What are Cordyceps?
Highlights (1) Cordyceps, or caterpillar fungus, is used in traditional Chinese medicine. (2) It’s potential benefits include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects. (3) Cordyceps species infect insects. It can’t infect humans. Cordyceps made international headlines after Chinese runners decimated two world records in 1993. According to their coach, the secret to their remarkable athletic performance was caterpillar fungi. Cordyceps sinensis is the scientific name of this special mushroom.
The fungus then regained popularity 20 years later after “The Last of Us” (Game of the Year, 2013) featured Cordyceps as a zombie virus. The video game drew inspiration from how Cordyceps act like body snatchers. This parasitic fungus invades the host, replaces their body tissue, and grows stalks from their host’s head to send out more spores. And that’s in both the game and real world.
Thankfully the Cordyceps that takes over caterpillar bodies is much less aggressive.
People have used C. sinensis for medicinal purposes since the 15th century. This fungus is also sometimes referred as:
- yartsa gunbu, Tibetan for “summer grass, winter worm”
- Dong chong xia cao, Chinese for “worm-grass”
- caterpillar mushroom
- Hirsutella sinensis
The demand for caterpillar fungus has plateaued in recent years, mostly due to the economic crisis. Today, it’s available in the United States as a nutritional supplement in pill form and as a tonic. Read on to discover why people are fans of C. sinensis and its health benefits.
Herbs and supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s possible to get a product that’s contaminated or of poor quality, especially for Cordyceps. Buy your Cordyceps from a reputable source. Some sellers may pass off fake mushrooms as the real kind, which can be expensive.
How does the fungus grow?
C. sinensis is both a fungus and a caterpillar. It grows out of the ground from caterpillar bodies in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Uncultured fungus doesn’t have the same medicinal effect.
How does the fungus work?
What are the potential health benefits of Cordyceps?
There’s no consistent evidence that C. sinensis can boost exercise performance. But there is scientific evidence suggesting that C. sinensis can:
- boost your body’s immune system
- have an antihyperglycemic effect (evidence was found in animals with diabetes)
- help with fatigue (it prolonged swimming time in mice by 20 and 24 minutes)
- reverse liver fibrosis (evidence was found in studies involving rats and mice)
In a study involving rats, C. sinensis was found to help with antiaging due to its properties. These properties include being:
- antihyperglycemic (promotes low blood sugar)
- immunomodulatory (regulates the immune system)
- nephroprotective (kidney protective)
- hepatoprotective (liver protective)
More research is needed to confirm C. sinensis’s effect on human health. Always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement for any condition.
C. sinensis may have anti-inflammatory properties. Research shows that the fungus is effective at reducing inflammation on a cellular level. But it has yet to be tested on humans or animals.
Cordycepin may also be a good anti-inflammatory alternative for people with asthma, according to The University of Nottingham. Cordycepin is a drug found in this mushroom. It’s shown to reduce inflammation in the airway.
Protects the heart
C. sinensis may offer heart-health benefits, including the ability to treat arrhythmia. A 2014 study saw C. sinensis significantly reduce liver and heart injuries in rats.
This study shows that C. sinensis has potential for treating heart disease. It’s approved in China to treat arrhythmia. It’s thought that the adenosine in C. sinensis handles this effect. Adenosine is a naturally occurring substance that helps break down ATP.
Slows kidney disease
Traditionally, people believed that consuming C. sinensis strengthened the kidneys. This may be due to C. sinensis’s ability to increase hydroxyl-corticosteroid and ketosteroid levels in the body.
In a 2011 study, researchers at Zhejiang University found that C. sinensis may inhibit renal fibrosis in rats. Renal fibrosis is a condition found in the later stages of kidney disease. Another study found that taking 3 to 5 grams of C. sinensis a day significantly improved kidney and immune function in those with chronic renal failure.
Slows tumor growth
Some studies on animals suggest that C. sinensis may slow the growth of tumors from certain types of cancer. One theory is that it can stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.
The journal Herbal Medicine Biomecular and Clinical Aspects found evidence of antitumor effects on cells. This is from both natural and cultured C. sinensis. This cytotoxic effect worked on several types of tumor cells, including melanoma, prostate tumors, and Lewis lung carcinoma. Interestingly, C. sinensis didn’t stop the cell life cycle in normal cells.
Revs up libido
Due to claims about its potential as an aphrodisiac, C. sinensis has long been used to increase libido.
Several studies show that C. sinensis increases testosterone. A 2009 study also found that C. sinensis may help penile erection and mount latency in rats. A 2007 study found that the supplement resulted in improved sperm volume and serum testosterone in sub-fertile boars. But there’s no credible human trials to show that the fungus enhances libido or sexual performance in people.
Usage, dosage, & cost
In clinical trials, C. sinensis is given in dosages of 1,000 milligrams to 3,000 mg per day. They’ve also been used in patients with renal failure at a dosage of 3 to 6 g per day.
Though studies are still determining the efficiency of these uses, common C. sinensis uses include:
- boosting athletic performance, including increasing stamina and energy
- complementary treatment for chemotherapy, to improve treatment response and quality of life
- improving liver function, specifically in the case of hepatitis B
- boosting sex drive
- reducing asthma symptoms, though there’s evidence that C. sinensis isn’t effective
Prices for C. sinensis have soared to $50,000 per pound. There may be products on the market with other species of Cordyceps rather than C. sinensis. Be sure to buy C. sinensis from a reputable source, as there are no benefits from the other species.
So far, C. sinensis has been commonly linked to the following side effects:
- gastrointestinal upset or discomfort
- dry mouth
Clinical trials are still underway to determine the effects. C. sinensiscan also have interactions with other substances or drugs, including:
- cyclophosphamide, such as Cytoxan
You shouldn’t take this supplement if you have autoimmune diseases. This includes conditions like multiple sclerosis, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. C. sinensis could aggravate your symptoms. You should also avoid this supplement if you have any bleeding disorders.
The limited supply of C. sinensis makes researching the benefits harder. Many studies were unable to artificially infect caterpillars with this fungus.
Some research does support the health benefit claims on a cellular level and in animals. But it doesn’t have a direct effect on exercise. Many clinical trials show that there’s no significant improvement in exercise and oxygen intake.
Always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or herbal medications.
Cultured C. sinensis starts as a spore in the winter. The spore lands on a particular moth caterpillar and enters the body of the caterpillar. The caterpillar buries itself into the soil before it dies. When summer comes around, the fungus grows like a plant from the caterpillar’s head with the appearance of a thin, orange finger.
Myth busting There are more than 350 Cordyceps-related species of fungus and insect hosts. The most well known is the “ant zombie” fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which releases behavior-controlling chemicals. O. unilateralis stimulates ants to bite down on a leaf with a “death grip.” When the ant dies, the fungus grows and emerges like a stalk of antlers from behind the ant’s head.
While this fungus has evolved to infect tarantulas, there’s no evidence that Cordyceps can infect humans.