Found in the highlands of Tibet, India, Nepal, and the Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces of China, cordyceps is a medicinal fungus with a fascinating life cycle. Traditional Chinese medicine has made use of this mysterious mushroom for thousands of years to nourish both yin and yang, while in the West cordyceps is now becoming more and more popular as a health food. Let’s take a look at what traditional wisdom and modern science have to say about cordyceps benefits for your health.February 08, 2021 9:04 am December 11, 2020 3:56 pm
What is cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a fungus. Practitioners of traditional medicine have used it for generations to treat a range of ailments across different countries and cultures. Its Latin name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis.
When growing in the wild, it looks a bit like a collection of thin, yellow-brown fingers. However, it’s often dried when used for medicinal purposes. In this form, it looks quite like dry fall leaves.
Cordyceps has been used as a traditional remedy for thousands of years, dating back to 620 AD. Back then, many thought of it as a magical creature with the ability to change from an animal to a plant.(1) It’s a beautifully poetic way of describing cordyceps’s unique life cycle, which we’ll talk about more below.
In literature, cordyceps made an important appearance in a key Chinese medical text, Ben Cao Bei Yao, in 1694. It has been one of the most important herbs in traditional Chinese medicine ever since.(2) → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
Cordyceps grows in popularity
In Nepal, meanwhile, reported cordyceps benefits include the treatment of diarrhoea, headache, cough, rheumatism and liver disease. In fact, the locals value cordyceps so much that it has acquired the nickname of ‘Himalayan Gold’.(3)
However, this has not necessarily been good news for the famous fungus.
A survey in 2007 revealed that the yield of natural Ophiocordyceps sinensis had decreased by 90% in the previous 25 years. This was mostly due to the restriction of its natural habitat.(2)
The decline in the amount of cordyceps also led to a spike in its price. In India, for example, a kilogram of wild cordyceps could set you back 100,000 rupees, or around £1,056.(3)
Partly to protect the remaining wild cordyceps, and partly to answer a growing demand, a lot of the cordyceps available on the market now is cultivated rather than foraged.
You may just be glad of that fact, as you read on…
The cordyceps fungus: fiend of nature?
As medicinal mushrooms go, cordyceps certainly has the most impressive origin story. It’s not for the faint of heart!
Most mushrooms are saprophytes. This means that they consume decaying matter, which is hugely important for the ecosystem. Saprophytes effectively gather up the nutrients from fallen plants and make them available again to organisms that come along and, in turn, eat them.(4)
Cordyceps has a fascinating life cycle which makes it unique in the world of nature. Rather than growing on decaying matter, it makes use of a live host: moth larvae.
The spores of the cordyceps fungus infect the moth larvae during the summer, when they are underground. The spore grows inside the larva, using it for food during the winter.
When spring arrives, the fungus directs the larva to the surface of the earth. There, the larva dies and the fungus emerges from it in the form of a stalk.
This led to Tibetan locals naming it ‘yartsa gunbu’, which translates as ‘winter worm, summer grass.’ In English, Cordyceps sinensis is known as ‘caterpillar fungus’.(5)
Fortunately, no caterpillars were harmed in the making of our 100% Organic Cordyceps Powder!
As mentioned above, the vast majority of cordyceps on the market today grows in carefully controlled conditions. Part of the cultivation process involves choosing a specific substrate for the fungus. To replace the fungus’s usual source of food, modern producers tend to grow cordyceps on a liquid or lignocellulosic (wood-based) medium. This provides the fungus with all the nourishment it needs to grow, without having to depend on any unfortunate moth larvae.
This commercially-grown version of cordyceps is called Cs-4. It only produces the mycelium (the thread-like branches of fungi) without the cap.
Cultivating cordyceps not only saves the lives of many a terrified caterpillar, but also helps protect the rare wild fungus from over-foraging.
So, now we know about where this fantastic fungus comes from, let’s take a look at cordyceps benefits for your health.
"Locals value cordyceps so much that it has acquired the nickname of ‘Himalayan Gold’."
Cordyceps has potential as a dementia treatment
One of the biggest health issues we face is dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a condition which impairs the sufferer’s memory and cognitive function, and there is currently no known cure.
Finding viable treatments for dementia is an area of intense scientific research. Many different substances have been examined to see if they can help protect against the disease. Among them is Cordyceps sinensis.
Research around the fungus’s efficacy at treating dementia is still in its very early stages. However, there are a few encouraging results from scientific studies.
In one study, researchers used cordyceps to treat memory-impaired mice. At the end of the study, they found signs that their memory loss was improved.(1)
Another study looked at the effect of cordyceps on mice who had been artificially aged using a substance called d-galactose. The researchers then examined the mice as they went through the water maze test. (This commonly-used lab test involves placing the mouse in water and allowing it to swim until it locates an invisible platform in the water. Once it has located it, the mouse is able to climb out.)
The study found that mice who had been given Cordyceps sinensis extract made fewer mistakes. They also managed to find their way out of the maze faster than the others.(6)
It’s an exciting area of study. However, much more research is needed before we can conclude that cordyceps is an effective treatment for dementia. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
It may boost energy
Scientists are also investigating cordyceps for its ability to reduce fatigue and improve endurance, in both humans and animals.
In one experiment, mice were once again returned to the swimming pool to see if cordyceps helped them to swim for longer. After three weeks of taking cordyceps, the mice were able to swim for significantly longer than their peers. The higher the dose of cordyceps, the more marked the effect.(1)
The study put the results down to an increased heartbeat strength, reduced constrictions in the mice’s tracheas, and better relaxation of their vascular smooth muscle (found in the walls of blood vessels).
Another study examined whether cordyceps would work in a similar way on human beings.(1)
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study was undertaken at Beijing Medical University Sports Research Institute. The aim was to see if cordyceps could improve athletes’ performance.
The study showed that participants who had been given a product containing cordyceps were better able to clear lactate from their cells.
Your body produces lactate (the ionized form of lactic acid) during anaerobic respiration. This usually occurs during intense exercise when oxygen supplies are short. If too much lactate builds up, you can suffer from lactic acidosis. Symptoms include nausea, weakness and muscle cramps(7). So, athletes certainly want to avoid too much lactate in their systems.
The study concluded that cordyceps could help athletes improve their anaerobic performance.
So, if you’re building up for an intense gym session or a long run, cordyceps might just help you push that little bit further. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
It may have anti-aging effects…
Let’s return once more to our friends, the mice, and their swimming pool.
In the same study cited above, where the mice went into the water maze, researchers also noticed a few other interesting effects of cordyceps.
Firstly, the researchers discovered that cordyceps had an effect on age-related enzymes in the mice. They found that it improved the activity of three enzymes in particular (superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and catalase) and reduced a process called ‘lipid peroxidation’. This is the process by which free radicals steal electrons from the lipids in your cell membranes, causing cell damage.(6)
They concluded that cordyceps was having an anti-ageing effect on the mice.
…and boost your sex drive
Not only that, but the same study found that cordyceps improved the sex drive of rats. It may have startled the researchers, but it wouldn’t have surprised any adherents of traditional Chinese medicine.
For a very long time, local practitioners in Tibet have been recommending that their male and female patients take cordyceps with a cup of milk to benefit from its aphrodisiac properties.(8)
Cordyceps may support your kidney health
The potential of cordyceps to support kidney health has sparked much interest in the scientific community.
A recent meta-analysis looked at the results of 22 different studies on cordyceps and kidney health. Overall, 1,746 participants were included.(10)
If you suffer from chronic kidney disease (CKD), your kidneys are less able to filter out waste products from your bloodstream. One good marker of how well your kidneys are working is the presence of creatinine, a waste product which should be filtered out. If it’s present in quite high concentrations in your bloodstream, you may have a kidney problem.(9)
The authors of the meta-analysis reviewed the results of the different studies and found that serum creatinine was significantly reduced in patients who were not undergoing dialysis and who were treated with cordyceps.
It also increased the patients’ ability to clear creatinine from their systems and reduced the amount of protein present in their urine over a 24-hour period, another good indicator of kidney malfunction.(10)
However, the authors of the meta-analysis pointed out that in some of the studies they looked at, the reporting and methodologies were not up to the necessary standard of scientific rigour.
Although the results looked very promising, they recommended that the results be interpreted with caution until more research can be done with the proper methodology. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
Cordyceps has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
If you’re a frequent visitor to Erbology, you’ll know how much we love food and drinks which can help prevent oxidative damage.
This is caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules produced by your body’s normal metabolic activities. They are made when an oxygen molecule – which usually comes as a pair of oxygen atoms, O2 – is split up.
The individual molecules are desperate to link up with a partner again, and in their search they go tearing around your cells, causing all sorts of damage.
Your body is well-equipped to deal with a few free radicals, but environmental factors like stress, pollution and a poor diet can mean there are more free radicals in your system than your body can handle.
This is where antioxidants come in. These are substances which can ‘donate’ a spare electron, stabilising the free radical before it can cause a lot of damage.
Fortunately, cordyceps has powerful antioxidant properties.(11)
On top of that, it acts as an anti-inflammatory.
One study observed that cordyceps reduced inflammation in mouse microphages.(12) A microphage is a type of cell which is very important for your immune system, as it targets and breaks down invading pathogens.
Another study identified one particular peptide in cordyceps, Cordymin, as having anti-inflammatory properties, including on some human cells.(13)
Buying medicinal mushrooms
When buying any type of medicinal mushroom, it’s important to ask a few questions before making your purchase.
Firstly, ask your provider what they grow their cordyceps on. While – luckily – it’s unlikely to be caterpillars, it might be a starch-based substrate. Starch might help the mushrooms to grow speedily, but it’s very difficult to separate out of the final product. Unscrupulous suppliers sometimes simply blend the starch in with the mushrooms during processing. This means, in essence, that you end up paying for a jar with a large proportion of starch, where you should be getting only mushroom!
The second question is around the content of beta-glucans in your mushrooms. Beta-glucans are polysaccharides which scientists believe can help boost immunity and provide other health benefits. Any good quality medicinal mushroom should contain a high proportion of beta-glucans. → See Medicinal Mushroom Products
Science is catching up with tradition
When it comes to cordyceps, modern science is only now beginning to catch up with the wisdom of traditional medicine. We need more research to provide the empirical data to back up what traditional practitioners have known for generations.
However, the initial results of studies into cordyceps look very promising indeed. Along with other medicinal mushrooms, it’s right at the fore of a new frontier in healthy nutrition. We’re excited to see it get the recognition it deserves.
So, why not try adding cordyceps to your routine? You can add half a teaspoon a day of cordyceps powder into any of your normal hot drinks such as tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Just remember to take a break of about a week after taking cordyceps for twenty days. This gives your body time to rebalance.
Give cordyceps a chance, and it may just turn out that you were ahead of the game when it comes to this mighty mushroom.
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