Cordyceps mushrooms are a true display of nature’s genius. Whereas most medicinal fungi grow on the side of rotting trees, cordyceps takes a much different approach when it comes to survival. As entomopathogenic fungi, their spores infect insects and release hyphae (small fungal threads) that take over their bodies. Once established, these fungi digest their hosts from the inside, and some species even take control of their prey and move them to microclimates more favourable for fungal growth.
Cordyceps mushrooms might sound creepy, but they produce a much different effect in humans. Traditional cultures have used them for thousands of years to treat a long list of ailments, and modern scientists are unravelling their biochemical secrets to find out what underpins their therapeutic properties.
The Main Players
There are around 750 members of the Cordyceps genus. Although researchers have only probed about 35 species so far, they’ve already made findings that validate some of their traditional uses. Of these species, three stand out from the crowd:
• Cordyceps sinensis: Highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine, this species preys on insect larvae around 3,800 metres above sea level in the alpine meadows of the Himalayas.
• Cordyceps militaris: Another revered tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, cordyceps militaris appears more abundantly and preys on insect pupae all over the Northern Hemisphere.
• Cordyceps cicadae: This species appeared in Chinese medicine as far back as the 5th century AD and grows from nymph hosts in Asia, Europe, and North America.
A Desired Therapeutic Worth More than Gold
Although each of these three species have served as important traditional medicines, cordyceps sinensis takes the crown when it comes to popularity. Several companies grow cordyceps militaris on a large scale, but have yet to crack the code for cultivation when it comes to cordyceps sinensis.
Mushroom hunters scour the Tibetan Plateau in search of wild specimens. As demand surges and overharvesting threatens the supply, the fungi can fetch a price of more than $140,000 per kilo.
A Fungal Therapeutic Bio-factory
Cordyceps produces these effects because of its chemical complexity. Researchers regard the mushroom as a fungal therapeutic biofactory. Cordyceps produce a large variety of secondary metabolites. While these molecules aren’t involved in the growth or development of the mushroom, they do help to protect it against environmental stresses and predators.
Interestingly, some of these chemicals also seem to protect humans against stress and other states of disharmony and disease. Alongside other medicinal mushrooms, cordyceps holds the status of an adaptogen. These natural medicines help the body to adapt to stress, and also protect our organs against some of the detrimental effects of this psychological state.
The key groups of beneficial chemicals found in cordyceps include:
• Nucleosides: These molecules play a large role in coding genetic information in the body. Cordycepin has become one of the most prized nucleosides in the mushroom and has demonstrated neuroprotective and anticancer properties.
• Polysaccharides: These complex carbohydrates show up in many medicinal mushrooms and show potential when it comes to modulating the immune system and reducing fatigue.
• Sterols: Found in plants and fungi, sterols resemble cholesterol (a waxy substance found in every cell of the human body). The sterols found in cordyceps may help to reduce inflammation and show antitumor capabilities in early research.
• Alkaloids: By definition, these naturally occurring organic compounds contain at least one nitrogen atom. Alkaloids in cordyceps offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
How Cordyceps Can Transform Your Health
Considering the sheer amount of beneficial molecules in cordyceps mushrooms, it comes as no surprise that people often feel invigorated after drinking teas or consuming extracts that contain the fungus. Cordyceps has the potential to improve your health in several ways:
• Add some oomph to your workouts: After breaking 3 world records during the 1993 World Track and Field Championships, the Chinese women’s team were accused of steroid use. It turns out a herbal mix helped them achieve these feats, and cordyceps appeared as the main ingredient. Research shows that cordyceps can increase athletic performance by improving the way the body uses oxygen.
• Anti-aging properties: Traditionally, elders used cordyceps to combat fatigue and boost libido. Modern research found cordyceps to improve memory and sexual function in aged mice by increasing antioxidant production. Studies also found the mushroom to increase the lifespan of mice and fruit flies, suggesting cordyceps helps to enhance longevity.
Does Cordyceps Have a Future in Mainstream Medicine?
As well as promoting longevity and helping us to perform better, cordyceps might hold the key to treating some diseases. Discover what the research has found regarding cancer and viruses:
• Anti-cancer effects: Test tube studies show cordyceps exerts antitumor effects against different types of human cancer cells, including lung and colon. Animal research also demonstrates the ability of the mushroom to work against skin cancer and lung cancer.
How to Use Cordyceps
If you decide to incorporate cordyceps into your diet or supplement regimen, there are several ways you can go about it, including:
Limited studies mean no dosing consensus currently exists. However, human research typically uses doses of 1,000–3,000mg per day. This amount rarely produces any side effects. The long history of cordyceps within traditional Chinese medicine also suggests that they are nontoxic.
Luke Sumpter is a freelance journalist that specializes in health, wellness, and alternative therapies. Currently, he’s working on a dissertation exploring the emerging role of the endocannabinoid system in orthopaedic medicine.