Cordyceps Mushroom – An Overview
Cordyceps refers to a genus of 400+ parasitic mushrooms that grow on insect larvae, digesting them, and growing long sprouts that can be harvested.
Despite the somewhat disgusting origins of these fungi, they may actually have some powerful nootropic and health benefits.
And don’t worry, actually harvesting cordyceps from larvae is prohibitively expensive; most supplements use lab-grown fungus, no bug larvae involved.
Two species of cordyceps in particular, Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris, have been used for centuries in Chinese and Tibetan medicine.
The reported health benefits include:
- Improved athletic performance
- Increased mood and memory
- Higher libido
- Anti-aging effects
- Lower inflammation
Folk healers have been using this fungus for an extremely wide variety of ailments. Among the Sikkim in northern India, cordyceps is prescribed for practically “all illnesses.”
And now modern medicine is starting to confirm what these cultures have practiced for ages.
According to one review of cordyceps, “many studies… support C. Sinensis having diverse biological activities and pharmacological potential.”1Ashok Kumar Panda, et al. Traditional uses and medicinal potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim, J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2011
It is worth noting that actual wild-harvested cordyceps are still prohibitively expensive. Unless you are extraordinarily wealthy you are unlikely to get your hands on “the real deal.”
Most of the supplements sold as cordyceps are actually lab-grown strains that are then made into an extract called CS-4.
It is unclear how effective CS-4 is in relation to naturally occurring cordyceps. However, most of the studies listed in this article make use of CS-4, so it is clear that there is still a therapeutic benefit to this extract.
What Does Cordyceps Mushroom Do?
Cordyceps For Memory and Mood
Cordyceps may have the ability to boost mood and brainpower when taken as a nootropic supplement.
There have not been any human trials on the mental benefits of cordyceps, but there are some promising initial animal studies.
One team of researchers concluded that cordycepin, one of the active ingredients, “remarkably improved depression-like behavior” in rats.2Zhang Tianzhu, et al. Antidepressant-like effects of cordycepin in a mice model of chronic unpredictable mild stress, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014
This lines up with anecdotes of cordyceps users experiencing a generally brightened, more energetic mood.
There are also multiple studies that have found memory improvements in rats that have been given cordyceps extract.3Guangxin Yuan, et al. Improvement of Learning and Memory Induced by Cordyceps Polypeptide Treatment and the Underlying Mechanism, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 4Zaixin Li, et al. Cordyceps militaris extract attenuates D-galactose-induced memory impairment in mice, J Med Food. 20125Jungsook Cho, et al. NAntioxidant and memory enhancing effects of purple sweet potato anthocyanin and cordyceps mushroom extract, Archives of Pharmacal Research. 2003
Anti-oxidant and Anti-inflammatory
There is also evidence that cordyceps has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Inflammation is an extremely important aspect of overall health. High levels can have far-reaching consequences for almost every system in the body.6Linlin Chen, et al. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs, Oncotarget. 2018
Inflammation levels are largely a result of diet, pollution, and/or disease. However, some supplements, such as cordyceps, are proven to reduce some types of inflammation.
It appears that the compound cordycepin has some notable anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant abilities.7Hardeep S. Tuli, et al. Pharmacological and therapeutic potential of Cordyceps with special reference to Cordycepin, 3 Biotech. 2014
This means that cordyceps may have holistic benefits for a wide range of issues, including diabetes, heart disease, tumors, and auto-immune disorders (among others).
Cordyceps For Physical Performance
Cordyceps is famous in some cultures for boosting physical stamina and energy. It may be a useful performance enhancer for athletes, although the jury is still out on that.
One human trial saw an improvement in high-intensity training in people that took cordyceps.8Katie R. Hirsch, et al. Cordyceps militaris improves tolerance to high intensity exercise after acute and chronic supplementation, J Diet Suppl. 2018
Another one found that older adults who supplemented with it had higher metabolism and ventilatory thresholds.9Steve Chen, et al. Effect of Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) on exercise performance in healthy older subjects: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, J Altern Complement Med. 2010
One study reported increased endurance for athletes that took a stack of cordyceps and Rhodiola, another reported all-natural performance enhancer.10Chung-Yu Chen, et al. NRhodiola crenulata- and Cordyceps sinensis-Based Supplement Boosts Aerobic Exercise Performance after Short-Term High Altitude Training, High Alt Med Biol. 2014
However, the evidence is far from conclusive on this subject. One trial concluded that cordyceps “has no effect on aerobic capacity or endurance exercise performance” on the trained male cyclists they were studying.
11Allen C Parcell, et al. Cordyceps Sinensis (CordyMax Cs-4) supplementation does not improve endurance exercise performance, Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004
So, more research is needed to determine if and how much this fungus could increase physical output.
Cordyceps For Libido
Sexual health (especially for men) is one of the major uses for this mushroom throughout history.
And fortunately, modern science is starting to confirm what many traditional healers have suspected all along.
Multiple human and animal trials point to cordyceps as a natural aphrodisiac. And it seems that both men and women can benefit from it. 12Spandana Rajendra Kopalli, et al. Cordycepin, an Active Constituent of Nutrient Powerhouse and Potential Medicinal Mushroom Cordyceps militaris Linn., Ameliorates Age-Related Testicular Dysfunction in Rats, Nutrients. 2019 13J S Zhu, et al. The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis: part I, J Altern Complement Med. 1998
According to one meta-analysis, cordyceps can “can enhance libido and sexual performance, and can restore impaired reproductive functions, such as impotency or infertility, in both sexes.”14Kanitta Jiraungkoorskul, Wannee Jiraungkoorskul. Review of Naturopathy of Medical Mushroom, Ophiocordyceps Sinensis, in Sexual Dysfunction, Pharmacogn Rev. 2016
These benefits seem to become more apparent in older populations, which obviously experience declining sexual desire, erections, testosterone, sperm count, and egg health as they age.
Anti-aging Benefits Of Cordyceps
But cordyceps not only preserves sexual health as you age. It also seems to have holistic properties that can slow the entire body’s aging process.
Multiple animal studies show that cordyceps’ antioxidant properties can delay some important genetic markers of aging. 15Yiling Zhu, et al. Antioxidant and anti-aging activities of polysaccharides from Cordyceps cicadae, Int J Biol Macromol. 2020 16Deng-Bo Ji, et al. Antiaging effect of Cordyceps sinensis extract, Phytother Res. 2009
There is also evidence that cordyceps can prevent premature aging in human cells by scavenging free radicals, which can damage tissue.17Jun Myoung Park, et al. Cordyceps militaris Extract Protects Human Dermal Fibroblasts against Oxidative Stress-Induced Apoptosis and Premature Senescence, Nutrients. 2014
Cordyceps For Diabetes
Cordyceps may be able to regulate blood sugar, making it a potentially valuable functional food for diabetics.
One trial found “significantly lower weight gain and higher blood glucose response” in diabetic rats that took cordyceps versus the control group.18Hui-Chen Lo. et al. The anti-hyperglycemic activity of the fruiting body of Cordyceps in diabetic rats induced by nicotinamide and streptozotocin, Life Sci. 2004
How Cordyceps Mushroom Works In The Brain
Multiple rat studies suggest that cordyceps may increase testosterone production by regulating steroid and enzyme production.19Chih-Chao Hsu, et al. Regulatory mechanism of Cordyceps sinensis mycelium on mouse Leydig cell steroidogenesis, FEBS Lett. 2003 20Chih Chao Hsu, et al. In vivo and in vitro stimulatory effects of Cordyceps sinensis on testosterone production in mouse Leydig cells, Life Sci. 2003 21Yuan-Li Huang, et al. In vivo stimulatory effect of Cordyceps sinensis mycelium and its fractions on reproductive functions in male mouse, Life Sci. 2004
In addition, this mushroom seems to be able to increase bloodflow to the nether regions. This can obviously help men get and maintain erections, but can also benefit women’s sexual health as well. 22W F Chiou, et al. Protein constituent contributes to the hypotensive and vasorelaxant activities of Cordyceps sinensis, Life Sci. 2000 23Siegfried E Drewes, et al. Recent findings on natural products with erectile-dysfunction activity, Phytochemistry. 2003
The organic compound cordycepin, only found in cordyceps, is thought to be responsible for its immune-boosting and anti-oxidant effects. 24Xiaoxia Zhou, et al. Cordycepin is an immunoregulatory active ingredient of Cordyceps sinensis, Am J Chin Med. 2008 25Y C Kuo, et al Cordyceps sinensis as an immunomodulatory agent, Am J Chin Med. 1996 26Jovana D Vasiljevic, et al. Cordyceps sinensis: Genotoxic Potential in Human Peripheral Blood Cells and Antigenotoxic Properties Against Hydrogen Peroxide by Comet Assay, Altern Ther Health Med. 2016
However, the precise mechanism of action is still unknown.
As far as increasing athletic ability, it seems that cordyceps works by upregulating “skeletal muscle metabolic regulators, angiogenesis, better glucose and lactate uptake” according to one animal study.27Rajesh Kumar, et al. Cordyceps sinensis promotes exercise endurance capacity of rats by activating skeletal muscle metabolic regulators,Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2011
How Much Cordyceps Mushroom Should I Take?
To enjoy the nootropic effects of Cordyceps Mushroom, most sources recommend between 500-1000 mg daily.
Cordyceps Mushroom Potential Side Effects
Cordyceps is largely side-effect free within the recommended dosage. However, some trials have noted the occasional side effects, including:
- Stomach discomfort
- Dry mouth
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About the author:
Erik Levi, FNTP
Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.
As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.
Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.
Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.
You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.