The unique, amazing cordyceps mushroom made international headlines after Chinese runners broke two world records by unbelievably huge margins at the Asian Games in 1993. It seems the secret to their remarkable athletic performances was the so-called caterpillar fungus − cordyceps.
As it turns out, cordyceps mushroom (known scientifically as Cordyceps sinensis) has been used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine since at least the 15th Century. An extremely rare combination of a caterpillar and a fungus, it is found at altitudes above 4,500 meters (over 14,000 feet) in the Himalayas, on the Tibetan plateau, and at other high-altitude locations worldwide.
In Tibet this fungus is known as yartsa gunbu, or “summer grass, winter worm.” It was initially identified when local herders observed that yak, goat, and sheep that ate cordyceps while grazing became very strong and stout. This observation led to a deeper examination and eventual understanding of its many health benefits.
Even today, traditional healers in many East Asian cultures recommend cordyceps as a tonic and claim that it improves energy, appetite, stamina, libido, endurance, and sleeping patterns.
Cordyceps has a truly bizarre life cycle. Being parasitic in nature, its spores land on the caterpillars of certain moth species and enters their bodies. The infected caterpillars then bury themselves below the soil before they die.
In summer, the fungus emerges from each infected caterpillar’s head, looking like a thin, orange finger. As the fungus approaches maturity, it consumes more than 90 percent of the infected insects, effectively mummifying its hosts.
Scientific studies over the past several years have shown that the cordyceps mushroom helps to manage blood sugar levels in a healthy range, protects the heart, strengthens the immune system, enhances libido, fights fatigue and improves exercise performance, and may even help to combat cancer.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #1: Managing Blood Sugar Levels
Multiple studies have shown that cordyceps can help in the safe management of blood sugar levels. For instance, a polysaccharide (a long chain, naturally-occurring compound made up of sugars bound chemically to each other) isolated from cordyceps was seen to lower blood sugar levels in a mouse model of diabetes. This polysaccharide also lowered blood levels of harmful triglycerides and cholesterol.
Studies have shown that consumption of cordyceps mushroom extracts increases insulin sensitivity, while also lowering the insulin response to a carbohydrate challenge in normal, non-diabetic rats. Both of these are indications of reduced diabetes risk. For example, normal rats given a cordyceps extract for 17 days showed significant reductions in their fasting blood sugar and fasting blood insulin levels.
Indeed, extracts of cordyceps have been shown to slow down diabetes-induced weight loss, reduce excessive thirst, improve glucose tolerance, and lower high blood sugar levels in various laboratory rat models of diabetes. Again, all of these indicate lowered diabetes risk.
Diabetic nephropathy usually develops because of damage caused by high blood sugar levels on kidney function and is usually seen in long-term diabetes patients. In a promising 2016 laboratory study, powdered extracts of cordyceps were seen to protect kidney health in a mouse model of diabetic nephropathy.
Although human studies, including controlled clinical trials, are still needed to understand the full extent of the efficacy and safety of cordyceps, these laboratory study results clearly indicate that the caterpillar mushroom is very likely to be useful in the safe management of blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #2: Protecting the Heart
In laboratory experiments with rats and guinea pigs, a cordyceps extract was seen to correct irregularities in heart rhythms, known medically as arrhythmias. In fact, preparations made from cultured mycelia of cordyceps – which is the part of the mushroom that is made up of fine white filaments – has been approved for the treatment of arrhythmias in China.
Further, consumption of cordyceps was seen to prevent much of the metabolic damage in both the livers and hearts of rats with chronic kidney disease.
Treatments to suppress the immune system are routinely used to prevent the body from rejecting a new heart after a heart transplant. However, the prolonged use of so-called “immunosuppressants” after transplant surgery leads to significant problems of its own, including kidney damage and ironically, a greater risk of heart disease.
Promisingly, a 2008 laboratory study showed that cordyceps extract reduced the rate of cardiac rejection in a rat model of heart transplantation, indicating that cordyceps may one day become an important component of post-organ transplant therapy.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #3: Protecting the Kidneys
In China, cordyceps is routinely used to treat many kidney diseases, including chronic nephritis, chronic pyelonephritis, chronic renal dysfunction or failure, and nephritic syndrome.
Results from laboratory studies as well as clinical trials indicate that cordyceps may play a potential protective role in kidney transplantation. For example, a preparation made from cordyceps mycelia reduced the rejection of kidney transplants, improved kidney and liver function, stimulated red blood cell production, and lowered infection rates in patients after kidney transplants.
Similarly in patients with chronic kidney failure, another cordyceps product known as CS-4 significantly boosted kidney function, lowered levels of blood urea and creatinine and increased levels of total blood protein and calcium.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #4: Strengthening the Immune System
In a 2012 study, cordyceps polysaccharides overcame induced immunosuppression, while also enhancing lymphocyte activity and macrophage function in mice. Lymphocytes are known to be potent orchestrators of the immune system’s response to infections and injury, while macrophages are a type of cell responsible for detecting, engulfing, and destroying pathogens and damaged and dying cells in the body.
Cordyceps polysaccharides also improved antioxidation activity in immunosuppressed mice, while also raising the levels of their natural antioxidants superoxidase dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase.
In other words, cordyceps polysaccharides strengthened the immune system and boosted total antioxidant capacity in a laboratory mouse model of immunosuppression.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #5: Enhancing libido
Cordyceps has traditionally been used for enhancing libido and sexual function in many Eastern societies. Laboratory experiments on animals confirms that cordyceps can improve reproductive activity as well as restore impaired reproductive function.
Consumption of cordyceps has also been shown to enhance libido and sexual activity and restore impaired reproductive function in both men and women, likely by enhancing testosterone release.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #6: Fighting Fatigue and Improving Exercise Performance
A 2010 study showed that supplementation with the cordyceps extract CS-4 for 12 weeks improved exercise performance and contributed to overall wellness in 20 healthy elderly adults.
Cordyceps likely improves physical abilities and stamina because it contains adenosine and can stimulate production of ATP, one of the primary sources of energy in our body’s cells.
Another 2007 study showed that higher production of ATP because of cordyceps consumption helped athletes maintain intense workouts while also extending the periods of time they were active at high intensity.
Finally, studies have shown that supplementing with cordyceps can lower heart rate, which explains why people can train harder for longer periods when supplementing with cordyceps.
Cordyceps Health Benefit #7: Cancer Fighter
Cancer is the second leading cause of disease-related deaths worldwide. Anticancer drugs derived from natural products are being explored because of the well-known limitations of surgery and radiotherapy and the many toxic side effects of chemotherapy.
Promisingly, laboratory studies have shown that cordyceps has antitumor activity in various cancers, including lymphoma, melanoma, prostate, breast, liver, and colorectal cancers.
Further, studies show that cordyceps can be combined with other forms of chemotherapy for cancer treatment – and although cordyceps was toxic to tumor cells, it did not affect normal cells at all under laboratory conditions.
Here too human studies, especially controlled clinical trials, are still needed to understand the full extent of both the efficacy and safety of cordyceps as an anticancer therapy.