Cordyceps mushroom seems to be all the rage right now. You see it in every adaptogen and pre workout supplement. It’s being talked about extensively in the mushroom community and is 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 on the market and help decipher what to look for in a cordyceps supplement.
What Are Cordyceps: Spores, Sinensis Vs. Militaris – What’s Really In Your Supplements?
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.
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.
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 runners 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. Junren Ma was eventually dropped as part of Chinese olympic team due to his athletes failing drug tests.
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 Cordyceps 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 this mushroom. This has fueled increased demand on 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 this mushroom 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)
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 this mushroom. 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 found to produce similar results to the wild Cordyceps sinensis.
This ended up turning into what 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 Cordyceps 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.
Cordyceps Myceliated Grain
Due to the fact that it is not economical to grow mushrooms in North America for supplement use, if a Cordyceps product is grown in North America, it is almost certainly Cordyceps myceliated grain, recently referred to as MOG.
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 MOG 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.
Myceliated grain is often justified by referencing research on pure mycelium made through liquid fermentation. As pointed out above with Cs-4, 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 Mushroom 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 mushroom extracts can be made.
By being made from the mushroom, 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 labelled as Cordyceps sinensis would likely have undetectable amounts. Either that or the product is improperly labelled 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 mushroom 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.
Cordycepic Acid & Other Nucleosides
This 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. Traditionally in China, wild Cordyceps sinensis has been used for lack of energy, treating asthma, sexual function plus lung, liver and kidney support.
More recently, Cordyceps Cs-4 showed an increase in exercise performance in healthy older adults according a study from the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine in 2009. This study took twenty healthy elderly individuals ages 50-75. One group was the controlled 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).
A study from the Evidence Based Complimentary Alternative Medicine journal in 2015 looked at the anti-fatigue effects of Cordyceps militaris (CM) supplementation on rodents and the results are quite exciting! The study 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, anti-oxidant 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).
As Cordyceps militaris mushrooms have high levels of beta-glucans, they can also act as potent immunomodulators to help balance out your immune system. In addition to helping your immune system, Cordyceps militaris mushroom extracts may also stimulate neurite outgrowth which could be beneficial for brain and cognitive health (9).
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 3 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.
We always recommend selecting products that are extracted from the mushroom (fruiting body), ideally certified organic, with measured levels of beta-glucans and starch like our very own Cordyceps-M. 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: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
- Sprecher, M., & Sprinson, D. B. (1963). A Reinvestigation of the Structure of “Cordycepic Acid” 1a. The Journal of Organic Chemistry, 28(9), 2490–2491.
- Yuan, J. P., Zhao, S. Y., Wang, J. H., Kuang, H. C., Liu, X., Uan, J. I. A. N. I. N. G. Y., … Iu, X. I. N. L. (2008). Distribution of nucleosides and nucleobases in edible fungi. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 56(3), 809–815.
- Chilton, Jeff, Nammex, 2015. Redefining Medicinal Mushrooms.
- McCleary, B. V., & Draga, A. (2016). Measurement of ß-Glucan in mushrooms and mycelial products. Journal of AOAC International, 99(2), 364–373.
- Chen, S., Li, Z., Krochmal, R., Abrazado, M., Kim, W., & Cooper, C. B. (2010). Effect of Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) on exercise performance in healthy older subjects: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(5), 585–90.
- Hur, Hyun. (2008). Chemical ingredients in Cordyceps militaris. Mycobiology, volume 36.
- Tuli HS, Sharma AK, Sandhu SS, Kashyap D. (2013). Cordycepin: a bioactive metabolite with therapeutic benefits. Life Sciences.
- Song J, Wang Y, Teng M, Cai G, Xu H, Guo H, Liu Y, Wang D, Teng L. (2015). Studies on the Antifatigue Activities of Cordyceps militaris Fruit Body Extract in Mouse Model. Evidence Based Complimentary Alternative Medicine.
- Phan, C.-W., David, P., Naidu, M., Wong, K.-H., & Sabaratnam, V. (2013). Neurite outgrowth stimulatory effects of culinary-medicinal mushrooms and their toxicity assessment using differentiating Neuro-2a and embryonic fibroblast BALB/3T3. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 13(1), 261.