If you know of a friend whose family member has dementia – or perhaps your experience of cognitive disease is even closer to home? – you will know the heartache of witnessing a loved one gradually disappear as their mind and memory fade away. 

Sadly, the diagnosis of cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s are predicted to increase and blight the families of 82 million people worldwide by 2030, rising further to 135 million by 2050. This forecast has triggered numerous Public Health campaigns to help increase awareness and mitigate the continued rise by encouraging healthy lifestyle behaviours such as regular exercise, eating healthily, stopping smoking, and drinking within the government guidelines.

However, research suggests that certain mushrooms could also have a significant role to play in the prevention of cognitive disease and may be even general age-related cognitive decline.

Statue of Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang holding Reishi mushrooms

For thousands of years Asian cultures have revered numerous mushrooms for their medicinal properties whilst the West viewed them as a simple food source or poison to be feared. Even today, many people outside of Asian culture find the notation of a mushroom having the potential to help prevent and even treat illness or disease a preposterous idea, however, as the research continues to gain momentum Western attitudes towards the medicinal power of mushrooms are beginning to change and the popularity of deliberately consuming mushrooms and/or mushroom supplements as part of a health supporting routine is increasing rapidly across Europe and the US.

Over the past decade scientific research has started to investigate the medicinal claims and is now discovering that, in fact, many edible and non-edible mushrooms contain significant active compounds with health supporting potential. Of the thousands of mushrooms species identified by science so far, it is now known that around 700 collectively possess a total of 200 medicinal properties with over 130 health supporting benefits.

But how can a mushroom help protect brain health and function?

A significant percentage of diseases effecting the body and brain are propagated by the build up of free radicals and associated inflammation. Because the brain is so active, processing untold external and internal data throughout each day, it is particularly susceptible to free radical damage.

Free radical build-up in the brain is known as ER-stress which in the short-term can cause “brain fog” where thoughts are slow and unclear, similar to that experienced with a hangover for example. However, long-term ER-stress can have much more serious consequences and is associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Some mushrooms, such as the Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa), to name just a few, are particularly adept at reducing free radical damage as an antioxidant.

Some of them contain enzymic and non-enzymic antioxidants like certain fruits and vegetables but it is the phenolic compounds that seem to make certain mushrooms particularly effective at mitigating free radical damage in the body and brain.

If you search for the neuroprotective effects of mushrooms you are likely to find numerous research papers on the benefits of a particularly special looking, tasting, and medicinal mushroom commonly known as Lions Mane (Hericium erinaceus).

Research shows that Lions Mane mushroom fruiting body not only contains an unsaturated fatty acid shown to help reduce ER-stress but also compounds called hericenones which are uniquely able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).

As the name suggests NGF is a natural molecule produced by the brain to trigger the growth of brain cells. It is significant to note that NGF production declines with age which is thought to be another contributing factor to dementia and age-related cognitive decline.

Furthermore, the mycelium (the intricate web of fungal tubules which produce the actual mushroom) of Lions Mane contains erinacines which have been demonstrated to help mitigate ER-stress and, via a separate mechanism, also help prevent brain cells from being killed off by our body.

Who knows what future research will continue to tell us about neuroprotective bio-active effects of other mushrooms but, for now at least, human clinical trails strongly suggest that Lions Mane and Reishi could have a vital role to play in the protection of brain function and, perhaps, the prevention of cognitive diseases.

Interested in how medicinal mushrooms work within the body to support health and wellbeing?

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