Cordyceps: Health Benefits, History, and Uses

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CordycepsCordyceps are among the most powerful medicinal mushrooms used in traditional Chinese medicine, and have been around for centuries. Yet, they remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world until 1992, when the Chinese women’s track team broke multiple records and partly attributed their success to the fungi.

This is not a surprise since studies have found that cordyceps are natural energizing adaptogens that boost immunity, prevent weakness, fight fatigue and stress, and improve exercise performance. These fungi are also prized for their natural ability to fight infections, inflammation, and free radicals, and it has a reputation as a longevity-promoting herb. This article explains everything about the mushroom, from its fantastic health benefits to how to use them.

What Are Cordyceps?

Although cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) are closely related to other mushrooms, they are actually classified as the health-promoting ascomycetes fungi. Other names for cordyceps include semitake, yarsha gumba, hsai ts-ao tung ch-ung, and dong chong xia cao.

Cordyceps grow in the Tibet region in a process that is very interesting. As a parasitic fungus, the mushrooms will develop on a type of caterpillar before eventually consuming over 90% of the infected insect, often in the winter. In the summer, the fungus will swell up into a little mushroom plant that grows about six inches and weighs between 300 to 500 milligrams. This is likely why they are also called Chinese caterpillar fungus or vegetable caterpillar.

Cordyceps History

Cordyceps originated in traditional Chinese medicine about 5,000 years ago— one of the world’s oldest “superfoods.” The health benefits of cordyceps were first described in ancient Chinese medical texts, and folk healers have used it alone or combined with other Chinese herbs to fight various diseases. They have also been featured in Christian, Hindu, and Chinese religious ceremonies as a symbol of immortality and longevity.

Some of the first people to discover the mushrooms’ benefits observed animals growing strong after eating the wild fungus. Herders and farmers would later use cordyceps powder for tonics and teas to help increase milk production and reproductive capacity of their livestock. Others later began drying them in the sun to preserve their many benefits.

Health Benefits of Cordyceps

Today, cordyceps are touted as the ultimate supplement for bringing the immune system back to normal function after life-threatening illnesses or infections. Research shows that the mushrooms can act like a mild stimulant that can increase energy, boost immunity against viruses, and fight chronic fatigue and stress.

What are other health benefits of the fungi? They are also used to help treat dizziness, muscle weakness, liver disorders like hepatitis B, heart disease and high cholesterol, irregular heartbeats and low circulation, asthma, bladder and urination problems, kidney disorders, sexual dysfunction, and respiratory infections like chronic bronchitis, colds, coughs, and the flu. Let’s take a deeper look at the potential health benefits.

1. Improves Athletic Performance and Stamina

Several studies suggest that cordyceps improve endurance and stamina, and this is partially due to their ability to boost one of the top sources of energy during exercise called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The mushrooms contain an important nucleic acid needed to make ATP called adenosine. Studies have found that higher ATP production helps athletes keep up with intense workouts and extend the timeframe where they can stay active at a high level. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010 found that cordyceps would improve exercise performance in older adults aged 50 to 75 years old.

2. May Increase Immunity and Fight Cancers

The positive impact of cordyceps on the immune system may also benefit reproductive, endocrine, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. The polysaccharides in them, cyclosporines and modified nucleosides, could potentially help fight cancer and immunological disorders. A study published in the journal Anticancer Research in 2010 found that they stopped the spread of cancer melanoma cells in the livers of mice. Other studies show that taking cordyceps during or after chemotherapy may increase the body’s defense mechanisms and reduce symptoms from the treatment.

3. Libido Enhancement Properties

Throughout time, men and women have both enhanced their libido and reproductive function by taking tonics made from cordyceps. As a result, this medicinal mushroom is often used as a natural treatment for impotence and infertility. This is because they may improve endurance, reduce inflammation and fatigue, increase blood flow, and help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently.

4. Improves Detoxification and Liver Function

Cordyceps have also been shown to benefit liver function, and may be useful for people with damaged liver disorders like hepatitis B. An eight-week study published in the Acta Pharmacologica Sinica in 2014 found that daily administration of cordyceps significantly improved signs of liver disease and heart damage in mice with chronic kidney disease. The positive effects of cordyceps could improve the liver and allow for better digestion and utilization of fatty acids. In turn, they would also benefit the heart and improve triglyceride levels.

Where to Find Cordyceps and Uses

Cordyceps haven’t always been available to the general public. Those lucky enough to secure the fungi often paid a hefty price for the privilege. Today, wild cordyceps are still not easy to find; however, scientists have made them more available and affordable to the public from synthetically reproducing them in a laboratory. This process also controls contamination, including exposure to harmful heavy metals and bacteria. Most health food stores also carry cordyceps powders, capsules, and tablets.

Want to know how to use cordyceps? The powder form can be used in soups, teas, and stews, and some will take the tablets and capsules by mouth. The dosage of the product will depend on the reason for use. So, it is best to speak with an herbalist for the proper dosage. In general, to prevent illness or boost immunity, use the mushrooms once or twice weekly in low doses.

Cordyceps Precautions

Although there are many benefits of cordyceps and they are considered safe for most people, there are also some precautions to keep in mind. For instance, their safety is not confirmed in breastfeeding or pregnant women; therefore, it is best to consult a doctor before using them. Some doctors also warn that the mushrooms might worsen autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Their immune-boosting abilities  may overactive certain immune cells or interfere with drugs for these autoimmune diseases.

Medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps may also interfere with proper blood clotting, and people with blood cot or bleeding disorders should use caution as well.

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