Cordyceps and Its Health Benefits

Winter-Worm, Summer-Grass: The Life Cycle of Cordyceps

Cordyceps was first recorded in 620 BCE in the Tang Dynasty as a mythical or magical creature that could transform from an animal to a plant throughout the different seasons. This seemingly magical transformation was later explained by the unusual life cycle of the mushroom. It mysteriously grows in the winter as a parasite feeding off caterpillars and in the summer as a plant through its emerging fruiting body. Cordyceps is therefore commonly referred to as “Chinese caterpillar fungus” or “winter-worm and summer-grass,” which is a literal translation from its Chinese name, “Dong Chong Xia Cao.”

Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that usually infects its insect host, the Himalayan Bat Moth, or Hepialis armoricanus Oberthur, at the larval stage. By invading the digestive tract and germinating within the insect host, the fungus gains its nutrients from feeding on non-vital organs within the host’s body. While the insect host stays buried underground throughout the entire winter, the Cordyceps mycelia slowly takes over the host’s body, mummifying the insect host. In the spring, the fungus’ fruiting body emerges out of the head of the insect host and disperses its mature spores, which infect other larva, allowing the life cycle to regenerate.

Purported Health Benefits of Cordyceps

  • Protects kidney function: used by Traditional Chinese Medicine to protect the kidneys during transplants, treat renal failure, and restore kidney damage induced by excessive toxicity
  • Supports liver function: studies show that it helps improve and restore liver function in cases of liver damage, such as chronic hepatitis B and C
  • Boosts immune system: used in ancient China and shown in recent studies to combat common colds, viral infections, and autoimmune disorders
  • Enhances energy levels, targets fatigue and exhaustion, and boosts exercise capacity: popularized by Chinese female athletes who broke 9 world records during the Chinese Women’s Track and Field event at the National Games in Germany
  • Boosts respiratory function: studies show that it can alleviate respiratory ailments, such as asthma, tuberculosis, and chronic bronchitis, by protecting lungs
  • Stimulates blood circulation and protects heart
  • Exhibits natural antibiotic properties: combats infections
  • Helps manage atherosclerosis and regulate cholesterol levels
  • Increases libido: used in ancient China to treat sexual dysfunction
  • Promotes anti-aging with its antioxidant properties
  • Showcases antitumor properties: studies show that it may have cancer fighting effects

Role of Cordyceps as a Medicinal Mushroom

In ancient China, Cordyceps was used as a medicinal mushroom by emperors and wealthy royal families. Because of its scarcity, Cordyceps was treasured as highly as gold and was reserved only for the rich and the powerful. It was used as an aphrodisiac to treat sexual impotency and dysfunction by boosting libido. Uncovered texts have revealed that the mushroom was also used as a precious medicinal tonic to treat emperors of the Qing Dynasty.

Since ancient times, Cordyceps has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a tonic to treat kidney, lung, renal, liver, and heart diseases. It has also been used to treat or inhibit cancer growth in China. TCM doctors have used the mushroom to boost the immune system against colds and to alleviate lower back pain. In the past, addiction to opium was also cured by ingesting the mushroom. The wide-ranging properties of the mushroom also include the ability to adjust the flow and levels of qi, or energy, within the body. The mushroom has thereby been used to target symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion. In general, Cordyceps has been said to balance both the forces of yang and yin, and it is thereby considered a multi-purpose substance that has been used as a home remedy for extended periods of time. In our own research facilities, extensive study is being conducted to address its potential anti-inflammatory properties since many of its effects, especially on chronic respiratory and renal disorders, may be explained by anti-inflammatory suppression. In other studies, we have used lupus-prone mice to demonstrate the efficacy of Cordyceps in reducing the severity of lupus and chronic kidney disease. We have found that Cordyceps was able to decrease the severity of proteinuria, a lupus-related condition in which excess protein infiltrates the urine due to kidney damage.

The benefits of the mushroom seemed to have been lost in the historical traditions of the past and retained only by the small communities still practicing TCM until the mushroom drew heightened global attention when two female runners from China broke the world records for the 1,500 meter, the 3,000 meter, and the 10,000 meter run, which was surpassed by 42 seconds, in the 1993 National Games in Stuttgart, Germany. Nine world records for three women’s track and field events were shattered in a single week! In a press interview, the coach claimed that taking Cordyceps as a daily dietary supplement had greatly enhanced and boosted the athletic performance, stamina, and endurance of the runners. In light of this breaking news, Cordyceps was thrust into the spotlight and garnered widespread support and attention as a popular supplement outside of the Eastern hemisphere.

Thus, only within the last few decades have scientists truly launched in-depth studies on the health benefits of this mushroom. Recent studies have uncovered antibiotic, antitumor, antioxidant, anti-asthmatic, and anti-fatigue properties within the mushroom. Today’s scientists are only now uncovering the potential effects of the mushroom against tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments by protecting the lungs and dissolving phlegm, cardiovascular problems by stimulating blood circulation, muscle and back pain by relaxing smooth muscles, kidney and liver problems by protecting these vital organs, and autoimmune diseases by boosting the immune system and fighting infections. Cordyceps has become a hot topic in today’s scientific arena with ongoing clinical trials on the mushroom’s medicinal properties and health benefits.

Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. In fact, we believe that in order to obtain optimal health, there is the need for a radical transformation in one’s lifestyle that should include the adherence to a balanced diet, regular exercise, proper methods of breathing, and positive and healthy ways of thinking. In this sense then, the mushrooms can be seen as adjuvants for health. It should be noted that the activities of wild-type Cordyceps are being shared here for educational purposes only. Interested readers can pursue further literature research to assess the validity and the reliability of these activities and to arrive at an impartial and educated view of this species of mushroom.