Cordyceps are medicinal mushrooms 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 is 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”.
Natural History and Ecology Of Cordyceps
Cordyceps mushrooms are a group of fungi that specialize in parasitizing insects. They belong to a scientific classification of “entomopathogenic fungi”.
For most of their lives, Cordyceps grow as mycelium (the spiderweb-like roots of fungi) within living insects. Cordyceps may even alter the behavior and movement of the insects by hijacking their motor cortex! After having fully colonized its insect host and completed this stage in its lifecycle, these fungi produce finger-like mushrooms. These mushrooms grow directly from the head or other body parts of the insects!
It is from these fruiting bodies that spores are produced. Unlike gilled mushrooms, cordyceps produce spores on their smooth outer surface. Once released, these spores find their way into the local environment seeking a new insect host.
One of the most famous species of Cordyceps is the non-medicinal “Zombie Mushroom” or Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This mushroom infects ants and takes control of their motor cortex, guiding them up the branches of trees until they reach high leaves in the canopy. Afterward, it makes them clench their teeth like hooks into the leaves, causing them to grab hold. At this point, the mushroom fruiting body begins growing directly from the head of the ants! This high vantage point in the canopy is ideal for it to disperse its spores.
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. The cultivation of mycelium is also conducted, usually with a high potency strain called “CS-4”.
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!
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.
Why Is Wild Cordyceps So Expensive?
The wild Ophiocordyceps sinensis is an extremely expensive commodity and by far the most expensive medicinal mushroom. The reason behind this is mysticism and folklore surrounding this mushroom in China. Also, the limited availability due to its restricted distribution and harsh environment makes for a limited supply. Many critics claim that in traditional folklore Cordyceps is portrayed with magic-like abilities with panacea-like properties. Its use as a potent aphrodisiac has also driven its demand.
What Is Better Ophiocordyceps sinensis or Cordyceps militaris?
Many experts agree that Cordyceps militaris is equivalent to or better than Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Not only is it more economically accessible and environmentally sustainable but it contains a more unique biochemical profile. As discussed later in the text, Cordyceps militaris not only contains high quantities of Adenosine found in Ophiocordyceps sinensis but it contains the unique compound Cordycepin, which is only found in minuscule quantities in the latter.
This being said, Ophiocordyceps sinensis fruiting bodies and mycelium are both extremely biologically active and continue to have potent medicinal properties. Some users may prefer these products due to their ties to traditional Chinese medicine and folklore. Likely, its unique chemical composition may also be more attractive under certain contexts, although a lot of research on this subject is pending.
Tips For Finding Wild Cordyceps Mushrooms
While you’re probably not going to the alpine plateaus of the Himalayas to find the wild “Caterpillar Fungus”, Cordyceps might be closer than you think. Cordyceps militaris or very similar species, do occur in many temperate forests across the world. This includes much of North America and Europe.
In North America, C. militaris is most common along the Appalachian mountains and up into eastern Canada. It also commonly occurs in many forested parts of Mexico. While it has been less documented, C. militaris or close relatives have been reported in the Pacific Northwest.
In Europe C. militaris has been reported in at least 10 countries including The United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, The Czech Republic, and Denmark.
Similar species have also been found in South Africa and southern Australia.
While you’re probably not going to find enough Cordyceps to even make a single dose, let alone sustain a daily consumption, Cordyceps hunting can be exciting. Just don’t go into it seeking a harvest. Looking for Cordyceps is not about the haul. It’s purely the chase and excitement that surrounds the hunt! Alternatively, those with advanced experience in cultivation often search for Cordyceps to reproduce them in laboratory conditions.
- Cordyceps are relatively small mushrooms. Keep your eyes peeled for small and orange club fungi.
- Cordyceps tend to grow in moist and mossy environments. It can grow directly from soils but may also be found on woody organic materials.
- If you think you may have Cordyceps, gently try to excavate around the fruiting body and remove it along with the host. Sometimes the hosts will break off so you need to be careful.
- Follow your gut instinct and move slowly. Taking your time to scan a habitat that seems suitable can pay off in the long run!
- Cordyceps is a mushroom that you may only see a couple of times a year. If you have patience, go on frequent outings, and keep your eyes peeled you can eventually find one!
Medicinal Properties Of Cordyceps
Cordyceps is most valued for its ability to improve stamina, strength, and overall athletic performance. It is also highly prized and mystified in Chinese folklore as a potent aphrodisiac. Aside from this, studies are suggesting it could have many health benefits and could help against a wide variety of illnesses.
Cordyceps Could Help Improve Physical Performance
- Cordyceps could improve oxygen uptake or aerobic capacity in elderly individuals It could also help resistance to fatigue from exercise. (Yi, 2004)
- Supplementation with cordyceps could improve exercise performance and contribute to well-being in healthy elderly individuals. (Chen, 2010)
- Supplementation with cordyceps may improve tolerance to high-intensity exercise. The study also found that benefits may be improved when taken regularly over long periods. (Hirsch, 2016)
Cordyceps Could Have Antiaging Properties
- Cordyceps may have anti-aging properties. It can improve brain function and antioxidative enzyme activity in mice with d-galactose-induced senescence. It can also promote sexual function in castrated rats. (Ji, 2009)
- Cordyceps have protective anti-inflammatory effects on the mitochondria which could have anti-aging properties. (Li, 2010)
- Cordyceps have high anti-oxidative properties and could promote the health of the immune system. (Xiao, 2012)
- Mice fed diets supplemented with Cordyceps had significantly longer life spans. (Tan, 2011)
Cordyceps Could Have Anti-Tumor Effects
- Cordyceps extracts showed anti-tumor effects when exposed to lung cancer (Bizzaro, 2015) and colon cancer cells (Lee, 2015).
- Cordyceps have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties on cancer cell cultures. This study tested it on human cancer cell lines including colon (colon 205), prostate (PC-3), and hepatoma (HepG2) cells. (Rao, 2010)
- Tumor-bearing mice receiving cordyceps supplements lived significantly longer than any other groups without them. (Yamaguchi, 1990)
Cordyceps Could Help Against Diabetes
- Cordyceps reduced the diabetes-induced weight loss, polydipsia, and hyperglycemia in diabetic mice. (Lo, 2004)
- Cordyceps was shown to help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetic mice. (Liu, 2016 – Yu, 2015)
Cordyceps May Be Good For The Heart
- Cordyceps helped reduce the negative impacts on the health of the heart and liver in mice with chronic kidney disease. (Liu, 2014)
- Cordyceps may protect the heart from injury via enhanced adenosine receptor activation. Adenosine is one of the natural compounds found within Cordyceps that offers health benefits. (Yan, 2013)
- Mice fed diets supplemented with Cordyceps displayed lower levels of LDL or “Bad Cholesterol”. (Koh, 2003)
May Help Improve Immune Functioning
- Hot water extracts of Cordyceps activate macrophages and stimulate the intestinal immune system in mice. The study suggests that it likely has systemic benefits for the immune system. (Koh, 2001)
Other Potential Health Benefits
- Cordyceps may have antidepressant like effects (Guo 2010 – Nishizawa, 2007)
- Cordyceps extracts may help improve sleep (Uchida, 2016)
Cordycepin, Adenosine, And Other Active Compounds
The medicinal properties of Cordyceps are largely linked to the active compounds called Cordycepin and Adenosine. These are found within the mycelium and mushrooms of Cordyceps militaris and Ophiocordyceps sinensis.
- Adenosine is a nucleoside that plays various important roles in the biology of animals. It forms the backbone of ATP (molecules that provide energy for cellular function), it’s a derivative of the nucleotide adenine, and it reacts with receptors in our brains that make us sleepy. That’s just to name a few.
- Cordycepin affects our body because it is structurally very similar to Adenosine. Since many enzymes cannot differentiate between Adenosine and Cordycepin, it results in a wide variety of biochemical reactions that are not fully understood.
Studies analyzing the chemical composition of both cordyceps species show that they have very distinct levels of these compounds (Yue, 2006). While Adenosine is present in both species, Cordycepin is only present in significant quantities within Cordyceps militaris. While mycelium from Ophiocrodyceps sinensis does have a tad more Cordycepin than the fruiting bodies it still only occurs in negligible quantities (Zhou, 2009)). On the other hand, Ophiocordyceps sinensis does have a higher quantity of Adenosine.
Other Chemical Components
- Beta-glucans are polysaccharides responsible for many of the properties of medicinal mushrooms. They exhibit immunomodulatory effects and help against a variety of chronic illnesses. Analysis suggests that about 3-8% of the total weight of dried Cordyceps are polysaccharides (Liu, 2016).
- Cordycepic Acid is sugar-alcohol also known as D-Mannitol. Mannitol is widely used in pharmaceuticals, natural medicine, and occurs in various edible mushrooms/plants. It is known to have anti-tumor effects and help in the prevention of cerebral hemorrhaging. It is often used to help reduce swelling around the eyes in cases of glaucoma. It also inhibits a wide range of bacteria.
- Ergosterol is a chemical precursor to Vitamin D with various medical applications.
- Amino Acids are a key component of Cordyceps fruiting bodies. They contain about 30% crude protein and produce more than 15 different amino acids.
Is Cordyceps Safe?
Cordyceps is considered safe and a low-risk medicinal supplement. While there have been no in-depth studies investigating the risks of Cordyceps in humans, animal studies using high doses (4-5x the recommended dose) over long periods have not shown any health consequences. If you have a serious illness consult your primary care physician before taking Cordyceps. The effects of Cordyceps during pregnancy are not yet known.
Wild harvest Ophiocrordyceps sinensis has been known to contain high levels of arsenic. In tested products of Ophiocordyceps sinensis, the arsenic content is 4.4-9.9 mg/kg, making it a high-risk product. For this reason, the Chinese State and Food Organization removed this species from the health food category.
Cordyceps In Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ophiocordyceps sinensis has a deep history in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). There are reports of the use of other Cordyceps species but the latter mentioned is by far the most documented.
While many uses of Cordyceps in TCM correspond with modern studies, there is still a lot of mysticism revolving around this medicine. Traditional use of Cordyceps in China dates back at least 1000 years. The oldest document mentioning dates back to 846 AD and was written by Chinese naturalist Duan Chengshi. According to Chinese folklore, Cordyceps was commonly made into a special blend containing ginseng and deer antler.
In TCM Cordyceps is considered sweet in taste and neutral in nature. It can replenish the kidneys and soothe the lungs. It is also said to stop bleeding and eliminate phlegm. It is unique when compared to other natural medicines in that it is regarded as a tonifying herb with both Yin and Yang properties. It is commonly used for disorders such as hyperglycemia, respiratory diseases, fatigue, renal failure, and heart disease.
Traditionally Cordyceps is either consumed via simply decocting in boiling water or in the form of functional foods. These include meat stews with a variety of ingredients and even dishes like “Cordyceps Stuffed Duck”. Cordyceps were also placed in rice wine and left to infuse several days before consuming.
How To Use Cordyceps Mushrooms
Cordyceps can be consumed in a variety of different forms and may be used distinctly depending on what you are using them for. The effects of Cordyceps are effective and noticeable within one or two hours of consuming a single dose. For more prolonged effects and to treat certain chronic conditions it may be best to consume cordyceps daily.
Trying to treat serious illnesses with cordyceps alone is not recommended. Cordyceps should be used as part of a holistic treatment that if necessary incorporates changes into your diet and general lifestyle.
- Athletes hoping to use Cordyceps to improve performance should consider taking Cordyceps before work and after exercise. Before exercising to help improve energy levels and reduce fatigue, and after to help with the post-workout recovery.
- Those hoping to use Cordyceps to treat other conditions can take Cordyceps twice a day (morning and evening doses) for maximum effect. While Cordyceps is considered energizing it is not known to negatively affect the quality of sleep.
Choosing High-Quality Cordyceps Product
There are many different types of Cordyceps products that are sold commercially. These can be made with a variety of different raw materials or processed in different ways. Because of this, they can have different quantities of the desired medicinal components and thus vary in their effectiveness.
- The best way to ensure that your cordyceps product will be effective is to purchase it from a trusted and reputable producer.
- Those who can provide laboratory analysis of their products tied to batch numbers can assure that their products contain high quantities of Cordycepin and other select compounds.
- Products made from 100% fruiting bodies are the most guaranteed for potency. Mycelium products can also be effective but it depends on the product.
- This being said, smaller grassroots producers from your area may also be providing quality products. Make sure to inquire about how they source their raw materials and undergo the processes for their products.
- For the most potent Cordyceps supplements, check out two of our articles:
The Raw Materials
- Products claiming to use this species may either be using the wild-harvested mushroom or cultivated mycelium.
- The most expensive products are made from wild-harvested cordyceps but make sure to check the packaging for clarification.
- Cultivation of mycelium for this mushroom is typically done in a liquid broth. This broth is then filtered leaving only 100% pure mycelium with no grain or extra filler. A special strain of this species commonly named CS-4 is what is used for the cultivation of high-potency mycelium.
- Genetic analysis done on some Cordyceps mycelium products show that many of these did not contain cordyceps! (Zhang, 2017)
- Ophiocordyceps sinensis is a highly protected and endangered species. While harvesting is being regulated in many localities, its overexploitation has affected its abundance. For this reason, cultivated varieties are regarded as more sustainable.
- Products made with this species are usually more economically accessible and made from cultivated fruiting bodies.
- Cordyceps militaris fruiting bodies are cultivated with a specialized technique in a nutrient-rich medium. The cultivation process is more technical than that of other mushrooms but recent advances have made it more accessible to amateur cultivators.
- Some products may use mycelium that is either grown in liquid broth or on grain. Cordycep products grown on grain are not recommended due to low fungal biomass content.
- This species contains the same medicinal components found in the wild-harvested variety and is generally just as effective regardless of the price difference.
Cultivated vs Wild Cordyceps Mushrooms
While the wild-harvested Cordyceps are highly valued and esteemed in Chinese Folklore, there is no evidence suggesting that they are more effective than cultivated varieties. Low to negligible levels of Cordycepin in wild-harvested specimens suggest their effects may be more limited than cultivated alternatives. Aside from this, high levels of arsenic, high cost, and environmental impact are all factors that dissuade many from consuming the wild-harvested Cordyceps.
For these reasons, Cordyceps militaris is recommended for those who are starting to consume cordyceps for the first time. For those wanting to try Ophiocordyceps sinensis, cultivated mycelium products can be a good option.
Types of Products
Fresh/Dried Fruiting Bodies
Cordyceps fruiting bodies can be consumed fresh, but they are most often sold dehydrated. These can be easily prepared by decocting in boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, they can be added to soups or cooked in other brothy dishes. Dose: Around two grams per day is an effective dose. Doses 3-4x this dose can also be taken for stronger effects with no risks.
Dried Mushroom Powders
Powders are easy and quick for making tea or adding to your food. Products labeled as “activated” powders can be taken directly, mixed in smoothies, or any type of food. Those who do not mention being activated should be made into a tea or used while cooking. Dose: Powders that come from 100% fruiting bodies can be taken at 2 grams for effective doses. Mycelium products should be taken at doses of 4-6 grams or as indicated by the producers.
Extracts are the most potent Cordyceps medicine. These are typically made by using solvents to remove all the medicinal components from the fungal biomass.
- Tinctures are usually made via “double extractions” that use alcohol and water as solvents. These can be mixed into beverages or food items. Dose: Usually 1-2 droppers but used as indicated by the producers.
- Powdered extracts are extremely potent and easy to use. These are typically made via solvents that are then evaporated to leave a pure powder. Powders are great for the manufacture of processed food items such as coffee, chocolate, or other supplements. Dose: Usually around 500-1000 mg, but consumed as recommended by the producer.
These are convenient as they are already dosed and easy to consume. This may be particularly practical for anyone already taking medications or supplements in this form. They usually contain activated mushroom powders or extracts. Dose: Around 1-2 tablets at a time but may vary.
- Coffee and other food items – Many novel companies are incorporating Cordyceps as a functional ingredient in their processed foods. Coffee is a popular one since it’s something many people consume regularly. These can be great ways to easily incorporate Cordyceps into your diet.
Trying Cordyceps For Yourself
There is no better way to see if Cordyceps can improve your well-being than trying it for yourself! With the advent and boom in the cultivation of Cordyceps militaris worldwide, these supplements are now more accessible than ever. Whether you are an athlete or just trying to improve your health, Cordyceps may provide an extra tool to help you reach your goal.
- Environmental Science and Mycology Researcher, Author, Contributor
- Humboldt State University Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Environmental Science with focus on Ecological Restoration.
- Former President of the Mycology Club at Humboldt State University
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