Cordyceps ((Ophio)Cordyceps spp.)
Summer grass, winter worm, caterpillar fungus
Grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas. Most often found at high altitudes between 9,800 and 16,400 ft.
Dark brown, black or orange mushroom emerging from the head of a dead caterpillar.
Mycelium, mushroom/fruiting body, myceliated caterpillar
Warm, acrid, sweet, moist
Nucleosides (cordycepin, adenosine), polysaccharides, sterols, ergosterol
Renal protective C. sinensis significantly improves tubulointerstitial renal fibrosis, in vitro, and polysaccharide extracts relieve the formation of reactive oxygen species and reduce kidney damage through inhibition of tumor growth factor β (TGF-β) (1,2).
Endurance Though used widely by athletes, few ergogenic mechanisms have been demonstrated through in vivo animal models. Cordyceps spp. have been shown to stimulate the enzyme lactic acid dehydrogenase (LDH), accelerating the removal of lactic acid and increasing available ATP for anaerobic exercise (3). Cordyceps spp. also contain the nucleoside adenosine, which relaxes vascular smooth muscle during exercise, contributing to the local vasodilation that accompanies muscle contraction (4). Studies have found that during exercise-induced, higher frequency contractions, adenosine contributes around 14-29% of necessary vasodilatory activity (5).
Respiratory protection C. sinensis may be beneficial for decreasing smoking-related cellular damage in lung tissue. In vitro research shows that cordyceps decreases cigarette smoke extract (CSE)-induced cellular senescence. Activation of the oxidative, inflammatory and oncogene signaling pathway iROS/PI3K/AKT/mTOR is enhanced by CSE treatment, and decreases when C. sinensis is administered (6). Cordycepin, a derivative of the nucleoside adenosine, significantly reduces airway inflammatory cell infiltration via inhibition of the ERK/NF-kB signaling pathway, which suppresses inflammatory mediators (7,8,9,10,11). Cordyceps inhibits airway remodeling of asthma by downregulating TGF-ß and suppressing p38MAPK signaling pathways, which suggests possible use as a support for inflammatory states of the lung (12).
Immune regulating Cordycepin has been widely recognized for its therapeutic potential against many types of immune dysregulation through numerous mechanisms, inducing apoptosis, cell cycle arrest and the generation of DNA damage in cancer cells, thereby killing dysfunctional cells and controlling growth. Cordycepin also induces autophagy, inhibits tumor metastasis and modulates the immune system. Although there have been many successful cases of cordycepin in research in vitro and in animal models, there have yet to be notable clinical trials (13). Cordycepin reduces migration of human glioblastoma cells in vitro, decreases brain tumor size in mice, and actively down-regulates the expression of integrin β1, FAK and p-FAK, subsequently reducing cell migration (14).
Vascular dysfunction Cordyceps has a history of use as an aphrodisiac, specifically aiding sexual endurance and sexual dysfunction. Studies indicate this mechanism is via a protein with vasorelaxant effects linked to the production of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS). These are preliminary results and the authors stress that further work on the mechanism of action is necessary (15).
Current and traditional medicinal use
History and folk use
Cordyceps is an extraordinary mushroom and is considered an endoparasite - the mycelium takes over the life of insects, zombifies them, and grows an erect fruiting body, usually through the caput of an arthropod. According to ancient descriptions, C. sinensis possesses important pharmacological activities for protecting lung and kidney function and nourishes essential and vital energy. The Nepalese people observed livestock consuming cordyceps and saw an increase in the animal’s sexual vitality and general stamina. The people then began to consume the mushrooms as the other animals did, and found that it improved their own vitality as well – increasing stamina, endurance, and treating impotence.
A double-blind placebo-controlled trial assessed oxidative stress biomarkers in athletes supplementing with cordyceps and reishi mushrooms. The researchers found that after three months of supplementation with 1,335mg cordyceps extract and 1,170mg reishi extract per day, the athletes had significantly more free radical scavenging activity after a race than the placebo group (4). These results could be an indication that these mushrooms are also beneficial for recovery following endurance exercise.
In a review of 22 studies that involved 1,746 participants with kidney dysfunction not receiving dialysis, cordyceps preparations were found to significantly decrease serum creatinine, an important marker of kidney dysfunction. Cordyceps preparation, as an adjunctive therapy to conventional medicine, can decrease serum creatinine, increase creatinine clearance, reduce proteinuria and alleviate complications, such as increased hemoglobin and serum albumin (16).
Another systematic review compared 3-12g daily doses of cordyceps-based immunosuppressant therapy with azathioprine-based immunosuppressant therapy; both immunosuppressant therapies included cyclosporine A and prednisolone. Patients who took the cordyceps-based immunosuppressant therapy had significantly lower blood urea nitrogen and serum creatinine, decreased serum uric acid, total cholesterol, alanine transaminase and aspartate transaminase liver enzymes, and increased HDL-cholesterol. Urinary leukocytes and erythrocytes were notably lower in the cordyceps group along with lower infection rates. Based on these studies, cordyceps is a safe adjunctive support that could be beneficial for patients with kidney dysfunction (17).
A placebo-controlled trial observed the immune-stimulating effects of C. militaris fruiting body extract in healthy adult males. 1.5g of mushroom was administered daily, and blood was drawn after two weeks and after four weeks. After 4 weeks, there was a significant increase in NK cells, IFN-γ, and IL-2 compared to the control group (18).
Double extraction. 1:1 - 1:5 liquid extract. The mushroom has been extracted with both water and alcohol.
Hot aqueous extract. Mushroom has been boiled for multiple hours either as a tea or used as a broth.
Powdered extract. 1:1 - 10:1. May be extracted only with water or with both water and alcohol. The extract is then dehydrated into a powdered extract. 10:1 implies that every 1g of extract is equivalent to 10g of dried mushroom.
Myceliated grain. Mycelium is grown on grain substrate and when the mycelium seems to have digested the majority of the grain, the entire block is extracted.
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1. Du F, Li S, Wang T, et al. Cordyceps sinensis attenuates renal fibrosis and suppresses BAG3 induction in obstructed rat kidney. 2015;7(5):932-940.
2. Wang Y, Yin H, Lv X, Wang Y, Gao H, Wang M. Fitoterapia Protection of chronic renal failure by a polysaccharide from Cordyceps sinensis. Fitoterapia. 2010;81(5):397-402. doi:10.1016/j.fitote.2009.11.008.
3. Song J, Wang Y, Teng M, et al. Studies on the antifatigue activities of Cordyceps militaris fruit body extract in mouse model. Evidence-based Complement Altern Med. 2015;2015. doi:10.1155/2015/174616.
4. Rossi P, Buonocore D, Altobelli E, et al. Improving training condition assessment in endurance cyclists: Effects of ganoderma lucidum and ophiocordyceps sinensis dietary supplementation. Evidence-based Complement Altern Med. 2014;2014. doi:10.1155/2014/979613.
5. Ballard HJ. Invited Review ATP and adenosine in the regulation of skeletal muscle blood flow during exercise. Sheng Li Xue Bao. 2014;66(1):67-78. doi:10.13294/j.aps.2014.0009.
6. Liu, Ailling Wu J. The inhibitory mechanism of Cordyceps sinensis on cigarette smoke extract-induced senescence in human bronchial epithelial cells. Int J COPD. 2016;11:1721-1731.
7. Chiou Y, Lin C. The Extract of Cordyceps sinensis Inhibited Airway Inflammation by Blocking NF- κ B Activity. 2012;35(3). doi:10.1007/s10753-011-9402-9.
8. Hsu C, Sun H, Sheu J, et al. Effects of the Immunomodulatory Agent Cordyceps militaris on Airway Inflammation in a Mouse Asthma Model. Pediatr Neonatol. 2008;49(5):171-178. doi:10.1016/S1875-9572(09)60004-8.
9. Singh M, Tulsawani R, Koganti P, Chauhan A, Manickam M, Misra K. Cordyceps sinensis increases hypoxia tolerance by inducing heme oxygenase-1 and metallothionein via Nrf2 activation in human lung epithelial cells. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:1-13. doi:10.1155/2013/569206.
10. Yang X, Li Y, He Y, et al. International Immunopharmacology Cordycepin alleviates airway hyperreactivity in a murine model of asthma by attenuating the inflammatory process. Int Immunopharmacol. 2015;26(2):401-408. doi:10.1016/j.intimp.2015.04.017.
11. Lei J, Wei Y, Song P, Li Y, Zhang T, Feng Q. Cordycepin inhibits LPS-induced acute lung injury by inhibiting in fl ammation and oxidative stress. Eur J Pharmacol. 2018;818(July 2017):110-114. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2017.10.029.
12. Fei X, Zhang X, Zhang G, Bao W, Zhang Y, Zhang M. ScienceDirect Cordycepin inhibits airway remodeling in a rat model of chronic asthma. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017;88:335-341. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2017.01.025.
13. Khan MA, Tania M. Cordycepin in Anticancer Research: Molecular Mechanism of Therapeutic Effects. Curr Med Chem. 2018 Sep 30. doi: 10.2174/0929867325666181001105749. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 30277143.
14. Hueng DY, Hsieh CH, Cheng YC, Tsai WC, Chen Y. Cordycepin inhibits migration of human glioblastoma cells by affecting lysosomal degradation and protein phosphatase activation. J Nutr Biochem. 2017 Mar;41:109-116. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2016.12.008. Epub 2016 Dec 29. PubMed PMID: 28068557.
15. Drewes SE, George J, Khan F. Recent findings on natural products with erectile-dysfunction activity. 2003;62:1019-1025.
16. Zhang Y, Du Y, Yu H, Zhou Y, Ge F. Protective Effects of Ophiocordyceps lanpingensis on Glycerol-Induced Acute Renal Failure in Mice. J Immunol Res. 2017;2017:2012585. doi: 10.1155/2017/2012585. Epub 2017 Oct 12. PubMed PMID: 29159186; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5660786.
17. Ong BY, Aziz Z. Efficacy of Cordyceps sinensis as an adjunctive treatment in kidney transplant patients: A systematic-review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2017;30:84-92. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2016.12.007.
18. Kang HJ, Baik HW, Kim SJ, et al. Cordyceps militaris Enhances Cell-Mediated Immunity in Healthy Korean Men. J Med Food. 2015;18(10):1164-1172. doi:10.1089/jmf.2014.3350.