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, how cordyceps is typically produced, and whether you should be taking it.
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 found 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 is Cordyceps sinensis. In 2007, scientists discovered that this species is unrelated to most of the others and they placed it in an entirely new genus (Ophiocordyceps). Although its name has changed (now it is known as 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. Victoriously, 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 that increases 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 health benefits. Among these, Cordyceps militaris is the most well-known and researched. Despite their longstanding popularity and use, few clinical trials have been conducted on either C. sinensis or C. militaris, while no clinical studies 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 .
How Is Cordyceps 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 an 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 (more than 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 has fully grown, it is extracted and purified. This method is able to grow Cordyceps quickly and is popular with Chinese manufacturers [9, 13].
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 .
- May improve aerobic exercise capacity
- Protects the liver and kidneys
- Helps with asthma
- Improves immune system function
- Very safe with minimal side effects
- Long history of use
- Lack of clinical trials
- Hard to produce in large quantities
- Wild C. sinensis is extremely expensive
- May increase prostate cancer growth
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) [16, 1].
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 .
- 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?
- Immune system-balancing
D-mannitol acts as a diuretic, helps maintain the balance between the fluids inside and outside of your cells, and reduces inflammation .
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.
1) Protects 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 [35, 36].
In another study of 120 people with poor kidney function, C. sinensis protected against kidney damage from a potentially harmful medical procedure .
In rats with kidney disease, Cordyceps reduces inflammatory cytokines, decreases oxidative stress, and improves kidney function. C. sinensis also prevented cell death and decreased inflammation in rats with poor blood flow to the kidneys [38, 39, 40+].
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 [41, 42, 43, 44].
By balancing the immune system, cordyceps is able to protect against organ rejection, reduce infections, and improve organ function in kidney transplant patients. Long-term studies (>1 year) are needed to determine the extended benefits in this population.
2) Protects 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, although the evidence is limited.
In 60 hepatitis B patients, cordyceps reduced inflammation and scarring in the liver and improved liver function .
In mice with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, it decreased fat stores and increased liver antioxidants. And 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 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 .
3) Improves Lung Function
Cordyceps reduced inflammation in the lungs and improved lung function and overall symptoms in 120 people with asthma .
Another study of 50 patients 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 .
In summary, cordyceps is probably good for the lungs and it may offer some relief to people with asthma or COPD.
4) Improves Exercise Performance and Reduces Fatigue
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 [10, 53].
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 [55, 56, 57, 58, 59].
In short, cordyceps extracts (Cs-4) improve exercise performance in older adults, but they probably won’t have a noticeable effect in well-trained athletes.
5) Improves Immune System Function
Cordyceps improves 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 proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cell levels .
In mice, C. sinensis prevents 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 [61, 62].
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 [63, 64].
Health Benefits with Limited Evidence
Cordyceps showed the following health benefits in animal and cell studies only.
Cordycepin, ergosterol, and polysaccharides from cordyceps trigger programmed cell death, which is needed to remove cells that start behaving cancer-like. These active compounds also increase the activity of cancer-fighting immune cells (macrophages and natural killer cells) and prevent the growth of blood vessels that provide nutrients to cancer [65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70+].
Cordyceps slows cancer growth, reduces tumor size, and increases survival time in mice with skin, immune cell (lymphoma), lung, and liver cancers. It also helps prevent cancer from spreading [73, 67, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78].
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 [79, 80].
While Cordyceps shows excellent potential as an anticancer therapeutic in animal and cell-based studies, we still don’t know if this benefit translates to humans.
7) Diabetes and Blood Sugar
8) Weight Loss
Interestingly, cordycepin helps convert inactive fat cells (white adipose tissue) into calorie-burning fat cells (brown adipose tissue) .
As a result, cordyceps might help you burn more fat for energy, supporting your weight-loss goals. Clinical studies would need to confirm this benefit, though.
9) 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.
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 if your levels are low [93, 80, 94, 19, 95].
While cordyceps consistently improved fertility and increased sex hormones in animal studies, these benefits remain unexplored in humans.
Cordyceps reduces 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 [86, 96].
Cordycepin from the mushroom may also protect the heart. It prevented plaque buildup mice, reducing the risk of heart disease .
In rats, cordyceps can help prevent irregular heartbeats. It also reduced oxidative stress and improved recovery after poor oxygen supply in mice hearts .
Based on these studies, cordyceps might support heart health by improving blood flow, reducing plaque buildup, and lowering blood fats.
Cordyceps may offer unique 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 [99, 100].
Cordyceps also reduced skin inflammation in mice with eczema .
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 [103, 104].
In mice, cordycepin reduced symptoms of depression faster and stronger than the common antidepressant drug imipramine (Tofranil) .
15) 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 Northern India, cordyceps is highly valued as a longevity-promoting remedy. Despite the traditional claims, only one scientific study 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 .
Supplement Combinations, Limitations & Dosage
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.
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 .
Limitations and Caveats
A lot of the research on Cordyceps has been conducted in China and conflict 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.
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 advertising as such.
For the typical cultured Cordyceps sinensis (the Bailing capsule), studies use 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 – 1,000mg of the extract per capsule.
Side Effects & Precautions, Drug Interactions, and Reviews
Side effects are rare, but may include :
- Dry mouth
While it is deadly for insects, cordyceps taken as a supplement will not cause infection.
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 .
Blood Sugar-Lowering Drugs
Consult your doctor before supplementing if you take medication or have a serious health condition.
The most common benefits of using cordyceps based on user reviews are increased physical and mental energy and improved mood. Many mention increased aerobic capacity and found it easier to breathe during cardio workouts.
Some users report improved sleep, libido, and immune system function. Others report no effects.
Negative effects are rare and stop with discontinued use. These include upset stomach, increased anger, irritability, and aggression, and anxiety.
Effects generally seem to last with continued use and tolerance does seem to be an issue.
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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, diabetes, and cancer.
The fungus is only found on the Tibetan plateau and research has uncovered many active components including cordycepin, cordycepic acid, and polysaccharides.
Because wild C. sinensis 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.
Clinical research has shown Cordyceps to be effective in improving outcomes and organ function in kidney transplant patients, to help improve liver and lung function, help with autoimmune thyroid diseases, and improve aerobic exercise capacity.
While it shows strong 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 are still lacking.