If there existed a totally natural, nutritious supplement that promoted brain health, neural-regeneration and even mind expansion, would you take it?

What if that same supplement could also prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life? And what if, further, it was a scrumptious gourmet edible that you could grow right at home using only a bucket and some dirt?

Friends and neighbors would be happily cramming the stuff down each other’s throats. The elderly would grow it all over their gardens, cooking with it every meal; and students would be gobbling it up by the truck load. No one would even think twice about using it.

But in fact, such a supplement exists – in fungi. They’re known as “smart mushrooms” — some wholly legal, and some not.

The former is known as lion’s mane, a super-fungus. This culinary mushroom looks like an ivory cheerleading pompom: big, round, and white. It grows on trees and is characterized by its beautiful, cascading, icicle-like spines.

"It’s very likely going to come right to the forefront of human health, in terms of preserving mental agility in age,” says Paul Stamets, a renowned mycologist from Washington.

Stamets has been studying mushrooms for over 40 years, and has received numerous scientific awards and international recognition for his research. He’s the go-to guy for fungi guidance, and much of his work focuses on lion’s mane mushroom, and its neuroregenerative properties.

“I think [lion’s mane] is rapidly becoming a premiere species, that could be an adjunct to conventional medicine,” he says.

Stamets explains that lion’s mane simultaneously regenerates myelin on the brain’s nerve endings and removes amyloid plaque, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, it cleans the brain’s nerve endings like a toothbrush cleans teeth, protecting them from disease and degeneration, and even encouraging growth.

In the lab, this has produced some mind-blowing results.

[Lion's Mane via Wikimedia Commons]

In one study, mice were injected with a neuro-toxic substance, a brain poison designed specifically to waste their neuropathic health. When the mice had fully developed neuropathy and had severely damaged memory capabilities, half of them were given a regiment of lion’s mane. Within a short time, the lion’s mane mice began to get their brain power back. By the end of the study, they had almost fully regained their cognitive functions, and their brains even showed signs of fresh growth.

Those lab mice, now long dead and nameless, may have opened the doors for a new era in bio-medicine and psychological health.

“[This] is a real key, not only for older people, but I think for young brains that are developing, neurogenesis could have tremendous benefits to make younger people smarter,” Stamets says. “So, it’s not just about age related illness, I think the potentiation of neurogenesis could benefit people in all age groups.”

Interestingly, Stamets says that the medicinal benefits of lion’s mane may even go beyond neuropathic health.

“Now the crazy, amazing thing about this is … it looks like an antibacterial defense molecule, as well as a neurogenesis molecule,” he says.

Stamets observed this while growing lion’s mane in a “batch fermentation setting” — essentially a lot of separate lion’s mane cultures growing in a single laboratory. The mushroom cultures were eventually allowed to “glom together” to form a “community,” and when that community was exposed to a bacterium contaminant, it responded with an antibacterial defense molecule, which suggests that this fungus could have antibacterial potential like penicillium — the fungus that changed modern medicine.  

“It shows that guilds — a co-culture — of lion’s mane, is better that pure lion’s mane,” explains Stamets. “When it’s grown like this it is defending itself from bacterium. It’s what I call a dance of organisms.”

So, it’s extremely good for the brain, it might have antibacterial qualities, and, sautéed with a little olive oil and salt, loin’s mane is flat out delectable. This mushroom has everything going for it. And unlike the other “smart mushroom,” it is totally legal, and available to buy at grocery stores and local farmer’s markets around the country. Or, if you’d rather take concentrate supplements, Stamets’ company Host Defense offers lion’s mane capsules that people can pop like a multi-vitamin.

But lion’s mane isn’t the only “smart mushroom” in town. Psilocybe cubensis (AKA “magic mushrooms”), have some very similar neurogenesis qualities, too.  

Researchers from the University of South Florida, studying the effects of psilocybin on fear responses, found evidence that psilocybin also stimulates brain growth and healing. In their experiment, mice were exposed to a noise which they were conditioned to fear with painful electric jolts. Afterwards, mice that were treated with psilocybin were quickly able to overcome their fear of the noise, compared to the mice who had to deal with their PTSD sober. The scientists also realized, after dissecting the mice, the psilocybin mice had fresh growth on their brains’ nerve endings — indicating neurogenesis (much like the lion's mane).

Bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of psychedelic “mind expansion.”

[Psilocybin cubensis via Wikimedia Commons]

And it raises some perplexing questions: where do we draw the lines between food, drugs, and illegal intoxicants? And better yet, how do we draw those lines? What makes one mushroom medicinal, another purely culinary, and yet a third a schedule I drug?

“We’re influenced by the foods that we eat,” says Stamets. “We have these foods that have constituents, the question becomes how do you standardize them? How do you normalize them?”

It’s a grey area. One where cultural influences flow into medicinal science, and collide with legal restrictions. There seems to be some kind of human instinct to categorize these things: That one’s a drug. This one’s a medicine. That one’s a food. This one’s good – that one’s bad. And so on.

It isn’t so straightforward, though. With so much crossover, so many blurred lines and such backwards laws maintaining the status quo and preventing legitimate research, it’s no wonder the question is so difficult to answer: what is a medicinal food?  

“Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,’” quotes Stamets, referencing the ancient Greek known as “father of modern medicine”.  

And therein lies the fungal root of this strange situation. In lion’s mane and magic mushrooms, we have two totally natural, organic foods that have medicinal potential to expand our cognitive abilities and preserve the knowledge and wisdom of our elderly. And yet one is highly illegal, and the other is almost totally unrecognized by conventional medicine.

Instead, doctors recommend prescription medications to treat symptoms while researchers are held back studying possible cures in dealing with neural deterioration because of arbitrary legalities. And culturally, bio-medicinal solutions like lion’s mane and psilocybin tend to get dismissed as strange and simple and ineffective.

Stamets wasn’t without hope, though. He even sounded optimistic.

“We’re at the very beginning of a mycological revolution in bio medicine,” he says, confidently. “And it’s something that we’re very much excited to be at the forefront of.”

[cover photo: unknown mushroom species via Wikipedia — probably not a "smart mushroom," we just thought it looked cool. // originally published March 6, 2018]