The Cordyceps species used medicinally have traditionally been found growing on the larvae of moths and it used to be thought that they were parasitic. However, it has been suggested that they have a symbiotic relationship with their hosts, helping them thrive in extreme environments, such as the high Tibetan plateau, and only converting to their fruiting form on the death of the host insect.
Main active components– The ability of Cordyceps to increase metabolic efficiency and promote adaptation to harsh environments is largely due to the nucleoside derivatives (cordycepin, etc.) that it produces, which are also responsible for many of its unique health-promoting properties. In addition, polysaccharide fractions have shown significant immunomodulatory activity.
Traditional use– Because of its rarity, Cordyceps was traditionally restricted to the few who could afford it. Its main uses were in the treatment of asthma and erectile dysfunction, and as a tonic for the elderly and those recovering from long illness.
Energy– In the same way that Cordyceps species help their hosts survive in oxygen-poor environments, Cordyceps-based products are used to enhance athletic performance and endurance by increasing the efficiency of energy metabolism.
Studies in healthy elderly subjects using Cs-4 (3g/day) showed significant increases in aerobic capacity and resistance to fatigue, while other research has shown increases in energy output and oxygen capacity in sedentary humans taking C. sinensis and increased endurance in animals given C. militaris (2,3).
Asthma/COPD– As well as increasing efficiency of energy metabolism, Cordyceps provides valuable support for those, including children, with impaired lung function from conditions such as asthma and COPD, based on an adult dose of 3g/day (1).
Anti-viral– The nucleoside analogues found in C. militaris and hybridized cordyceps species function as reverse transcriptase inhibitors, inhibiting viral replication. At the same time, cordyceps’ polysaccharides have been shown to enhance the immune response to viral infections (1).
Cancer– Because of its combination of immune-modulating polysaccharides and nucleoside derivatives, many practitioners consider Cordyceps to be one of the most useful mushrooms for helping improve treatment outcomes in cancer, with cordycepin reported to induce apoptosis (cancer cell death) in multiple cancer cell lines, including: oral, bowel, bladder, leukemia, melanoma, multiple myeloma, breast and prostate (see notes).
Diabetes– Cordyceps provides useful support for cases of diabetes, with actions including: Triggering release of insulin, increasing hepatic glucokinase and increasing sensitivity of cells to insulin. Again, cordycepin and related nucleoside derivatives appear to play a key role in cordyceps’ anti-diabetic action and cordycepin has also been shown to suppress the chronic low-grade inflammation associated with diabetes (4-5).
Infertility– In addition to its traditional use for improving libido and treating erectile dysfunction, Cordyceps can be beneficial for both male and female infertility, with increases in steroid hormone production and improvements in testes morphology, sperm quantity and quality at a dose of 3-4.5g/day,6-8.
Kidney protective– The traditional use of Cordyceps to support the kidneys is backed-up by reports of improved kidney function in patients with chronic renal failure and speedier recovery in patients with antibiotic-induced kidney damage (1).
Hepatoprotective– Cordyceps can be a beneficial supplement for those suffering from impaired liver function, with inhibition of fibrosis and reductions in liver enzymes reported for liver conditions, including hepatitis and liver steatosis (fatty liver)9.
Notes – Nowadays the Cordyceps available in supplement form is almost exclusively sourced from commercially cultivated material, dramatically increasing its availability, lowering its cost and making it suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
The move to cultivated material has led to a number of different Cordyceps products being available:
● Cordyceps sinensis – Strains of wild-harvested Cordyceps that have then been cultivated on grain-based substrates (solid fermentation / biomass technology).
● Cordyceps militaris – C. militaris has long been a common substitute for C. sinensis and, as C. militaris contains higher levels of cordycepin than C. sinensis, it may even be that it is at least partially responsible for the reverence in which C. sinensis has traditionally been held. Now artificially cultivated and harvested as fruiting bodies. Sometimes called Cordyceps Flowers and known in Chinese as Yong Chong Cao.
● Cs-4 – Not strictly Cordyceps, Cs-4 has been identified as Paecilomyces hepiali, an organism isolated from wild C. sinensis specimens by China’s Academy of Sciences and selected for ease of cultivation by large-scale liquid fermentation technology.
Most studies have used 3.0 or 4.5g/day, supplementation of 1.5g/day can provide useful support for long term use.
Because Cordyceps has been shown to increase levels of male and female sex hormones, it may not be appropriate for those suffering from hormone dependent cancers (prostate and breast) and its hypoglycemic properties mean that it should be used with caution by those taking insulin.
1. Medicinal value of the caterpillar fungi species of the genus Cordyceps (Fr.) Link (Ascomycetes). A Review. Holliday J, Cleaver M. Int J Med Mushr, 2008;10(3):219–234.
2. Effect of Cs-4® (Cordyceps sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Chen S, Li Z, Krochmal R, Abrazado M, Kim W, Cooper C. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 May; 16(5): 585–590.
3. Effect of medicinal plant extracts on forced swimming capacity in mice. Jung K, Kim IH, Han D. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Jul;93(1):75-81.
4. Hypoglycemic activity of polysaccharide, with antioxidation, isolated from cultured Cordyceps mycelia. Li SP, Zhang GH, Zeng Q, Huang ZG, Wang YT, Dong TT, Tsim KW. Phytomedicine. 2006 Jun;13(6):428-33.
5. Cordycepin Suppresses Expression of Diabetes Regulating Genes by Inhibition ofipopolysaccharide-induced Inflammation in Macrophages. Shin S, Lee S, Kwon J, Moon S, Lee S, Lee CK, Cho K, Ha NJ, Kim K. Immune Netw. 2009 Jun;9(3):98-105.
6. Influence of Cordyceps sinensis on Reproduction and Testis Morphology in Mice. Shenzhen Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine. 2005-6.
7. Improvement of sperm production in subfertile boars by Cordyceps militaris supplement. Lin WH et al. Am J Chin Med. 2007;35(4):631-41.
8. Upregulation of Steroidogenic Enzymes and Ovarian 17β-Estradiol in Human Granulosa-Lutein Cells by Cordyceps sinensis Mycelium. Biology of Reproduction May 1, 2004 vol. 70 no. 5 1358-1364.
9. Inhibitive Effect of Cordyceps sinensis on Experimental Hepatic Fibrosis and its Possible Mechanism – Liu YK, Shen W. World J Gastroenterol. 2003 Mar; 9(3):529-33.