When you think of a fungus, you may picture a wild mushroom or maybe even that weird fungal infection you had on your foot last summer after walking barefoot at the pool. What you probably don’t imagine is a parasitic spore that attacks moth larvae, invading its host and then taking over its body tissue, killing the host and growing from its head as an orange finger-sized creature in the soil, where it continues its life cycle and sends out more spores. But cordyceps is just that – a true mystery of nature that ancient Chinese healers have used for centuries. Learn more about the unusual fungus known as cordyceps, and how it may help you maintain optimal health, in this in-depth article.
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a genus of fungi that are part of the largest subdivision of true fungi, Ascomycotina, within the family Hypocreaceae. There are hundreds of species of parasitic cordyceps that have been identified on six continents, each with varying food sources, but most are typically found growing on insect larvae, mature insects, or fruiting bodies of members of the genus Elaphomyces. They ultimately convert the whole body of the insect into a sclerotium, which is “a vegetative, resting food-storage body composed of a compact mass of hardened mycelia.” The good news is that cordyceps infect only insects, not humans. (1, 2, 3)
For the purpose of this article, we’ll refer to the main medicinal form of cordyceps, Cordyceps sinensis, (also known as Chinese caterpillar fungus, or dong chong xia cao – meaning winter worm-summer grass), a species that begins its unique life as a spore during the winter living inside the larvae of a moth until the animal buries itself about six inches into the soil and dies. (4, 5) Then, “as the fungus approaches maturity, it consumes more than 90% of the infected insect, effectively mummifying its host. And as the stroma matures, it swells up and develops perihelia.” (6) By the following summer, the fungus is found growing from the head of the dead caterpillar carcass as a club-like cap, including the stipe and stroma, that resembles a thin, orange finger. (7) “The fruit body is dark brown to black, and the root of organism, the larval body pervaded by the mycelium, is yellowish to brown color. … The average weight of cordyceps is about 300–500 mg.” (8)
Known as the costliest medicinal mushroom used in oriental medicine, Cordyceps sinensis can cost as much as USD $50,000 per pound, which is why it is regarded as “soft gold” in China. (9) Cordyceps is so expensive, because it has a very specific growth environment. It only grows at high altitudes of around 3,500–5,000 meters in the cold, grassy, alpine meadows of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in China, especially in the provinces of Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, on one type of subterranean caterpillar from the family Hepialidae. (10, 11)
Cordyceps derives its name from the Latin words “cord” (meaning “club”) and “ceps” (meaning “head”). It is named thus because it appears as a club fungi, “whose stroma and fruit body extend from the mummified carcasses of insect larvae, usually that of the Himalayan ghost Moth, Thitarodes armoricanus.” (12)
But how is this unusual Chinese caterpillar fungi used by natural health practitioners and folk healers?
How Cordyceps is Used: A Brief History
Mushrooms have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes across the world since at least 5,000 BCE. Cordyceps has been considered a rare, exotic medicinal mushroom in Tibetan medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries; however, it is not a mushroom taxonomically; it is actually an exotic medicinal fungus. Nevertheless, cordyceps is used to promote energy, athletic performance, appetite, stamina, libido, endurance, and sleep. (13)
The cordyceps species was first identified in 620 CE during the Tang Dynasty. It was described as a creature who transformed from animal to plant in the summer and then again from plant to animal in the winter. Tibetan scholars also wrote about cordyceps in the 15th to 18th centuries. Yet another early scientific depiction of cordyceps was written by Wu-Yiluo in the Ben Cao Congxin (“New Compilation of Materia Medica”), during the Qing Dynasty. (14)
Later, in 1878, the Italian scholar Saccardo officially named the Chinese-derived fungus Cordyceps sinensis. (15) It wasn’t until 1964 that cordyceps was officially recorded as an herbal drug in Chinese pharmacopoeia. However, it has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries to “replenish the kidney, soothe the lung, stop bleeding, and eliminate phlegm,” as well as help treat “fatigue, cough, hyposexuality, asthenia (loss of strength) after severe illness, renal dysfunction, and renal failure.” (16)
In addition, traditional healers in the district of North Sikkim in Mangan, India, initially observed that yak, goat, and sheep that ate cordyceps during grazing seemed to become stronger. This curious observation intrigued them enough to try it themselves. They collected only the aerial part (fruiting body/stroma), which they dried in sunlight and then consumed as a means to promote vigor and vitality. Since that discovery, regional folk healers have recommended cordyceps to support at least 21 medical ailments. In addition, residents of Tibet have been known to drink the fungus powder with a cup of milk, hot water, or in a cup of local-made alcohol (called chang) as a tonic. (17) To this day, local natives in Tibet continue to harvest cordyceps as a source of income, because it can’t be commercially cultivated. It’s interesting to note that Western medical practitioners have only just recognized the potential health benefits of cordyceps in the last few decades. (18)
Since its popularity has increased worldwide on the natural health market, attempts to artificially cultivate cordyceps from the mycelium and the fruit bodies have been made over the last 20 years. On the natural health market, cordyceps is now available as natural cordyceps, cultured mycelia, and fruiting bodies in commercial health food formulations and natural dietary supplements (tablets, veggie capsules, freeze-dried capsules, liquid extracts, and powdered superfoods), to name a few options.
Much of the cordyceps commercially available today is usually synthesized in a laboratory that has replicated natural growth conditions, rather than from wild caterpillar fungi China. This has led to a vast range of product quality and consistency, which is why it’s important to buy cordyceps products from a reputable source. (19)
Potential Benefits of Cordyceps
According to research, there are more than 20 bioactive components in cordyceps, including antioxidants, nucleosides, sterols, fatty acids, polysaccharides, cordycepin, adenosine, D-mannitol, peptides (cordymin and myriocin), melanin, lovastatin, and cordysinins, and others, which may contribute to its potential health benefits. Those bioactive components contribute to the reported 30-plus beneficial properties of cordyceps, including immunomodulatory, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant activities. Though, more clinical research is needed on human subjects to support these claims. (20)
Nucleosides, one of the main active ingredients in cordyceps, play an important role in the healthy function of the brain, lungs, and central nervous system activities, helping to regulate sleep, immunological response, the respiratory system, the heart, and liver and kidney function. There are also several sterols in cordyceps, which are biological precursors to the vitamins needed for basic human development. Of the 10 free fatty acids present in cordyceps, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, oleic acid, and stearic acid, are essential nutritional components that help modulate cellular functions through their receptors. Cordyceps also includes polysaccharides (carbohydrates) and D-mannitol, also called cordycepic acid, which is helpful in maintaining brain, kidney, and respiratory health. (21) In addition, the fungus is believed to stimulate cells and chemicals in the human body, such as the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – providing energy to the muscles and promoting a healthy immune system. (22)
Here are additional potential health benefits of cordyceps and the scientific research that supports those claims.
Supports Antioxidant Activity
In studies on extracts of cordyceps, the samples showed significant antioxidant activity, “which may be one of the reasons behind the antiaging, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherosclerosis, and immunomodulatory effects of cordyceps.” (23)
Supports Blood Glucose Levels Already in the Normal Range
A clinical study on rats found that oral administration of a cordyceps carbohydrate extract improved glucose tolerance and metabolism after just a few hours of ingestion. (24) Another study on diabetic rats found that the fruiting bodies of cordyceps had an antihyperglycemic effect on the animals, helping to improve improved their weight and fasting blood glucose levels. (25)
Supports Cellular Health
According to several studies, cordyceps exhibited cytotoxic activity against several kinds of tumor cells, suggesting it may offer potential health benefits for maintaining healthy cells and tissues. (26, 27, 28)
Promotes Energy for Athletic Performance
In China, cordyceps is believed to support exercise recovery due to its adaptogenic properties, helping to support endurance, strength, and stress relief. (29) As a natural adaptogen, not a stimulant, it may help your body adapt to stress and produce and maintain steady energy levels.
A study on mice found that oral administration of cordyceps mycelia water extract promoted their energy metabolism, blood flow, and immune response. (30)
Cordyceps is also believed to help temporarily relieve symptoms of fatigue, which when left unchecked, may lead to depression. After 5 days of administering a fluid extract of cordyceps to mice in a separate study, it had a positive effect on their adrenergic and dopaminergic systems. (31)
Supports Healthy Immune System
In addition, research that cordyceps may help regulate a healthy immune response by preventing the immune system from overreacting to certain stimuli, which could otherwise cause unpleasant side effects such as inflammation. By having an effect on the body’s natural and adaptive immunity, cordyceps has also been shown to have a modulatory effect on the immunity of the gut, suggesting that it may promote gut health immunity as well. (32)
Supports Heart Health
In China, cordyceps is also recommended to treat heart arrhythmia. A study on rats showed that oral supplementation of cordyceps helped reduce liver and heart injuries, suggesting it may be worth further research in possibly treating human heart disease. (33)
Supports Liver and Kidney Health
Another study on rats with chronic renal failure showed that cordyceps may help protect the kidneys by promoting cellular immunity. (34) A similar study found that taking 3 to 5 grams of cordyceps a day promotes healthy kidney and immune function in those with renal issues. (35) Also, a separate study on rats with liver fibrosis showed that cordyceps considerably relieved the symptoms of liver fibrosis by supporting cellular health. (36)
Supports Reproductive Health
Additionally, studies on testosterone have found that cordyceps may support penile erection and sperm volume. (37, 38) And in a rare study on human adults, researchers found that cordyceps promoted libido, sexual activity, and reproductive function in test subjects by supporting testosterone and healthy blood circulation. It’s no wonder cordyceps is also known as the “Himalayan Viagra.” (39, 40)
How to Buy Cordyceps
The increase in demand for cordyceps products has created a large number of counterfeit and adulterated products being sold on the market. “As found in its natural state, cordyceps is attached to the mummified body of the caterpillar from which it arose. It is harvested whole in this way, dried, and supplied into the market (where it is sold by weight).” However, it is more common to find that sellers have inserted twigs or wires into the compound instead to increase its weight. It’s possible this could lead to lead contamination of the cordyceps. (41)
To avoid these issues, it’s important to shop from reputable, all-natural sources that meet high quality standards. By shopping the cordyceps products available from Natural Healthy Concepts, you can be reassured that all our supplements have already been vetted for quality and safety standards. Browse the selection of cordyceps products from Natural Healthy Concepts today! (42)
As for recommended dosages, subjects in clinical trials have been given oral cordyceps dosages of 1,000 milligrams to 3,000 mg per day. However, it is best to follow the exact dosage instructions on the product you are using. Also consult your healthcare provider before adding cordyceps to your health regimen.