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Find out about the parasitic fungus that zombifies its prey and can sell for up to $50,000 a piece

The cordyceps genus of fungi is cosmopolitan, with species on every continent except Antarctica [1]. It has a storied history in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is known as Dōng Chóng Xià Cǎo (冬蟲夏草), which means “winter worm, summer grass.” The name comes from the lifestyle of the mushroom: Cordyceps is an endoparasitoid, meaning that it parasitizes insects. In the winter, cordyceps infects caterpillars, which bury themselves in the ground. When summer comes, cordyceps mushrooms sprout out of the caterpillar’s body, which is often hidden in the grass [2].

Caterpillars with Cordyceps sinensis (also known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis [3]) are a prized culinary ingredient in Hong Kong, commanding more than $20,000 per kilo [2, 4], which is 10 times pricier than black truffles. Particularly outstanding specimens can sell for an eye-popping $50,000 apiece!  

Cordyceps use over the years

The first known written reference to the use of cordyceps was in 1694 A.D., by Wang Ang in his book Ben-Cao-Bei-Yao (Materia Medica of Essential Medicines). This was the era of the Qing Dynasty, when significant advances in science and medicine were being made. Wang Ang encouraged use of the mushroom for “lung protection,” “kidney improvement,” and “Yin-Yang double invigoration” [5]. Cordyceps was introduced to Europe in the 17th century, where it quickly became popular for its healing properties.

Interest in the health benefits of cordyceps was rekindled in 1993, when Chinese runners broke several long-distance running world records. They all took a cordyceps tonic [6], and since then it has been widely used as an endurance booster and to help reduce fatigue.

cordyceps mushroom benefits

Benefits of Cordyceps mushrooms

Cordyceps supplements are being put to the test to see how (and if) they really work, and lots of research is very promising. Some recent research findings include:

  • Cancer: Cordyceps inhibits several types of cancer cells from spreading by interrupting multiple cancer cell signalling pathways. Among the types of cancer that are being studied are breast [7], liver [8], squamous carcinoma [9], and leukemia [10].
  • Cardiovascular health: Cordyceps has impressive cardioprotective abilities and can significantly improve heart function in people with arrhythmias and even chronic heart failure [11]. Other benefits of cordyceps include improved blood pressure, protection against heart attack and thrombosis, and reduced oxidative stress [12].
  • Liver and kidney disease: Cordyceps suppresses disease-promoting inflammation in the liver [13] and kidneys [14].
  • Obesity: Obese rats who were given cordyceps had improved gut microbiota and lost weight [15].
  • Asthma: Studies in both mice [16] and people [17] have shown that cordyceps reduces airway inflammation and improves lung function.
  • Diabetes: Mouse studies show that cordyceps improves glucose and insulin resistance [18].
  • Depression and anxiety: Cordyceps reduced signs of depression [19] and anxiety [20] in preliminary studies.
  • Physical fitness: Cordyceps supplements improve tolerance to high-intensity exercise in cyclists, and improvements increase with consistent cordyceps use [21].
  • Anti-aging: Cosmetic companies are investing heavily in cordyceps as a “cosmeceutical” [22], or makeup that improves skin and has anti-aging properties. 

“Bioactive compounds” are molecules that you get from your diet that have a positive effect on physiology or cellular function. Fruits, veggies, and nuts are full of bioactive compounds, and cordyceps mushrooms are too. Cordycepin and adenosine are two of the most important bioactive compounds that are produced by cordyceps.

Cordycepin

Cordycepin is a bioactive compound that has enormous therapeutic potential [23]. It can prevent many types of cancer cell metastasis, maintain homeostasis, and even give users youthful, glowing skin! One of the ways it works is by increasing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant levels in the body, which have positive effects on everything from cognitive function to gastrointestinal health.

Adenosine

Adenosine is another bioactive compound produced in cordyceps mushrooms. It is an analogue of cordycepin, so adenosine works in similar ways. Like cordycepin, adenosine has been shown to protect against inflammatory diseases and maintain homeostasis and good health [24]. We actually make adenosine naturally, and it’s important for functions as varied as maintaining normal cellular physiology to helping us get a good night’s sleep.

Related: The Sacred "Mushroom of Immortality" that can enhance the immune system and replenish your Qi
Related: Why holistic practitioners and biohackers are curious about this mushroom as a preventative agent

Other compounds

Cordycepin and adenosine aren’t the only health-boosting compounds in cordyceps mushrooms [1]:

  • Polyphenols: Polyphenols are called “free radical scavengers” because they seek out and destroy unstable molecules. They have potent health benefits, and cordyceps mushrooms produce several different types of polyphenol [25, 26].
  • Ergosterol: Ergosterol is a type of beneficial steroid that’s unique to fungi. It’s an important precursor of vitamin D2.
  • Unsaturated fatty acids: Cordyceps mushrooms provide unsaturated fatty acids, which are protective against cardiovascular disease.
  • Polysaccharides: Cordyceps polysaccharides improve immunity and prevent fatigue.
  • Cyclic peptides: These are proteins that have powerful anti-tumor activities.

cordyceps mushroom uses

Are Cordyceps supplements safe?

Cordyceps supplements have been used for centuries, and current research finds that they are very safe [4]. A few people have reported an upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea, but these instances are rare and, although they are certainly unpleasant, they don’t have long-lasting negative health consequences. A handful of reports of people developing an allergic reaction including a rash or hives, runny nose, and itchy eyes exist, but the people who experienced the reaction had other chronic allergies as well [27].

Overall, cordyceps supplements have proven to be very safe. People who have chronic food or environmental allergies have a small risk of experiencing an allergic reaction, but the few known cases where this occurred were mild and resolved quickly. As with any drug or supplement, people who are taking other medications may want to check with their doctor before they add Cordyceps.

 

Conclusion

Cordyceps mushrooms have been in humanity’s pharmacopeia for hundreds of years. Traditional Chinese medicine began using cordyceps as a healing agent and health supplement in the 15th century, and it has been used across the world ever since. Modern technology gives us a way to determine how and why cordyceps has the effects that it does, and medical researchers continue to make new discoveries about its healing properties.

Recent scientific research has explained some of the ways that cordyceps staves off illness and improves overall health. Cordycepin is an important bioactive compound that cordyceps produces, and it has positive effects on physiological and metabolic pathways that maintain health and wellbeing. In addition to having anti-cancer and pro-immune effects, it might also be a natural antidepressant. Scientists are still learning how cordyceps works, but they’ve provided a lot of evidence supporting its efficacy in several diseases and disorders. Overall, cordyceps mushrooms are a safe and effective supplement that may dramatically improve health and wellbeing.

cordyceps extract capsulesReferences

  1. Yue, K., et al., The genus Cordyceps: a chemical and pharmacological review. J Pharm Pharmacol, 2013. 65(4): p. 474-93.
  2. Greenwood, V. The worms that cost $20,000 a kilo. BBC Future 2016 [cited 2020 March 20]; Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161125-the-worms-that-cost-20000-a-kilo.
  3. Sung, G.H., et al., Phylogenetic classification of Cordyceps and the clavicipitaceous fungi. Stud Mycol, 2007. 57: p. 5-59.
  4. Olatunji, O.J., et al., The genus Cordyceps: An extensive review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology. Fitoterapia, 2018. 129: p. 293-316.
  5. Zhu, J.S., G.M. Halpern, and K. Jones, The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis: part I. J Altern Complement Med, 1998. 4(3): p. 289-303.
  6. Steinkraus, D. and J. Whitfield, Chinese Caterpillar Fungus and World Record Runners. American Entomologist, 1994. 40(4): p. 235–239.
  7. Cai, H., et al., Extracts of Cordyceps sinensis inhibit breast cancer cell metastasis via down-regulation of metastasis-related cytokines expression. J Ethnopharmacol, 2018. 214: p. 106-112.
  8. Guo, Z., et al., Cordycepin suppresses the migration and invasion of human liver cancer cells by downregulating the expression of CXCR4. Int J Mol Med, 2020. 45(1): p. 141-150.
  9. Ho, S.Y., et al., Cordycepin Enhances Radiosensitivity in Oral Squamous Carcinoma Cells by Inducing Autophagy and Apoptosis Through Cell Cycle Arrest. Int J Mol Sci, 2019. 20(21).
  10. Wang, Y., et al., Cordycepin induces apoptosis of human acute monocytic leukemia cells via downregulation of the ERK/Akt signaling pathway. Exp Ther Med, 2017. 14(4): p. 3067-3073.
  11. Zhu, J.S., G.M. Halpern, and K. Jones, The scientific rediscovery of a precious ancient Chinese herbal regimen: Cordyceps sinensis: part II. J Altern Complement Med, 1998. 4(4): p. 429-57.
  12. Wang, H.B., et al., Cordycepin ameliorates cardiac hypertrophy via activating the AMPKalpha pathway. J Cell Mol Med, 2019. 23(8): p. 5715-5727.
  13. Peng, Y., et al., Cultured Mycelium Cordyceps sinensis allevi¬ates CCl4-induced liver inflammation and fibrosis in mice by activating hepatic natural killer cells. Acta Pharmacol Sin, 2016. 37(2): p. 204-16.
  14. Deng, J.S., et al., Cordyceps cicadae Mycelia Ameliorate Cisplatin-Induced Acute Kidney Injury by Suppressing the TLR4/NF-κB/MAPK and Activating the HO-1/Nrf2 and Sirt-1/AMPK Pathways in Mice. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2020. 2020: p. 7912763.
  15. An, Y., et al., Cordycepin reduces weight through regulating gut microbiota in high-fat diet-induced obese rats. Lipids Health Dis, 2018. 17(1): p. 276.
  16. Zheng, Y., L. Li, and T. Cai, Cordyceps polysaccharide ameliorates airway inflammation in an ovalbumin-induced mouse model of asthma via TGF-β1/Smad signaling pathway. Respir Physiol Neurobiol, 2020. 276: p. 103412.
  17. Wang, N., et al., Herbal Medicine Cordyceps sinensis Improves Health-Related Quality of Life in Moderate-to-Severe Asthma. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2016. 2016: p. 6134593.
  18. Zhao, H., et al., Antioxidant and Hypoglycemic Effects of Acidic-Extractable Polysaccharides from Cordyceps militaris on Type 2 Diabetes Mice. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018. 2018: p. 9150807.
  19. Li, B., et al., 3'-Deoxyadenosine (Cordycepin) Produces a Rapid and Robust Antidepressant Effect via Enhancing Prefrontal AMPA Receptor Signaling Pathway. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol, 2016. 19(4).
  20. Gao, T., et al., Interleukin-4 signalling pathway underlies the anxiolytic effect induced by 3-deoxyadenosine. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 2019. 236(10): p. 2959-2973.
  21. Hirsch, K.R., et al., Cordyceps militaris Improves Tolerance to High-Intensity Exercise After Acute and Chronic Supplementation. Journal of dietary supplements, 2017. 14(1): p. 42-53.
  22. Kunhorm, P., N. Chaicharoenaudomrung, and P. Noisa, Enrichment of cordycepin for cosmeceutical applications: culture systems and strategies. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol, 2019. 103(4): p. 1681-1691.
  23. Qin, P., et al., Therapeutic Potential and Biological Applications of Cordycepin and Metabolic Mechanisms in Cordycepin-Producing Fungi. Molecules, 2019. 24(12).
  24. Shin, S., et al., Role of Cordycepin and Adenosine on the Phenotypic Switch of Macrophages via Induced Anti-inflammatory Cytokines. Immune Netw, 2009. 9(6): p. 255-64.
  25. He, H., et al., Protective effects of Cordyceps extract against UVB‑induced damage and prediction of application prospects in the topical administration: An experimental validation and network pharmacology study. Biomed Pharmacother, 2020. 121: p. 109600.
  26. Kozarski, M., et al., Antioxidants of Edible Mushrooms. Molecules, 2015. 20(10): p. 19489-525.
  27. Choi, G.S., et al., Five cases of food allergy to vegetable worm (Cordyceps sinensis) showing cross-reactivity with silkworm pupae. Allergy, 2010. 65(9): p. 1196-7.
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