Cordyceps is one of the most highly prized natural medicines on Earth. It is ranked as valuable and effective as wild Ginseng, Reishi Mushroom and Deer Antler. Cordyceps parasitises insects by firstly taking control of the hosts nervous system and moving to a more suitable location to release reproductive spores. This behaviour contributes enormously to the biodiversity of the surrounding natural environment, and there are many different types of Cordyceps that live in a large variety of different ecosystems, and each type of Cordyceps focuses solely on a single species of insect.
Cordyceps Sinensis is native to the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan and parasitises the larvae of Ghost Moths, which is why it has been popularly labelled as the “caterpillar fungus”. The Tibetan name for it is “Yartsa Gunbu”, which literally translates as “summer grass, winter worm”. Himalayan Cordyceps affects larvae that are hibernating 6 inches below soil level by ensuring their heads are vertically upright so that when the fruiting body of the mushroom is produced, it can penetrate the soil and extend upwards, releasing spores to be carried and dispersed by alpine winds. By the time the fruiting body has fully matured, it has completely replaced all of the original tissue of the host organism. So although Himalayan Cordyceps may look exactly like a caterpillar with a slightly twisted club emerging from its head, the body of the caterpillar is now 100% made up of fungal cells – it contains no original tissue whatsoever.
Cordyceps has been used as a potent medicinal substance since antiquity – a privilege that was enjoyed exclusively by royalty and noblemen throughout the ages right up until very recent history. In Tibetan Medicine it is used for people with kidney and heart weakness and to enhance fertility in both men and women. In traditional Chinese medicine Cordyceps is revered for its ability to regenerate both the yin & yang aspects of our primordial essence – our jing. Jing is an energetic phenomenon that is considered to be the subtlest and most refined aspect of the physical body. On the one hand it represents our youthfulness, resilience and ability to heal (yin), and on the other hand it is our core vitality that allows us to be active in the world and fulfil our purpose in this life (yang), maintaining our lustre without wilting from stress and disease. So Cordyceps is believed to replenish this most subtle essence while enabling us to put it to use without the risk of running our batteries too low. It is used to help people recover from over-exertion – it restores energy at the deepest level and allows us to adapt to the many stressors we encounter in life with minimal negative impact. This is why Cordyceps is famed for its anti-aging properties, and also why it is such a potent tonic for the kidneys, because the kidneys are considered to be the ‘containers’ of this jing essence.
Our jing is also what offers us the potential to reproduce – if we have a strong sense of vitality we will produce robust and vibrant offspring. Decreased jing however indicates weakness in our genetic lineage, and if this essence becomes too depleted we may not be able to reproduce at all. Cordyceps has long been used as a remedy for impotence, infertility and frigidity – it can restore our spent sexual vigour and act as an effective aphrodisiac.
As a qi tonic Cordyceps improves appetite and digestion, fortifies immunity and offers incredible respiratory support by increasing lung capacity and dilating the alveoli, and consequently enhancing oxygen absorption and utilisation on a cellular level. This makes it a powerful ally for those with general respiratory weakness, wheezing and chest tightness or people living with asthma or chronic bronchitis. This is also one reason why Cordyceps possesses such a formidable reputation as one of the greatest performance enhancing herbs, but also because it strengthens the lower back, hips, knees and ankles. It increases our physical endurance, enhances healing and recovery and has been used as a tonic for athletes and those who are very active physically. This is in fact how knowledge of Cordyceps first began to permeate the western world, because three female athletes broke 5 world records for track running at the Beijing National Games in 1993. This phenomenal achievement attracted suspicion, particularly because all three athletes were on the same team, however they all tested negative for narcotics. When questioned, their coach explained that the team had been consuming daily doses of a herbal formula as part of their training, and the primary herb in that formula was Cordyceps.
Traditionally it has also been used for enhancing mental clarity and improving focus and concentration, building mental stamina and allowing people to rest their attention on a single subject/object for extended periods of time without the usual signs of fatigue and exhaustion. This has also made it an invaluable support for meditation – especially lengthy retreats that require the individual to remain in focused contemplation for many hours at a time.
Since being subject to the modern scrutiny of scientific analysis, it has proven to share many genuine health benefits with us such as:
- modulating the immune system by enhancing the activity of macrophages & natural killer cells
- regulating blood sugar
- possesses unique polysaccharides (cordycepic acids) that inhibit tumour growth of a number of different types of cancer including leukaemia
- protects against a wide range of pathogenic organisms including lyme
- an effective antiviral that is used to treat HIV
- inhibiting cholesterol build-up within the heart/aorta
- dilating blood vessels while under stress
- improves physical endurance/anti-fatigue
- improves respiratory function & increases lung capacity
- significantly improves sexual function in both men & women
- high antioxidant content
- excellent tonic for the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs
So much of the ancient wisdom of this rare and precious substance has been validated through contemporary scientific studies, which has led to a dramatic increase in its demand throughout much of the world. As a consequence the wild-harvesting of Cordyceps throughout the Himalayas is closely monitored for the purpose of sustainability, although illegal poaching remains an unfortunate reality. Wild Cordyceps revenue now contributes the largest annual income for native Tibetan people and so there are many sides to this story – it is an important part of the culture and economy of Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, but harvesting restrictions must be enforced if Cordyceps is to prevail in its natural environment. It is totally possible for it to continue thriving in the wild if harvesting and retail limits are honoured and respected, but this remains a very sensitive issue as Cordyceps is such an important natural resource with very high economic value throughout the Himalayas.
There are now cultivated varieties of Cordyceps available – most notably the CS-4 variety – which are very good and exhibit many of the same benefits as the wild fungus, although growing methods of many producers are unfortunately less than excellent. CS-4 is ultimately the best quality and most trusted form of this cultivated mushroom. The wild Tibetan variety is still considered to be the best, most effective Cordyceps in the world, and is by far the most expensive. Many of the eastern healing traditions consider that a great deal of this mushrooms’ power comes from the fact that it is from both plant and animal origin – it contains concentrated energies from both of these kingdoms, plus a lot of the potency is believed to emanate from the ‘wildness’ of the organism. This is something that cannot be said for the cultivated variety, as manually infecting the host insects with spores has never been successfully achieved, so the cultivated variety is grown on a substrate of cooked soybeans or grain slurry. This makes the cultivated variety 100% sustainable though, and a lot cheaper.
So Cordyceps has been revered as a sacred and majestic substance that can offer profound healing potential to those that consume it – a belief that has been intimately witnessed through and verified by the scientific lens during more recent history. It is a powerful tonic for the kidneys, lungs, liver and heart and can restore our core vitality at the deepest level, raising fertility, affording us protection from disease, supporting recovery from illness and injury, and increasing our adaptability to the trials and stresses of modern life.