Alongside the potential benefits of Cannabinoids, one of the most exciting ‘up-and-coming’ well-being waves is that of the fungi (or mushrooms). Although, they are not quite as up-and-coming as you’d expect; Fungi has been used in Chinese traditional remedies for centuries and has been a centrepiece in the case for natural wellness long before it was fashionable. There is no doubt, that Fungi some extremely good for us, and few are quite as good as the Cordyceps Sinensis (also known as: Caterpillar Mushroom/ Fungus, Yatsa Gunbu, Yarshagumba, Keera Jhar or Dong Chong Xia Cao (Winter Worm, Summer Grass” in Chinese).
The Cordyceps Mushroom (as it is often referred to) isn’t really a mushroom, but parasitic fungi with a pretty grizzly origin story. In short, the fungi grow on (and in) the lave of insects and replace the host tissue and produce long stems which outgrow the host’s body. Weird right!? The image below shows two things- the host (yellow-y body of an insect) and the fungi itself (the long dark strand). This type of Cordyceps is known as a ‘fruiting body’.
The fungi and the rest of the insect remains are collected and ground up. Cordyceps mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for a whole load of health issues: fatigue, sickness, kidney function, and (of course) sex drive. The ‘fruiting bodies’ are extremely rare and cannot be grown artificially, which makes the natural Cordycups particularly expensive and rare- most of the extracts found are grown synthetically or elsewhere.
There are over 400 species of Cordyceps known, but popularity in the fungi has exploded due to two: Cordyceps Sinensis and Cordyceps Militaris.
Like most things from the traditional and natural remedy world, science hasn’t caught up in terms of human trials. So while most of the evidence is based on Lab or Animal trials, it is clear to see that there is certainly very exciting potential!
So what are the benefits of Cordyceps? (a more detailed scientific study can be found here if you have the time, or love really, really in-depth scientific stuff)
Physical Exercise – Cordyceps CS-4
One of the benefits of Cordyceps which has been explored in Humans is its ability to potentially increase performance during exercise, and use oxygen more efficiently.
It has been said that the fungi were discovered by Yak Herders in Tibet (the Folklaw is that yaks grazed on the fungi and became more energetic) and assisted the herders to higher altitudes where oxygen is hard to find. It has since been proved that Cordyceps can actually improve the use of oxygen by cells.
It is thought that the fungi can increase the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which delivers energy to our muscles. A study explored the impact of Cordyceps and exercise found that there was a potential for an improved VO2 max (your maximum lung efficiency/ fitness levels) showing that the fungi may help our body use oxygen effectively. The trial consisted of 30 adults who were given 3 grams of Cordyceps CS-4 (part of the Cordyceps Sinensis family) or a placebo for six weeks. Those who were given the placebo did not show any improvement, while those given the fungi showed a 7% increase in their VO2 max.
From what can be found in the studies, it does not seem as though professional athletes or sportspeople have been used in an experiment, so it is hard to say what impact the Cordyceps CS-4 a have on their ability to perform. It may be worth asking the 1993 Chinese women’s team at the national games broke 9 world records- their secret? Apparently Cordyceps. They won’t hurt right?!
There are other studies showing the same kinds of improvements to VO2 max, or an increase in other indicators used to measure physical performance which shows that this isn’t a one-off. With many things in the natural well-being world, the claims about natural remedies are often speculation or unsubstantiated; but this is proven in modern science.
So, while Lion’s Mane is for the mind- Cordyceps is for the body!
Great for Your Liver & Kidney
Enzymes are essential to the way that your Liver works. There are some murmurings that the fungi normalize liver enzymes and can inhibit steatohepatitis or retard cirrhosis. According to one study, patients who were suffering from post hepatic cirrhosis saw a dramatic improvement in their liver function after a 3 months trial of daily Cordyceps supplements. Second, to this, kidney function had also shown improvements after a 3-5g dose per day during another study exploring the benefits of Cordyceps Sinensis.
From the research we have come across, the studies have mainly been on mice – which so the same, or similar, results. As far as we can see, there are not enough human trials to say conclusively whether this can be substantiated… although the fungi were associated with kidney function long before modern science became interested.
Much like its fungi cousin, Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps have been found to contain high levels of antioxidants which are essential for our body to reduce the effects of ‘free radicals. This fact alone means that the fungi may have an impact on a huge array of issues caused by ‘free radicals.
There have been studies that showed that a regular supplement of Cordyceps has been found to increase the lifespan of a mouse by up to seven months, and increase the life cycles of fruit flies.
There is yet to be any evidence of whether or not Cordyceps has an ‘antiaging’ effect on humans, but we know that they contain plenty of antioxidants which are great for our overall well-being.
May Reduce Inflammation
Once again, while the effects in humans are largely unknown, some studies in labs and animals have found that Cordyceps may have huge potential as an anti-inflammatory.
Human cells produce proteins that are part of our body’s inflammatory response; when they are exposed to Cordyceps extract it is found that the production of the proteins is reduced. This can be backed up by a study that provided evidence that inflammation was reduced in the airway of the mice, and can help with inflammation of the skin when applied topically.
Both of these studies show potential and could lead to more in-depth studies that will help us know for sure whether Cordyceps can actually reduce inflammation in humans.
While there is little in the way of human research into the benefits of Cordyceps for humans, it is clear to see that these little fungi will be ideal additions to a healthy lifestyle.
May Support Immune System
Our immune system is our body’s layered defence against invading pathogens that can cause us harm. When a pathogen breaks through our physical barriers (like the skin, or into the digestive system) our body triggers its defensive mechanisms and an immune response is activated to protect us from a life-threatening infection; this includes the production and activation of a number of cells to hunt down and battle the infection.
Cordyceps Sinensis has been used as a natural treatment for infections long before modern science understood exactly what the fungi can do. In animal trials, it was found that Cordyceps Sinensis protected mice from the proliferation of bacteria by activating macrophages, and enhanced the activity of natural killer cells (which are both parts of the immune system). The fungi also have been found to promote cellular and humoral immunity which is part of the ‘adaptive immune system’ by aiding the production of a whole range of other cells that at are used in an immune response.
Our immune system lives on a delicate balance, and can sometimes be overactive and attack cells that are part of our body. The naturally occurring Cordyceps Sinensis has been found to also regulate our immune system and reduced the body’s response to a transplant in mice.
While all of these studies have benefits of Cordyceps in mice, human trials are yet to show promise. While the fungi has been used in traditional natural remedy prescriptions, modern science need to understand further the real impact of the fungi!
Happy Gut, Happy Body
The secret to a healthy body is certainly what is given to the gut. After all, food is the most important factor in modern well-being. Not only do we use the food to fuel our bodies, but to absorb essential fatty acids, phytochemicals and nutrients to ensure the maintenance of immune homeostasis. Our gut plays a huge role in protecting our body from pathogens that invade our body through our nose or mouth. If our gut isn’t working
While the fungi have not been found to have a direct effect on the immune system, a hot water supplement of Cordyceps Sinensis improved the balance of happy bacteria (Lactocbacillus) in the lower intestinal tract of mice which can help prevent harmful levels of deadly bacteria like Salmonella or E.Coli.
Our Gut is a delicate ecosystem, and while human studies into the gut-boosting potential of the Cordyceps fungi it is clear to see that the fungi are pretty great for our well-being.
Cordyceps Side Effects & Drug interactions
As trials develop in humans, we will start to learn more about the side effects of Cordyceps but there is very little evidence that there are any negative side effects of the fungi at low doses. It is also very safe to assume (certainly after centuries of use in Chinese medicine) that it is non-toxic. There are, however, a number of key individuals who should avoid taking a Cordyceps supplement:
- The pregnant or nursing: While there is very little evidence to suggest that Cordyceps are not safe to use during pregnancy or breast-feeding, it may be best to stay on the safe side
- Auto-immune Diseases: As discussed above, there is potential for the fungi to increase the activity of the immune system, which may in turn increase the symptoms of Auto-immune issues.
- Bleeding or Surgery: Cordyceps may slow the clotting process. If you already have a bleeding issue or are about to go into surgery, it may be best to avoid the fungi too!
There is also some important information about the potential interactions that Cordyceps may have with drugs:
- Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar)
- Medications that decrease the immune system (Immunosuppressants)
After decades of being used in Chinese medicine, it is pretty clear that there is a use for the Cordyceps fungi. While human trials on many of these benefits are light, its use over hundreds of years tells us that it is pretty damn good for our body. What we know for sure is that Cordyceps CS-4 can increase physical performance (& stamina) in humans and has been backed by science. Otherwise, lab and animal testing show promise as a great food supplement to support our wider well-being.