A Guide to the Cordyceps Mushroom
Predatory fungus, superfood, medicinal powerhouse: cordyceps is a freak of nature.
Cordyceps features prominently in ancient Chinese medicine and other traditions. But can it cure cancer, beat diabetes, and give you superhuman powers both in and out of the bedroom?
Let’s dive into what the science says about the health benefits of cordyceps mushrooms.
What are Cordyceps Mushrooms?
Cordyceps is one of the most popular Chinese medicinal mushrooms, and for good reason. It's delicious and has plenty of health benefits backed by science.
Many Types of Cordyceps
Contrary to popular belief, cordyceps is not just one type of mushroom. It's actually a genus of fungi that includes over 600 species.
Cordyceps sinensis (technically, Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and Cordyceps militaris are the two most common cordyceps species in the realm of health benefits, clinical studies, and cordyceps mushroom supplements.
There exist numerous other cordyceps varieties with potential medicinal properties, for example Cordyceps cicadae, Cordyceps bassiana,and Cordyceps heteropoda.
These lack the robust body of research that C. sinensis and C. militaris have accrued. Each of them, however, is a worthy research topic in its own right.
A Predatory Mushroom
Most cordyceps varieties are endoparasitoids, which means they live as a parasite on insects, typically on moth larvae, which they eventually kill.
Also known as the caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps sinensis grows in the larvae of the ghost moth, typically found in Southwest China and the Tibetan Plateau. Due to its limited geographic availability, Cordyceps sinensisis incredibly expensive.
Cordyceps militaris, in turn, also grows from moth larvae and other insect pupae. Militaris has adapted to a much wider range of hosts, and is therefore more commonly available than sinensis.
Potential Medicinal Properties of Cordyceps
Research on the effects of various cordyceps species indicates that this fungus can have the following health benefits, among others:
The clinical application of cordyceps to cancer, high blood sugar, and other conditions shows tremendous promise. From a purely evidence based perspective, cordyceps warrants further research.
How to Grow Cordyceps Mushrooms
Growing medicinal mushrooms from insect larvae is hard to scale commercially, so growers have figured out how to grow Cordyceps militaris in rice substrate and other organic (non-insect) substances.
You can grow cordyceps fungi in jars from the comfort of your home if you have the time, space, and determination.
Growing your own cordyceps can be a fickle process, so if you lose patience, you can always purchase cordyceps mushroom products from numerous companies that have the growing aspect down to a science.
Cordyceps Mushroom Health Benefits
Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris are types of fungus with impressive medicinal potential.
Although they’ve been a staple in traditional Chinese medicine, western medicine has only recently taken notice of cordyceps mushrooms and their many uses. Cordyceps mushrooms have been in the scientific limelight lately.
Clinical studies suggest that these medicinal mushrooms can help you boost your exercise performance and even fight cancer, among other benefits.
Scientific American even featured a 2019 article on the benefits of cordyceps, citing, among other benefits, its anti-aging and immune system-boosting effects.
Let's take a look at the top 8 cordyceps benefits and the evidence to back them up.
1. Cordyceps and Exercise Performance
Several double-blind placebo-controlled studies suggest that cordyceps mushrooms can boost athletic performance.
A 2018 study tested the effects of Cordyceps militaris on high-intensity exercise. After three weeks of taking the fungus, participants could exercise for longer when compared to those given the placebo. Since the experiment only lasted three weeks, consistent usage may produce even greater benefits over time.
A study examining the effects of CS-4, a cordyceps extract, on healthy, older subjects had similar results. After only 12 weeks of using CS-4, subjects' metabolic and ventilatory thresholds increased by 8.5%. Participants also experienced less muscle soreness than those given a placebo.
Another study, done on mice, took a closer look at the effects of cordyceps polysaccharides on fatigue. When compared to mice that weren't treated with the cordyceps supplement, treated mice had increased levels of ATP and lower levels of lactic acid.
ATP is produced by our mitochondria and is the powerhouse of our cells. Cordyceps enhancing ATP production has profound implications not just for athletic performance, but for immune functioning and aging, as well as for any number of diseases of modern civilization.
While more research is needed, it appears that cordyceps can indeed boost exercise performance in healthy adults.
2. Cordyceps and Inflammation
When it comes to fighting inflammation, cordyceps mushrooms have been a staple in traditional Chinese medicine. Although most of the studies on the effect of cordyceps fungus on immune functioning and inflammation are done on mice, they show promising results.
Scientific evidence suggests that cordyceps cultured mycelia and fruit bodies are high in antioxidants. The cordyceps mycelia can stabilize free radicals in the body. Additionally, both mycelia and fruit bodies have anti-inflammatory properties.
A few studies also indicate that the Cordyceps militaris mushroom increases the production of cytokines. Cytokines regulate inflammatory reactions in the body, which means they help fight disease.
3. Cordyceps and Cancer
Most studies investigating the effect of the cordyceps mushroom on cancer were done on animals or in test tubes. Nevertheless, the research on cordyceps and cancer suggests promising anti-tumor effects.
For example, a 2015 test-tube study showed that the Cordyceps militaris fruit bodies reduce the growth of lung cancer cells. Another investigated inhibitory effects of the mushroom on hepatitis C infected hepatocarcinoma. Cordyceps aided in eliminating the unwanted cells.
An aqueous extract of cordyceps was shown in one study to inhibit the growth of leukemia by inducing apoptosis (cell death) in cancerous cells.
Another study showed that cordyceps mycelium extract had an inhibitory effect against 4 different cancers, including B16 melanoma. The study concluded that cordyceps “fungal mycelium has strong anti-tumor activity and is a potential source of natural anti-tumor products.”
Fighting Cancer Medication Side Effects
In addition to anti-tumor activities, the Cordyceps sinensis mushroom reverses certain side effects of cancer therapy. After being treated with Taxol (a cytotoxic chemotherapy drug), mice were given a hot-water extract of Cordyceps sinensis.
Taxol causes a decrease in white blood cells known as leukopenia. Since white blood cells fight infection, the body becomes more susceptible to illness. However, the extract of Cordyceps sinensis reverses leukopenia in mice.
Cordyceps: a Promising Cancer Research Topic
The biological actions of cordyceps against various forms of cancer require further research to be properly understood. However, the medicinal potential of cordyceps as an anti-cancer agent looks promising.
4. Cordyceps and Heart Health
Most research on cordyceps benefits for heart health has been conducted on mice, so more research is needed on its benefits to humans. Still, animal research has shown that this fungus has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol is one of the main heart disease risk factors. A 2011 study examined the effects of cordycepin on bad cholesterol (cordycepin is one of the many bioactive compounds found in cordyceps mushrooms).
In this study, hamsters and rats on a high-fat diet were given Cordyceps militaris supplementation. When compared to control animals on the same diet, LDL cholesterol levels were much lower.
The cultured mycelia found in Cordyceps sinensis has similar effects on cholesterol. Cordyceps mushroom mycelia not only decreased the levels of LDL cholesterol but also increased good, HDL, cholesterol levels in mice.
5. Cordyceps and Diabetes
Due to the high consumption of processed food in today's society, Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent than ever. If left untreated, this disease can cause havoc in your body. It can damage your kidneys, eyesight, and more. Additionally, sudden drops in blood sugar levels can be life-threatening.
Since many Type 2 diabetes medications come with a variety of side effects, researchers have turned to Chinese herbal medicine and plant and fungus properties to seek alternatives.
A 2015 study done on mice with Type 2 diabetes indicates that Cordyceps militaris affected their blood sugar level. In particular, it increased insulin sensitivity and had an overall hypoglycemic effect (lowered blood sugar).
Another study on the effects of cordyceps fruit bodies on rats with diabetes came to a similar conclusion. The fruit bodies lessened the severity of diabetes symptoms such as extreme thirst, weight loss, and hyperglycemia.
The hypoglycemic activity of cordyceps is extremely promising in the research of diabetes. A natural product that lowers blood sugar, cordyceps warrants significant further research.
6. Cordyceps and Kidney Health
A study looked at the effects of Cordyceps militaris on chronic kidney disease (CKD) symptoms. Cordycepin, an active component found in cordyceps, reduced the levels of TLR4 and NF-κB, which, in turn, protected against CKD progression.
This study concluded that “Cordyceps militaris may show good promise in protecting against chronic kidney disease (CKD) but the molecular mechanism remains unclear.”
Protecting the Heart and Liver
Chronic kidney disease can cause damage to the heart and liver. In a 2014 study, researchers tested whether cordyceps could improve the function of these organs in patients with kidney disease.
The study was done on mice, and it lasted eight weeks. Results show that taking cordyceps decreased the damage to the liver and heart in rats with chronic kidney disease.
Cordyceps and Renal Transplantation
A 2014 metastudy analyzed 22 studies done on people with chronic kidney disease who were waiting on a kidney transplant. The studies suffered from low quality of evidence and didn't have enough participants to provide a statistically-significant sample size.
Still, they showed promising results, especially for participants taking cordyceps while on medication. The mushroom helped decrease symptoms such as proteinuria and creatinuria.
Another study indicated that cordyceps may reduce organ rejection in kidney transplant patients.
7. Cordyceps and Aging
The biological activities of cordyceps appear to exert an anti-aging effect. This is unsurprising, given that, as we’ve already seen, cordyceps has anti-inflammatory and performance-enhancing properties.
A 2004 Chinese study on mice found that cordyceps increased learning and memory in aged rodents, as well as improved red blood cell activity. The study states that cordyceps shows “good anti-aging effects,” and concludes that these are “probably due to effects of improving antioxidation and removing free radicals.”
8. Cordyceps and Sexual Health
In general, decreasing inflammation and improving overall health tends to improve sexual health and sexual performance. Given cordyceps’s overall inclination to improving physical performance and lowering inflammation, one could expect a benefit in the sexual department as well.
One study on castrated rats showed a remarkable increase in sexual function for those rodents treated with cordyceps extract.
How to Consume Cordyceps
There are many convenient ways to include cordyceps in your diet, including mushroom powders, capsules, and more.
Nowadays, there are plenty of cordyceps mushroom powder options on the market. Cordyceps powder is made by machine drying and crushing the mushroom fruit bodies until they turn into powder.
The effectiveness and dosing of a cordyceps powder will vary from brand to brand. Therefore, it's best to follow the instructions, especially if you've never used cordyceps powders before.
Cordyceps mushroom capsules are essentially just mushroom powder in capsule form. Therefore, they have a similar potency to that of a powder. An average amount of mushroom powder per capsule is around 400 mg.
Taking 2-3 capsules a day should be enough for overall health improvement. Still, some capsules may contain more than 400 mg, so make sure to follow the instructions given by the manufacturer.
Cordyceps tinctures are one of the most common ways of taking the fungus. The extraction process allows for both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble compounds to end up in the tincture. However, since they are mostly made of alcoholic extract, the tinctures don't have a long shelf life.
Water-soluble polysaccharides, which have immune-boosting and anti-tumor properties, start breaking down after a couple of months. If you want to prolong the shelf life of your tincture, keep it in a cool, dark place.
Tea is one of the easiest—and most ancient—ways to consume mushrooms as herbal medicine. Reishi mushroom tea has been used in Japan and China for centuries to fight various ailments and improve digestive health.
You can make mushroom tea out of any kind of cordyceps. Cordyceps militaris is quite soft, so simmering it for 15 minutes is more than enough to extract healthy bioactive components from the mushroom.
Although mushroom tea is quite beneficial, boiling your mushrooms only extracts water-soluble components. Therefore, you will miss out on the alcohol-soluble antioxidants you may get from a powder or a tincture.
Forij Superfood Granola
If you want to experience the benefits of cordyceps mushrooms but don't want to deal with powders and tinctures, opt for food infused with mushrooms. Forij Superfood Granola is an all-natural product that contains a mushroom blend, including lion's mane, chaga, and cordyceps.
By opting for food fortified with mushroom extract, you don't have to worry about remembering to take adaptogenic mushroom supplements every day. Just have your favorite functional granola for breakfast, and experience real changes in your energy level, brain function, and overall well-being.
Forij granola contains hyperconcentrated extracts of adaptogenic mushrooms. Although you won’t notice the earthy taste of mushrooms in your granola, you will reap their full benefits, as the extracts contain 10-15 times more nutrients than regular mushroom powder.
Can You Eat Cordyceps Raw?
The fruit body of a cordyceps mushroom is safe to eat raw. However, cooking it won't decrease its nutritional value, and it will taste much better. Add the cordyceps to soup, or sprinkle a little bit of the medicinal dried mushroom on your favorite pasta dish.
There is no research to indicate that cordyceps may be unsafe for consumption. However, if you are allergic to yeast or mold, you're likely allergic to fungi as well and should approach cordyceps and other medicinal mushrooms with caution.
These fungi may increase the effects of anti-clotting medication, therefore increasing the risk of bleeding. Hence, you should avoid cordyceps if you are on blood thinners or have problems with blood coagulation. Additionally, don't take cordyceps supplements if you're scheduled to have surgery in the near future.
Although the fungus is safe for humans, there is no little research on its safety for pets. Therefore, keep your cordyceps mushroom products in a safe place that's hard for your dog or cat to reach.
Thinking of Trying Cordyceps?
Although more research is needed, cordyceps hold significant promise when it comes to various health benefits. If you're looking for a hassle-free way to include this amazing fungus into your diet, mushroom-infused granola may be a great choice.
Whether you're vegan, gluten-free, or simply appreciate a good, healthy breakfast, Forij superfood granola provides you with your daily dose of cordyceps, among other non-GMO ingredients your body will thank you for.
Cordyceps Mushroom FAQ
Is cordyceps safe for humans?
Cordyceps mushrooms are safe to eat. However, you should consult your healthcare professional before taking a cordyceps supplement. The fungus may interact with some medicine, such as blood thinners and certain immunosuppressants.
Avoid cordyceps if you're pregnant or breastfeeding as well. There's not a lot of research on the effects of this mushroom on pregnant people and children, so it's best to steer clear of it if you're trying for a baby.
Is cordyceps good for the lungs?
Cordyceps sinensis can be quite beneficial for the lungs. It has been used in Chinese and Tibetan medicine to treat asthma and coughs, as it appears to relax and open up the airways. This functional mushroom can even aid in the treatment of pulmonary fibrosis and other obstructive pulmonary diseases.
Do cordyceps increase testosterone?
Cordyceps sinensis was shown to have a positive effect on testosterone production in mice.
The Leydig cells are responsible for testosterone production. Cordycepin—one of the primary active components of cordyceps—stimulates MA-10 mouse Leydig tumor cells, which leads to an increase in steroidogenesis and the production of testosterone.
The fact that the cordyceps mushroom has this effect on mouse Leydig cells is promising for further research on cordyceps and testosterone production.
Can cordyceps make you sick?
Although cordyceps are safe to use, they can cause an upset stomach. To avoid nausea, start with a low dosage, especially if you've never had adaptogenic mushrooms before. If you still experience side effects, stop taking the mushrooms until you consult with a doctor.
Is there caffeine in cordyceps?
No, cordyceps mushrooms do not contain caffeine. They increase energy levels by helping your body use up oxygen efficiently and enhancing blood flow. In that sense, cordyceps does have a stimulatory effect on the body.
What does cordyceps taste like?
Many functional, organic mushrooms have an unpleasant, bitter taste. However, cordyceps has quite a pleasant, earthy and nutty flavor with a hint of umami. It has an inoffensive flavor that even those who aren't fans of mushrooms will love.
Should I get a Covid-19 vaccine if I am taking a cordyceps supplement?
Whether you get a Covid-19 vaccine or not is a personal choice. There is no research to suggest a cordyceps supplement may have a negative effect on the vaccine and vice versa. Still, let your doctor know that you are taking cordyceps supplements if you want to err on the side of caution.
The information provided in this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease or illness. The statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).