Every day for the past three years, 24-year-old Harry Thorn has been taking 25mg of the mysterious supplement Lion’s Mane. Since he started taking it, he says he has never felt more efficient. “I use it to optimise my productivity,” he says. “The first time I took it I felt switched on straight away.”
Thorn started taking Lion’s Mane to help combat his dyslexia and ADHD. “I really struggle to focus,” he says. “Ritalin and other ADHD medications just had me playing with Blu Tack. Now I use [Lion’s Mane] to improve my memory or improve my performance at work. That might then result in a promotion or increased revenue, right? Like for me right now, that could be very beneficial for my business.”
Thorn is just one of the thousands of young men advocating for the brain-enhancing powers of the medicinal mushroom Lion’s Mane on social media. This species of mushroom grows out of tree trunks and has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine to increase vitality. Now, thanks to TikTok, this under-researched and unregulated mushroom species is having a moment.
In 2016, there were widespread reports that some CEOs were microdosing “magic” mushrooms – fungi containing the psychoactive compound psilocybin – to enhance their creativity and output. The mushrooms quickly became associated with the “hustle culture” of Silicon Valley professionals. Last year, the global “functional mushroom” market was valued at $26.7bn (£21.5m); in the next seven years, it is expected to grow 10.8 per cent.
Enter: Lion’s Mane. Search for the supplement on TikTok and thousands of videos appear, with a combined 167 million views. The videos typically include spooky background music and a man speaking into a mic. “I have been taking Lion’s Mane for 30 days, because I have been dealing with low energy,” says one. “I really do see the benefits.” “Wake up, work, hit the gym, relax.. [then] Lion’s Mane for deep morning work,” shares another man to his motivational Twitter account.
Extracts of the mushroom are being sold as powder or tablets, and its benefits, according to the self-help gurus of social media, are monumental. If these influencers are to be believed, Lion’s Mane improves focus for those with ADHD, improves short-term memory and fights anxiety and depression.
Doctors are less convinced. “Lion’s Mane seems to be everywhere at the moment,” notes Dr Zoe Watson, GP and founder of Wellgood Wellbeing. “And lots of people are using it as a ‘nootropic’ or ‘cognitive enhancer’, which is appealing to people with ADHD as it’s supposed to help with maintaining focus on tasks,” she says.
Still, Watson is worried about the lack of research into the supplement. “My main concern is that Lion’s Mane, because it’s ‘non-prescription’, is largely untested,” she says. So far there have been only a handful of studies in humans that actually look at the cognitive effects of Lion’s Mane. “The results were fairly inconclusive,” says Watson.
A 2022 study concluded that there was no real evidence for Lion’s Mane improving memory or focus. “That’s not to say that it definitely doesn’t work,” says Watson. “It simply means we haven’t done enough academic research to say it works, therefore there is no evidence base”. Even if Lion’s Mane does have benefits, it still might be harmful. “We don’t know how it might react with other medications,” says Watson.
Another mushroom influencer is 18-year-old Jude Lewis, who is currently travelling around South East Asia. Alongside his travels, he runs a small online business selling the mushroom extract. In the past three months, he has sold 500 jars. For Lewis, the reason for this recent surge in popularity is obvious: “Lion’s Mane’s most famous benefit is increased focus or ‘productivity’, which is something held to high value now more than ever,” he says.
The phrase “high value” is having a moment, as young men across the internet increasingly measure their success by their output and their revenue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term found its way into the lexicon thanks to the influential self-proclaimed misogynist Andrew Tate: “I don’t think anyone would call a funny guy that lives at home with his mum a high value man,” he told Stand Out TV. According to Tate, a high value man is rich and productive.
Lewis has been taking Lion’s Mane for over a year. “It’s most noticeably improved my memory. I’ve found it massively beneficial,” he says. He first stumbled upon it when researching psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms. “I was curious about whether other, non-psychedelic fungi had beneficial properties,” he says. “I believe Lion’s Mane should be made readily available to everyone,” he says.
Thorn reports that a lot of his friends take Lion’s Mane. He isn’t sure why men might be more prone to taking the supplement but he offers a guess: “I think they might just be into optimising their brains more,” he says.
But on Reddit, users have shared complaints about their experiences. “I took [Lion’s Mane] drops for two days and had the worst experience of my life,” says one user. “Extreme anxiety, depression, confusion, etc. I went to my doctor and he confirmed that it was likely negative effects from the supplement. Four months later and I am just now feeling normal again.”
For Lewis though, this mystery is part of the appeal. “I think the most interesting explanation for Lion’s Mane popularity is that there is a rise in discontent, and distrust, with the modern way of living,” he says. “People are looking for a way to reconnect with themselves through the use of natural remedies.”
Lewis’s views might seem extreme but he isn’t alone. “I think for some people ADHD medication works for them, for others it doesn’t,” says Thorn. “I have heard of people putting their kids on Lion’s Mane to tackle ADHD. Whether that’s a good idea, who knows.”
Dr Watson acknowledges that long waiting times for ADHD diagnosis may also be playing a part in Lion’s Mane’s recent popularity. “I totally get it. Waiting lists are long. ADHD is hard. So I totally understand that people are looking at other ways to help their ADHD symptoms,” she says.
Women are also using it. Kate Brennan-Harding, 50, first learned about Lion’s Mane through her younger brother. “I noticed he was a bit calmer than he usually was, and a bit more focused on things. He recommended I try out the supplement,” she says. “He is quite an anxious guy and he seems so much better.” So far, Brennan-Harding has been happy with the results. “I have been struggling with brain fog and memory, I thought maybe it was pre-menopausal symptoms,” she says. “I feel so much better.”
Thorn is aware that taking Lion’s Mane carries a risk but says he has never felt better. “I think people want to be able to function as best they can nowadays,” he says. “People are very concerned about performing and high-demand work. It’s in my best interest.”