The unique, amazing cordyceps mushroom made international headlines after Chinese runners broke two world records by unbelievably huge margins at the Asian Games in 1993. It seems the secret to their remarkable athletic performances was the so-called caterpillar fungus − cordyceps.
As it turns out, cordyceps mushroom (known scientifically as Cordyceps sinensis) has been used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine since at least the 15th Century. An extremely rare combination of a caterpillar and a fungus, it is found at altitudes above 4,500 meters (over 14,000 feet) in the Himalayas, on the Tibetan plateau, and at other high-altitude locations worldwide.
In Tibet this fungus is known as yartsa gunbu, or “summer grass, winter worm.” It was initially identified when local herders observed that yak, goat, and sheep that ate cordyceps while grazing became very strong and stout. This observation led to a deeper examination and eventual understanding of its many uses and benefits.
Even today, traditional healers in many East Asian cultures recommend cordyceps as a tonic and claim that it supports greater levels of energy, appetite, stamina, libido, and endurance, along with improving sleeping patterns.
How Is Cordyceps Formed?
Cordyceps has a truly bizarre life cycle. Being parasitic in nature, its spores land on the caterpillars of certain moth species and enters their bodies. The infected caterpillars then bury themselves below the soil before they die.
In summer, the fungus emerges from each infected caterpillar’s head, looking like a thin, orange finger. As the fungus approaches maturity, it consumes more than 90% of the infected insects, effectively mummifying its hosts.
Despite its unusual growth cycle, scientific studies over the past several years have shown that the cordyceps mushroom has a range of potential health applications. Here are 6 of the best ways codyceps can support a healthy body.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #1: Helping to Manage Blood Sugar Levels
Multiple studies have shown that cordyceps can help in the safe management of blood sugar levels. For instance, in a laboratory study, a polysaccharide (a long chain, naturally-occurring compound made up of sugars bound chemically to each other) isolated from cordyceps was seen to lower blood sugar levels in mice predisposed to high blood sugar levels. This polysaccharide was also seen to lower blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol.
Studies in normal rats have shown that consumption of cordyceps extracts helps to improve tissue sensitivity to insulin, while also lowering the insulin response to a carbohydrate challenge.
Indeed, extracts of cordyceps have been shown to slow down weight loss, reduce excessive thirst, improve glucose tolerance, and help to maintain blood sugar levels in a safe range in various laboratory rat models.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #2: Supporting Heart Health
In laboratory experiments with rats and guinea pigs, a cordyceps extract was seen to help maintain regular heart rhythms. In fact, preparations made from cultured mycelia of cordyceps – which is the part of the mushroom that is made up of fine white filaments – has been approved for maintaining heart health in China.
Further, consumption of cordyceps was seen to prevent much of the metabolic damage in both the livers and hearts of rats with chronic kidney disease.
Treatments to suppress the immune system are routinely used to prevent the body from rejecting a new heart after a heart transplant. However, the prolonged use of so-called “immunosuppressants” after transplant surgery leads to significant problems of its own.
Promisingly, a 2008 laboratory study showed that cordyceps extract helped to lower the rate of rejection of heart transplants in a laboratory rat model.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #3: Supporting Kidney Health
In China, cordyceps is routinely used to help maintain kidney health. Results from laboratory studies as well as clinical trials indicate that cordyceps may help to protect kidneys after transplantation. For example, a preparation made from cordyceps mycelia reduced the rejection rate after kidney transplants, while also helping to maintain kidney and liver function as well as red blood cell production within healthy limits.
Similarly, another cordyceps product known as CS-4 has been shown to help maintain blood levels of urea, creatinine, total blood protein, and calcium within safe, normal levels. In a 2016 laboratory study in mice, powdered extracts of cordyceps were seen to help maintain kidney health.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #4: Boosting the Immune System
In a 2012 study, cordyceps polysaccharides were seen to overcome induced immunosuppression, while also helping to maintain lymphocyte and macrophage function within normal levels in mice. Lymphocytes are known to be potent orchestrators of the immune system’s response to infections and injury. Macrophages are a type of cell responsible for detecting, engulfing, and destroying pathogens and damaged and dying cells in the body.
Cordyceps polysaccharides also improved antioxidation activity in mice with suppressed immune systems, while also raising the levels of the natural antioxidants superoxidase dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #5: Maintaining libido
Cordyceps has traditionally been used for helping to maintain libido and sexual function in many Eastern societies.
Laboratory experiments on animals confirm that cordyceps can help to improve reproductive activity, while consumption of cordyceps has been shown to help maintain libido and sexual activity in both men and women.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #6: Helping to Combat Fatigue
A 2010 study showed that supplementation with the cordyceps extract CS-4 for 12 weeks helped to combat fatigue and improved exercise performance, while also helping to maintain overall wellness in 20 healthy elderly adults.
Cordyceps contains adenosine and is known to be able to stimulate production of ATP, one of the primary sources of energy in our body’s cells.
Indeed, a 2007 study concluded that higher production of ATP because of cordyceps consumption helped athletes maintain intense workouts while also extending the periods of time they were active at high intensity.
Finally, studies have shown that supplementing with cordyceps can help lower heart rate, which likely explains why people can train harder for longer periods when supplementing with cordyceps.
Cordyceps: Side Effects
Cordyceps has been associated with relatively minor side effects, including gastrointestinal upset or discomfort, diarrhea, nausea, and dry mouth. It is also known to interact with caffeine, immunosuppressants, and anticoagulants.
Health experts recommend not taking this supplement if you have autoimmune conditions or bleeding disorders as cordyceps can aggravate the symptoms. It is recommended that you consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplements, including cordyceps.