What Are Cordyceps? How Do They Work?
Prized for their natural ability to fight free radicals, infections and inflammation, cordyceps are impressive disease-fighting mushrooms that have been used for centuries to reduce symptoms of respiratory disorders, coughs, colds, liver damage and much more. As a true “superfood,” the cordyceps mushroom can slow the effects of aging and stress, help keep the body free from disease and boost energy levels to keep you going all day long.
Cordyceps fungus is sometimes called the caterpillar fungus; it’s parasitic in nature because it grows on a type of caterpillar and then winds up eating its own host! The base of the mushroom forms from the insect’s larva and is dark brown to black, attaching itself to the organism and growing about six inches long. Once it fully matures, cordyceps actually consume more than 90 percent of the infected insect. They then swell up and enlarge to become about 300–500 milligrams in weight.
The first people to discover the many benefits of cordyceps initially observed animals eating the wild fungus and growing strong in the process. Farmers and herders began to use the fungus in powder form to make tonics and teas. Some of the first uses for these tonics were increasing milk production and improving reproductive capacity of livestock. Later on, people began drying cordyceps in sunlight to preserve their potent benefits.
It’s believed that the many anti-inflammatory benefits of cordyceps stem from their ability to positively affect the immune system, fighting oxidative stress and stimulating protective cells that keep the body free from mutations and infections. In vitro studies have found that cordyceps can act like natural cancer treatments in some cases, preventing the growth of tumors and cancer cells. (1)
Considered a type of natural “immuno-potentiating drug,” coryceps supplements are often used to enhance immunity and optimize health. (2) Cordyceps can also help control autoimmune disorders, minimize excessive inflammation and prevent tissue damage while speeding up healing time.
Additionally, research shows that cordyceps can act as mild stimulants or “adaptogen herbs,” fighting stress and fatigue while also naturally increasing energy levels. (3)
Top 7 Benefits of Cordyceps
1. Increases Immune Function
Some studies suggest that consuming cordyceps benefits immune function and can help optimize the health of the cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine and reproductive systems. This is because they contain anti-inflammatory compounds like polysaccharides, modified nucleosides and cyclosporines. (4)
Taking cordyceps may be especially beneficial in the treatment of inflammatory-related conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, arthritis, leaky gut and asthma. In fact, one animal model conducted by the Chung Shan Medical University Hospital showed that cordyceps were effective at reducing inflammation in the airways of mice, potentially aiding in the treatment of asthma. (5)
2. Slows Aging
Cordyceps are jam-packed with antioxidants that can help fight free radical damage, prevent oxidative stress and help slow the signs of aging to optimize your health. (6) Although research on the anti-aging effects of this medicinal mushroom is primarily limited to animal studies, research shows that it can boost brain function, enhance memory and even extend longevity.
For example, one animal model in the journal Phytotherapy Research showed that taking cordyceps extract increased the activity of antioxidants like superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase in the blood. Not only that, but it also helped boost brain power and enhance sexual function in aging rats. (7)
Similarly, another animal study out of China found that administering cordyceps extract to fruit flies significantly prolonged their lifespan by blocking oxidative stress to the cells, confirming the potent anti-agingproperties of cordyceps. (8)
3. Improves Athletic Performance
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine demonstrated that supplementation with Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) improved exercise performance and contributed to overall markers of wellness in older adults. (9) Considered an energizing adaptogen like other superfood herbs such as maca or cacao, cordyceps are often used to help fight fatigue, treat muscle aches and prevent weakness.
Several studies suggest that cordyceps can boost athletic performance — improving physical abilities, endurance and stamina — partially because they boost the body’s supply of ATP, one of the primary sources of energy during exercise. (10) Cordyceps contain adenosine, a type of nucleic acid that is needed to make ATP, an “energy carrier” that is depleted in the muscles during physical activity. (11)
4. Enhances Sexual Function
Traditionally, people of both sexes took tonics made from cordyceps to enhance libido and improve reproductive function. Based on animal models, it appears that cordyceps supplements can help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently and improve blood flow, which is important for physical health and sexual function. (12)
Improved endurance, increased energy and lower levels of inflammation are several other reasons that cordyceps may improve fertility and libido. Thus, cordyceps may be used as a natural treatment for infertility as well as a natural remedy for impotence.
5. Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
Two active constituents in cordyceps, d-mannitol cordycepin and 3’-deoxyadenosine, are partially responsible for various physiological actions that help control insulin and blood sugar levels. In animal models, cordyceps supplements have helped combat high blood sugar levels while also reducing insulin levels to protect against insulin resistance. (13)
6. Supports Heart Health
Recent research has found a strong link between cordyceps and heart health, with studies showing that it could help protect the heart against damage and lower cholesterol levels to prevent coronary heart disease. For instance, one animal study in Acta Pharmacologica Sinica showed that cordyceps extract helped reduce damage to the heart and liver in rats with kidney disease. (14)
Plus, other research in animals shows that cordyceps could help lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol to prevent arteriosclerosis, a condition characterized by plaque build-up in the arteries and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. (15, 16) Other animal models show that it may also reduce high triglycerides, another major risk factor for heart disease. (17)
7. May Help Fight Cancer Cells
Several promising in vitro studies have found that cordyceps could possess powerful anti-cancer properties and may help block the growth and spread of several different types of cancer. In particular, in vitro studies show that cordyceps extract may be effective at reducing the growth of liver, lung and colorectal cancer cells. (18, 19, 20)
However, the anti-cancer effects of cordyceps extend beyond stopping cancer growth. Animal studies also show that these medicinal mushrooms could also reduce the risk of side effects caused by cancer treatment, including leukopenia, a condition sometimes caused by chemotherapy or radiation that results in a decrease in the amount of white blood cells in the body and a higher risk of infection and illness. (21)