The Top 5 Health Benefits of Cordyceps Mushrooms
Read Time: 9 minutes
Contents: Traditional Chinese Medicine | Cordyceps Militaris: The Sustainable Choice | Health Benefits | Endurance | Immune Support | Cardiovascular Support | Anti-Inflammatory | Anti-Cancer Support
Cordyceps is an incredibly energizing mushroom! Cordyceps is prized for promoting energy, vitality, sexual performance, and athletic prowess. Rich in adenosine, it works on a cellular level to help increase the body's natural building blocks for long-lasting energy.
Since you're on this page, you're probably curious about cordyceps mushrooms for one of two reasons.
1) You're interested in all those health benefits of cordyceps that I just mentioned.
2) You heard about a crazy mushroom that turns bugs into zombies, and you want to know more.
Either way, I'll help you out. Today, I'll introduce the gruesome, wild Cordyceps sinensis. We'll also dive into the top 5 health benefits of a more sustainable species, Cordyceps militaris.
Cordyceps in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Cordyceps mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 1,000 years.
Physicians and healers throughout Asia prize cordyceps as a tonic for energy, endurance, vitality, athletic prowess, and sexual potency. But for centuries, the cordyceps species used most in Asia was the rare Cordyceps sinensis.
Wild Cordyceps sinensis has been foraged to the brink several times over the centuries. At one time, it was so scarce that only royalty could use it!
Cordyceps Sinensis: Wild & Gruesome
Cordyceps sinensis is rare because it only grows inside a particular kind of caterpillar. The wild-harvested mushroom that makes its way into pricey Chinese markets is actually a dead caterpillar with a mushroom growing out of its head.
To fruit into a mushroom, C. sinensis needs to infect a host caterpillar. Ghost moth caterpillars who encounter the C. sinensis fungus underground become infected by the fungus’s mycelium. The mycelium spreads throughout the caterpillar’s tissues, digesting the caterpillar from the inside, and replacing the caterpillar’s tissues with its own mycelium.
Eventually, the fungus manipulates the caterpillar to move to the perfect position just below the soil’s surface. C. Sinensis then grows a single fruiting body (mushroom) up through the caterpillar’s head. The mushroom emerges into daylight, while the unlucky grub stays entombed below the soil. (Unless, of course, a sharp-eyed forager excavates it.)
Lab techs have attempted to grow C. Sinensis in captive caterpillars in laboratory conditions, with some success. From a sustainability standpoint, lab farming is better than over-harvesting wild cordyceps. However, the lab process is extremely expensive.
Neither wild nor lab-cultivated Cordyceps sinensis extracts are vegan. However, there is a vegan option available in North America that is also more sustainable!
Cordyceps Militaris: The Sustainable Choice
Cordyceps militaris is a North American cordyceps species. Militaris also inhabits caterpillars in the wild. However, ecologically conscious growers can cultivate Cordyceps militaris without caterpillars.
Our organic growers at Mycopolitan cultivate Cordyceps militaris sustainably, without caterpillar zombies. Our organic Cordyceps militaris is cultivated on brown rice, and we utilize both the mushroom fruiting body and the myceliated biomass for maximum benefits.
Why Not Wild?
Cordyceps militaris is one of the only mushrooms we prefer cultivated vs. wild for three reasons:
- Transporting wild Cordyceps sinensis from Asia would leave a huge carbon footprint per pound.
- Harvesting wild Cordyceps sinensis for international sales is devastating to its natural habitats.
- No Cordyceps sinensis is actually imported for sale in the United States anyway!
Leading mycologist Dr. Christopher Hobbs has conducted extensive DNA testing on products labeled as cordyceps. He has not found any Cordyceps sinensis in products available in US markets—even among those labeled as Cordyceps sinensis.
DNA testing showed that US products labeled as Cordyceps sinensis actually contain the fungi Tolypocladium inflatum, or Bionectria ochroleuca, or Cordyceps militaris.
In short, products claiming to contain Cordyceps sinensis are likely mislabeled—or, worse, intentionally misleading. We advise clients to be wary of any products claiming to contain Cordyceps sinensis.
Purchase products labeled “Cordyceps militaris” from a trusted source. You want to know what you are actually getting!
Health Benefits of Cordyceps Militaris
For centuries, various cordyceps species have been prized for promoting energy, vitality, sexual performance, and athletic prowess. Modern clinical and lab studies have shown that Cordyceps militaris has antioxidative, antihyperglycemic, antitumor, and immunomodulatory effects (1).
Studies point to five different ways that cordyceps promotes energy and vitality. Cordyceps militaris:
- Supports Endurance
- Supports Healthy Immune Function
- Supports Cardiovascular Health
- Lowers Inflammation
- Has Anti-Cancer Properties
The bioactive compounds that provide these benefits include:
- Cordycepic Acid
- Protease (2)
Read on the learn more about each of the amazing health benefits of Cordyceps militaris mushroom extract!
1. Cordyceps Supports Endurance
A number of studies show that Cordyceps militaris can promote endurance during physical activity, backing up its traditional use as an energy tonic. Cordyceps has been promoted by Olympic coaches and scientific researchers as a functional food for endurance (3).
Cordyceps’s endurance benefits are likely due to adenosine and polysaccharides. The two nutritional compounds each promote energy metabolism, and cordyceps has them both!
Adenosine is the primary molecule for transferring energy among cells. Adenosine is key to:
- Storing and unleashing energy
- Recovery sleep after sleep deprivation (4).
Polysaccharides are long-chain carbohydrates that give plants and some hard-shelled animals their structure and strength (5, 6). Together, these bioactive nutrients work together to help resist fatigue.
Studies have shown that cordyceps mushrooms can improve exercise performance in healthy adults (7, 8). Patients in a 12 week study took cordyceps supplements before cycling. They showed improved metabolic functioning and respiratory functioning. Their VO2 max increased by 8.5%. (The control group showed no change in VO2 max, so the change wasn’t due to increased fitness from cycling for the twelve weeks of the study!) A second study showed similar results.
In a swimming test, mice who were fed polysaccharides isolated from Cordyceps militaris had significantly better endurance than the control group. The cordyceps-treated mice also had lower concentrations of serum lactic acid, and increased liver and muscle glycogen content (9).
Cordyceps militaris also supports endurance by improving respiratory function. Extracts made from cordyceps' fruiting body were found to modulate airway inflammation in asthmatic mice (10).
The benefits of taking cordyceps increase with time. Short-term supplementation with cordyceps can improve endurance during high-intensity exercise, but long term supplementation may provide even greater benefits (11). One study indicated that twelve weeks was the threshold for experiencing optimal benefits (11).
2. Cordyceps Supports Healthy Immune Response
Cordyceps extracts support healthy immune responses holistically, operating at the immune system's cellular level.
Laboratory studies have shown cordyceps influencing immune activity by:
- Activating healthy immune response.
- Increasing natural killer (NK) cell activity.
- Increasing T cell proliferation.
- Inhibiting allergy reaction.
- Inhibiting inflammation.
- Directly mediating mast cell immune response.
- Modulating macrophage activity.
- Increasing interferon secretion by macrophages.
- Modulating dendritic cell function. (12)
By supporting healthy immune response, Cordyceps militaris also shows anti-viral activity. Reseachers tested cordyceps's effect on influenza A virus, and found that mice had more natural killer cells when given Cordyceps militaris extract. They also fared better overall, with lower mortality than those who did not receive cordyceps (12).
3. Cordyceps & Cardiovascular Support
Cordyceps militaris supports healthy cardiovascular function in two ways: 1) by increasing antioxidant capacity of heart tissue and 2) by reducing high cholesterol.
Cordyceps militaris extracts made from the mushroom’s fruiting body are powerful antioxidants. Lab studies have shown that Cordyceps militaris extracts increased total antioxidant capacity in liver, kidney, and heart tissues. They concluded that Cordyceps militaris extracts modulate antioxidative enzymes in healthy organisms (12).
Antioxidants are especially important for protecting heart tissue. Cardiovascular cells communicate using reactive oxygen species molecules (ROS), which they create themselves. When there are plenty of antioxidants available to balance these oxygen species, the system is safe.
However, when there are not enough antioxidants present in the heart’s tissues, those ROS molecules can damage DNA, proteins, and lipids. This can harm the heart’s structure and cardiovascular function (13).
The system is safely balanced when there are enough antioxidants available. Antioxidant foods can help support a healthy balance.
The second way Cordyceps militaris supports heart health is by reducing high cholesterol. High levels of low-density cholesterol (LDL) are associated with heart disease. A study showed that daily doses of bioactive Cordyceps militaris components reduced LDL cholesterol in hamsters, as well as reducing triglycerides and total cholesterol (14).
4. Is Cordyceps A Natural Anti-Inflammatory?
Cordyceps’s antioxidant power and immune-modulating effects (which we explored above), make cordyceps an anti-inflammatory food.
Extracts made from Cordycep militaris mycelium alleviated symptoms of acute colitis in mice. The researchers noted that Cordyceps militaris mycelium could be harnessed as a preventative food and treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases (12).
The Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine recommends Cordyceps militaris for those with chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and asthma (15).
5. Cordyceps Has Anti-Cancer Properties
Research into the benefits of cordyceps as an anti-cancer food show that there are unique benefits to both the mycelium and the fruiting body. That’s because the mycelium itself contains anti-cancer properties that are distinct from the anti-cancer properties of the fruiting body.
The fruiting body of Cordyceps militaris has been shown to increase the level of interferon secretion by macrophages (12).
Macrophages are immune cells that act like sentinels, patrolling and removing dead cells. Macrophages are part of the immune system’s anti-tumor response (16). Interferon secreted by microphages “plays a key role in activation of cellular immunity and subsequently, stimulation of antitumor immune-response” (17).
Researchers proposed that Cordyceps militaris could be used “as an immune activator or antitumor agent” (12).
The mycelia of cultivated Cordyceps militaris is a potential cancer-fighter because it reduces angiogenesis (12). Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels.
In order to grow and form large tumors, cancer cells need a blood supply. Reducing angiogenesis reduces or prevents tumors from gaining a blood supply, limiting their size and growth.
Lab studies showed that extracts made from cultured mycelia had a more potent anti-angiogenesis effect than fruiting body extracts (12).
Renew Your Spirits and Plant Trees
The stressors of the modern world take a toll on our bodies. If we feel fatigued, unmotivated, or detached, it’s easy to see why we might lose connection with the people and projects that matter to us. Luckily, our wild bodies know how to get the most out of superfoods like cordyceps mushroom extract.
Plus, with every purchase of Wild Kingdom extracts, you heal your connection with the earth by helping to reforest our planet. Every sale from our store donates to One Tree Planted, an organization that shares our mission for sustainability by planting trees worldwide.
The numbers in parenthesis are clickable links to the sources cited in this article.