One of the most important things a person can do to improve their health is to maintain their gut health. A healthy stomach can help with heart health, energy production, mood improvement, and immune support.
While there are numerous products on the market to help maintain a healthy digestive tract, medicinal mushrooms, which have been used for centuries in Eastern medicine, are an excellent alternative for organically supporting gut health. Of them, Cordyceps militaris and sinensis have many reported beneficial effects on intestinal health.
Cordyceps are known to regulate the gut microbiome, including intestinal and colonic microbiota. Research has also shown that Cordyceps preserves intestinal mucosal barrier function. These results suggest that the caterpillar fungus plays an important role
Let’s investigate the effects of Cordyceps on the human gut, their role in intestinal microbiota composition, and how this can affect health and disease.
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps are a fungus with potent biochemical properties and a fascinating ecology. They have been used traditionally for centuries, with high esteem for improving well-being and longevity. They also considered energizing, able to improve athletic performance, respiration, and libido from just a single dose.
The ecology of cordyceps mushrooms are particularly intriguing and unique. They parasitize insects, feeding on their live tissues, and even altering their behaviors! While there are hundreds of cordyceps species that occur in the wild there are two main types of Cordyceps that are conventionally used in medicine. These are Ophiocordyceps sinensis aka “Chinese Caterpillar Fungus” and Cordyceps militaris aka “Scarlet Caterpillar Club”.
Ophiocordyceps sinensis aka “The Caterpillar Fungus”
- Scientific Name: Ophiocordyceps sinensis
- Common Name: Caterpillar Fungus
- Where It Grows: Exclusively on the larvae of ghost moths in the high mountains (>10,000 ft) of Tibet, Nepal, and India. Cultivation techniques have been developed but are not an economically viable option for large-scale production. Because of this, the cultivation of liquid mycelium is also conducted, resulting in a high potency strain called “CS-4” that is used in supplements.
- Description: The limited supply, difficulty of harvesting, and folklore surrounding this mushroom make it one of the most expensive natural commodities on the market. Depending on the seasonal abundance a single pound of this mushroom can cost between $10,000 to $50,000!
This is not to be confused with CS-4 cordyceps (sinensis) products that are much cheaper and commonly found in supplement powders.
Cordyceps Militaris aka “Scarlet Caterpillar Club “
- Scientific Name: Cordyceps militaris
- Common Name: Scarlet Caterpillar Club
- Where It Grows: This species is relatively common in forested parts of the USA, Mexico, and Europe. It is considered a generalist as it can parasitize a wide range of insect hosts. This species can also be cultivated and thus provides a more economic and sustainable alternative to the wild-harvested cordyceps.
- Description: This is the more commercially available Cordyceps that is easily recognized by its bright orange color. Its form is often jokingly compared to Cheetos. Most products made from Cordyceps use this mushroom since it is much more economically viable. While it is not as expensive as the Ophiocordyceps sinensis, it contains the same medicinal compounds, and more potent than Cordyecps CS-4 alternative.
Cordyceps Plays A Role In Modulating The Gut Microbiota
Trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms live in your gut microbiome. Gut bacteria are incredibly important to host health since it helps control digestion and benefit your immune system, and body weight, among other things.
Your gut microbiome begins to diversify as you develop, indicating that it contains a wide range of bacteria species. Greater microbiota diversity is thought to be beneficial to your health. Interestingly, the diversity of your gut bacteria is affected by the food you eat.
Cordyceps increases gut microbiota diversity
Prebiotics are compounds in food that act like fertilizers stimulating the growth of healthy gut flora. These compounds are found in many vegetables and fungi, especially those containing complex carbohydrates, such as Cordyceps.
A 2020 study examined the role of polysaccharides extracted from Cordyceps sinensis in the modulation of intestinal mucosal immunity and the composition of gut microbiota in cyclophosphamide-treated mice (1). In the study cyclophosphamide induced intestinal mucosal immunosuppression and microbiota dysbiosis in mice.
Results showed that mushroom polysaccharides stimulated the production of cytokines and transcription factors while improving intestinal bacteria diversity. Cordyceps also assisted in the modulation of gut microbiota. Other analyses indicated that Cordyceps sinensis increased the abundance of probiotics and decreased harmful bacteria.
These findings suggested the potential of Cordyceps polysaccharides as prebiotics and that they can bring about changes in gut microbiota.
Cordyceps helps decrease weight
In another study from 2018 titled, “Cordycepin reduces weight through regulating gut microbiota in high-fat diet-induced obese rats,” researchers evaluated how cordycepin, a major bioactive component separated from Cordyceps militaris, prevented body weight gain in animals (2).
In this research, 30 rats were divided into three groups based on their body weight. One group was fed a normal diet. Another was fed a 60% high-fat diet and the third was given a high-fat diet along with cordycepin for 4 weeks. Researchers found that cordycepin reduced body weight and fat in high-fat-diet-induced obese rats. Additionally, results showed that Cordyceps alters the gut microbiota structure.
The imbalanced composition of the gut microbiota is related to an increase in body weight and metabolic syndrome. Hence the effects of Cordyceps militaris on modifying metabolic syndrome were evaluated in this study from 2021. The polysaccharides obtained from Cordyceps militaris alleviated high blood sugar levels in mice fed a high-fat diet (3).
For 14 weeks mice were fed a high-fat diet. These diet-induced obese mice were simultaneously given the high-fat diet and Cordyceps for an additional 8 weeks. The final body weight was recorded.
The results indicated that the polysaccharides, fruit body, and cordycepin obtained from Cordyceps militaris decrease blood sugar and fat levels. In addition, the mushroom polysaccharide improved dysbiosis. In conclusion, polysaccharides derived from C. militaris have the potential to act as dietary supplements and health food products for modifying the gut microbiota in obesity to improve metabolic syndrome.
Cordyceps Maintains The Integrity Of Intestinal Epithelial Barrier
The intestinal epithelial cells form a tight barrier that allows the uptake of essential nutrients while at the same time protecting against harmful factors. Barrier dysfunction allows the transport of bacteria in the gut and the development of diseases. Thus it is crucial to maintain the integrity of the intestinal barrier.
A 2022 study explored how Cordyceps militaris modulates intestinal physical barrier function and gut microbiota in a pig (4). In the study, pigs were randomly allocated to either receive the mushroom or a basic diet. Cordyceps militaris diet improved the morphology of the intestine and its barrier function compared to the control group. Furthermore, the levels of protein triggering inflammation (pro-inflammatory cytokines) were significantly reduced while the proteins that decrease inflammation (anti-inflammatory cytokines) were increased.
Cordyceps militaris also altered the microbial composition of the colon. In conclusion, Cordyceps can modulate the intestinal barrier function and gut microbiota, which may provide a new strategy for improving intestinal health.
A pilot study from 2015 demonstrated that Cordyceps Sinensis preserves the intestinal mucosal barrier (5). The study investigated if the mushroom might be used as an additional therapy in sepsis-infected rats. Intestinal barrier disruption is a critical factor in the course of sepsis.
Findings demonstrated that Cordyceps sinensis greatly increased the proliferation of mucosal cells and lowered the proportion of cells that died spontaneously (apoptosis). Treatment with Cordyceps sinensis also restored the tight junctions, a crucial component of the intestinal barrier, that was damaged in septic rats.
According to these results, Cordyceps Sinensis protects the gut barrier against sepsis by encouraging growth and preventing the degeneration of intestinal mucosal cells. Moreover, the intestinal mucosa’s tight connections are repaired. Thus, there’s a chance that the mushroom could be a helpful adjuvant therapy for sepsis.
Cordyceps Activates Intestinal Immunity
Nearly 70% of our immune system is housed in the gut, therefore being mindful of the food you consume can also help support the immune system and keep you healthy. Several foods can promote intestinal immunity that improves healthier digestion and help you avoid common gastrointestinal symptoms. Studies have shown that Cordyceps mushroom may just be one of them.
A Korean study looked into how orally administered cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis can activate the intestinal immune system (6). The hot water extract from the mushroom stimulated the activation of macrophages and the production of interleukins in mice. The immune cells in the intestines, also known as Payer’s patch, and the cells in the bone marrow significantly proliferated.
These results indicate that orally given extract of Cordyceps mycelia modulates and activates the immune system while also enhancing the secretion of growth factors in the blood. Furthermore, since these compounds act on the systemic immune system, researchers concluded that the immunomodulatory effects of Cordyceps act on local as well as systemic immune systems.
A high level of oxidative stress in the body exacerbates intestinal barrier damage. This causes increased levels of inflammation, which eventually leads to the development of disease associated with gut.
Cordyceps May Inhibit Bacterial Growth
Overgrowth in intestinal bacteria causes an imbalance in the microorganism in the gut that maintains healthy digestion. Antibiotic growth promoters are any medicine that inhibits or destroys bacteria, and research has shown that Cordyceps can have similar effects.
A Korean study assessed the effectiveness of using hot-water extracts from Cordyceps sinensis mycelia as an alternative to antibiotic growth promoters. Here, Cordyceps sinensis was given orally to the chickens. Gaining body weight and height and the microbiota in the small intestine were both greatly enhanced. These findings suggest that the mycelia from Cordyceps sinensis can replace avilamycin as a growth promoter for antibiotics by enhancing the physiological activity in chicks (7).
Cordyceps Can Help Protect The Liver
A Chinese study investigated the probable mechanism underlying the inhibitory effect of Cordyceps sinensis on liver fibrosis (8). Rats were randomly divided into three groups for the study, one of which received the mushroom. At the start of the experiment, the rats were given a carbon-tetrachloride and ethanol solution to cause liver fibrosis, with the exception of the rats in the normal group (serving as a control).
At the conclusion of the trial after 9 weeks, blood and tissue samples were collected. To identify alterations, biochemical and other biological tests were employed.
Researchers came to the conclusion that Cordyceps sinensis could suppress liver fibrosis brought on by chronic liver damage, improve liver function, and delay the onset of cirrhosis based on the study’s findings.
You may also be interested in our article on how Cordyceps can improve arthritis.
FAQs About Cordyceps And Gut Health
Is Cordyceps A Probiotic?
According to studies, Cordyceps sinensis has the potential as a prebiotic. The mushroom polysaccharides can potentially boost the abundance of probiotic strains including Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Bacteroides while decreasing the number of pathogenic bacteria like Clostridium and Flexispira.
Who Should Avoid Cordyceps?
Although Cordyceps is generally safe, some people may experience nausea, dry mouth, and upset stomach from it. If you have cancer, diabetes, or a bleeding disease, avoid taking cordyceps. Children and pregnant or nursing women should not take cordyceps.
There are several potential benefits of Cordyceps for digestion. The mushrooms play a key role in modulating gut microbiota, maintaining the integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier, activating intestinal immunity, inhibiting bacterial growth, and can help protect the liver.
If you suffer from gut problems, speak with your healthcare provider. Starting Cordyceps mushroom supplements may benefit your gut, helping you achieve the sound digestion you always hoped for.