Cordyceps doesn’t stop to fascinate. It naturally grows in the mountainous regions of Asia by invading insect larvae and growing out of their body. Folks have been using it for centuries to boost energy and libido. Find out how cordyceps supplements are commercially produced and used and what side effects they can cause. What Is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is the name for a group ( genus ) of fungi , all of which are parasites of various insects or other fungi . There are over 750 species of Cordyceps fungi around the world. They primarily grow in South Asia, Europe, and North America [ 1 , 2 ].
With so many mushroom species, it becomes hard to say exactly which one someone is referring to when they talk about “cordyceps.”
The most well-known and studied one is Cordyceps sinensis . In 2007, scientists discovered that this species is unrelated to most of the others and placed it in an entirely new genus ( Ophiocordyceps ). Although its name has been changed to Ophiocordyceps sinensis , it is still commonly referred to as C. sinensis, or just cordyceps [ 3 , 4 ].
Cordyceps is no typical mushroom . The way it grows in nature has fascinated scientists for a long time and earned it the nickname “ caterpillar fungus .”
Namely, the spores of the fungus infect moth caterpillars. These tiny spores then grow into a large fungal mass called mycelium that spreads throughout the insect body, eventually killing the larvae. A thin stalk called a fruiting body then sprouts from the corpse, releases spores, and continues the cycle [ 5 ].
In fact, the fungus-caterpillar combination is among the most famous traditional Chinese medicines. It has been used for hundreds of years in tinctures and teas to boost libido, reduce fatigue, and fight lung and kidney diseases [ 2 , 6 , 7 ].
More broadly, cordyceps is considered a general tonic claimed to increase vitality and longevity . Standardized extracts are even used in medical clinics throughout China and some are classified as drugs [ 2 , 6 , 7 ].
Unlike any other mushroom, cordyceps grows in nature by invading and killing moth caterpillars. It’s traditionally claimed to be a tonic and aphrodisiac. Cordyceps Sinensis vs. Cordyceps Militaris
While C. sinensis is by far the most valued and studied Cordyceps species, others have also been used for their potential health benefits. Among these, Cordyceps militaris is the most well-known and researched one.
Despite their longstanding popularity and use, few clinical trials have been conducted on either C. sinensis or C. militaris, and no human studies have investigated the other species [ 4 ].
C . sinensis is found exclusively in the Tibetan plateau , the world’s highest plateau that covers most of Tibet and some of the neighboring regions. Its average altitude is astonishing, reaching 4,500 m or 14,800 ft. Cordyceps is an important part of traditional Tibetan medicine and the Tibetan economy. Harvesting of wild C. sinensis accounts for nearly 40% of the income in rural Tibet and 9% of the region’s GDP [ 6 , 8 , 9 ].
C. sinensis caught the attention of the world in 1993, when Chinese long-distance runners broke several world records in the Chinese National Games. Their coach credited their success to a daily tonic containing the fungus [ 10 ]. Active Components
The two most important active components found in both C. sinensis and C. militaris (and a few other Cordyceps species) are cordycepin (3’-deoxyadenosine) and D-mannitol (also known as cordycepic acid) [ 11 , 1 ].
Cordycepin is very similar to the molecule adenosine , which plays a role in helping fall asleep and increasing blood flow. Adenosine is also part of ATP, the body’s main energy currency [ 11 ].
D-mannitol is a sugar alcohol used clinically as a diuretic in people with fluid buildup (edema) due to kidney disorders and to decrease swelling in the brain after trauma or stroke [ 12 ].
Other active components found in C. sinensis and C. militaris include [ 11 , 1 , 13 , 14 , 15 ]: Polysaccharides (CPS-1, CPS-2, CS-F30, CS-F10, beta-glucans, and mannoglucan)
Nucleosides (adenosine and thymidine)
Sterols (ergosterol and beta-sitosterol)
Others: peptides, amino acids, sugars, fatty acids, and enzymes
Cordyceps contains many active compounds, the most important ones being cordycepin (that acts on energy levels) and polysaccharides (that support the immune system). How Does Cordyceps Work?
Anti-diabetic D-mannitol acts as a diuretic, helps maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside cells, and reduces inflammation [ 12 ].Carbohydrates in Cordyceps may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and cholesterol – and blood sugar-lowering effects. They may also help boost the immune system [ 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 ]. Cordyceps Supplement Facts, Combinations & Dosage How Are Cordyceps Supplements Made? Because it is adapted to a specific host, geography, and climate, wild C. sinensis is scarce and impossible to mass-produce using its natural life cycle . This, coupled with increasingly high demand, has led to skyrocketing prices. In 2017, high-quality C. sinensis pieces were being sold for more than $63,000/lb ($140,000/kg) in Beijing, over 3x the price of gold at the time! [ 30 ]. Due to overharvesting , wild C . sinensis is now classified as an endangered species . To fulfill the demand that can’t be satisfied by harvesting the wild form, artificial cultivation methods have been developed. Thanks to these methods, large-scale manufacturing of both C. sinensis and C. militaris is now possible [ 31 ].There are two main ways to mass-produce Cordyceps .One involves the fermentation of the fungus in a liquid medium containing yeast, sugar, and other nutrients, set at a specific temperature and pH. Once the mycelium (non-reproductive part of the fungus) has fully grown, it is extracted and purified. This method allows to grow Cordyceps quickly and is popular with Chinese manufacturers [ 9 , 32 ].Different strains of wild C. […]