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Cordyceps - a true superfood
February 2, 2022
Dr. Dorothee Bös et al.
The Chinese caterpillar fungus supports the kidney from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine. This organ stores all our physical and psychic energy and is therefore considered the root of life. Cordyceps gives strength, endurance and willpower.
What can vital mushrooms do?
Vital or medicinal mushrooms have an invaluable potential to support our health. While healers in Asian cultures are happy to use medicinal mushrooms to treat physical ailments today, as they did thousands of years ago, they are left out of European healthcare systems. In this country, at least since the discovery of penicillin, the wonderful power of mushrooms is undisputed. This discovery has brought mankind a long way in the fight against infections. But many vital mushrooms can also efficiently support the immune system. Polyporus, Reishi, Maitake, Shiitake, Coriolus and Cordyceps are also valuable companions in cancer. Other vital mushrooms help with autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular problems, obesity or depression. There is almost to every conventional medical therapy a suitable companion or also replacement within the world of the vital mushrooms.
Learn here what a wonderful help cordyceps can be for kidney, lung, and mental ailments, as well as for improving performance in sports.
Learn more about the vital mushroom Cordyceps sinensis and its positive properties on your health here in this video
History and mycology
The Cordyceps mushroom - a chance discovery
The story goes that Cordyceps was discovered long ago by shepherds in the Himalayas. The latter would have wondered why their yak and sheep herds were significantly more fertile after visiting certain pastures. In addition, animals in certain regions came through the winter much healthier and were noticeably more resistant. Upon closer inspection, it probably became clear that the cattle were ingesting a fungus along with the grass, which superficially looked like a blade of grass.
After the shepherds had such experiences with cordyceps on their animals, the step to a remedy for humans was only a logical consequence. Since cordyceps did not cause any side effects, it was soon used against a wide variety of ailments. For the barren heights of the Himalayas, the discovery of cordyceps has been a tremendous medicinal asset. But in the same way we can also benefit from the Cordyceps effect today.
What is the Cordyceps?
The medicinal mushroom Cordyceps sinensis grows on humid mountain meadows of the Himalayas at altitudes of 3000 to 5000 meters. Growing under the extreme conditions there demands enormous adaptive potential from it. It also passes on this ability to humans and animals as an adaptogen. From a biological point of view, cordyceps belongs to the group of tubular fungi such as morels or truffles. An additional common feature with the latter is also its high price. Since it is very rare, wild-collected cordyceps may well reach a price per kilo of 2000 EUR or more. It was also so precious hundreds of years ago that, outside the area of its natural occurrence, it was reserved exclusively for socially elevated individuals such as the Emperor of China.
Its German name “Raupenpilz” is due to its peculiar growth. Thus, it invades the subterranean-living caterpillar of the moth Thitarodes as a parasite. Over the winter, it spreads through the caterpillar and eventually kills it. In the end, only the mummified shell full of fungal mycelium remains. In summer, a narrow, elongated mushroom body grows from the caterpillar’s former head up to the earth’s surface. From the outside, the fungus looks similar to the rest of the summer grass. From this growth cycle derives the Chinese name of cordyceps “Dong Chong Xia Cao”, which means “caterpillar in winter, grass in summer”.
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The ingredients of cordyceps
So what are these wonderful ingredients that make cordyceps so effective in treating so many conditions? An analysis of cordyceps reveals, among other things, the following substances valuable for the human organism:
- Vitamin B1, B2, E and K
- Various minerals
- Trace elements: copper, zinc, selenium, iron, germanium
- all essential amino acids
- Polysaccharides: beta-glucans
- Nucleosides: cordycepin and adenosine
- Steroids: Ergosterol
Especially the last three groups of substances mentioned are true treasures for our health. We will come back to them at various points.
What does Cordyceps help with?
The central Cordyceps effect concerns the health of kidneys and lungs. Thus, TCM mainly makes use of the strengthening effect of the vital mushroom on the Qi, i.e. the life energy of these two organs. In recent studies, the benefits for kidneys and lungs have been confirmed several times. In addition, experts use cordyceps for obesity and a lack of libido. It is said to be able to increase not only pleasure, but equally the fertility of both woman and man. The medicinal mushroom has also made a name for itself in the field of anti-aging. Due to its multiple positive effects on metabolism and blood vessels, as well as its neuroprotective, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying effects, it is traditionally traded in Asia as a rejuvenating agent. For the West, especially the peculiarity of cordyceps to regulate blood pressure is a valuable treasure. We will talk about the other areas of application and therapeutic effects of the Cordyceps mushroom in more detail in a moment.
Is the cordyceps dangerous?
Before we get to the main areas of application, we would like to briefly clarify this recurring question: Can side effects occur when using cordyceps? The answer is clear: side effects in the classical sense, as they are known from pharmaceuticals, do not exist with medicinal mushrooms. Also, there is nothing that could be called an “overdose”.
Thus, in the case of cordyceps, experience has shown that only overstimulation of excretory processes can occur. In the case of detoxification processes, this is temporarily unpleasant for the person concerned, but ultimately has a clearly positive effect on the organism. Sensitive individuals will notice, especially in their digestion, that cordyceps begins to “clean up” in the body. If the detoxification symptoms become too severe, a temporary reduction of the dose is quite sufficient for relief.
If medications are still being taken in parallel with cordyceps, consultation with your doctor is still important.
"I suffered from my cold feet all the time. At night, I could only ever fall asleep if I put on stockings. On top of that, I had a depressive mood. My doctor wanted to prescribe me antidepressants. But when I took Cordyceps, I finally found a solution. I became more efficient and my mood is excellent. My sexuality has also been stimulated."
Effect / Fields of application
More life energy through kidney protection
According to the teachings of TCM, the kidneys are the origin of all body energies. If the kidneys have problems or suffer from external stress factors, this brings the entire organism out of balance. According to TCM, this can manifest itself in problems at the level of bones, joints and teeth. Back pain and premature signs of aging such as hearing loss, failing eyesight and gray hair are also linked to the kidneys. In addition, there are developmental and growth problems in childhood and adolescence. Since mental energy also originates in the kidneys, diseases can manifest themselves in anxiety, fatigue, insecurity and lack of concentration. The effect of cordyceps on the kidneys is described by expert therapists as tonic and strengthening. It nourishes the Qi in the kidneys and thus promotes all the energies of the body.
In traditional medicine, the positive effect of cordyceps on the kidneys has been proven in many ways. For example, the high cordycepin content was shown to provide better excretion of creatinine and urea. As a result, blood levels of urea, uric acid and creatinine have been shown to decrease. Smooth excretion and thus good creatinine clearance also have a salutary effect on kidney inflammation (nephritis) and dysfunction. In addition, cordyceps has a protective effect on the smallest functional units of the kidney, the glomeruli. If defects occur in them, too many proteins are secreted. In this case, physicians speak of proteinuria.
Help with diabetes
Since the kidneys are very affected by diabetes mellitus, cordyceps also performs well in this case. Diabetics who take the vital mushroom regularly report weight loss, less thirst and better blood sugar levels. With regard to blood sugar, but also fat metabolism, the use of Cordyceps militaris should be considered as a supplement. If you suffer from diabetes or want to use cordyceps to lose weight if you are overweight, it is best to discuss the exact procedure with an expert in medicinal mushrooms.
Support for kidney transplants
Cordyceps sinensis is further known to prevent or alleviate autoimmune damage to the kidney on a therapeutic level. In the context of kidney transplants, it has been found that concomitant use of cordyceps leads to a higher success rate and fewer complications.
Hormones and stress
The adrenal cortex is closely related to the kidneys and is responsible for the production of hormones. The regulating action of cordyceps on the adrenal cortex can noticeably alleviate symptoms of stress. For this reason, the caterpillar fungus also prevents chronic diseases that can arise from severe stress. Moreover, the regulation of hormones makes itself felt in the area of the sexual organs and thus in fertility. A uniformly high production of sex hormones strengthens the sex organs of both women and men in the long run.
Relief when taking medications that affect the kidneys
Drugs, as used by conventional medicine, are almost always accompanied by side effects. The kidneys suffer enormously from the metabolism of pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, antibiotics, chemotherapeutic agents and many others. Therefore, concomitant use of cordyceps to support the kidneys is often advisable with conventional medical medication. Following drug therapy, the Cordyceps mushroom brings regeneration forward. In the case of antibiotics, this mainly affects the tubule cells in the kidneys. On the other hand, the administration of contrast media, which must be injected for many imaging procedures, results in high oxidative stress and, in some cases, inflammation in the kidney. In this case, cordyceps not only has a healing effect, but can even prevent impending apoptosis (cell death). Due to its beneficial effect on excretion, the contrast medium also passes out of the organism more quickly.
Cordyceps for resistant lungs
Besides the kidneys, the lungs are a main area of action of Cordyceps. According to TCM teachings, it nourishes the yin of the lungs and has a tonic effect. It supports the respiratory system’s defenses, which is why viruses and bacteria have a much harder time entering the body through the mucous membranes under its influence. In particular, the antioxidant ingredients of cordyceps, such as beta-glucans, perform well in the defense against pathogens.
Cordyceps has a positive effect in the following other problem areas related to the lungs:
- Respiratory diseases: Cough, cold, shortness of breath, bronchitis
- obstructive pulmonary diseases: Asthma, COPD
- In animal studies, it inhibits the growth of lung cancer
- Prevention and therapy of pulmonary fibrosis (according to initial findings).
- traditional remedy for tuberculosis
- Increase in overall breathing volume – also beneficial for athletes
- improved exhalation of CO2 – supports the deacidification of the body
Cordyceps militaris is also a proven remedy for asthma. Due to its high content of mannitol, it also reduces agonizing cough irritation and has an expectorant effect on colds.
Mental health: Cordyceps against stress, burnout and sleep problems
The caterpillar fungus unfolds its healing properties not only on a physical but also on a psychological level. Thus, in TCM good experience has been made with cordyceps in terms of alleviating stress and its effects.
As already described for the kidneys, the vital mushroom regulates the activity of the adrenal cortex. Stress hormones and thus also stress symptoms decrease noticeably by taking Cordyceps. In studies, the caterpillar fungus was shown to improve the ability to concentrate as well as the memory performance of people suffering from burnout. A comparable effect can be observed in dementia patients.
In addition to exhaustion, a depressive mood always plays a role in burnout. Here, the cordycepin, which is mainly contained in Cordyceps militaris, shows an alleviating effect. It regulates the sensitivity of various receptors in the body that are causally involved in mood swings. Another antidepressant ingredient is L-tryptophan, which is found in the Cordyceps mushroom. This is an amino acid from which the happiness hormone serotonin is synthesized in the brain. Its antidepressant effects are nowadays explained by the intestinal flora, the dectin-1 receptor, AMPA receptors and the stimulation of BDNF, the brain derived neurotrophic factor – this signaling pathway is now considered one of the most important targets in depression. This is complemented by its anti-inflammatory properties.
Healthy sleep is essential for a stable psyche. Those who suffer from sleep disorders can find relief with cordyceps. The Sinensis but especially the Militaris improve the quality of sleep in the long term due to the high content of cordycepin. Another positive effect is that cordyceps helps regulate blood pressure. Too high blood pressure, like too low blood pressure, is often the cause of poor sleep. Unlike sleeping pills from conventional medicine, you do not have to fear side effects or even dependence with medicinal mushrooms.
Why does cordyceps help athletes perform better?
When Chinese track and field athletes set various new world records in 1993, their coach attributed this, among other things, to the performance-enhancing effect of Cordyceps. And indeed, the positive effect in the field of sports and endurance could be confirmed in recent studies. Scientists found several causal mechanisms at once:
At the cellular level, studies in mice, showed that mitochondria were significantly more efficient when taking cordyceps. They attributed this to an increase in the energy units ATP, which the cellular power plants need to produce energy. In particular, liver cells showed an increased formation of ATP by up to 50%. This is also the big difference between cordyceps and chemical doping agents: The latter stimulate the cells to consume excessive energy. In the end, this leads to great exhaustion and an increased need for regeneration. Cordyceps, on the other hand, makes more energy available.
Increase the supply of oxygen
Furthermore, the caterpillar fungus ensures that the tissue is better supplied with oxygen. This effect begins in the lungs, which absorb more oxygen. Further, O2 transport is more efficient because blood flow is increased by adenosine. Ultimately, the oxygen in the cells is used more efficiently, which is why less oxygen is needed for the same performance. For this reason, a lack of oxygen in the muscles and the resulting signs of fatigue are observed much later when taking Cordyceps.
Improved muscle development and increased fat burning
In addition, the ingredients of cordyceps stimulate fat burning and beta oxidation. This delays glycogen consumption even during exertion. Thus, the supplies will last longer. Especially for male strength athletes is additionally important that the vital mushroom can promote the release of testosterone in the male sex. This male hormone is essential for the development of muscles. Due to all the beneficial effects already mentioned in the field of sports, cordyceps can be of great help in obesity and its reduction. Those who feel fitter, can perform better and build muscle faster are more likely to lose their excess pounds.
Anyone who does sports needs rest breaks for regeneration. Studies have now shown that muscle tissue recovers more quickly after exercise under the influence of cordyceps. This manifests itself in a more rapid drop in lactate values. The risk of hyperacidity is thus lower. In general, the caterpillar fungus supports the recovery after strong permanent stress as well as after severe diseases.
Positive effects on the psyche
However, the performance-enhancing effect of Cordyceps is not limited to the physical sphere. On the spiritual level, too, its valuable powers kick in. People with cordyceps experience report clearer thinking. They feel more psychologically stable, which can probably be attributed to the antidepressant mode of action. This, along with the down-regulation of stress through decreased cortisol release from the adrenal cortex, is extremely helpful for athletes in competitive situations. Those who feel less stress are more concentrated and save valuable energy for the essential processes.
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Balm for heart & circulation
For people with cardiovascular problems, it is important to know that cordyceps has a regulating effect on blood pressure and a lowering effect on cholesterol levels. It has been observed in studies that the vessels dilate. The improved blood circulation benefits all organs and thus also the brain. Diastolic blood pressure decreases and cardiac output increases. Unlike conventional heart medications, cordyceps does not bring any side effects.
Taking cordyceps also showed a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles in the walls of the vessels. At the same time, the risk of plaque formation was significantly reduced. Thus, cordyceps helps to keep blood pressure within the norm. Even strengthening of the heart and smoothing of cardiac arrhythmias are possible. Due to all these positive effects, cordyceps is an excellent means of doing something good for the strained circulatory system in cases of obesity.
Strengthening the immune system
Our body’s own defense system has to withstand fierce attacks again and again. If it is weakened, the door is open to viruses and bacteria. But here, too, cordyceps has a health-promoting effect. Basically, it increases the body’s own defense mechanisms, but also regulates excessive reactions downward. The latter inhibits the development of autoimmune diseases.
Our immune system defends itself against unwanted invaders with the help of various cells and substances. Cordyceps mushroom promotes the formation of T-cells as well as immunoglobulins M and G. These globulins are important helpers of the immune system as they mark invaders and damaged cells. This enables the immune cells to reliably recognize their targets. These immune cells include white blood cells, natural killer cells, and macrophages, also called phagocytes. The activity of exactly these three cell groups increases when taking cordyceps.
Further, the caterpillar fungus stimulates gamma interferon, which supports the immune system. Cordycepin, which is abundant in the medicinal mushroom, also acts against viruses and bacteria. It acts similarly to an antibiotic. The big difference, however, is that cordycepin only specifically prevents harmful strains of bacteria from growing. The beneficial strains, such as bifidobacteria or lactobacilli in the intestine, remain undamaged.
Cordyceps militaris also makes a remarkable contribution to immune defense. Ergosterol peroxide contained in it relieves inflammation in the body. It also supports the immune system in the defense against viruses.
Support in cancer therapy
Especially in the field of cancer treatment, new insights into the valuable properties of Cordyceps have been emerging again and again in recent times. The basis for successfully fighting tumor cells is always a strong immune system. We have just described in detail how it supports this.
In the test tube, researchers observed the destruction of the cytoskeleton of cancer cells by cordyceps in leukemia, breast and prostate cancers. In practice, however, the use of cordyceps in breast cancer is rather discouraged, as its hormone-activating effect could support the tumor. Therefore, be sure to always get good advice!
Further studies indicate that the caterpillar fungus can starve cancer cells, primarily by preventing new blood vessels from forming toward the tumor. It also hinders the synthesis of proteins in the cancer cell, which further slows down growth. Cordyceps brings about all these wonderful effects without any side effects. In a disease like cancer, this means great hope for those affected, also because cordyceps can alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and is therefore an important complement to complementary medicine. Its protective effect on the bone marrow has a positive influence on the immune system and circulation, as it supports the formation of new important cells.
Last but not least, the antioxidant power of cordyceps is of great importance both in terms of prevention and therapy of cancer. Antioxidants fight free radicals, which can be the cause of cell DNA damage. In particular, Cordyceps militaris proves to be highly antioxidant due to its high ergosterol content. However, Cordyceps sinensis also activates the body’s own enzymes superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase, which have an antioxidant character. Scientists were able to clearly demonstrate the antioxidant effects with the help of the marker MDA. Its plasma concentration decreases with cordyceps intake, indicating lower saturated fat oxidation.
Background on the intake of cordyceps
Where can I buy cordyceps?
As already indicated in the first part of this article, the wild Cordyceps mushroom is now very rare and therefore virtually unaffordable for the consumer – in addition, it has a very high arsenic content. Therefore, the Cordyceps products available on the market come exclusively from cultivars. In this case, the cultivated vital mushroom does not grow parasitically in a caterpillar, but on rice or grain. Thus, it is completely vegetarian or vegan.
When choosing a provider, be sure to look for compliance with organic standards. Breeding without these requirements entails a high risk of exposure to heavy metals and toxins. Fungi virtually soak up these from substrate, fertilizers and pesticides. Since the standards for organic cultivation vary greatly, we recommend in any case to obtain vital mushrooms of German origin.
When do I take cordyceps?
To achieve the best possible Cordyceps effect, it is recommended to take it with meals.
How and for how long do I take Cordyceps?
The exact dosage depends, on the one hand, on the preparation you have chosen and, on the other hand, on you and your clinical picture. In research and practice, the data vary roughly between 750 mg and 3 g of mushroom mycelium per day. However, even at higher doses, the risk of cordyceps causing side effects is extremely low.
A treatment with vital mushrooms is always designed for a longer duration. The minimum is about three months. Although the healing power of the mushroom sets in immediately, the body needs time to recover completely. Sometimes the intake of Cordyceps can extend over years.
For mushroom powders there are many suppliers
You will find trustworthy ones with controlled organic cultivation in Germany, but unfortunately also less recommendable importers of cheap goods. Read what is important when buying.
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The 14 most important vital mushrooms
Scientific studies / sources
- Young-Joon Ahn, Suck-Joon Park, Sang-Gil Lee, Sang-Cheol Shin, Don-Ha Choi: “Cordycepin: Selective Growth Inhibitor Derived from Liquid Culture of Cordyceps militaris against Clostridium spp. J. Agric”;. Food Chem. 2000, 48, 2744-2748
- Jong-Ho Koh, Kwang-Won Yu, Hyung-Joo Suh, Yang-Moon Choi, Tae-Seok Ahn, “Activation of Macrophages and the Intestinal Immune System by an Orally Administered Decoction from Cultured Mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis.”; Biosci. Biotechnol. biochem, 66 (2), 407-411, 2002.
- Xu Ren-He, Peng Xiang-E, Chen Guo-Zhen, Chen Guo-Lin: “Effects of Cordyceps sinensis on Natural Killer Activity and Colony Formation of B16 Melanoma.”; Chinese Medical Journal, 105 (2):97-101, 1992.
- Seu-Mei Wang, Li-Jen Lee, Wan-Wan Lin, Chun-Min Chang: “Effects of a Water-Soluble Extract of Cordyceps sinensis on Steroido-genesis and Capsular Morphology of Lipid Droplets in Cultured Rat Adreno-cortical Cells.”; Journal of Cellular Bio-chemistry 69: 483-489 (1998).
- Noboru Manabe, Miki Sugimoto, …: “Effects of the Mycelial Extract of Cultured Cordyceps sinensis on In Vivo Hepatic Energy Meta-bolism in the Mouse.”; Jpn. J. Pharmacol. 70, 85-88 (1996)
- Ji-Xing Nan, Eun-Jeon Park, …: “Antifibrotic Effect of Extracellular Biopolymer from Submerged Mycelial Cultures of Cordyceps militaris on Liver Fibrosis Induced by Bile Duct Ligation and Scission in Rats.”; Arch Pharm Res Vol 24, No 4, 327-332, 2001.
- Prof. Dr. med. Ivo Bianchi: “Modern Mycotherapy”; Hinckel Druck, 2008
- Hobbs, C.: “Medicinal Mushrooms”, Botanica Press, 1995.