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Is Cordyceps a magical, medicinal mushroom?

Ist Cordyceps ein magischer, medizinischer Pilz?

What is Cordyceps?

Cordyceps made it into the international headlines after Chinese runners pulverized two world records in 1993. According to their coach, the Caterpillar Fungi was the secret behind their amazing athletic achievements. Even though it later turned out that the coach had given these athletes illegal performance-enhancing compounds, the mushroom itself is something very real. Cordyceps Sinensis is the scientific name of this particular mushroom.

The mushroom came back into the spotlight 20 years later after the video game "The Last of Us" featured Cordyceps as a zombie-producing mushroom. This video game was inspired by the fact that different species of Cordyceps can act like body snatchers on insects. These parasitic fungi invade the bodies of insects and replace their body tissue.

There are more than 350 species of fungi and insect hosts related to Cordyceps. The best known is the "ant zombie" fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which releases behavior-controlling chemicals. When the ant dies, the fungus grows like antlers from the back of the ant's head, ready to release its spores.

The Cordyceps species that takes over the bodies of caterpillars is far less aggressive. Although the fungus has evolved and can infect tarantulas, there is no evidence that it can infect humans.

People have used Cordyceps sinensis for medicinal purposes since the 15th century. This mushroom is also known by the following names:

  • Yartsa Gunbu, which is Tibetan for "summer grass, winter worm"
  • Dong Chong Xia Cao, which is Chinese for "worm grass"
  • Caterpillar Mushroom
  • Ophiocordycipitaceae
  • Hirsutella sinensis

Cordyceps sinensis is available as a dietary supplement in the form of pills and solutions. As herbal products are not strictly regulated, there is a risk that some available products may be contaminated or of inferior quality, which is particularly true of Cordyceps sinensis. For this reason, it is important to buy Cordyceps supplements from a trustworthy company that is known for the quality of its products.

How does Cordyceps Sinensis grow?

Cordyceps Sinensis is both a mushroom and a caterpillar. The mushroom grows in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau from the bodies of caterpillars from the ground. Non-cultivated mushrooms do not have the same medicinal effect.

Cordyceps mushrooms start as spores in winter. The spores land on certain moth caterpillars and penetrate the body of these caterpillars. The caterpillar then burrows deep into the soil before dying. When summer arrives, the fungus grows like a plant in the form of thin, orange-colored threads from the head of the caterpillar.

Working in the cool mountains and harvesting Cordyceps Sinensis is a relaxing job that is also highly profitable. People in Tibet live from harvesting this mushroom as it cannot be grown commercially. Finding this tiny mushroom requires a lot of skill, concentration and practice.

How does Cordyceps sinensis work?

The cultivated form of the mushroom contains more than 20 bioactive ingredients, including sugar molecules with antioxidant properties. These ingredients can potentially stimulate cells and specific chemicals in the body, including the immune system. Cordyceps sinensis is believed to increase the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for the supply of energy to the muscles. This can improve the way your body uses oxygen.

What are the potential health benefits of cordyceps?

Scientific research suggests that Cordyceps Sinensis has the following properties and abilities:

  • Stimulating the function of the immune system
  • Development of an antihyperglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effect (as demonstrated in animals with diabetes)
  • Reduction of fatigue
  • Alleviation of liver fibrosis (1)

In a study conducted with rats, it was shown that Cordyceps sinensis acts as an anti-ageing agent that unfolds its effect through the following properties (2):

  • Antioxidant properties
  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • Anti-tumor effects
  • Blood sugar lowering effects
  • Anti-apoptosis properties (stops cell death)
  • Immunomodulating properties (regulates the immune system)
  • Kidney-protective properties
  • Liver-protective properties.

However, further studies are needed to prove all these effects in humans beyond doubt.

Cordyceps could reduce inflammation

Cordyceps sinensis appears to have anti-inflammatory properties. Scientific studies show that cordyceps is effective in reducing inflammation at the cellular level (3). However, these effects have yet to be confirmed in animals and humans.

According to a study by the University of Nottingham, cordyceps could be a good anti-inflammatory alternative for asthmatics (4). Cordycepin is an active ingredient found in Cordyceps sinensis that has been shown to reduce inflammation of the airways.

Cordyceps could protect the heart

Cordyceps sinensis could have positive effects on heart health and could be used to treat cardiac arrhythmia. In a 2014 study, it was observed that Cordyceps sinensis was able to significantly reduce liver and heart injuries in rats (5).

This study shows that Cordyceps sinensis has the potential to treat heart disease. In fact, Cordyceps sinensis is approved in China for the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias. It is believed that the adenosine contained in Cordyceps Sinensis is responsible for this effect. Adenosine is a naturally occurring substance that helps to break down ATP.

Cordyceps could slow the progression of kidney disease

Traditionally, people believe that consuming Cordyceps sinensis strengthens the kidneys. This could be based on the mushroom's ability to increase hydroxyl corticosteroid and ketosteroid levels in the body.

A study conducted by scientists at Zhejiang University showed that Cordyceps Sinensis can inhibit kidney fibrosis in rats. Fibrosis of the kidneys is a condition that occurs in the advanced stages of kidney disease.

Cordyceps could slow down the growth of Timor

Studies conducted with animals suggest that Cordyceps sinensis may slow the growth of certain types of cancerous tumors. One of the theories for this effect is that Cordyceps stimulates the immune system to fight cancer.

Studies suggest that Cordyceps may have an anti-tumor effect at the cellular level (7). This applies to both uncultivated and cultivated Cordyceps. The cytotoxic effects were seen in different types of tumor cells including melanoma, prostate tumors and lung cancer. Interestingly, Cordyceps sinensis did not affect the life cycle of healthy cells.

Cordyceps can increase libido

Due to claims regarding its potential aphrodisiac effect, Cordyceps Sinensis has long been used to increase libido.

Several studies show that Cordyceps Sinensis increases testosterone levels. A 2009 study suggests that Cordyceps can improve erectile function and increase willingness to mate in rats (8). A 2007 study concluded that Cordyceps supplementation resulted in increased sperm volume and increased serum testosterone levels in subfertile boars (9).

Although there is still a lack of reliable human studies showing that cordyceps increases libido or sexual performance in humans, a review from 2016 confirms these effects (10).

Use and costs

Although studies continue to investigate the efficacy of cordyceps in many applications, common uses of cordyceps include the following:

- An increase in athletic performance including increased endurance and energy (11).
- An adjunctive treatment to support chemotherapy to improve treatment success and quality of life.
- An increase in sex drive (12).
- A reduction in asthma symptoms

The price of cordyceps is high and, according to a BBC documentary from 2016, is around 20,000 dollars per kilogram. Products with other Cordyceps species can also be found on the market, which is why it is important to purchase Cordyceps products from a trustworthy source, as Cordyceps species other than Cordyceps Sinensis do not have any of the benefits mentioned.

Side effects

Cordyceps Sinensis is associated with the following side effects:

  • Indigestion
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • Dry mouth

Clinical studies on the interaction of Cordyceps sinensis with various medications are still pending. Potential candidates include:

  • Caffeine
  • Cyclophosphamides such as Cytoxan
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Anticoagulants

People who suffer from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis should not use Cordyceps Sinensis as it could exacerbate the symptoms of these conditions. People who suffer from bleeding disorders should also avoid Cordyceps.

If you suffer from one of these diseases or liver problems, you should always discuss the use of Cordyceps with your doctor in advance.

Under the microscope

The limited availability of Cordyceps Sinensis makes it difficult to study its benefits. Many studies have not been able to successfully infect caterpillars with this fungus. Some research supports the health benefits of Cordyceps at the cellular level and in animals. The direct effects on exercise performance are still controversial. For example, one study concluded that cordyceps does not increase oxygen uptake (13).



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