Lion’s Mane Mushrooms and other Nutrients
for Parkinson’s Disease
Submitted by Dennis Krauss MD
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is characterized by the progressive deterioration of the brain’s nerve cells which produce the chemical, dopamine. The cause of the nerve cell degeneration which leads to the deposition of a sticky protein in their place, alpha-synuclein, in various parts of the brain, however, is not clear. Many researchers believe that “free radicals” (also called oxidants) may damage or kill nerve cells when their numbers exceed the body’s ability to remove them.
Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E neutralize free radicals. When a person’s intake of antioxidants from food or supplements is too low, or when the body produces too much free radicals due to inflammation, substance abuse, smoking or many other factors, diseases like PD, cancer, heart disease among others may result.
In recent years the ingestion of an edible mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) most commonly known as Lion’s Mane and long used in Chinese medicine, has gained attention because substances it contains are felt to protective and regenerative effects on nerves. The name of the fungus comes from its white, global shape with long shaggy spines. Many claims have been made for benefits in the treatment of disorders possibly involving the immune system including PD, anxiety and depression, cognitive health, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, digestion disorders, wound healing and nervous system recovery.
Many people with PD have heard of or used Lion’s Mane either with traditional therapies or by itself. Very little quality human research has been performed either on its safety or benefits. A review of the literature reveals predominantly studies conducted on mice or in vitro (test tubes or cell cultures outside a living organism). For example, one study claimed that mice fed Lion’s Mane had fewer episodes of depressive behaviors and blood markers indicated lower depression. The only human studies were two short- term ones showing some improvement in sleep in menopausal women and improvement on cognitive function scales. No studies were found on humans with PD. Admittedly, the only reported adverse effects were seen very rarely in people with mushroom allergies. A recurring refrain of available studies is that more studies need to be done on human subjects, where antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects might be helpful in various disease states including PD.
Vitamin B12 levels in the sub clinical low-normal range are associated with neurodegenerative and cognitive impairment as seen in PD and various types of dementia. Replacement therapy, however, does not improve cognition without a pre-existing deficiency. One recent Chinese study found that PD brain cells grown in a lab given B12 could lower and rearrange potentially harmful deposits of alpha-synuclein. Another study done at UCSF in humans with early PD showed that low B12 levels are associated with greater walking and balance problems along with cognitive function, all of which improved significantly with supplemental therapy. The authors speculated that B12 given early during PD might also slow long-term decline.
Vitamin E supplements have shown contradictory results regarding the benefits in PD. Numerous well-designed studies discourage its use except in newly diagnosed tardive dyskinesia. Instead patients are encouraged to eat vitamin E-rich foods possibly with a multivitamin.
An intriguing area of research involves evidence of two-way-communication between the gastrointestinal tract and brain, the so-called brain-gut axis. Numerous pathways are possible between the two organs and in fact related alpha-synuclein deposits have been documented. The hypothesis is that altering gut microbes with probiotics (orally absorbed live microbes in the billions with the goal of restoring healthy bacteria) can help decrease or delay brain nerve involved in PD. Supplements of probiotics are commonly added, although the issue is evolving.
It has been found in one study that about 16% of PD patients are currently taking nutritional supplements, but less than half consulted with their physician. The decision whether to use a supplement continues to be compounded by the lack of regulation by the FDA of nutrition supplements.