Common name: Cordyceps
Other names: DongChongXiaCao
Latin name: Cordyceps sinensis
Affinities: Cardiovascular system, nervous system, immune system, respiratory system, reproductive system
Actions: Adaptogen, immunomodulator, vital energy tonic, nervine
Specific indications: Red hot inflamed joints or tissues, fatigue, sexual debility, degenerative kidney diseases
Diseases: Asthma(3), diabetes(3), autoimmune disorders(2)
Parts used: Whole fungus
Energetics: Warming, moistening
Characteristics: A medicinal mushroom that grows at high altitude on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau (Zhu et al., 1998). It naturally grows on the back of a caterpillar, while modern cultivation uses a different substrate, reportedly this does not affect the medicinal properties of the mushroom (Powell, 2015).
History: It is considered a Chinese tonic, one of their supreme herbs, and used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat the lungs and the kidneys. Notably, the definitions of ‘lungs’ and ‘kidneys’ in TCM are different than our Western interpretations (Zhu et al., 1998). Cordyceps was brought to our attention when a group of Chinese female runners achieved several world long-distance records and the coach partially attributed their success to this mushroom. Its traditional usage is diverse but includes fatigue, breathing problems, renal dysregulation and failure, cancer, liver diseases, cardiovascular diseases, impotence, poor appetite, and several infectious diseases.
Current applications: Cordyceps is listed as a semi-stimulating adaptogen, it is best taken in the morning (Groves, 2016). Cordyceps is typically applied for fertility and sexual function, energy, diabetes, lung function, kidney support, and liver disorders (Powell, 2015). David Winston uses cordyceps as a tonic for people with degenerative kidney diseases, he also states it is beneficial for individuals suffering from chronic asthma, hay fever, and Berger’s disease (an autoimmune disorder) (Winston, 2007).
Science: Several compounds have been extracted from cordyceps with beneficial effects. For example, one compound called cordymin has been found to have both anti-inflammatory and pain-killing activity in animal models (Qian et al., 2012). Various extracts of the mushroom have wide-ranging pharmacological activities in experimental models, a review article summarised them to include (Ng et al., 2005): anti-tumor and anti-metastatic activity, immunomodulatory activity, antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory activity, anti-aging activity, neuroprotective, and renoprotective activity. These were not human clinical studies, however.
In terms of human clinical studies, a study on healthy older individuals found cordyceps increased the performance during exercise over 12 weeks (Chen et al., 2010). An additional study demonstrated that cordyceps prevented the occurrence of lupus nephritis in patients with lupus, although, cordyceps was applied together with artemisinin (Lu et al., 2002). Further human clinical studies are necessary to work out where cordyceps is best applied, however, preliminary experiments suggest it has broad potential.
Safety: Cordyceps is safe, however, if a person is using blood sugar lowering medication they will probably find their blood sugar levels dropping significantly after a while, therefore less drug is required.
Dosage: 2-3g daily is used for chronic illness, however, higher levels are required for cancer.
Form: The fruiting body of the mushroom (above ground), not the mycelium (roots), is the part of the mushroom traditionally used for medicine. To save money and speed up the process, some companies will grow the mushroom mycelium on a bed of grain, and then grind the two together and package it, before the fruiting body has a chance to develop. That means a reduction on most of the active compounds.
Research on models
Anti-inflammatory activity: One study found that both the mycelium and fruiting body of cordyceps had anti-inflammatory activity in a mouse model (Won et al., 2005). Cordycepin was at least partially responsible for this activity.
Anti-oxidant activity: The same study found that both mycelium and fruiting body ethanol extracts of cordyceps had anti-oxidant activity and could scavenge free radicals (Won et al., 2005). They related Cordycepin to this activity.
Anti-tumour activity: A study found that cordyceps extracts displayed anti-tumor activity (Rao et al., 2007).
Research on humans
Lupus: One study (n = 61, randomised, alternative herbal medication as control) found Cordyceps and artemisinin could prevent the recurrence of lupus nephritis and protect kidney function over 5 years (Lu et al., 2002). Cordyceps was applied in conjunction with artemisinin, another herbal medicine. The dose of Cordyceps was 2.4g three times daily before meals, and of artemisinin 0.6g three times daily after meals.
Improvement in exercise performance: A study (n = 20, randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled) found that taking a cordyceps extract 333mg three times daily for 12 weeks resulted in an improvement in exercise performance in healthy older people (Chen et al., 2010).
Bok, Jin Woo, et al. “Antitumor sterols from the mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis.” Phytochemistry 51.7 (1999): 891-898.
Chen, Steve, et al. “Effect of Cs-4®(Cordyceps sinensis) on exercise performance in healthy older subjects: A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 16.5 (2010): 585-590.
Groves, Maria. Body into Balance. Storey Publishing, 2016.
Lu, Lan. “Study on effect of Cordyceps sinensis and artemisinin in preventing recurrence of lupus nephritis.” Zhongguo Zhong xi yi jie he za zhi Zhongguo Zhongxiyi jiehe zazhi= Chinese journal of integrated traditional and Western medicine/Zhongguo Zhong xi yi jie he xue hui, Zhongguo Zhong yi yan jiu yuan zhu ban 22.3 (2002): 169-171.
Ng, T. B., and H. X. Wang. “Pharmacological actions of Cordyceps, a prized folk medicine.” Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 57.12 (2005): 1509-1519.
Powell, Martin. Medicinal Mushrooms-A Clinical Guide. Mycology Press, 2015.
Rao, Yerra Koteswara, Shih-Hua Fang, and Yew-Min Tzeng. “Evaluation of the anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferation tumoral cells activities of Antrodia camphorata, Cordyceps sinensis, and Cinnamomum osmophloeum bark extracts.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 114.1 (2007): 78-85.
Qian, Gui-min, Guo-Feng Pan, and Jian-You Guo. “Anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive effects of cordymin, a peptide purified from the medicinal mushroom Cordyceps sinensis.” Natural product research 26.24 (2012): 2358-2362.
Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.
Won, So-Young, and Eun-Hee Park. “Anti-inflammatory and related pharmacological activities of cultured mycelia and fruiting bodies of Cordyceps militaris.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 96.3 (2005): 555-561.
Zhu, Jia-Shi, Georges M. Halpern, and Kenneth Jones. “The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis Part I.” The Journal of alternative and complementary medicine 4.3 (1998): 289-303.