Last Updated: November 24, 2020
- What Are Cordyceps Mushrooms and What’s Really in Your Supplement?
- Health Benefits of Cordyceps Mushrooms
- Cordyceps Safety, Dosage and Side Effects
Cordyceps mushrooms seem to be all the rage right now. You see it in every adaptogen and pre-workout supplement. They are being talked about extensively in the mushroom community and are one of the top superfoods.
So what is all the hype surrounding this fascinating fungus? Let’s first explore exactly what this fascinating fungus is and how it can benefit your health. Then we will look at the common variations of cordyceps mushrooms on the market and help decipher what to look for in a cordyceps supplement.
What Are Cordyceps Mushrooms and What’s Really in Your Supplement?
Spores, Mycelium, Insects & Fruiting Bodies
Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that includes over 400 different species which are found all over the world in countries like China, Japan, India, USA, Australia, Peru, Bolivia and many more.
They typically infect other insects and arthropods with each species of Cordyceps infecting a very specific bug.
The lifecycle begins with Cordyceps spores landing on the insect and then the spore will germinate and small thread-like filaments called hyphae will begin to grow inside the insect and turn into mycelium. The mycelium will continue to consume the insect from the inside and when the insect is fully consumed and the environmental conditions are correct, a blade-like mushroom (fruiting body) will be produced from the insect’s head. The mushroom will then release spores and the lifecycle will start over.
Many have seen the BBC Planet Earth clip of Cordyceps infecting ants.
Just for the record, no, Cordyceps does not infect humans.
Wild Cordyceps Sinensis (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) – The Caterpillar fungus
The most well known species of Cordyceps is Cordyceps sinensis (now known officially as Ophiocordyceps sinensis) which infects the caterpillar of the Hepialus moth. It is mainly found at high elevations in Tibet and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu. It can also be found but is less abundant in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
In Tibet it is known as Yarsagumba or yartsa gunbu and in China it is known as Dōnɡ Chónɡ Xià Cǎo (冬虫夏草) which translate to summer grass, winter worm.
Due to the rapid rise in price on this precious resource (more below), it has now been dubbed “himilayan gold” or “himilayan viagra”, becoming a significant contributor to household income in the harvesting regions. So much so that there has been disputes over harvesting territory and outsiders have tried to push their way in. There are now harvesting permits being issued by the Chinese government and local landholders for access to the growing regions. For more on Cordyceps harvesting and the lifestyle in Tibet, see Daniel Winkler’s article in Fungi Magazine.10
More recently, concerns over the sustainability of Cordyceps sinensis have been raised due to over-harvesting, ecosystem degradation and climate change.12
Fueling the Chinese Olympic Runners
This is an entire article in itself, but Cordyceps sinensis was made famous back in 1993 at the Chinese national games in Beijing where multiple Chinese runners shattered track and field records.
Most notable was Wang Jungxia, who beat the 10,000m world record by 42 seconds. This record lasted 23 years.
3 days later, she came second to teammate Yunxia Qu in the 1500m. They both beat the current world record and Yunxia’s record stood for 22 years.
Then 2 days after that, Wang posted a world record in the 3000m. This record still stands today and 4 of the top 5 times in the 3000m come from Chinese athletes in these 1993 games.
Their coach, Ma Junren claimed their success due to a tonic of Cordyceps sinensis and turtle blood.
This Olympic runner’s story is touted all around the internet to promote Cordyceps products, but what is typically left out is that many of Ma’s athletes later failed drug tests. Because of this, Junren Ma was eventually dropped as part of Chinese olympic team.
This era of sports in the 80s to mid-90s was rife with doping scandals and it begs the question, was their success really due to Cordyceps?
Why Cordyceps Sinensis Are NOT In Your Supplement
True, wild Cordyceps sinensis (shown above) is not in 99.9% of Cordyceps supplements because of its exceptionally high price tag. In fact, wild Cordyceps sinensis costs over $20,000 per kilogram, making it the most expensive mushroom in the world.
They are almost exclusively sold in Asia and rarely make it into the North American market.
The high price is due to the fact that for many years, the Chinese have been unable to cultivate the sinensis variety of cordyceps mushrooms. This has fueled increased demand for a set supply of wild Cordyceps sinensis. Only recently have the Chinese figured out how to cultivate this mushroom but it is not at a production scale yet to make an impact on the wild Cordyceps sinensis prices.
Even though the majority of Cordyceps supplements do not contain the caterpillar fungus, this has not stopped many companies from using photos of the sinensis variety of cordyceps mushrooms in their marketing materials and label information, causing customers to believe they are consuming this mushroom. Sadly, they are not.
But if the Caterpillar fungus isn’t in your supplements, what is?
Forms of Cordyceps Supplements: CS-4, Myceliated Grain and Mushroom Extracts (Militaris)
Cordyceps Mushrooms: The Cs-4 Variety
In the 1980’s, when the wild Cordyceps sinensis was gaining in popularity and the price tag kept climbing, scientists in China set out to cultivate this fungus. Many tried and many failed. Still to this day, there is no affordable cultivated version of the sinensis variety of cordyceps mushrooms. What the scientists did end up with are Cordyceps anamorphs, mycelium cultures that are unable to produce a mushroom (fruiting body).
These anamorphs were grown in liquid fermentation to create mass amounts of pure mycelium.
This process is known as liquid culture mycelium or liquid fermentation and involves growing the mycelium in a liquid solution of nutrients which can then be removed, leaving you with pure mycelium.
These anamorphs were studied extensively and were producing similar results to the wild Cordyceps sinensis. This variety of cordyceps mushrooms is now known as Cordyceps Cs-4. After undergoing clinical trials in China, the Chinese government approved its use in TCM hospitals and it is now recognized as a safe natural product drug in China.
If a supplement is claiming to be Cordyceps sinensis and it is made in China, it is almost certainly Cordyceps Cs-4.
Other Cs-4 products may also be labeled as Paecilomyces hepiali which is an anamorph form of Cordyceps sinensis.
Do not confuse Cordyceps Cs-4 with Cordyceps myceliated grain (below) as these are very different products.
Due to the fact that it is not economical to grow the sinensis variety of cordyceps mushrooms in North America for supplement use, if a Cordyceps product is grown in North America, it is almost certainly Cordyceps myceliated grain. This kind of product is referred to as MOG (Mycelium On Grain).
Myceliated grain can also go by mycelium on grain, mycelium biomass or grain spawn.
Myceliated grain products will typically be labeled as Cordyceps sinensis or Cordyceps militaris.
Instead of growing the mycelium in liquid like what is used for Cordyceps Cs-4, the mycelium is instead grown in a plastic bag containing sterilized grain. This can also be referred to as solid state fermentation.
The issue here is that unlike being in liquid, the mycelium cannot be separated from the grain so the grain ends up in the final product.
It has been shown with myceliated grain products that the mycelium does not fully consume the grain so much of the final product is actually the grain the mycelium grows on. This is most apparent with Cordyceps as it is a slow growing fungus.
From the table below you see that the high amount of alpha-glucans, which represent starch from the grain. Starch is an alpha-glucan. This confirms that the grain medium the Cordyceps mycelium grows on is not being fully consumed.
The high amount of grain translates into a low amount of mycelium and this is confirmed in the low beta-glucan numbers. This is why it is important to measure beta-glucans and not polysaccharides for medicinal mushroom products. These samples can tout high polysaccharide numbers (beta + alpha) but the majority of it comes from non-beneficial starches which are alpha-glucans.
Beta-glucan and Alpha-glucan results of Cordyceps mycelium grown on grain.3,4
The nutritional analysis above also confirms how well Cordyceps myceliated grain tracks the grain it is grown on. This further demonstrates how closely myceliated grain is to the grain itself which leads you to wonder how much is actually mycelium.
Cs-4 vs Myceliated Grain
Myceliated grain is often justified by referencing research on pure mycelium made through liquid fermentation.
As pointed out above with Cs-4 and shown below, Cordyceps myceliated grain is very different from Cordyceps Cs-4 so using Cordyceps Cs-4 research to justify the use of Cordyceps myceliated grain is not valid and is misleading to the consumer.
|Cordyceps myceliated grain||1.5%||64%|
Cordyceps Mushrooms Extracts (militaris)
There is currently one type of Cordyceps species that can be commercially cultivated at scale to produce a mushroom (fruiting body) and it is becoming quite popular. This is Cordyceps militaris. By using Cordyceps militaris, for the first time, true Cordyceps mushrooms extracts can be made.
By being made from Cordyceps mushrooms, we see much higher levels of the important beta-glucans. Our Cordyceps-M product which is extracted exclusively from Cordyceps militaris mushrooms has greater than 25% beta-glucans. Compare that to Cs-4 which typically has less than 10% beta-glucans and Cordyceps mycelium on grain which typically has 1-3% beta-glucans.
One of the unique things about Cordyceps militaris is that it produces the compound cordycepin (3′-deoxyadenosine) in much higher amounts when compared to Cordyceps sinensis.
As seen from the table above Cordyceps militaris has up to 90 times more cordycepin (column “Co”) when compared with the wild Cordyceps sinensis. Cs-4 would likely have even less cordycepin than the wild Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps mycelium on grain would have almost no cordycepin due to the low amount of mycelium present.
This is very important as products touting the benefits of cordycepin and labeled as Cordyceps sinensis would likely have undetectable amounts. Either that or the product is improperly labeled as Cordyceps sinensis when it is actually Cordyceps militaris.
Note that Cordyceps militaris products grown in North America would still be myceliated grain and not a true Cordyceps mushrooms extract. Pure mushroom extract powders almost solely come from Asia, with China accounting for over 85% of the world’s mushroom production.
More and more research is coming out showing that Cordyceps militaris has similar benefits to the traditional wild Cordyceps sinensis and has traditionally been used as an alternative to Cordyceps sinensis in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Cordyceps Acid & Other Nucleosides
Cordycepin acid is not to be confused with cordycepin which is a unique compound in Cordyceps but many Cordyceps products talk about Cordycepic acid (sometimes spelled Cordyceptic) as a beneficial compound in Cordyceps. But this was debunked back in the 60s as not being a compound unique to Cordyceps, but a compound that is found in all medicinal mushrooms, which is D-Mannitol or Mannitol.1
Other nucleosides like adenine, adenosine and uridine which are commonly touted in Cordyceps are also found in other fungi as well (see table above).
Health Benefits of Cordyceps Mushrooms
Now that we’ve dispelled a lot of the misinformation around Cordyceps, let’s look at some of the benefits of using Cordyceps.
Traditional Chinese Medicinal Uses
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cordyceps (Dōnɡ Chónɡ Xià Cǎo 冬虫夏草) was considered a very special tonic as it was offered to the Emperor’s court and others among Chinese nobility. The first written record was mentioned in the year AD 620. Traditionally it was used as a lung and kidney tonic making it useful for respiratory ailments, physical exhaustion and for those with a weak constitution. Low sexual function, libido and performance are also keynotes for cordyceps use in traditional literature.
Cordyceps is considered a jing tonic by nourishing yin, boosting yang and supporting kidney essence. Essence is considered to be the elixir of life in TCM. Essence comes from lifestyle (post-natal qi: breathing, diet, meditation, mushrooms and herbs) or from energetic reserves which we are born with (pre-natal qi: acquired from parents “robustness”). Cordyceps is considered to be placed on equal value with other valued tonics like ginseng, reishi and deer antler velvet.
Cordyceps has a sweet flavour and is slightly warm in energetics. These more subtle qualities of cordyceps are used to make sure cordyceps aren’t used in the wrong scenarios. For example, due to the stimulating and strengthening nature of cordyceps, it is contraindicated in conditions with lung heat (infections) based on its ability to not only strengthen the person but also the external pathogen causing the lung compromise.
There have been 50 medicines and 2 cordyceps supplements approved in China since 2002.
Think vigor and vitality when looking at the traditional applications of cordyceps: a secret tonic traditionally used to strengthen, rebuild and energize the body and mind.
Increase Exercise Performance
Cordyceps showed improved exercise performance in healthy older patients with improved respiratory and metabolic functioning.44 This study took twenty healthy elderly individuals ages 50-75. One group was the control and the other group took 333 mg of Cs-4 or 3 capsules per day. The subjects performed the stationary cycle ergometer using breath-by-breath examination at baseline and the end of the study. The results were quite good!
Following 12 weeks of Cs-4 supplementation, the healthy elderly individuals lactate threshold increased by 10.5% and their ventilatory threshold increased by 8.5%. On the other hand, the control group saw no changes in VO2 max.5
Similar results were shown in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial which showed a 7% improvement in VO2max in healthy older individuals, this time in a bigger sample size.48
Cordyceps was shown in a small study to have no effect on aerobic capacity in trained athletes. This research theorizes that trained athletes are already close to their aerobic capacity and cordyceps mechanisms of action have less of an effect.45
Another human study supported the use of cordyceps on energy support and sympathetic activation during exercise.49
Animal studies show that the polysaccharides in cordyceps can have an anti-fatigue effect and improve exercise performance biomarkers.46 This was also shown in another study which found that the rodents that received two weeks of Cordyceps militaris supplementation displayed greater levels of delayed fatigue compared to the rodents not given Cordyceps militaris. Not only that, but the CM rodent group had higher levels of ATP, antioxidant enzyme levels and best part of all, lower levels of lactic acid (a key component regarding fatigue and time to exhaustion). In other words, these rodents were able to push longer and harder without tiring out.8
The antioxidative and general adaptogen effects of cordyceps can support athletes during and after their performance.50 Recovery is a critical time often overlooked by athletes of all levels. Athletes using cordyceps for performance enhancement should also consider its recovery potential.
Beta-glucans and cordycepin in Cordyceps militaris have been theorized to be the main compounds responsible for it’s anti-inflammatory effect.14, 23 Human cell studies show cordyceps can decrease inflammation markers.15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 Mouse studies on type 1 diabetes suggest that the immune and inflammation properties of cordyceps may slow destruction of pancreatic beta cells.21 The immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory properties of cordyceps may help rebalance the T regulatory and Th17 cell ratio seen in this mouse study.22
As autoimmune conditions are often accompanied by inflammation, cordyceps could become an important therapeutic strategy.23, 51 Rheumatoid arthritis in vitro studies suggest that cordycepin may decrease inflammation in immune cells related to inflammation.24
Age-related inflammation to the cells and mitochondria can be influenced by free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Cordyceps may help oxygen delivery at a cellular level which can help decrease inflammation.25
Cordycepin may be a compound to consider when addressing inflammation associated with degenerative disc degeneration, as it has been shown to have an effect on the NF-κB pathway in vitro.40
Cordyceps may have an effect on adenosine receptors which explains some of its anti-inflammatory properties.55, 56
Traditionally cordyceps were used for sexual performance, low libido, and as an aphrodisiac but modern science may also support its use for androgenic potential.
An animal study showed that cordyceps decreased bisphenol A (BPA; a hormone-disrupting plastic) induced reproductive damage while increasing testosterone, sperm motility and sperm count.26
Cordycepin may increase steroidogenic acute regulatory (STAR) enzyme which allows the starting substrate of all hormones, cholesterol, to enter the mitochondria for the production of steroid hormones. Cholesterol is converted to pregnenolone and pregnenolone to testosterone.27, 28
A lot of individuals looking for increases in testosterone often make the mistake of overtraining. Overtraining can lead to an increase in free radicals, leading to oxidative stress and a negative impact on the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal and gonadal axis.29 Cordyceps has been shown to have anti-oxidative properties.30
An endurance athlete study showed that cordyceps supplementation combined with reishi mushroom supplementation decreased overtraining markers and the testosterone and cortisol ratio improved. This same study showed decreases in oxidative stress.32
Less may be more when looking at dosing for hormonal regulating effects; a few of these animal studies showed higher testosterone levels with the lower dosing (1% vs 5%).
Cordyceps was used traditionally to support libido and all things related to sexual functioning but clinical data is lacking in this area.
Most of the in vitro studies and in vitro animal studies suggest that cordyceps libido-enhancing effects may come from its testosterone regulatory and hormone supportive actions.
A study on patients with low libido given cultured cordyceps showed a 64.5% subjective improvement.41 A 2016 review referenced a cordyceps study which increased libido and sexual performance in men and women.62
One other thing to consider is that medicinal mushrooms can be 5-alpha-reductase (5AR) inhibitors which could prevent testosterone from being converted to dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This is also why you see claims to take medicinal mushrooms to combat hair loss as many male pattern baldness drugs are 5AR inhibitors.63
The evidence to support the libido enhancing effects of cordyceps is weak at best. Other than traditional and historic use there is minimal research.34,35 However, taking into consideration the other positive physiological effects cordyceps exerts, cordyceps may support a healthy sex drive as libido has biopsychosocial factors.
Animal studies suggest that cordyceps may help manage common symptoms of type 2 diabetes such as high blood sugar, weight loss and excessive thirst.36 Cordyceps were also shown to have kidney protective and antioxidant effects.37 High blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes can cause damage to the kidneys due to increased oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species.
Further evidence is needed to explore the preliminary findings of cordyceps biomedical application in increasing kidney function in compromised conditions like type 2 diabetes.38
In another animal study, hypoglycemic effects were noted after a high-fat diet was used to simulate diabetic like conditions.39 It is to be noted that a comparable dose used in humans from the methodology of this study would require impractical dosages.
There is currently no randomized clinical trial data to support cordyceps assisting with diabetic type conditions.
Cordyceps has been shown to decrease LDL levels in animal studies.41, 42
Cordyceps protective role on the cardiovascular system may be due to its adenosine and antioxidative effects. The compounds in cordyceps are thought to activate adenosine receptors which can provide some cardioprotective effects. In fact, cordyceps is used in China for heart rhythm disorders.43
Cordyceps performance enhancement mentioned above is another significant indicator of its effect on the cardiovascular system.44,45,46,47,48,49,50
Direct anxiety and cordyceps data is lacking though there is some supportive research.
Cordyceps may be supportive in mental health protocols such as anxiety which has been associated with higher levels of inflammation.52, 53 The anti-inflammatory properties of cordyceps decrease oxidative stress while providing support to the psychoendoneuroimmunology processes in the body. Adaptogens are known mediators of this system with their ability to build resilience.54
Animals studies show that cordycepin may be neuroprotective in certain populations and pathologies, specifically neurovascular dysfunction and brain injuries.57 Synaptic functions (neurotransmitters in neural tissue) depend on healthy mitochondria and ATP for proper functioning.58
Cordyceps is considered a stimulating adaptogen, meaning it is more energizing and anabolic compared to other adaptogens that are more neutral, calming or restorative. An example of a calming adaptogen is holy basil. TCM, energetic herbalism, and ayurvedic knowledge have best understood the applications of different classes of adaptogens.
There is no strong evidence to support cordyceps use for weight loss. One mouse study noted weight loss and insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetic rats.36
Cordyceps Safety, Dosage and Side Effects
Cordyceps has moderate drug interactions with anti-coagulant, immunosuppressant, hormone replacement and prednisolone medications.
Cordyceps may be contraindicated in breast and prostate cancer until further studies are performed.59
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cordyceps is contraindicated in acute fever, flu or external pathogen invasion.
Typical dosage in the scientific literature is 1-3 g/day. This would also depend on the form of cordyceps and the potency.
Generally speaking, a higher dose is used in the research in order to see effects. One study used 4g/day for performance enhancement.47 Higher doses can be considered for specific immune support with a recommendation from a medical professional.
Cordyceps mushrooms are considered to be a generally well-tolerated supplement with limited side effects. Some users can experience mild diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal discomfort which may be decreased by taking cordyceps after a meal. There has been one case of a slight decrease in kidney function in an already compromised individual.60, 61
Cordyceps may cause anxiety in some individuals due to its energizing nature and relationship with ATP. The constitution and status of adrenal function is something to consider when using this medicinal mushroom.
How to take Cordyceps
The easiest way to take advantage of the health benefits of Cordyceps militaris mushrooms is to use an extract either in capsules or powder form. The cell wall of mushrooms is made up of chitin which is the same substance that makes up crab shells. By extracting the Cordyceps mushrooms, this chitin will break down allowing our bodies to have better access to the active constituents.
Extracting cordyceps mushrooms produces a powder that is highly concentrated in bioactive compounds like beta-glucans and cordycepin. This is the method that Real Mushrooms uses with its organic mushrooms to produce the potent supplements it offers.
In comparison, eating Cordyceps militaris mushrooms as food or using a myceliated grain-based supplement product will provide much smaller concentrations of the beneficial constituents.
Real Mushrooms is a trusted source of organic cordyceps militaris and allows for simplicity of use by offering a capsule format. We also offer pouches of Cordyceps extract powder so the extract can easily be incorporated into healthy recipes. Once you discover the pleasure of taking the Cordyceps powder, the sky’s the limit for its uses in smoothies, stews, coffee, stir frys, and other meals and drinks.
To spark your creative application of Cordyceps powder in your diet, consider trying one of the recipes Real Mushroom users and health practitioners have submitted:
Mushroom Cacao Latte
Flu Season Mocha
Paleo Superfood Butter Biscuits
Muscle Recovery Bone Broth
Anti-Inflammatory Mushroom Elixir
Energizing Spiced Mushroom Elixir
The Everything Smoothie
Sexy Mushroom Chocolate Truffles
It is very important when selecting a Cordyceps product to know exactly where it is from and how it is made. Scrutinize the label and supplements panel very carefully.
Here are 6 primary takeaways to remember about Cordyceps supplements:
- Cordyceps sinensis is not in any supplements due to its price tag
- Cordyceps militaris is the only species able to be used to create a mushroom extract and mushroom extract powders almost solely come from Asia.
- North American grown products are myceliated grain and that grain ends up being a large portion of the final product.
- Look for a trusted source of certified organic cordyceps militaris
- Make sure the Supplements Panel specifies beta-glucan content
- As with most medicinal mushrooms, clinical data is still limited so we are required to extrapolate and infer from in-vitro and in-vivo data.
We always recommend selecting products that are extracted from the mushroom (fruiting body), ideally certified organic, with measured levels of beta-glucans like our very own cordyceps mushroom extract. For more information about buying mushroom supplements and what to look out for, visit our article on the difference between mycelium and fruiting body.
If you have any questions? Please comment below!
*Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.
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