Cordyceps Militaris Mushroom (Caterpillar fungus)
If you were an insect, Cordyceps mushrooms would be the stuff of nightmares.
That’s because the spores of this parasitic fungus would have the potential to infect your brain- causing a kind of madness. As if possessed, you would climb up to a high perch, hold on tight, and die- giving the fungus an opportunity to fruit through your brain and spread its spores once again.
Luckily we don’t ever have to worry about this- because for you and I, Cordyceps is a superbly powerful medicinal mushroom which boasts incredible health benefits, including boosting your energy, increasing your endurance and improving overall health.
The Health Benefits of Cordyceps
So we know that Cordyceps is powerful… but what can it actually do for us?
Both anecdotal reports and hard scientific evidence show that compounds within cordyceps mushrooms can improve our well being in a number of different ways.
1. Boost the Immune System
Like many other medicinal mushrooms, cordyceps contain Beta-D-Glucans which have been shown to naturally modulate the immune system and help you resist disease and illness. (1)
2. Improve Stamina
Cordyceps has been used to improve athletic performance and stamina by increasing the bodies ability absorb oxygen and use it more efficiently. (2) Studies have shown the ability of this mushroom to increase VO2 max in athletes. This is one of the most commonly sought after effects of Cordyceps.
Cordyceps has been linked to improving the action of anti-oxidants, reducing the effect of oxidative processes which can have an anti-aging effect. (3)
4. Increase Energy
This mushroom is able to increase your body’s supply of ATP, which is the main source of energy for your cells during exercise. This has the effect of increased exercise performance, energy and liveliness. (4)
5. Breath Easier
There have been lots of anectdotal reports of Cordyceps helping people who suffer from asthma and other immune related disorders. Studies in mice have shown Cordyceps militaris to be effective in reducing airway inflammation. (5)
6. A Natural Aphrodisiac
Cordyceps has traditionally been used to help improve fertility and act as a remedy for impotence, making it a natural aphrodisiac. This is thought to be because of the ability of Cordyceps to increase blood flow. (6)
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is actually a genus of mushrooms, and the term has been used to refer to a number of different species- most commonly Codyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris.
These not your traditional cap and stem mushrooms – and have many unique characteristics. Known as a “sac fungi”, or “ascomycete”, they are related to other famous fungi such as the morel and the truffle.
The Cordyceps fruiting body is actually a known as an “ascocarp”- but for out purposes, we can just refer to it as a mushroom! It is usually a long skinny fruiting body extending from the host, but can also be club shaped.
Cordyceps mushrooms are parasitic, meaning that they need living host which will eventually be killed by the fungus. The host is typically a insect or, tree, or even another fungus.
Cordyceps are found all over the world, but are most commonly found in Asia, with the highest density of species found in tropical rain forests. The traditional Cordyceps Sinensis grows naturally on caterpillars high in the mountains of China.
Different Types of Cordyceps
There are hundreds of different species of Cordyceps found all over the world. There are two main species, however, that are of interest for human consumption- Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris.
Cordyceps sinensis is the most well known species, famous for its powerful medicinal properties. When people use the term “Cordyceps” they are often referring to sinensis.
It is commonly called the caterpillar fungus, due to the fact that is uses the insect as a host before eventually fruiting from its head. You can clearly see the caterpillar in images of harvested sinesis.
Codyceps sinesis is found in Asia, tucked in between the Himalayas on the Tibetan plateau. The fruiting body of the fungus has evaded attempts at successful commercial cultivation, and is therefore highly prized.
It is getting harder and harder to find, causing conflicts in the areas where it is harvested and bringing the price up to insane valuations. For example, the price has risen from about $5 per gram in the late ‘90s to upwards of $72 per gram today!
If you find a supplement that claims to include C. sinensis, it is most likely just not true.
The demands for supplemental Cordyceps today are just too high to rely on wild harvested Cordyceps sinensis- and using the fungus in this way is unsustainable both ecologically and economically.
Luckily, there is a species of Cordyceps that has a compound profile extremely similar to C. sinesis, known as Cordyceps militaris. In fact, these two mushrooms have historically been used interchangeably in traditional Chinese medicine.
Thanks to recent breakthroughs, the actual fruiting body of C. militaris can be cultivated reliably and affordably.
The method of cultivation doesn’t even require the use of insects. This means that cultivated C. militaris can be considered vegan, and can deliver all the same benefits as C. sinesis without the high price or the ecological impact of harvesting a diminishing resource.
Producing the actual fruiting body also helps to make certain the identity of the fungus, since Cordyceps militaris is easily recognizable.
Commercial cultivation of militaris makes supplementation with Cordyceps possible on a large scale.
Cordyceps mushrooms are highly sought after by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, with recorded use of the fungus going back over 500 years!
It has been used as a treatment or aid for an incredible variety of ailments; from kidney and lung problems to cancer and heart disease. Often, it is used as a way to stimulate the immune system, allowing the body to heal itself.
Cordyceps sinensis is thought of as having a good balance of yin and yang, due to the fact that it is half caterpillar and half fungus.
Improving the Immune System
Like many other medicinal mushrooms, Cordyceps contain high levels of Beta-D-Glucans, a compound shown to act as a “biological response modifier”.
When the immune system is overreacting, as is the case with allergies and other auto-immune diseases, Cordyceps can help calm it down. On the other hand, if the immune system is weak, the mushroom can have the opposite effect, kicking the immune system into gear to help fend off disease. Several studies have been done which shows this to be true for Beta-D-Glucan containing mushrooms in general and Cordyceps in particular.
This ability to “modulate” the immune system can also have other effects, such as reducing tumor growth. Studies have shown that Cordyceps extracts have a toxic effect on tumor cells, while at the same time, not damaging healthy cells.
Increasing Stamina and Endurance
Cordyceps mushroom supplements are commonly taken by athletes looking to get an edge, and are said to help by increasing endurance, energy and overall stamina.
This first came into the public eye in the late 1993, when the Chinese women’s Olympic track team managed to break 3 world records at a single event. Rumors of drug use were rampant, until finally, the teams coach pointed to their secret weapon- Cordyceps mushrooms.
According to the coach, regularly ingesting the mushrooms boosted the runners energy, and relaxed the respitory tract, allowing the runners to use oxygen more efficiently and gain a competitive edge.
Scientific studies have been done more recently which show that Cordyceps can actually increase “vasodilation” helping to deliver much needed oxygen to the cells of the body during exercise, increasing stamina. This study , for example, showed that athletic performance was increased for older healthy adults by taking Cordyceps over a 12 week period.
Another study set out to show the effect of Cordyceps on physical endurance by giving supplemental dose to rats over a period of 15 days and monitoring their ability to swim. The study showed that the group using cordyceps was able to increase their swim times by upwards of 20 minutes- a substantial improvement.
Cordyceps has also shown to help people with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. This could very well be linked to increased delivery of oxygen, the same reason why cordyceps helps increase stamina and endurance.
Cordyceps for ATP and Energy Production
ATP is the base unit of energy in the body. It is the currency which your body uses to in order to carry out any function at the cellular level. Without ATP, you wouldn’t move.
Adenosine, a precursor to ATP is found in high levels in Cordyceps militaris. By increasing the availability of adenosine, Cordyceps can helps overall ATP production, allowing for increased energy production.
This has the potential to give athletes and weightlifters that extra boost of energy during exercise.
Cordycepin is a derivative of adenosine, known to be toxic to some cancer cells while also showing antidepressant effects. Although it is now produced synthetically, it was initially extracted from Cordyceps militaris.
There are currently active clinical trials using cordycepin to fight leukemia.