Cordyceps is one of the most highly prized natural medicines on Earth. It has been used as a potent medicinal substance since antiquity – a privilege that was enjoyed exclusively by royalty and noblemen & women throughout the ages right up until very recent history.
But what exactly is it? Well, Cordyceps sinensis is a mushroom that is native to the Tibetan plateau and surrounding Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is a parasitic fungus that is unlike other mushrooms because it infects the central nervous system of living insects – in the case of the C. sinensis species it parasitizes 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 preys upon larvae that are hibernating six inches below soil level. Once infected the host has its brain and central nervous system hijacked by the invading fungus and the body of the moth larva is repositioned so that its head is vertically upright. This means that when the reproductive fruiting body of the mushroom is produced, it can penetrate the soil and extend upwards, releasing spores that will be dispersed far and wide by alpine winds. By the time the fruiting body has fully matured, the mushroom has completely replaced all of the original tissue of the host organism. So although Himalayan Cordyceps may look exactly like a caterpillar with a twisted club emerging from its head, the body of the caterpillar is now 100% made up of fungal cells.
In Tibetan Medicine Cordyceps is used for people with kidney and heart weakness, as a respiratory tonic, and to enhance fertility. 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 essence 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.
Jing is also our capacity 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.
In eastern medical systems it is also regarded as an excellent tonic for the qi/prana that circulates throughout the vast meridian system of the body. As a qi tonic Cordyceps improves appetite and digestion, fortifies immunity and offers incredible respiratory support by increasing lung capacity – dilating the bronchi & 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.
Another reason why Cordyceps is famed for its performance enhancing properties is because it increases the production of the body’s cellular energy currency – adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The mushroom is a naturally rich source of adenosine, and because Cordyceps also enhances oxygen absorption and utilisation, it improves cellular respiration and the synthesis of ATP, which ultimately means we have access to more energy when we need it most.
Traditionally Cordyceps has also been renowned for enhancing mental clarity and improving focus and concentration. The increased oxygen absorption via the alveoli in the lungs will obviously have a corresponding effect on the brain, whose primary nutrient is oxygen. 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, Cordyceps 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 more powerful than the leading pharmaceutical Ribavirin
- inhibiting cholesterol build-up within the heart/aorta
- dilating blood vessels while under stress
- is a supreme adaptogen
- improves physical endurance/anti-fatigue
- increases ATP production
- 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
- increases focus, determination and mental clarity
Cordyceps contains many important nutrients including various amino acids, vitamin K as well as vitamin B1, B2 and B12, numerous carbohydrates, fatty acids, sterols and many trace elements including selenium. It also possesses a number of biologically active compounds that have been studied extensively for their medicinal properties including cordycepin, cordycepic acid, adenosine and many long-chain polysaccharides. Cordycepin is widely regarded as the primary ‘active constituent’ in this mushroom because it has been studied the most and has shown to possess such a broad spectrum of bioavailable health benefits. However, isolated cordycepin has proven to be less effective than the whole fungus and its multitude of other compounds and nutrients, suggesting a synergistic activity between the various constituents within Cordyceps.
Because so much of the ancient wisdom surrounding this fungus has been validated through scientific research, the popularity of Cordyceps has boomed throughout the last few decades and it is now the most expensive natural medicine on the planet, fetching tens of thousands of US dollars per kilo. Not only has it become utterly unaffordable for the general public, but it is also now endangered in the wild. 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 contributes the largest annual revenue 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. Illegality and commercial overharvesting are an unavoidable consequence of Cordyceps’ rising popularity around the world.
Fortunately it is now possible to cultivate Cordyceps to a very high standard of purity and potency that is very similar to its wild origin, but it costs a small fraction of the extortionate price. There are many species of Cordyceps, but the wild variety that has been used as a medicine in the east since antiquity is Cordyceps Sinensis, and this species has been cloned and used in the industrial cultivation of Cordyceps mycelium as a medicinal supplement. The traditional use of Cordyceps as a medicine however, included the whole fungus complete with fruiting body and mycelium. Indeed, the fruiting body and mycelium both share many bioactive compounds and although in some ways very similar, they are not the same and indicate varying potency in certain areas.
For example, there are currently two main species of Cordyceps that are pharmacologically important and cultivated for medicine: Cordyceps sinensis (CS) and Cordyceps militaris (CM), which both exhibit medicinal attributes very similar to wild Cordyceps. When cultivating CS it is very difficult to consistently produce the fruiting body of the mushroom, whereas CM matures into its complete reproductive stage more easily. So, CS is cultivated for its mycelial biomass whereas CM is grown for its fruiting body.
When compared these two species showed varying antioxidant activity – CS was more adept at inhibiting protein oxidation, but CM was more effective at inhibiting lipid oxidation. CS was also better at inhibiting cholesterol build-up within the heart & aorta of animal test subjects than CM, although CM contains a greater percentage of cordycepin and adenosine than CS. CM fruiting body contains vitamin B12 whereas CS mycelium doesn’t contain any B12 at all. Both species and both parts of the fungus exhibit many of the same medicinal compounds and respective health benefits, but in different quantities and potencies. So to summarise these findings, it is clear that the indigenous medical traditions that utilised Cordyceps so extensively for so long, understood the nature of this fungus so long ago – it is far more effective to consume the entire organism, mycelium and fruiting body, for optimal benefit.
Another equally important factor that needs to be considered is the modern cultivation methods for Cordyceps. There are many counterfeit products on the market and products grown in poor conditions that don’t allow the mushroom to mature into its full potency. Cordyceps mycelium is commonly grown solely on grains which is very cheap to produce and yields an inferior product that is low in polysaccharides and other important nutrients but high in starch. These products reflect the potency of Cordyceps a lot less than they do the substrate that it is grown on.
However, Cordyceps mycelium cultivated via the liquid fermentation method yields a far superior product. The mycelium is produced in a sterilised liquid nutrient medium in aerobic conditions, ensuring that the medium is regularly moving and having fresh oxygen introduced to the culture, allowing gases such as carbon dioxide to be eliminated from the growing environment. This closely monitored and controlled process allows the end product to be completely free from contamination, excipients/fillers, and the liquid medium can be purified and filtered to harvest any remaining mycelial residue in order to further maximise on potency and eliminate any loss of medicinal value. This is the purest and most consistent method for producing fungal mycelium of any kind.
Cordyceps militaris fruiting bodies can also be produced in a number of different ways, some better than others. Some producers grow a purely vegan product whereas others cultivate the mushroom using moth larvae, just as it grows in the wild. Currently the most consistent, high yielding method for producing fruiting bodies of CM is to use a mixture of agar, organic brown rice and silkworm pupae. The purely vegan method doesn’t boast the same array of nutrients (no vitamin B12 for example) or medicinal compounds, so the inclusion of the moth larvae is necessary for producing a medicinally superior product.
Now that we have access to high grade, full spectrum Cordyceps, it is possible to harness the full benefit through completely sustainable and affordable means. It is a formidable ally – truly an ancient medicine that can offer genuine support to us in these demanding and highly stressful modern times.