune and inflammatory state degrades and disturbs neuron structure and function, alters nerve cells the brain cells’ ability to be their most efficient selves.
Eating mushrooms, specifically Lion’s Mane mushroom, Reishi and Chaga, are powerful adaptogens that offer immune-modulating support that enhance the immune response and brain health due to the high presence of bioactive polysaccharide compounds (5).
It’s also known that an imbalanced antioxidant system and an excess of oxidative stress plays a role in neuroinflammation (4).
Medicinal mushrooms act as potent antioxidants that support the body’s own synthesis of endogenous antioxidants protecting neurons from damage and decreasing neural oxidative stress, supporting brain health.
When we talk about the differences of neuroinflammation, mild cognitive impairment and brain diseases, the four most common diseases that are prevalent in Western society today are;
Each of these brain states have underlying imbalances to neuron function. Fortunately, we are able to support these states through a holistic approach and changes to lifestyle factors.
This is where mushroom intake can work to boost and support overall brain health.
When it comes to medicinal mushrooms for brain health, the three most effective fungi are Lion’s Mane mushroom, Chaga mushroom and Reishi mushroom.
These three medicinal mushrooms have scientifically shown to reduce neuroinflammation, improve cognition, help with anxiety and depression, decrease plaque formation, reduce oxidative stress, and mild cognitive impairment.
These mushrooms work protect neurons from damage and support new neural growth (neurite outgrowth) and brain pathways (4, 5, 7).
When it comes to eating mushrooms for brain health, Lion’s Mane mushroom takes first place.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) have shown in many studies to elicit neuroprotective effects–lowers cellular stress in the brain, boosts antioxidant activity in the liver, decreases plaque formation that drives Alzheimer’s and Dementia, improves anxiety and depression, and enhances cognitive function (5).
Lion’s Mane mushroom contain two diterpenoid compounds–erinacines and hericenones–that are responsible for the neuro-protective benefits of Lion’s Mane (5, 6, 7).
Lion’s Mane is a powerful medicinal mushroom that also modulates the immune system, improves digestion and gut health, balances the nervous system, promotes anti-ageing, lowers inflammation and boosts antioxidant, making it a real superfood.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms stimulate the release of NGF–nerve growth factor– and may promote neurite outgrowth. Low levels of NGF driving synaptic degeneration, amyloid-beta plaque formation and ND – neural diseases, Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Parkinson’s Disease (7).
NGF also promotes the repair and regeneration of damaged neurons and may reduce the risk for neurodegenerative disease and loss of brain function (7).
Neurite outgrowth is a process wherein developing neurons produce new projections as they grow in response to guidance cues. Nerve growth factors, or neurotrophins, are one family of such stimuli that regulate neurite growth.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms function as a prebiotic and potent anti inflammatory supporting mushroom that improves a healthy gut and microbiome.
When it comes to the microbiome, stress – whether physical, psychological, emotional or environmental–disturbs the balance of bacteria, reduces the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, and drives the formation of gaps between enterocytes (gut cells) causing leaky gut and a chronic, systemic low grade inflammatory response and digestive issues.
By buffering the stress response and supporting the adrenal glands and nervous system, Lion’s Mane is able to help stomach and digestive problems.
Inflammation is at the core root of all disease. Disease is defined as being the dysfunction or disturbance to homeostasis and optimal function, and inflammatory mediators and pathways drive dysfunction that causes symptoms (a sign that something is wrong) and disease formation.
Lion’s Mane is a potent anti inflammatory mushroom. Its anti inflammatory properties balance the immune system and reduce the release and activation of pro-inflammatory pathways such as NF-KappaB and cytokines like TNF-a and IL-6 which are all elevated in disease states– Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Parkinson’s, depression and anxiety (1, 2, 4, 5).
The anti inflammatory benefits of Lion’s Mane mushrooms reduce the activation of these pathways and work to decrease neuroinflammation and improve overall brain health.
Studies show that an imbalanced immune response and the activation of inflammatory pathways in the body is seen in the pathophysiology of anxiety and depression (4, 10).
Research has shown that inflammation within the brain increases the permeability of the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) just like that of our gut.
This “leakiness” which starts to form causes unwanted molecules floating through the space, eliciting an immune response, the death of neurons and a changes in the structure and function of the brain and its microglia (4).
Chronic exposure to inflammatory markers is also suggested to change neurotransmitter levels and neurocircuit function that’s associated and seen in depressive and anxious states (10).
Also, anxiety and depression are often driven by stressors in whatever forms they’re driven by. Lion’s Mane mushroom is a potent antioxidant and anti-stress herb that can buffer the stress response that drives inflammation.
The Hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for holding and creating memories. Levels of NGF – nerve growth factor – have been shown to increase in the Hippocampus when Lions Mane has been taken, improving memory.
There are many reasons why we may lose focus or struggle to concentrate–from low iron levels, fatigue, lack of quality sleep, over thinking, an imbalance of neurotransmitters or just not being interested or stimulated.
When it comes to medicinal mushrooms for brain health, Lion’s Mane may help improve concentration by supporting neuronal health and protect the myelin sheaths – the fatty substance that surrounds each neuron and increases the speed of nerve impulses improving learning, retention and memory.
Additionally, NGF increases neural networks and pathways and enables us to have new ideas, cement thoughts and memories, and improve the connective pathways within the brain.
Free radicals are rogue cells created through normal biochemical pathways and environmental pollutants that damage cellular DNA and RNA. Oxidative stress accelerates and adds to the creation of free radicals, that drive inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction and cell death (5).
Antioxidants help offset and balance out free radicals, donating themselves and prevent cellular DNA damage and thus, cell function.
Naturally, the body needs some free radicals to activate our immune system and keep us healthy. But when the levels of free radicals becomes too much and throws out the antioxidant system that we can see diseases arise.
Lion’s Mane is a potent antioxidant and so helps to eliminate free radicals and prevent the development of imbalances, pain and diseases.
Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is deemed the ultimate “Anti-Stress Herb” within the kingdom of medicinal mushrooms.
Reishi mushroom has shown to be neuroprotective, helps calm an overactive nervous system, supports the adrenals, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts antioxidants, lowers inflammation and may have anti-depressive effects (1, 7, 11).
Stress is a key factor for increasing free radical production, causing disruption in neurotransmitters and further drives neuroinflammation.
Reishi mushroom helps boost brain health by decreasing the activation of pro-inflammatory pathways such as PGE2 and TNFa that are linked to ND (neurodegenerative diseases) and depression (1).
Reishi mushroom has also shown to inhibit the creation of amyloid beta plaque that causes ND being both protective and an active additional to treatment approaches (7, 11).
Reishi mushroom is a powerful adaptogenic herb that modulates the stress response by acting on the HPA axis – the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal axis–through its polysaccharides compounds.
Reishi increases the effectiveness of the adrenal glands and support a balanced secretion of stress hormones (12).
Cortisol is a natural anti inflammatory. However, when the body is chronically exposed to stress and cortisol is constantly released by the adrenals, the stress response goes haywire and it’s difficult for the body to restore homeostasis until we get out of this “flight or fight” response.
In this unbalanced state, symptoms such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and chronic fatigue start to arise and may cause further break down and dysfunction of numerous systems in the body.
The ability for Reishi mushroom to support the adrenals and preserve healthy release and circulation of cortisol, helps decrease “cortisol resistance” and reduce a chronically, over activated and over worked nervous system.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Reishi mushroom is used to balance Shen disturbances and restore harmony and peace to the heart and mind, grounding, balancing and nourishing anxious and burnt out individuals, improving overall wellbeing.
In respect to brain health, stress as we’ve explored is a key driver of oxidative stress, free radical creation and the creation of neuroinflammation and amyloid beta plaque. By Reishi acting as a stress reliever, its able to support healthy brain function and increase resistance to perceived stressors.
An imbalanced immune system increases the production of pro-inflammatory mediators such as IL-6 and TNFa.
As we know, inflammation drives neurodegenerative diseases and is linked into anxiety, depression, fatigue, poor memory and a decline in cognition. Reishi mushroom helps modulate the immune system and improve the balance between Th1 / Th2 immune activation, decreasing the over-release and presence of these pro-inflammatory mediators while still supporting a healthy immune response.
Reishi mushroom has traditionally been used to boost the immune system to fight off viral infections and lung conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.
Neurodegenerative diseases have been shown to cause a decline respiratory function and thus, reduce oxygenation to tissues and cells which drives hypoxia and cell death (13).
In TCM, the lungs are known as the emotional processing organ of the body being largely associated with the breathe. The ability for Reishi mushroom to support the lungs and its meridian helps improve whole body health.
Reishi Mushroom is a potent anti inflammatory adaptogen that helps modulate and support healthy activation of pro-inflammatory pathways and mediators. By reducing inflammation in the body, this greatly improves and supports overall brain health and function.
The link between sleep and brain health is a well-known and established connection. A lack of sleep and poor sleep quality accelerates neurodegenerative diseases and causes a decline in cognitive function (14).
Insomnia is caused by a disruption to sleep-wake patterns and a reduction in REM sleep which has been seen in all patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, as well as sleep disorders. A lack of proper sleep is also a common symptom and driver of depression and anxiety (15, 16, 17).
Reishi mushroom is able to help improve sleep patterns and sleep quality by calming an overactive mind and stressed nervous system, promoting sleep and relaxation. It’s thought that the triterpenoid compounds in Reishi may help promote calmness and improve sleep quality.
Aging is classified as the reduction in structure and function of our cells. As humans, we tend to apply this to our own appearance in the signs of ageing, whether it be wrinkles, pain, and a reduction in mobility and cognition.
For centuries, Reishi mushroom has been revered as a superior longevity tonic throughout history with potent anti-aging benefits. In TCM, Reishi is known as the “divine mushroom of immortality” and historically, its consumption was only reserved for the royal family.
The anti-aging benefits of Reishi mushroom work to strengthen vitality, replenish Qi energy, nourish blood, restore Jing essence, support the heart, kidneys, liver and brain which all contribute to promoting one’s wellbeing and extend lifespan.
Chaga Mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is one of the most potent antioxidants on the planet. It measures higher on the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) than other well known antioxidant rich foods as the acai berry, baobab and turmeric root (18).
As we mentioned ealrier, free radicals drive cell death, damage DNA and cell function, and cause inflammation and degradation in the brain and the whole body.
Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants, such as Chaga mushroom ensures we’re really able to support our wellbeing and help balance that antioxidant system and protect our cells.
Chaga has been shown to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration and inflammation by acting as an antioxidant and upregulating the Nrf2 pathway–one of the key anti inflammatory pathways in the body (19).
Chaga mushroom has also shown to inhibit apoptosis, and suppressed an excessive accumulation of reactive oxygen species between cells, helping to balance that antioxidant / pro-oxidant seesaw (19).
Chaga is also helpful in supporting a healthy gut microbiome. Research shows the link between leaky gut to a leaky blood brain barrier. Studies suggest when balance is restored to the gut barrier, this also helps restore balance to the blood brain barrier (20).
Chaga mushroom is known for containing hypocholesterolemic properties (cholesterol lowering effects) and has been utilized within traditional folk medicine for centuries to support healthy cardiovascular function.
In modern times, Chaga has shown in mice studies to significantly reduce LDL (low-density lipoproteins “bad” cholesterol), free fatty acids, total cholesterol levels, triglycerides and increase HDL (low-density lipoproteins “good’ cholesterol), all of which are positive attributes of maintaining healthy cholesterol levels (21).
Being a medicinal mushroom, the cell walls of Chaga are made up of a unique fibre and polysaccharide compound known as chitin. Fibre is paramount in lowering cholesterol levels since cholesterol becomes bound up in chylomicrons in the gut, and is transported to the liver to be recycled or excreted from the body.
Additionally, Chaga mushroom is liver protective due to its rich antioxidant status. Chaga helps support the liver in its role of creating, recycling and excreting cholesterol in the body.
Chaga mushroom is a powerful immune-modulator that helps support and maintain a healthy immune system.
Chaga mushrooms specifically enhances the activation and activity of NK cells – natural killer cells. These powerful immune cells are part of the innate immune system and enhance the activity of macrophages–our front line immune cells that first attack and eat up viral or bacterial infected cells, effectively working to remove them from the body.
Chaga also contains betulin and betulinic acid – two unique triterpenoid compounds that provide Chaga with it’s potential anti-cancer properties and combat cancer cells (7).
Chaga mushrooms may help support healthy blood pressure and blood pressure reduction because of t’s high antioxidant content.
Antioxidants help lower whole body inflammation and reduce the formation of plaque within blood vessels that can increase blood pressure.
Being a powerful adaptogen, Chaga mushroom works on the HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) and buffers the stress response helping to lower stress and improve blood pressure further through this mechanism.
As we know, inflammation is a key driver of all symptoms, disease states and disturbances in the body.
The polysaccharides in Chaga mushroom are naturally anti inflammatory. Chaga also has the ability to upregulate the Nrf2 pathway, activating the production of anti inflammatory compounds such as IL-10.
Medicinal mushrooms are powerful superfoods that work to boost brain health by lowering neuroinflammation, increasing nerve growth factor (NGF) and enhance neuron repair, as well as reducing oxidative stress to improve cognition, memory and brain health.
Medicinal mushrooms like Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) help to improve memory with their ability to stimulate the release of NGF – nerve growth factor – that improves synaptic communication and repair. Studies and clinical trial show that medicinal mushrooms elicit NGF within the hippocampus – the part of the brain that stores and makes memories.
Scientific studies show that Lion’s Mane, Reishi and Chaga mushroom are the three most effective medicinal mushrooms for brain health. They help protect the brain from neurodegeneration, boost cognitive function scale, improve memory, mood, focus and concentration, and support diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Overall, medicinal mushrooms and mushroom consumption are quickly becoming one of the most beneficial superfoods to include in your diet to support a healthy brain.
Lion’s Mane, Chaga and Reishi mushroom are the three most effective medicinal mushrooms for boosting cognitive function and improving brain health without side effects.
It's no surprise that these mushrooms have attracted the attention of many elite athletes, entrepreneurs and hard-working students to help elevate peak mental performance–improve memory loss, mood, alertness, focus and concentration.
These three potent adaptogenic mushrooms work to protect, nourish and support healthy brain function. Start eating mushrooms today to crush your daily goals, achieve better results and stay on top of your game.
If you're experiencing issues with your brain, please seek further health information and medical advice from your doctor.
Eliza Hedley is a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level.
Her relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.