Tibetan herdsman first noticed that animals grazing on a tiny, grass-like mushroom became more energetic and agile. Intrigued, the herders began to harvest the mushroom and soon observed that human consumption yields similar benefits.
But what is this miraculous herb, or the “elixir of life” – as harvesters often refer to? Read our article to not only find out what was the exclusive privilege of the Chinese royalty, but also its health benefits backed up by science.
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There’s an ever-growing interest in the potential health benefits fungi have on humans. In fact, fungi have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other ancient medical practices. Cordyceps spp. is a specific category that has been thrust into the spotlight.
Nowadays, cordyceps is one of the most recognised medicinal mushrooms , but Cordyceps has been utilized in TCM for hundreds of years to treat several conditions such as respiratory diseases, liver or renal problems, hyperglycemia, and cancer or tumor disorders. TCM specialists recommend the regular intake of C. sinensis to avoid infections, colds, and flues. It has also been applied as an energy level and endurance enhancer, to improve erobic capacity, and to boost cellular immunity.
What is cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a kind of fungi found at higher altitudes in the Himalayan regions of China, Nepal, Tibet and India. In total, there have been more than 750 species of cordyceps identified. Of those, scientists have identified at least 35 kinds that have had some potential health benefits and medicinal properties.
What makes cordyceps interesting is that they’re parasitic in nature. Each species of cordyceps targets a specific insect. When a cordyceps spore lands on and infects its host, it spreads mycelia (or tendrils) throughout the insect’s body. Those tendrils replace the host’s internal tissues and feed off of its nutrients to erupt out of the insect’s body with a fruiting body which then spreads its spores to other insects. The fruiting body is what people seek for its health benefits.
Cordyceps sinensis (caterpillar fungus)
Thanks to its rarity and long-time use in traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps sinesis is the most studied and applied among all Cordyceps species. It grows on ghost moth larvae found at high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan regions of Bhutan and Nepal.
According to the theory of Chinese medicine, C. sinensis is sweet in taste and neutral in nature, and it can replenish the kidney, soothe the lung, stop bleeding, and eliminate phlegm.
Cordyceps has been used for increasing physical stamina, to deal with weakness and fatigue by people of high altitude. Cordyceps sinensis got in the spotlight in 1993, when some world athletics champions revealed their strategy for success, including a diet based on Cordyceps spp.
A study on energy metabolism showed that C. sinensis remarkably improved the bioenergy status in the murine liver by increasing the level of β-ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The antioxidant properties of Cordyceps sinensis enhances energy metabolism in the mitochondria and facilitates the efficient utilization of limited oxygen supply, thus increasing the anaerobic threshold.
Since, it has been well-established that fatigue is closely related to depression. A study was performed in mice to examine the antidepressant effects of C. sinensis. Results suggest that it may elicit an antidepressant-like effect by affecting the adrenergic and dopaminergic systems. A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was performed in healthy elderly volunteers. Administration of C. sinensis for 12 weeks, increased the metabolic threshold and the ventilatory threshold of the patients. The higher thresholds indicate better exercise performance without fatigue in elderly people. It was reported that C. sinensis can increase the motor coordination with improved metabolic and ventilatory that results in increased muscle endurance or antifatigue activity and mood elevator or antidepressant-like activity as a result of decreased endogenous depression.
Further pharmacological potential of Cordyceps sinensis
C. sinensis has even more to offer than anti-fatigue activity. Further proposed applications of Cordyceps sinensis in medicine include:
- aphrodisiac activity: also known as the „Himalayan Viagra”, by modulating the release of sexual hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, controlling reproductive activity, and restoring the impaired functions the applications of C. sinensis as a sexual stimulant and in sexual dysfunction are attractive.
- immuno-stimulatory activity: The use of C. sinensis promotes the adaptive immune system, comprising the cellular and humoral immunity and has been reported to strengthen the cell-mediated immunity as well.
- anti-inflammatory activity: C. sinensis exhibites a decline in IL-1β, TNF-α, and pro-inflammatory markers in a carrageenan-induced inflammation model.
- antitumor effect: C. sinensis was reported as a remarkable antiproliferative compound against various tumor cell lines. Moreover, the water extract of C. sinensis accelerates the Kupffer cells mediated phagocytosis to prevent metastasis.
- anti-diabetic effect: C. sinensis, is described to be effective in lowering basal blood glucose and plasma insulin levels. Additionally, it improves the metabolism of glucose by increasing insulin sensitivity and improving oral glucose tolerance.
- antioxidant and anti-aging activity: extracts of cultured Cordyceps sinensis possess potent antioxidant and anti-lipid peroxidation activities and inhibit accumulation of cholesteryl ester in macrophages via suppression of LDL oxidation.
To further expand the list of potential health benefits, C. sinensis has scientifically proven antibacterial, antifungal, antimalarial, HIV-1 protease inhibitor, anti-thrombotic and anticoagulant effects.
For hundreds of years, Cordyceps sinensis has been used in Tibetan medicine and TCM, and in the last decades, its consumption as supplements has become very popular. If you’re seeking a product that uses cordyceps, you should look for labels that specifically use Cordyceps sinensis, as it is the most reliable among all Cordiceps spp. – and also the most wanted and most expensive mushroom in the world.