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Psychedelic mushrooms are all the rage these days, and researchers are investigating their use for everything from treatment-resistant depression to consciousness expansion. But what about the ones that don’t give you hallucinations or mystical experiences? Can something as simple as having a side of mushrooms with dinner, or taking a mushroom supplement every morning, protect our brains as we age? Research suggests it just might.

Why mushrooms?

We’ve discovered around 2,000 species of edible mushrooms, and about 270 of them are believed to have therapeutic potential. This is great news because mushrooms are good for you. They’re full of protein, fiber, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. But more importantly, they contain compounds that give them the potential to support, protect, and even heal our brains. Let’s take a look at a few of those substances and how they might support our brains.

Hericenones and Erinacines

These compounds, found in lion’s mane mushrooms, stimulate the production of NGF (nerve growth factor). NGF is important for the growth and health of neurons, which support memory, concentration, cognition, and balanced mood. It prevents neuronal death, promotes neurite outgrowth (the growth of axons and dendrites, which are projections from the body of the neuron), and plays an essential role in the maintenance and organization of neurons. Because it’s a protein, NGF cannot cross the blood-brain barrier; it must be produced in the brain. (1)


These polysaccharides are found in many mushrooms, including oyster and shiitake. They have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which means they may protect cells (including brain cells) from damage by chronic inflammation and free radicals – both of which have been linked to cognitive decline.

In a study on mice, beta-glucans from mushrooms increased BDNF (2) (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which strengthens and protects neurons in the prefrontal cortex). It also enhanced “temporal order recognition memory”, which is the order in which items or events were experienced (2). 

Ergothioneine (ERGO)

This antioxidant performs various functions, depending on the type of brain cell it interacts with. It can regulate the creation, development, and differentiation of neurons. It also regulates the activation of microglia (non-neural cells found in the brain). Microglia are key players in neuroinflammation, which plays a key role in Alzheimer’s disease. (3) Several studies have shown that patients with cognitive-related disorders had lower levels of ERGO; it may be a risk factor for neurodegeneration in the elderly (4).

In a study with rats, “ERGO prevented depressive behavior and depressive-like sleep abnormalities”. Authors of another study also suggested that it may be involved in depression and sleep. (4) Mushrooms are the primary source of ERGO in our diets, making them the best way to increase our levels naturally. 

While the studies are promising, we have a lot to learn about how both culinary and medicinal mushrooms affect the brain. But the fact that they’ve been used in traditional medicine around the world suggests that it’s worth the effort.

Which mushrooms are best for your brain?

It seems even the most basic mushrooms are good for the brain.

In a recent study, researchers measured the effects of white-button mushroom supplementation on mice with amyloid mutations, which are present in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The mice on the supplemented diet had significantly fewer deposits in their hippocampi and better spatial memory than those on the control diet. (5)

On the human side, a study investigating the association between mushroom consumption and cognitive performance in older adults found that greater mushroom intake was associated with better scores on some (but not all) cognitive performance tests.

The authors also referred to studies indicating that mushroom consumption is associated with a lower risk of depression, cognitive impairment, and dementia. (6)

While the results aren’t breathtaking, they do suggest that mushrooms are brain food. If you’d like to do more, consider adding some medicinal mushrooms to your diet (or your supplement stack). 

Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms are considered to be adaptogens, which means they help your body adapt to stress. Anything that reduces the effects of stress is good for your brain because chronic stress and anxiety are so damaging. 

Most of the research on medicinal mushrooms is preclinical, and performed on rodents or cells in a lab, so it can be hard to pick a favorite. While it can be difficult to choose the best from this type of research, one mushroom stands out.

Lion’s Mane for Cognition, Mood, and More

Lion’s mane is a potential powerhouse for the brain. Studies suggest that it may ease depression, improve symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, reduce anxiety, and even help protect the brain after a traumatic brain injury. It may also regulate blood sugar, reduce high blood pressure, help prevent ulcers, protect the health of various organs, slow biological again, and fight fatigue. (7) 

There are many ways to consume lion’s mane mushrooms. You can buy them fresh to use in soups or your favorite mushroom dish. You can use any leftover pieces (or a supplement powder) to make tea. You can add the powdered or liquid extract to your coffee, smoothie, or even hot chocolate. Lion’s mane has a mild flavor, so it’s not likely to ruin your favorite drink or dish, but you could always down some capsules with your morning beverage.

The supplement does have some possible side effects, including gastro discomfort, nausea, and skin rashes. Hives, swelling, diarrhea and abdominal pain may indicate a serious allergic reaction. If you have a history of asthma or allergies, check with your medical professional first. If you’re on medication, check with your pharmacist for possible interactions. And avoid taking it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, as there isn’t enough research to confirm its safety. (7)

Give mushrooms a try!

Are you interested in the benefits of a plant-based diet? The savory taste of mushrooms makes them a fantastic meat substitute. And according to WebMD, they’re a great source of selenium, copper, thiamin, magnesium, and phosphorous. If you’re not crazy about the taste, consider a supplement. While lion’s mane has the most brain-related research behind it, they all have adaptogenic properties. These days, we could all use some help adapting to a stressful world.


  2. Bing-Ji Ma , Jin-Wen Shen , Hai-You Yu , Yuan Ruan , Ting-Ting Wu & Xu Zhao (2010) Hericenones and erinacines: stimulators of nerve growth factor (NGF) biosynthesis in Hericium erinaceus , Mycology, 1:2, 92-98, DOI: 10.1080/21501201003735556
  4. Hu M, Zhang P, Wang R, Zhou M, Pang N, Cui X, Ge X, Liu X, Huang XF, Yu Y. Three Different Types of β-Glucans Enhance Cognition: The Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Front Nutr. 2022 Mar 3;9:848930. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2022.848930. PMID: 35308288; PMCID: PMC8927932.
Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner is a holistic practitioner and the author of No Guilt, No Games, No Drama and other self-help books. She writes about personal development, why we think and feel the way we do, and the nature of consciousness. You can find her on Medium (@Steph.Sterner) or at


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