Cordyceps is a well-known medicinal mushroom with a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine.
It’s a rare, naturally occurring fungus that grows at high altitudes on the Himalayan plateau.
Cordyceps has been used for centuries to support health in a variety of ways, including immune health, blood sugar, heart health, and more.
In this article, we will look at the benefits of Cordyceps, its safety, and its history.
Table of Contents
- What is Cordyceps?
- Health Benefits of Cordyceps:
- Cordyceps Safety:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- Cordyceps Cultivation:
- History & Traditional Use:
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a strain of mushroom that has been used for centuries to treat various conditions.
The Cordyceps mushroom is unique in that it is a parasitic fungus. It colonizes the larvae (i.e. caterpillars) of the Thitarodes genus of ghost moths.
After fully infecting and devouring the host insect, the fungus grows a stalk, which releases new spores to start the process again.
The remains of the caterpillar and the fruiting body (i.e. mushroom) of the fungus are then collected for use as medicine.
Typically, the fungus is gently cleaned and dried and then ground into a powder. Traditionally, it was used in soups, where it gives a delicious mushroom “umami” flavor.
Health Benefits of Cordyceps:
Cordipcepin is one of the main active phytochemicals in Cordyceps. The structure of Cordycepin is similar to adenosine and acts as a nucleoside analogue, which helps to prevent viral replication in infected cells.
This is thought to be one of the main active benefits of Cordyceps, which we’ll go through in-depth below.
Cordyceps benefits immune health through its immunomodulatory effects, meaning it can help support a healthy immune system.
1. May Support Immunity
Clinical research indicates that cordyceps benefits the immune system.
A 2015 human clinical trial showed that taking 1.5g daily of Cordyceps (C. militaris) helped to increase a variety of immune system markers, including NK cell activity and lymphocyte proliferation. It also helped to partially increase Th1 cytokine secretion. There were no adverse events, which helped to show the safety of this powerful mushroom.
A similar study in 2019 confirmed these results. In this study, individuals were given a Cordyceps mycelium extract daily or a placebo. The individuals given the Cordyceps were found to have a 17% boost in total NK cell activity compared to baseline. The researchers noted that this mushroom is safe and effective for enhancing cell-mediated immunity in healthy adults.
There are many different phytochemicals present in Cordyceps. Different forms of products (whole, alcohol extraction, etc..) provide different levels of nutrients. It was discovered that total extracts obtained using water or 50% ethyl alcohol and polysaccharides from C. militaris tend to promote type 1 immunity (i.e. innate immunity). On the other hand, total extracts obtained using 70–80% ethyl alcohol and cordycepin from C. militaris were more likely to promote type 2 immunity (i.e. adaptive immunity).
This is important to keep in mind when purchasing a Cordyceps supplement.
Summary:Studies have shown that Cordyceps may be beneficial in maintaining a healthy immune system.
2. May Reduce Blood Sugar
Studies have reported that Cordyceps may work to decrease blood sugar levels and help to support individuals with diabetes.
The mechanism of Cordyceps antidiabetic activity is not fully understood, but a handful of studies show a potential pathway.
A test-tube study found that the Cordiceptin content contained in Cordyceps worked to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokine production. By virtue of this action, the expression of type 2 diabetes-regulating genes (11β-HSD1 and PPARλ) was reduced.
Other test-tube studies show that Cordycepin has been found to suppress the expression of diabetes-regulating genes through the inactivation of NF-κb-dependent inflammatory responses.
One animal study showed that a Cordyceps extract (C. militaris) decreased blood glucose levels by virtue of increased glucose metabolism. This showed that Cordyceps could potentially provide protection against diabetic nephropathy.
Another animal study found that Cordycepin was effective in mice with diabetic nephropathy. It was found to work by suppressing cell apoptosis, renal fibrosis, and rescued cell autophagy.
Summary:Studies indicate that Cordyceps may decrease blood sugar levels. Human clinical research is needed to confirm these findings.
3. May Reduce Cholesterol
Various studies postulate that Cordycepin may be effective in reducing cholesterol levels.
This is thought to be due to its chemical structural similarity with adenosine (an activator of AMPK). AMPK is known as the master energy regulator within the body, activating it can help to speed up your body’s metabolism. This can help to reduce body weight.
A test-tube study showed that Cordycepin worked to increase AMPK activation in HepG2 cells. The study did note that the mechanism of action is still unknown.
An animal study found that hamsters fed a high-fat diet while taking Cordycepin had reduced serum total cholesterol (TC), triglycerides (TG), and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-c) levels. This study also found that Cordycepin helped to increase AMPK levels.
While these studies appear promising, human clinical trials showing the effectiveness of Cordyceps for cholesterol reduction are still needed.
Summary:Research indicates that Cordyceps may reduce cholesterol levels, however, human trials are needed for verification.
4. May Benefit Asthma
Cordyceps may be one of the most beneficial herbs for asthma since it shows evidence of being able to support lung function.
In one trial involving study participants with moderate-to-severe asthma, Cordyceps mushroom was found to improve lung capacity and function. Cordyceps was also found to reduce inflammation. After supplementing with this herb over a period of three months, participants reported significantly improved asthma symptoms.
One animal study investigating the effect of Cordyceps extract on rodents with allergy-induced asthma found the herbal extract was able to reduce airway hyperresponsiveness and preventative of lung inflammation.
In an in vitro study, researchers discovered that Cordyceps mushroom was useful in decreasing the level of inflammation in the lungs and bronchioles.
Summary:Although additional human clinical research is required, Cordyceps shows evidence of being able to help alleviate lung function and asthma.
5. May Help to Increase Energy Levels
Cordyceps is a fungus that is used as a natural remedy for increasing energy levels and potentially improving endurance and exercise tolerance.
In one trial, cordyceps mushroom was shown to increase the participant’s exercise tolerance after supplementing for 3 weeks, however, it was noted that a longer-term study may display better and more conclusive results.
In a study investigating the use of Cordyceps sinensis (a cordyceps mushroom similar to Cordyceps militaris), researchers found that cordyceps mushroom capsules administered 3 times daily for 12 weeks could improve the exercise performance of healthy older study participants.
In a review looking into cordyceps’ potential to affect the stress response, the mushroom was able to not only improve physical endurance but also increase oxygenation.
Summary:Studies show that Cordyceps may help to promote energy by its ability to improve physical endurance and exercise tolerance. Additional human research is needed to confirm these findings.
Safety Class: 1 (can be safely used when consumed properly)
Interaction Class: A (no clinically relevant reactions are expected)
Taken doses within the normal range (below) are generally safe for most individuals.
Tincture (1:4, 1:5): 1–2 mL (20 to 40 drops), up to three times per day.
Decoction: Add ¼ to ½ tsp. mycelial powder or crushed mushroom to 10 oz. water. Simmer for 15 minutes, then steep for 1 hour. Take one to two cups per day.
Capsules (Mycelial Extract): Two capsules per day (1.5 grams total).
Extract Granules (1:1): Take 1-2 gram(s), mixed in water, one or two times per day.
Naming & Taxonomy:
The word “Cordyceps” is derived from two Latin words “cord” and “ceps” which mean ‘club’ and ‘head’ respectively.
This makes sense when you think of the club-like shape of Cordyceps.
In Chinese, it’s called “Dong chong xia cao” (meaning “Worm in winter and grass in summer”).
It’s part of the Ascomycete family of fungus (which has 600+ different species).
Cordyceps fungus is wild-harvested in Tibet and Bhutan. It grows in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. It is a rare fungus in the wild, and its popularity has caused overhunting.
Tibetan Cordyceps, known as xi zang, is considered the best quality and is gathered in July.
The Chinese version of Cordyceps, known as Qinghai cordyceps, is gathered in June. It is a smaller, less active version of the Tibetan variety.
The smallest caterpillar fungus is Sichuan cordyceps (grown in the Sichuan region of China). It’s brown (the others are golden yellow) and is the least active variety.
The Cordyceps mycelium thrives in cooked rice or soybeans, and it is produced commercially.
Cordyceps militaris is the easiest variety to grow and is the more popular form.
The second most popular form of Cordyceps is Ophiocordyceps sinensis. This variety is slightly more difficult to grow, however.
Fruiting body and mycelial extract are commonly available for both varieties.
Only cultivated cordyceps products should be used. This is due to environmental concerns and the prohibitively high price of wild fungus (it sells for thousands of dollars per pound).
History & Traditional Use:
In traditional Chinese medicine, written records of Cordyceps usage go back as far as the 1730s. A Jesuit priest wrote in 1736 that the emperor’s physicians successfully used this fungus to treat the emperor for some unnamed condition.
The first mention of this herb in Chinese medical literature is in Wu Yi Luo’s Ben Cao Cong Xin (New Compilation of Materia Medica), which was written in 1757.
Cordyceps was formerly used exclusively by the emperor and royal family in China. It was frequently incorporated into soups, which were then ingested as a form of medicine.
It was used to cure opium addiction and poisoning (overdosing) as well as anemia and impotence, among other things.
This fungus is called yartsa gunbu in Tibet. It has been used as a tonic for more than 500 years. Cordyceps is used in traditional Tibetan medicine to treat kidney and heart diseases, as well as male potency.
In Japan, it is called tochukaso and is used to treat impotence as well as the discomfort of the legs and knees.
Immunostimulating polysaccharides (galactomannans, cordycepic acid), amino acids, fatty acids, polyamines, and ecdysterones.
Adaptogen, antiasthmatic, antileukemic, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, hypocholesterolemic (lowers elevated cholesterol levels), immune amphoteric, nephroprotective, nervine
Cordyceps is a fungus that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years.
Recent research suggests it may help improve immune function, blood sugar levels, heart health, and more.
It’s also generally safe to consume; however, you should consult with your doctor before taking Cordyceps.
If you’re looking for an all-natural way of supporting your body from within then consider adding Cordyceps to your routine.
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