Cordyceps is one perplexing and ruthless fungus – in the mountainous regions of Asia, this mushroom invades insect larvae and grows out of their body. Folks have been using it for centuries to boost energy and libido and combat lung and kidney diseases. Find out what the science says about its purported health benefits.
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].
The most well-known and studied species is Cordyceps sinensis. In 2007, scientists discovered changed its name to Ophiocordyceps sinensis, although it is still commonly referred to as C. sinensis or just cordyceps [3, 4].
Cordyceps is no typical mushroom. Its spores infect moth caterpillars and grow into a large mass called mycelium that invades 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 .
Tinctures and teas from the fungus-caterpillar combination are famous in traditional Chinese medicine for boosting libido, reducing fatigue, and fighting lung and kidney diseases [2, 6, 7].
More broadly, cordyceps is considered a general tonic claimed to increase vitality and longevity [2, 6, 7].
Because it is adapted to a specific host, geography, and climate, wild C. sinensis is scarce and impossible to mass-produce .
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 .
Nowadays, Cordyceps is mass-produced either by fermenting, extracting, and purifying the fungus in a liquid medium (containing yeast, sugar, and other nutrients) or by growing the mycelium on a solid medium of grain (rice, millet, wheat). The former method is more quicker and more common in China and the latter takes longer and is used by most manufacturers in Japan and the United States [10, 11, 10].
Cultured Cordyceps mycelium contains the same concentrations of active components as wild Cordyceps, making it an effective and affordable alternative [12, 13].
- May protect the liver and kidneys
- May improve immune system function
- May help with asthma and COPD
- May improve aerobic exercise capacity
- Generally safe with minimal side effects reported
- A long history of use
- Lack of clinical trials
- Hard to produce in large quantities
- Wild C. sinensis is extremely expensive and endangered
- Possible interaction with antidiabetic and antiviral drugs
- May increase prostate cancer growth
Potential Health Benefits of Cordyceps
Note: This section contains research related to the benefits of both C. sinensis and C. militaris due to the similarity in active compounds and effects. Any mention of Cordyceps refers to both species.
Possibly Effective for:
1) Protecting the Kidneys
Cordyceps may protect the kidneys from damage caused by certain antibiotics, enhance kidney function, and help balance the immune system in people with kidney transplants.
Aminoglycoside are a broad class of antibiotics commonly prescribed to children (gentamicin and neomycin are some examples). Unfortunately, they can seriously damage the kidneys. C. sinensis prevented kidney damage in 21 people taking aminoglycoside antibiotics [14, 15].
In 2 trials of over 200 people with poor kidney function, C. sinensis protected against kidney damage from a potentially harmful medical procedure [16, 17].
In a clinical trial on 98 people with chronic kidney disease, C. militaris (400 mg/day) delayed the progression of the disease. The authors of the study believed it did so by blocking a signaling pathway (TLR4/NF-kB) .
In rats with kidney disease, Cordyceps reduced inflammatory cytokines, decreased oxidative stress, and improved kidney function. C. sinensis also prevented cell death and decreased inflammation in rats with poor blood flow to the kidneys [19, 20, 21+].
In a review of five studies and 447 kidney transplant patients in total, cordyceps reduced the number of complications (organ rejection, infections, and kidney and liver damage). It also improved kidney, liver, and immune function. Patients taking cordyceps needed less cyclosporin A, a drug used to prevent organ rejection that has severe side effects [22, 23, 24, 25].
By balancing the immune system, cordyceps seems to protect against organ rejection, reduce infections, and improve organ function in kidney transplant patients. However, long-term studies (>1 year) are needed to determine the extended benefits in this population.
Taken together, limited evidence suggests that cordyceps protects the kidneys in people with chronic kidney disease, taking antibiotics, and undergoing medical procedures (including kidney transplants).
If you are in any of these situations, you may discuss with your doctor if cordyceps may be helpful as a complementary strategy in your case. Since these conditions are all serious, you must carefully follow your doctor’s recommendations and never use cordyceps to replace what they prescribe.
2) Improving Immune System Function
Cordyceps seems to improve immune function, but that doesn’t mean it should be classified as an immune booster. Its action is balancing: lowering immune overactivation in autoimmune diseases while heightening defense when the immune system is weakened or under attack.
In a study of 44 patients with autoimmune thyroid diseases, the more common type of cordyceps – C. sinensis – reduced levels of thyroid antibodies and balanced pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cell levels .
In another trial on 39 healthy adults, supplementation with cultured C. sinensis for 8 weeks increased natural killer cell activity by almost 40% .
In mice, C. sinensis prevented the decline in immune cells caused by chemotherapy and improves the ability of immune cells to fight pathogens. And although this is promising, no clinical studies have confirmed its ability to counter chemotherapy side effects [28, 29].
The other cordyceps species, C. militaris, increased the activity of immune cells involved in fighting infections (natural killer cells, IL-2, and IFN-gamma) in a trial of 79 people. It was safe and more effective than placebo. In cell-based studies, it increases the activity of phagocytes, cells involved in engulfing bacteria and other small particles [30, 31].
Again, limited evidence suggests that cordyceps may improve immune system function. You may discuss with your doctor if it may be helpful in your case.
3) Improving Lung Function
Cordyceps reduced inflammation in the lungs and improved lung function and overall symptoms in 2 trials on 180 people with asthma [32, 33].
Another study of 50 people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) found that the mushroom improved lung function and shortness of breath .
Rat studies revealed similar benefits. Cordyceps reduced lung inflammation and prevented scarring and thickening of the airways in rats with COPD .
Once again, promising but limited evidence suggests that cordyceps may improve lung function in people with asthma or COPD. Discuss with your doctor if it may help as an add-on to your treatment regime and never take cordyceps in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.
Insufficient Evidence for:
4) Improving Exercise Performance
In two studies of 57 older adults, taking 1-3 g of cordyceps extract (Cs-4) improved their capacity for intense exercise. It reduced their fatigue and helped them use oxygen more effectively during a cycling workout [36, 37].
However, the same extract (3 g/day) did not improve endurance exercise performance in trained cyclists in another study .
Mice given cordyceps were able to swim up to twice as long before getting tired. This is likely because cordyceps increases ATP levels, which releases energy. Plus, it reduces oxidative stress and lactic acid buildup, which are both associated with prolonged exercise [39, 40, 41, 42, 43].
All in all, 3 clinical trials (with different results in older adults versus well-trained athletes) and some animal studies cannot be considered conclusive evidence that cordyceps improves exercise performance. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed to shed some light on this potential health benefit.
5) Protecting the Liver
Cordyceps may protect the liver by boosting protective antioxidants and preventing the buildup of fats in the liver. It might also help people with hepatitis and liver cirrhosis, although the evidence is very limited.
In 60 hepatitis B patients, cordyceps reduced inflammation and scarring in the liver and improved liver function. A traditional Chinese multi-herbal medicine with cordyceps (Fuzheng Huayu) reduced liver damage in 40 people with liver cirrhosis. Unfortunately, neither of the studies has been translated from Chinese and we couldn’t access their specifics for a critical analysis [44, 45].
In mice with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, it decreased fat stores and increased liver antioxidants. In rats, cordyceps protected against liver injury due to kidney disease and prevented scarring of the liver due to alcohol [46, 47, 48].
One cell study sheds light on its potential mechanism. In the study, cordyceps prevented the buildup of fat in liver cells by increasing the activity of genes involved in fat-burning. At the same time, cordyceps decreased the activity of a gene involved in fat-storage .
Two small trials, and some animal and cell-based research cannot be considered sufficient evidence that cordyceps protects the liver. More clinical trials on larger populations are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.
Lacking Evidence For:
No clinical evidence supports the use of cordyceps for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Diabetes and Blood Sugar
Cordyceps extract (Cs-4) improved insulin sensitivity and reduced blood sugar in healthy rats [50, 51].
In diabetic mice and rats, cordyceps reduced blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. It boosted antioxidant levels and prevented liver, kidney, and pancreatic damage [52, 53, 54, 55, 56].
Cordycepin reduced weight gain in obese rats fed a high-fat diet by modifying the composition of gut bacteria .
Interestingly, cordycepin helped convert inactive fat cells (white adipose tissue) into calorie-burning fat cells (brown adipose tissue) .
Fertility and Sex Hormones
In Northern India and Nepal, cordyceps is known as the “Himalayan viagra.” Apparently, local herders first observed that yaks, goats, and sheep that ate cordyceps became much stronger and bulkier. Subsequently, the mushroom became very popular for increasing vitality and as an aphrodisiac .
A couple of studies suggest there might be some truth to this.
Cordyceps improved sperm count and quality in rats and pigs [60, 61, 62].
Both species – C. sinensis and C. militaris – also increased levels of the sex hormones estradiol and testosterone in mice and rats [63, 64, 65, 66].
This hormonal boost likely underlies the fertility-enhancing effects of cordyceps. Plus, testosterone supports muscle-building, adding to the exercise benefits mentioned above. And as an add-on, testosterone boosts libido, especially in people with low levels [63, 64, 65, 66, 67].
Cordyceps reduced high cholesterol and triglyceride levels caused by diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol in mice. In turn, it may protect the blood vessels and prevent their clogging [55, 68].
A polysaccharide isolated from cordyceps (CS-F30) might carry this effect. It decreased cholesterol and triglycerides in mice .
Cordycepin from the mushroom may also protect the heart. It prevented plaque buildup mice, reducing the risk of heart disease .
In rats, cordyceps helped prevent irregular heartbeats. It also reduced oxidative stress and improved recovery after poor oxygen supply in mice hearts .
Cordyceps may be a good nootropic and brain-protective medicinal mushroom, according to animal studies. It seems to boost brain circulation and reduce brain cell damage, but we have yet to see if this holds true in humans.
In gerbils (a type of desert rat), cordyceps prevented short-term memory loss and the loss of neurons due to stroke. It’s possible that it might also help in cases of poor brain circulation .
Cordyceps protected against memory loss, prevented brain cell damage, and reduced inflammation in the brains of mice with dementia. It also increased the birth and growth of new neurons and reduced memory loss in rats [72, 73].
In rats with Parkinson’s disease, cordycepin improved movement, reduced the loss of dopamine neurons, and lowered brain inflammation .
Cordyceps may offer some skin protection, although its use in skincare products is still not commonplace.
In one study, cordyceps extracts protected skin cells from damage due to UVB radiation by reducing free radicals and increasing antioxidants. In another cell study, cordyceps helped prevent the breakdown of skin collagen and provided UV protection equivalent to SPF 25 [75, 76].
Cordyceps also reduced skin inflammation in mice with eczema .
Cordyceps reduced symptoms of depression in rats by activating adrenaline and dopamine receptors in the brain .
In mice, cordycepin reduced symptoms of depression faster and stronger than the common antidepressant drug imipramine (Tofranil) .
Cordyceps reduced pain in rats and was more effective than the control drug phenylbutazone, which is commonly used to treat pain in animals .
Cordycepin reduced pain and inflammation in arthritic rats by preventing the activation of NFκB, a molecule that serves as a genetic switch for increasing inflammation .
Bone Loss (Osteoporosis)
The more common cordyceps species, C. sinensis, prevented the loss of bone density and mineral content in rats with osteoporosis. In turn, it also improved their strength .
In mice, the other cordyceps species, C. militaris, prevented bone loss due to inflammation from the bacterial toxin LPS .
In Northern India, cordyceps is highly valued as a longevity-promoting remedy. Despite the traditional claims, only one scientific study has explored its anti-aging potential .
In mice with accelerated aging, cordyceps increased levels of key antioxidants, reduced oxidative stress, and improved brain and sexual function .
Below, we will discuss some preliminary research on the potential anticancer effects of cordyceps. It’s still in the animal and cell stage and further clinical studies have yet to determine if its extract may be useful in cancer therapies.
Do not under any circumstances attempt to replace conventional cancer therapies with cordyceps or any other supplements! If you want to use it as a supportive measure, talk to your doctor to avoid any unexpected interactions.
Cordyceps slowed cancer growth, reduced tumor size, and increased survival time in mice with skin, immune cell (lymphoma), lung, and liver cancers. It also helped prevent cancer from spreading [85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91].
In cell-based studies, cordycepin, ergosterol, and polysaccharides from cordyceps triggered programmed cell death, which is needed to remove cells that start behaving cancer-like. These compounds also increased the activity of cancer-fighting immune cells (macrophages and natural killer cells) and prevented the growth of blood vessels that provide nutrients to cancer [92, 93, 86, 94, 95, 96+].
The main active compound cordycepin also made brain and mouth cancer cells more sensitive to cancer treatment [97, 98].
However, cordyceps may not be beneficial for all cancers. Certain types of prostate cancers may be fueled by androgens such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone. C. sinensis increased the growth of prostate cancer in mice due to its ability to increase testosterone levels [99, 64].
Limitations and Caveats
A lot of the research on Cordyceps has been conducted in China and conflicts of interest and other important limitations could not be determined. Additionally, much of the clinical research conducted in China is inaccessible.
Also, much of the research is in animals and many of the benefits attributed to Cordyceps have yet to be examined in human studies.
C. sinensis is a parasitic fungus that is highly valued in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine systems. Traditional uses for the fungus include increasing energy and reducing fatigue, boosting fertility and libido, and treating a wide range of diseases including colds and diabetes.
Clinical research suggests that Cordyceps may be effective in improving outcomes and organ function in kidney transplant patients, helping improve liver and lung function, helping with autoimmune thyroid diseases, and improving aerobic exercise capacity.
While it shows anti-cancer effects in animals, it may also increase prostate growth by stimulating testosterone production. Despite centuries of use as well as promising animal and cell studies, clinical trials on its effectiveness and safety are still lacking.