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Cordyceps Mushrooms: A Superfood?

10 February 2023

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There are more than 600 species of Cordyceps mushrooms. They are parasitic fungi, most of which feast on insects and arthropods from the inside out, making them entomopathogenic fungi, AKA fungi that can kill or seriously disable insects. While they exist all over the world, most are from Asia, hailing from Nepal, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, China, Korea and Bhutan.   The Cordyceps life cycle begins when one of its spores lands on an insect. As the spore germinates, its hyphae (thread-like filaments) begin growing, weaving into the body of the insect. These hyphae continue to grow, consuming the insect from the inside out, and become root-like structures (mycelium) which in turn will eventually become a mushroom (AKA fruit body). 

It gets weirder. When the insect’s insides are fully devoured by the mycelium, and when external conditions are just right, a spear shaped mushroom or fruit body grows out of the insect’s head. The fruit body or mushroom is then either harvested for its medicinal and health benefits, or it releases its own spores which land on other insects and the whole process starts again.     

Cordyceps fungi have been featured in popular culture, no doubt due to their unique style of proliferation. Cordyceps are a plot element in “The Last of Us,” a 2013 video games series and television adaptation; in the 2016 film adaptation of “The Girl with All the Gifts,” a Cordyceps mutation begins infecting humans and causes the collapse of civilization. No worries, though, Cordyceps cannot actually infect people.  

Two types of Cordyceps mushrooms are most commercially available. Wild Cordyceps sinensis is the rarer of the two, even though it’s more widely known. It infects the caterpillars of Hepialus moths whose common name is ghost moth.

Cordyceps sinensis is wildly expensive, costing as much as $20,000 per kilogram. It’s also not widely available in North America. Cordyceps militaris is the only type of Cordyceps that can be commercially produced on a large scale because it can grow on a large variety of insects and is found throughout North America and Asia.  

Cordyceps are a long-used treatment ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), used for a kidney and lung tonic and to alleviate physical tiredness, respiratory problems and weak constitutions.  

Here are some ways to consume Cordyceps:

  • Tea. Place 6-8 Cordyceps fruit bodies and a cup of water in a pan. Bring to a boil. After boiling for a minute or so, then reduce the heat to very low and simmer for 15 minutes. Ideally, you’d drink two cups per day. What to do with the boiled fruit bodies? Eat them – dice them into soups or sauces. 
  • Raw. You can eat Cordyceps fruit bodies raw. Aim for three to six grams per day.   
  • Supplement capsules. Fresh mushrooms like Cordyceps can be as much as 90 percent water, so calculating dosages can be tricky. Dried Cordyceps, though, can be ground and taken by the teaspoon or in 400 mg capsules. For general immune support, take two capsules in the morning and two at night. Cordyceps supplement capsules are readily available in supplement shops and online.  

Some purported health benefits/uses of Cordyceps:

  • Exercise and energy. Cordyceps may help improve your athletic ability or performance by increasing cellular ATP (adenosine triphosphate) levels. ATP molecules store energy in the body, releasing it for use in small increments. Because it’s been used as a remedy for weakness/fatigue, people experiencing altitude sickness have been given Corpyceps.
  • Anti-tumor activity. The National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine’s publication, “Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects 2nd Edition,” tells us that cordycepin, a bioactive component of Cordyceps, is what gives Cordyceps its ability to inhibit metastasis in tumor cells and makes it a potentially useful co-therapeutic treatment for some cancers.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine. For hundreds of years, practitioners of TCM have used Cordyceps to treat conditions including liver or renal problems, respiratory diseases, hyperglycemia and cancer or tumor disorders. In 1964 it was officially classified as a drug in Chinese Pharmacopoeia.
  • Regulates blood sugar. Cordyceps, like many mushrooms, contain vanadium, a trace mineral which may behave like insulin in the body, or boost insulin’s effectiveness.
  • Boosts libido. Male and female sexual dysfunction, including pain disorders and lack of arousal, desire or orgasm, have long been treated with Cordyceps in TCM. A study reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledges that many report successful treatment of sexual dysfunction with Cordyceps, anecdotally but this success is unproven scientifically. It also reported that Cordyceps supplements did increase the total sperm number, percentage of motile (moving) sperm cells and serum testosterone.
  • Eases inflammation. Because Cordyceps contain antioxidants, consuming them may help ease inflammation. If you are experiencing inflammation, you might benefit from trying an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Immune and heart health. Cordyceps supplements are also thought to increase immunity and improve heart health.  

What about a downside, you may be wondering? Cordyceps mushrooms are generally thought to be safe to eat/consume. Possible negative side effects can include upset stomach, nausea and loose stools. Also, people with certain medical conditions should not consume Cordyceps mushrooms or supplements because they may activate the immune system. Folks who need to just say no to Cordyceps include those with autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease or rheumatoid arthritis. 

In all of our research, the consistent refrain was similar to this note from the NIH: Clinical pilot studies with a few numbers of participants are needed as the first step to elucidate the potential of Cordyceps spp. as hypoglycaemic, hypocholesterolemic, and hypotensive agents. Other potential therapeutic effects such as anticancer may be more difficult to be elucidated in clinical studies and more pre-clinical studies are needed to a better understanding of the mechanisms involved. In conclusion, new future efforts are needed to elucidate the bioactive compounds present in Cordyceps genus and its therapeutic potential. 

How to interpret all of this? Long story short, more studies are needed so proceed with care. Cordyceps has lots of potential and even some evidence-based properties or capabilities which may be helpful in easing particular conditions; Cordyceps also seem to have relatively few potentially harmful effects.

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