Cordyceps : A parasitic fungus with incredible medical potential
Scientific Name: Cordyceps sinensis
Common Names: Caterpillar fungus, caterpillar mushroom, Cs-4, Ophiocordyceps sinensis
Origin and History
Cordyceps has both a rich traditional history dating back thousands of years and extensive clinical research dating back to the late 1950’s. This mushroom has been extremely popular on the list of medicinal mushrooms, partially because of its strong health-enhancing properties but also because of how it grows in nature. Firstly, it looks like something you would toss into a witches brew. It’s a genus of parasitic fungi that contains about 400 different species found all around the world and their host of choice is usually insects or arachnids but they can infect other fungi as well. Each species of Cordyceps will stick to one host species. The spores are spread by the wind, over the soil, and onto plants or directly onto the host. The mushrooms spores will land on its host and the mycelium will slowly start to grow, replacing the hosts’ tissue. It will start to grow these visible, tall and thin spores that stick straight out pointing up. Eventually, it will leave the once living insect or tarantula as just an exoskeleton for its spore growth. There’s also a species called Cordyceps militaris that infects the body of an ant and controls its movement and there’s even a popular zombie-survival video game named, “The Last of Us”, that uses this cordyceps species as a muse. This genus is definitely not teetering the edge of parasitic and symbiotic like Chaga mushroom does.
While Cordyceps might seem really freaky at first, they have been consumed as a tonic and aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for well over two thousand years.
The most widely used species is Cordyceps sinensis, and this is a species that chooses caterpillars as its host. It infects the caterpillar of the Hepialus moth to be exact and is mainly found only at high elevations in Tibet and other Chinese provinces. Cordyceps sinesis’s fame started back in 1993 when multiple runners at the Chinese National Games broke 20-year-old records, and their trainer gave the credit to an herbal tonic made with this mushroom. The caterpillar fungus, however, is not technically in herbal supplements and true wild Cordyceps sinensis runs for about $20,000 per kilogram. This high price is due to how hard it has been to cultivate from nature.
Harvesting season begins at the beginning of April onto the end of June. Harvesters will spend all day searching for the tiny mushrooms in high altitudes and it’s not an easy task. It requires immense concentration and patience. However, many Tibetan people find this work to be very rewarding and enjoyable. The cordyceps is extracted from the soil with a small knife or a hoe being careful not to damage the larvae and it’s common to only find about 15-20 specimens per day / per person.
This isn’t how it’s done for the kind of Cordyceps that is in almost all of claimed cordyceps mushroom supplements on the market though. Since true wild Cordyceps is hard to come by, it’s sold almost exclusively in Asia and almost never makes it to the North American market.
Cordyceps supplement forms
There are a few types of supplement forms on the market today sold as Cordyceps sinensis. Many scientists have had trouble cultivating it so what they ended up with is anamorphs. These are mycelium cultures that are unable to produce a fruiting body. They’re grown in liquid fermentation to create mass amounts of pure mycelium, a process known as liquid culture mycelium. These anamorphs have been studied extensively and were found to have similar effects to wild Cordyceps sinensis. It’s now called Cordyceps Cs-4 and is recognized as a safe natural drug product in China. If a supplement is claiming to be pure Cordyceps sinenses and it is from China, it’s most likely to be the synthetic Cs-4.
If a Cordyceps sinensis supplement is made in North America, it is almost always a Cordyceps mycelium grown on grain. It has been shown with some mycelium grown on grain that the mycelium doesn’t fully consume the grain, leaving much of the final product consisting of starch. A high amount of grain will mean there is a low amount of mycelium, which gives you low beta-glucan (active-compound) content. This is why it’s important to have medicinal mushroom supplements tested for their beta-D-glucans content rather than just the polysaccharide content.
If purchasing a Cordyceps mushroom extract it’s likely to be purchasing a species called Cordyceps militaris. This is the only species of Cordyceps studied that has had any luck growing mushrooms under cultivation and they also have high beta-glucan content.
Traditionally, Cordyceps has been used in TCM for lack of energy, lung, liver and kidney support, and sexual function. C. sinensis is thought to improve your bodies ATP which may enhance the way your body uses oxygen, specifically while exercising. the In a study funded by the Department of Respiratory Disease at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, researchers tested exercise capability with 30 healthy older adults. Participants received either 3 grams of CS-4 or 3 grams of a placebo. At the end of the 6-week study, it was shown that the participants that received CS-4 had a 7% increase of VO2 max. (VO2 max is a measurement that determines fitness levels. It is defined as oxygen uptake attained during maximum intensity exercise.) In a similar study with younger adults taking a blend of mushrooms containing C. sinensis that after 3 weeks they had an 11% increase of VO2 max.
For heart health, Cordyceps has been approved by the Chinese government for the treatment of arrhythmia, a condition where the heartbeat is irregular, too fast or too slow.
In regards to its potential to enhance immune system function and overall gut health, a study showed that a C. sinensis hot water extract significantly lowered harmful bacteria populations and increase helpful bacteria in the small intestine of broiler chicks. The chicks were given 600 mg/kg a day for 35 days. The study showed that C. sinensis is helpful in the regulation of intestinal bacteria. In summary, “studies reveal that cordyceps has effects on both innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Furthermore, cordyceps also has a modulatory effect on gut immune system, which may further influence systemic immune function.” (Koh et al. 2002; Yu, Kim, and Suh 2003).
It has also long been used in Chinese tradition as an aphrodisiac and research funded by the Sikkim Manipal Institutes of Medical Sciences in 1998 found that it enhanced libido and sexual activity in both sexes in humans. These effects are related to the enhancement in testosterone with supplementation of cordyceps. Further evidence showed that C. sinensis and C. militaris can be used to improve reproductive function and restore impaired reproductive function.
For use on the kidney and liver, C. sinensis has been used for the treatment of renal diseases and has shown a significant improvement in renal function in rats and clinical trials have also shown evidence for cordyceps as a renoprotection remedy. In patients with renal failure who took Cs-4, it significantly promoted renal function. For the liver, clinical trials have shown it to be effective in treating patients with chronic hepatitis and related diseases, one reason being that it has a potential enhancing effect on immunological function.
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