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I’ve mentioned how much I love medicinal mushrooms and all of their amazing health benefits. But today I want to talk about cordyceps, which many people call a mushroom (but they really aren’t!). Cordyceps has many amazing health benefits that the western world is just beginning to explore.
What Are Cordyceps?
Cordyceps are a kind of fungus closely related to mushrooms. They grow on caterpillars in the high mountain regions of China and other mountain regions at high elevations (about 10 or 12 thousand feet). Their spores infect caterpillar larvae and grow from the inside out of the caterpillars, finally killing the host. As the long tendrils grow out of the caterpillar (underground) they finally poke out of the ground. This unusual way of growing may be responsible for its nickname “zombie mushroom.” Less terrifying names for cordyceps are “vegetable caterpillar” and “Chinese caterpillar fungus.”
Mushrooms have been used as food, medicine, and in religious rituals since at least 5000 BC. But folklore says that the power of cordyceps was discovered close to AD 500 when a couple of yak herders stumbled upon it. Their animals grazed on the cordyceps and became unusually energetic and playful. The yak herders theorized that the cordyceps had something to do with all the excess energy!
Cordyceps Mushrooms in Traditional Medicine
Cordyceps has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and other traditional cultures.
Healers in Sikkim India used cordyceps to treat everything from cancer to asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, hepatitis, and even the common cold.
Additionally, it’s thought that cordyceps can help oxygenate the body because they grow at such high altitudes (where there is little oxygen). In fact, Tibetan Sherpas (Mount Everest guides) make tea from cordyceps and say it helps them climb the mountain. Research supports this theory too (and we’ll get into that below!).
8 Proven Benefits of Cordyceps Mushrooms
Traditional wisdom tells us that cordyceps mushrooms can be helpful in treating many ailments. Modern research supports many of those uses now as well.
1. Boosts Energy
One of the’most well-known benefits of cordyceps is the ability to increase energy by increasing VO2 max (maximum oxygen intake). A 1996 animal study confirmed that cordyceps increases efficiency in carrying oxygen through the body.
Cordyceps are also known to help with ATP production, which is the energy powerhouse of the cell. Cordyceps can improve this energy production by up to 50 percent.
2. Athletic Performance
In the 1993 Olympics, Chinese athletes broke a number of world records. This made them look suspicious and officials investigated. The coach assured the public that they were not taking steroids. They were, instead, using a rigorous training schedule and… you guessed it… cordyceps mushrooms!
Assuming the coach was telling the truth, this is an interesting anecdotal account of the power of cordyceps. But research supports the idea this mighty mushroom improves athletic performance.
A 2010 study found that use of cordyceps improved exercise performance in older subjects. It also improved the subjects’ metabolism by 10 percent and their respiratory function by 8.5 percent.
Chinese medicine traditionally used cordyceps as an adaptogenic herb, which means it can adapt to the needs of a particular body. For this reason, adaptogens can help the body adapt to stresses in life and stay in balance.
Adaptogens are also excellent for folks with autoimmune disease because they don’t boost the immune system (which could be bad if it’s already overreacting). In fact, one 2009 study found that cordyceps reduced the severity of lupus (an autoimmune disease) in rats.
Traditional Chinese medicine has used cordyceps to fight cancer for centuries, and research is now backing up this traditional use.
In a 2015 study, cordyceps inhibited the growth of cancer cells in mice. They also increased tumor cell death. The study found that cordyceps did this by interfering with the tumor cell’s life cycle and supported natural cell death.
Cordyceps may also inhibit cancer cells from spreading in the body, according to a study published in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences.
While this study used test tubes (rather than animals or humans), the findings are interesting and could be the beginning of a new cancer treatment.
5. Anti-Aging and Immune Boosting
Cordyceps is also considered an anti-aging herb. In one 2009 study on mice, researchers found that cordyceps improves antioxidant activity and brain function. Both are important for avoiding age-related illnesses and degeneration.
Cordyceps benefits also include improving immune function. It does this by stimulating macrophage (invader fighting cells) activity, according to a study published in Biotherapy.
Additionally, the polysaccharides in cordyceps can fight oxidative stress. (Oxidative stress is widely considered a potential cause of age-related illness.) A 2016 study concluded that these mushrooms have the ability to fight oxidative stress, which also improves immune function.
6. Improves Metabolic Disorders
Research shows that cordyceps improves fat metabolism and other metabolic parameters. Specifically, it can improve hypoglycemic symptoms and help balance blood sugar and insulin release.
Because hypoglycemia is increasingly common, having a natural way to help improve blood sugar levels (along with a healthy diet and lifestyle) can be helpful for many people.
7. Improves Sexual Dysfunction
Another benefit of cordyceps is that it can help improve sexual function. A 2016 review found that cordyceps stimulates sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Men had higher sperm counts (and higher sperm survival rates), while both men and women had increased sexual desire.
8. Protects Liver and Heart
Cordyceps may also protect the liver. In one 2014 study, cordyceps protected both the liver and heart with rats with kidney disease.
Possible Side Effects of Using Cordyceps Mushrooms
Cordyceps mushrooms are generally considered safe for most people but there are a few precautions to keep in mind. As with many herbs and natural remedies, there isn’t enough information about cordyceps use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding to say it’s definitely safe.
- Any herb that can boost the immune system should be used with caution in those with autoimmune conditions. But as noted earlier, adaptogenic herbs don’t necessarily boost the immune system in those with autoimmune disease. It may instead reduce it or otherwise balance it.
- Cordyceps may increase bleeding in those with bleeding disorders.
- Stop taking cordyceps mushrooms at least 2 weeks before surgery as it may increase risk of bleeding.
- In excess it can cause mild GI issues like diarrhea, constipation, or cramping.
As always, check with your doctor to figure out what’s right in your situation.
How to Use Cordyceps
Finding cordyceps in the wild is tough considering they grow in such a specific location. But cordyceps are becoming more widely available because it is now possible to reproduce them in a lab. This makes them more sustainable (and just as healthy).
Cordyceps can be purchased in supplement form (capsules, tablets, and tinctures). You can add them to tea or take them with a glass of water in the morning. While that may or may not sound the most appetizing, there is one way to get cordyceps mushrooms in your diet that is as easy as drinking your morning coffee.
What I Do
This cordyceps mushroom coffee blend from Four Sigmatic uses mushrooms from a quality source and seriously is some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. (You won’t even know there are mushrooms in it!) Since you just open a packet and add water, they’re great for travel (which I do a lot of these days) or throwing in a gym bag for a workout pick-me-up.
If you prefer to try cordyceps without a side of caffeine, they make a caffeine-free cordyceps mushroom elixir that’s just as easy to use and tastes great as well. It is also available in a bulk powder that can be added to drinks and smoothies.
Medicinal Mushrooms: A Natural Energy Boost
I’ve always said (and still think) that supplements won’t help much if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle overall. There are no magic pills or powders for getting to bed on time, avoiding sugar, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Still, every little bit helps!
Since introducing medicinal mushrooms like chaga, cordyceps, reishi, lion’s mane, and other mushrooms into my daily routine I’ve noticed more balanced energy and focus… and what mom doesn’t need more of that?!
To learn more about other types of medicinal mushroom benefits and how to use them, see:
More reviews on other medicinal mushrooms coming soon as I try them all!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Alec Weir, M.D., who is a primary care physician who is board-certified in emergency medicine. He is also certified by the Institute for Functional Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Have you tried cordyceps or any other superfood mushrooms? What was your experience?