What Is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a fungus that has long been used in in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Some people use it to try to boost energy and strength, improve immunity, enhance kidney function, and improve sexual dysfunction. It has also been used to treat cough and fatigue. Cordyceps is known as an adaptogen, which means it may help your body adapt to stress.
The fungus infects a caterpillar, kills it, and grows out of its head. In photos, you'll see the dead caterpillar with a growth that can sometimes be as long as its body sticking out of its head. The name "Cordyceps" comes from Latin and means "club" and "head."
You may have heard of Ophiocordyceps. It's a similar parasitic fungus that can infect insects like moths (not humans) -- which is why it's gotten attention as a "zombie fungus." It gets into the insect and kills it. But the fungi continue to grow, releasing spores. These spores can then infect other insects.
Where Cordyceps Fungi Come From
Cordyceps isn't found in foods. It's not a traditional mushroom. Instead, it grows out of a caterpillar. But supplement manufacturers sell Cordyceps in powder, capsule, and liquid form. It is one of the fungi in popular mushroom coffee drinks that contain mushroom extracts.
It can be tough to get this fungi in the wild. There are concerns about over-harvesting it. It's extremely expensive, with one type ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 per kilogram, according to some sources. Manufacturers are turning to lab-grown fungi to meet the growing demand for it.
Types of Cordyceps
There are more than 700 species of Cordyceps. In the health industry, two speciestend to take center stage. Both contain the bioactive compounds adenosine and cordycepin. These are what can offer health benefits.
Ophiocordyceps sinensis (O. sinensis), formerly called Cordyceps sinensis (C. sinensis). This was renamed in 2007. You still may hear people refer to it as C. sinensis, though other names are "Himalayan Viagra," "yartsa gunbu," and "DongChongXiaCa."
Cordyceps militaris (C. militaris). This form can be more easily cultivated in labs than O. sinensis. It's considered a functional food, and researchers believe it has potential as a medicine.It contains higher amounts of cordycepin than C. sinensis.
There are concerns that the fungi in the wild have been overexploited in recent years. That's why many manufacturers use lab-grown forms of C. militaris in most supplements.
Possible Health Benefits of Cordyceps
In traditional Chinese medicine, people take cordyceps as a daily treatment for good health. Some studies show that it may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It's been studied for its effects on many health conditions. But we don't have much conclusive research about whether cordyceps has real health benefits.
Some lab studies have been promising. In test tubes, cordyceps seems to trigger immune cells. It may help the immune system fight some viruses and cancers. In at least one large-scale study, cordyceps lowered creatinine levels in people with chronic kidney disease, and in others, it had the effect of protecting the kidneys from toxic drugs, complications of diabetes, and transplant rejection. It may also lower blood sugar levels.
Cordyceps may also:
- Ease fatigue
- Improve how you use oxygen when you exercise
- Destroy tumor cells
- Reduce bone loss
- Stabilize the heartbeat
- Lower triglycerides, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)
Researchers are looking at the bioactive compound cordycepin to battle COVID-19 due to its antiviral activity. A few studies done in the lab have explored this, but it's not a confirmed treatment.
Most of these studies have been on lab cultures or in animals. We still need more research with large-scale studies on humans to know for sure if Cordyceps has real benefit to human health.
The best dose of Cordyceps hasn't been set for any condition. Quality and ingredients in supplements may vary widely. This makes it impossible to recommend a standard dose. Ask your doctor for advice.
Risks of Cordyceps Fungi
Tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking, even if they’re natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications.
- Side effects. Cordyceps is generally safe, but it may cause upset stomach, nausea, and dry mouth in some people.
- Risks. Don't take Cordyceps if you have cancer, diabetes, or a bleeding disorder. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children should avoid Cordyceps. We don’t know if Cordyceps is safe for them.
- Interactions. If you take any medicines regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using Cordyceps supplements. Cordyceps could interact with blood thinners and drugs that suppress the immune system.
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA the same way that medicines are. They are treated as foods and do not have to prove that they are safe or effective before being sold.