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Cordyceps Mushroom: The Ultimate Guide

In this series of posts, highlighting other powerful medicinal mushrooms, today we're looking at another fine example - Cordyceps Mushroom.

Cordyceps are fascinating mushrooms whichever way you look at them. From how they grow, to the tumultuous economy built up around them, and most especially the multitude of health benefits they offer.

What is Cordyceps?

​The first thing that may surprise people is that there is not a single Cordyceps mushroom, a fact that will soon become important.

In fact, there are hundreds of species in the Cordyceps family, but the one people are usually referring to when they say "Cordyceps" is Ophiocordyceps sinensis (O. sinensis) because it has the longest history of use in traditional medicine and is the most studied Cordyceps species.​

Where does it come from?

O. sinensis is a rare and strange mushroom that grows in the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau above 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet).

According to local lore, a group of yak herders discovered O. sinensis about 1,500 years ago. They stopped to let their animals graze, and the yaks wound up eating the mushrooms and became unusually playful and full of energy. The astonished herders realized it must be due to the odd-looking sprouts of O. sinensis. It has been a part of traditional Asian medicine ever since, used for treating illnesses and providing robust energy.

O. sinensis grows in a way that is quite different from other mushrooms, leading to it being nicknamed the Zombie Mushroom. Its spores infect the larvae of a species of bugs called ghost moths. They grow inside the caterpillars underground, eventually killing them. Then the mushroom's bright tendrils grow out of the caterpillar's head and up through the soil. Other Cordyceps species mature in a similar manner, growing inside-out from other insects' bodies.

How much does it cost?

cordyceps

fungus dealer by Rosino is licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In recent years, Cordyceps have become big business. Wild Ophiocordyceps sinensis has always been scarce, but the demand has gotten so high that over-harvesting has made the mushroom harder than ever to come by. As a result, the price of wild O. sinensis in China topped $50,000 a pound in U.S. dollars in 2016.

It's estimated that a million people in Tibet actively seek O. sinensis to sell, and it makes up over half of many people's incomes. This demand has been largely attributed to the libido-boosting effects of the Cordyceps, which has led to it being nicknamed "Himalayan Viagra."

Because of how expensive wild O. sinensis is, commercial suppliers have adopted a few different ways of meeting Cordyceps demand. Unfortunately, these may be confusing to consumers, at best, and totally fraudulent at worst. Like many examples where big profits are involved, the Cordyceps market has sometimes been plagued by counterfeiting and even murder.

One way legitimate sellers have compromised is by using O. sinensis mycelium versus its fruiting body. The fruiting body is the mushroom and this the very expensive part. The mycelium is what the fruiting body emerges from, almost like a plant's roots.

The problem is that in O. sinensis most of the bioactive compounds we want aren't as abundant in the mycelium, lessening their potential benefits. The logic, though, is that it's better to have a less potent version than none at all, since most people would not be able to afford supplements made with pure fruiting bodies.

People have also tried growing O. sinensis outside of the Tibetan Plateau, not using caterpillars but plant media like millet and rye, or using techniques like liquid fermentation.

So far, though, cultivation of O. sinensis has only produced mycelium, which was studied and found to be very different from the wild fruiting body. More on cultivation and fruiting bodies vs. mycelium can be found in this article.

Consumers definitely need to be careful when navigating the Cordyceps market so they know what they're really getting.

Other Cordyceps Species

The good news in all of this is that people have increasingly turned to Cordyceps species besides O. sinensis to study for their possible health benefits.

One of these is called Cordyceps militaris (C. militaris). This relative of O. sinensis has not only shown itself to be much easier to cultivate, including fruiting bodies, but has also been found to contain many of the same compounds that make O. sinensis so sought after.

cordyceps militaris

Cordyceps militaris by jorapavi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When discussing demonstrated health effects, we'll specify which species was used in studies, and to what degree they may be interchangeable.

Health Benefits of Cordyceps

Metabolism and System Functionality

First, we might as well address the claims that have made Cordyceps so popular recently and indeed for centuries: the notion that consumption of these mushrooms improves libido.

The scientific literature gives an overall impression that both the above mentioned Cordyceps species (O. sinensis and C. militaris) increase hormones and desires.

In a review of past studies, it was found that O. sinensis stimulates steroidogenesis, or the production of hormones like testosterone and estrogen. This caused male test subjects to produce significantly more sperm which also had a higher survival rate, and both men and women reported a subjective increase in sexual desire.

Another study showed that C. militaris had a similar effect on the hormones of test rodents.

Performance Enhancement

Cordyceps are great for energy outside the bedroom as well. In fact, they're popular among athletes seeking to maximize their workouts and decrease recovery time. 

In 1993 some Chinese runners broke several women's world records and came under scrutiny, being tested for banned substances. Their coach revealed their secret was Cordyceps supplements. This case is still controversial due to lingering accusations of doping, but what is absolute fact is that O. sinensis increases metabolism, stamina, and lung capacity, all of which are vital for athletes but all of us ordinary people, too.

Researchers showed that O. sinensis improved blood flow and the efficiency of oxygen usage in test subjects. The Cordyceps also increased production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which carries chemical energy in cells.

Additionally, a study on older people discovered that O. sinensis improved their metabolism by 10% and their respiratory function by 8.5%.

The researchers believed these effects were due to the compounds cordycepin and cordycepic acid, both of which are also contained in C. militaris.

All of this indicates that Cordyceps may play a helpful role for those wanting to get the most out of their body in an athletic context, and also offer some relief to those who suffer from ailments that have symptoms related to fatigue, sexual problems, or diminished lung function.

The Immune System

Like several other mushrooms, Cordyceps have a promising research track record showing their ability to stimulate and regulate components of the immune system.

Both O. sinensis and C. militaris are good sources of antioxidants, which neutralize potentially dangerous free radicals.

Free radicals are unstable molecules that look to react with parts of a cell. This can cause cell death or, if they damage DNA, mutations that can eventually lead to cancer. Other possible outcomes of free radical damage include cardiovascular disease and skin problems.

O. sinensis has been shown to stimulate the activity of macrophages, which are cells that consume invading pathogens like bacteria and viruses, but are also capable of shrinking tumors and inhibiting their spread.

O. sinensis and C. militaris likewise promote the activity of T-cells and natural killer cells that perform similar functions to macrophages in the body, having both anti-pathogen and anti-tumor properties.

Both species of Cordyceps also demonstrated the ability to induce cell apoptosis--basically cell suicide--in cancer cells with C. militaris also causing mitochondrial disruption when tested against breast cancer cells, providing yet another way of killing them

Regulates Immune System

O. sinensis and C. militaris both contain polysaccharides that strengthen the immune system as discussed above, and also regulate it.

In some circumstances, the immune system attacks healthy tissues, causing inflammation that can lead to chronic diseases and disorders.

It seems the more researchers look into inflammation, the more conditions they can tie it to, ranging from psoriasis to ulcerative colitis to heart disease and even certain types of cancer. It is also responsible for all allergy responses and symptoms.

O. sinensis was shown in one study to reduce the severity of lupus in rodents, while a study found that C. militaris decreased airway inflammation associated with asthma.

Keeping aggressive immune responses in check is also vital for transplant patients. Researchers showed that supplementation with O. sinensis reduced kidney transplant patients' required dosage of the potent immunosuppressive drug Cyclosporin, which meant a reduced occurrence of side effects. Another study found similar results in the case of heart transplants. We couldn't find a related study using C. militaris, despite its makeup being so similar. Further research must be done to see if that species also helps transplant patients.

The gastrointestinal tract is now known to be an important component of the immune system and is related to the population of good bacteria there. It turns out that O. sinensis also supports this part of the immune system. It lowers the occurrence of bad bacteria like salmonella and increases the number of helpful bacteria. O. sinensis does this by regulating gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), which is part of the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Keeping GALT healthy may also help control chronic gastric disorders.

Other Health Benefits

Diabetes

O. sinensis and C. militaris also have anti-diabetic properties.

A study that gave O. sinensis to non-diabetic rodents found that it lowered insulin resistance. People with elevated insulin resistance are more likely to become diabetic, so decreasing it could potentially help prevent the development of this growing problem in western countries.

When tested on subjects that already had diabetes, O. sinensis and C. militaris were able to lower their resting glucose serum levels. Importantly, O. sinensis fruiting bodies and its mycelium had this effect, meaning that even the most common mycelium-based O. sinensis extracts show promise in helping combat diabetes and hyperglycemia.

Kidney and Liver Health

Cordyceps also have a protective effect on the kidneys. In addition to suppressing the body's tendency to reject transplanted kidneys as discussed above, O. sinensis and C. militaris protect the kidneys by preventing the hyperactive growth of mesangial cells.

While mesangial cells are natural and play a role in healthy kidney function, some conditions (including high LDL cholesterol levels) cause too many of them to grow, which is believed to be a step toward the development of kidney disease.

In a similar way, hepatic stellate cells in the liver can damage it when they over-proliferate, causing a condition called liver fibrosis. O. sinensis has been shown to both prevent and reverse liver fibrosis by inhibiting the growth of these hepatic stellate cells.

Cordyceps Recipes

cordyceps recipes

Cordyceps as a family of mushrooms have a mild taste that complements a host of flavors, particularly in traditional Asian cooking. For these recipes, C. militaris is probably the easiest species to get ahold of and work with in the kitchen.

Herbal Chicken Soup with Cordyceps

Chicken, pork, and fish soups are the quintessential Cordyceps dishes in Asia, so we'd be remiss not to include one. Vegetarians can substitute the chicken with tofu, lentils, or one of the specialty products sold to replace meat in recipes.

Adapted from: Homemade Chinese Soups

  • Serving: Serves 2
  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 1.5 hours

Ingredients

  • 50 grams (a little under 2 ounces) Cordyceps mushrooms
  • 1 chicken thigh or non-meat equivalent, cut into chunks
  • 6 pitted, sliced dates
  • 7 goji berries
  • 1,000 milliliters (about 34 ounces) water
  • A little additional water to parboil with
  • Salt and pepper

Equipment Required

  • Soup pot with lid
  • Stovetop or other heating surface
  • Measuring cups
  • Knife
  • Ladle
  • Bowl and spoon

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Bring some water to a boil in the soup pot.

2. Add in the chicken and let it boil (parboil) for two minutes. Then drain that water and add 1,000 milliliters of fresh water. If using a meat substitute, you can skip this parboiling step.

3. Put the pot with chicken and fresh water back on the heat, lowered to a medium heat.

4. Add in the other ingredients.

5. Put a lid on the pot and let it simmer for 1.5 hours.

6. Ladle out the soup in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Cordyceps Stir Fry

Another great way to use Cordyceps that honors their Asian origins is with a stir fry. In a reverse from the last recipe, if you want you can substitute the tofu here with chicken.

Adapted from: Learn Chinese Food

  • Serving: Serves 2-3
  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 150 grams (a little under 5.5 ounces) Cordyceps mushrooms
  • 3 blocks of dried tofu
  • 3 green peppers
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Equipment Required

  • Frying pan or wok
  • Stovetop or other heating surface
  • Measuring spoons
  • Knife
  • Stirring spoon or spatula
  • Bowl and fork

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Cut the tofu and peppers into slices.

2. Add oil to pan or wok and put on high heat until the oil gets hot.

3. Add the peppers and fry for 3 minutes.

4. Add Cordyceps and fry for 1 minute.

5. Add tofu, fry for 2 minutes.

6. Add the salt and fry for another 1-2 minutes. Transfer to plate and enjoy!

Summary

We hope that this article has taught you some interesting things about this exotic family of mushrooms, and have helped you be a more informed consumer when shopping for them.

There's a lot of hype about Cordyceps mushroom, with the reputation of O. sinensis as the "Himalayan Viagra" driving prices ever higher in Asia, but to stop at that is to miss the many other health benefits of this Cordyceps mushroom and its relative C. militaris, which as we've seen has most of the same beneficial effects. Either way, though, adding Cordyceps to your life is worth it.

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  • Steve D Pattison

    Thanks for a great informative article. I look forward to them