Cordyceps doesn’t stop to fascinate. It naturally grows in the mountainous regions of Asia by invading insect larvae and growing out of their body. Folks have been using it for centuries to boost energy and libido. Find out how cordyceps supplements are commercially produced and used and what side effects they can cause.
What Is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is the name for a group (genus) of fungi, all of which are parasites of various insects or other fungi. There are over 750 species of Cordyceps fungi around the world. They primarily grow in South Asia, Europe, and North America [1, 2].
With so many mushroom species, it becomes hard to say exactly which one someone is referring to when they talk about “cordyceps.”
The most well-known and studied one is Cordyceps sinensis. In 2007, scientists discovered that this species is unrelated to most of the others and placed it in an entirely new genus (Ophiocordyceps). Although its name has been changed to Ophiocordyceps sinensis, it is still commonly referred to as C. sinensis, or just cordyceps [3, 4].
Cordyceps is no typical mushroom. The way it grows in nature has fascinated scientists for a long time and earned it the nickname “caterpillar fungus.”
Namely, the spores of the fungus infect moth caterpillars. These tiny spores then grow into a large fungal mass called mycelium that spreads throughout the insect body, eventually killing the larvae. A thin stalk called a fruiting body then sprouts from the corpse, releases spores, and continues the cycle .
In fact, the fungus-caterpillar combination is among the most famous traditional Chinese medicines. It has been used for hundreds of years in tinctures and teas to boost libido, reduce fatigue, and fight lung and kidney diseases [2, 6, 7].
More broadly, cordyceps is considered a general tonic claimed to increase vitality and longevity. Standardized extracts are even used in medical clinics throughout China and some are classified as drugs [2, 6, 7].
Cordyceps Sinensis vs. Cordyceps Militaris
While C. sinensis is by far the most valued and studied Cordyceps species, others have also been used for their potential health benefits. Among these, Cordyceps militaris is the most well-known and researched one.
Despite their longstanding popularity and use, few clinical trials have been conducted on either C. sinensis or C. militaris, and no human studies have investigated the other species .
C. sinensis is found exclusively in the Tibetan plateau, the world’s highest plateau that covers most of Tibet and some of the neighboring regions. Its average altitude is astonishing, reaching 4,500 m or 14,800 ft. Cordyceps is an important part of traditional Tibetan medicine and the Tibetan economy. Harvesting of wild C. sinensis accounts for nearly 40% of the income in rural Tibet and 9% of the region’s GDP [6, 8, 9].
C. sinensis caught the attention of the world in 1993, when Chinese long-distance runners broke several world records in the Chinese National Games. Their coach credited their success to a daily tonic containing the fungus .
The two most important active components found in both C. sinensis and C. militaris (and a few other Cordyceps species) are cordycepin (3’-deoxyadenosine) and D-mannitol (also known as cordycepic acid) [11, 1].
Cordycepin is very similar to the molecule adenosine, which plays a role in helping fall asleep and increasing blood flow. Adenosine is also part of ATP, the body’s main energy currency .
D-mannitol is a sugar alcohol used clinically as a diuretic in people with fluid buildup (edema) due to kidney disorders and to decrease swelling in the brain after trauma or stroke .
Other active components found in C. sinensis and C. militaris include [11, 1, 13, 14, 15]:
- Polysaccharides (CPS-1, CPS-2, CS-F30, CS-F10, beta-glucans, and mannoglucan)
- Nucleosides (adenosine and thymidine)
- Sterols (ergosterol and beta-sitosterol)
- Vitamins: B1, B2, and K
- Minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium
- Others: peptides, amino acids, sugars, fatty acids, and enzymes
How Does Cordyceps Work?
Cordycepin has multiple potential effects, including [1, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22]:
- Immune system-balancing
D-mannitol acts as a diuretic, helps maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside cells, and reduces inflammation .
Carbohydrates in Cordyceps may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and cholesterol– and blood sugar-lowering effects. They may also help boost the immune system [23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29].
Cordyceps Supplement Facts, Combinations & Dosage
How Are Cordyceps Supplements Made?
Because it is adapted to a specific host, geography, and climate, wild C. sinensis is scarce and impossible to mass-produce using its natural life cycle. This, coupled with increasingly high demand, has led to skyrocketing prices. In 2017, high-quality C. sinensis pieces were being sold for more than $63,000/lb ($140,000/kg) in Beijing, over 3x the price of gold at the time! .
Due to overharvesting, wild C. sinensis is now classified as an endangered species. To fulfill the demand that can’t be satisfied by harvesting the wild form, artificial cultivation methods have been developed. Thanks to these methods, large-scale manufacturing of both C. sinensis and C. militaris is now possible .
There are two main ways to mass-produce Cordyceps.
One involves the fermentation of the fungus in a liquid medium containing yeast, sugar, and other nutrients, set at a specific temperature and pH. Once the mycelium (non-reproductive part of the fungus) has fully grown, it is extracted and purified. This method allows you to grow Cordyceps quickly and is popular with Chinese manufacturers [9, 32].
Different strains of wild C. sinensis are added in the fermentation process to various products. For example, Cs-4 is a standardized product from a specific strain of C. sinensis .
The other method of producing Cordyceps involves growing the mycelium on a solid medium of grain (rice, millet, wheat). This method takes longer and is used by many manufacturers in Japan and the United States .
Although it is cheaper to manufacture Cordyceps this way, there are issues with the end-product containing high amounts of grain relative to active components. This is because unlike liquid mediums, the grain can’t be separated entirely from the mycelium .
Cultured Cordyceps mycelium contains the same concentrations of active components as wild Cordyceps, making it an effective and affordable alternative [33, 34].
Potential Supplement Combinations
In a study of 18 athletes undergoing altitude training, those taking cordyceps and Rhodiola crenulata saw twice the improvement in run time until exhaustion compared to placebo. They were also able to handle stress better by improving their heart rate variability .
However, another study found that the combination of cordyceps and Rhodiola rosea did not improve exercise performance compared to placebo .
In summary, Rhodiola crenulata may synergize better with cordyceps than Rhodiola rosea in improving aerobic capacity and exercise performance.
The combination of cordyceps and Ginkgo biloba reduced the inflammatory markers hs-CRP, IL-6, and TNF-α in 60 kidney failure patients .
And similar to cordyceps, ginkgo also improves blood flow. Plus, many of ginkgo’s health benefits overlap with those of cordyceps while both remedies are classified as tonics .
Lupus nephritis is an inflammation of the kidneys in people with lupus. A 5-year study looked at the effect of cordyceps and artemisinin – a molecule extracted from wormwood – in patients with lupus who were treated for this condition and no longer had the disease. The combination improved kidney function and prevented lupus nephritis from returning in 30 out of 31 patients .
Bailing capsule is a supplement used in China made from mycelium of C. sinensis. Corbrin capsule (CS-C-Q80) is also made from C. sinensis mycelium and is classified as a drug in China .
Cs-4, known as Jin Shui Bao in China, is a specific strain of C. sinensis that is grown via the liquid fermentation method. It is standardized to contain no less than 5% D-mannitol and 0.14% adenosine .
As wild C. sinensis is prohibitively expensive, you should be very cautious of any affordable product that is advertised as such.
Because cordyceps is not approved by the FDA for any condition, there is no official dose. Users and supplement manufacturers have established unofficial doses based on trial and error. Discuss with your doctor if cordyceps may be useful as a complementary approach in your case and which dose you should take.
For the Cs-4 cordyceps strain, 1-3 g/day has been used in clinical studies [10, 41, 42].
For the typical cultured Cordyceps sinensis (the Bailing capsule), studies used 3 g/day divided into three doses .
For the fermented powders of Cordyceps sinensis (Corbrin capsule), 2 g/day was used to improve autoimmune thyroid disease .
To sum it up, clinical studies suggest 1-3 g/day as the dosage for most cordyceps extracts. Most supplements contain 600–1,000 mg of the extract per capsule.
Cordyceps Side Effects, Precautions, Drug Interactions & Reviews
Safety & Side Effects
Keep in mind that the safety profile of cordyceps is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is not a definite one and you should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.
Side effects were rare in clinical trials, but may include :
- Dry mouth
While it is deadly for insects, cordyceps taken as a supplement will not infect your cells.
A case report found that a patient taking C. sinensis daily experienced excessive bleeding after dental surgery. Individuals with bleeding disorders should use caution when supplementing with cordyceps .
There have also been a couple of reports of lead poisoning from C. sinensis. Make sure you are buying from reputable vendors who routinely test for levels of contaminants in their products .
Men with an enlarged prostate or prostate cancer may want to avoid cordyceps due to its ability to increase the growth of the gland as well as prostate cancer in mice .
Pregnant and lactating women should avoid taking cordyceps due to its ability to increase sex hormone levels .
Supplement/Herb/Nutrient-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let them know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.
Blood Sugar-Lowering Drugs
Cordyceps reduced blood sugar levels in mice and rats. Its combination with blood-sugar-lowering drugs may further lower blood sugar [47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52].
Due to the antiviral properties of cordycepin, patients taking antiviral drugs should use caution before taking cordyceps as it may interfere with the drugs’ effects [53, 11].
Consult your doctor before supplementing if you take medication or have a serious health condition.
The opinions expressed in this section are solely those of cordyceps users, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. Their reviews do not represent the opinions of SelfHacked. SelfHacked does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.
Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare providers because of something you have read on SelfHacked. We understand that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.
The most common benefits of using cordyceps reported by users were increased physical and mental energy and improved mood. Many mentioned increased aerobic capacity and found it easier to breathe during cardio workouts.
Some users reported improved sleep, libido, and immune system function. Others reported no effects.
Negative effects were rarely reported and stopped with discontinued use. These included upset stomach, increased anger, irritability, aggression, and anxiety.
Effects generally seem to last with continued use and tolerance does seem to be an issue according to user reviews.
Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine for its alleged energy-, fertility-, and libido-boosting effects.
The fungus is only found on the Tibetan plateau and research has uncovered many active components including cordycepin, cordycepic acid, and polysaccharides.
Because wild cordyceps is scarce and hard to produce on a large enough scale to meet demand, artificial cultivation methods using liquid fermentation or solid grain mediums are used.
Reported side effects include nausea, dry mouth, and diarrhea. Low-quality products may be contaminated with lead or other toxins.