by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN
Let’s start with a quick story. What if I were to tell you cordyceps has connections with zombies? Sounds crazy, right? Well, legends say the cordyceps fungi was discovered when a farmer once discovered that his goats were eating a certain type of mushroom on a hill. He noticed that his goats would suddenly burst with energy, making him curious.
Over time, cordyceps has emerged as a crucial component in endurance-boosting supplements. Its unique ability to enhance oxygen absorption has proven invaluable in sustaining muscle stress and improving overall performance, making it a dependable ally in the training regimens of numerous athletes.
Recently, cordyceps has become more popular due to its tie-in to HBO’s hit show The Last of Us and its zombie story. But even before its big Hollywood debut, cordyceps has been a popular ingredient in supplements and other products that offers many health benefits.
In this article, we will dive deeper into cordyceps, what it is, and the potential benefits.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before adding any supplements to your regimen.
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps mushrooms, also referred to as “natural cordyceps sinensis,” “cordyceps militaris,” or “cordyceps fungus,” indeed grow on insect larvae, which may seem unconventional for an edible ingredient. However, despite their origin, wild cordyceps have been a significant part of traditional Chinese and homeopathic medicines for thousands of years, thanks to their potential health benefits.
Cordyceps were once so highly prized that they were exclusively reserved for the Emperor’s family in ancient China. Over thousands of years, they have remained a valued ingredient in herbalist medicine, retaining their popularity in the modern world.
The fruiting bodies of cordyceps resemble vertical, finger-like ocean coral and offer a savory, umami flavor with earthy, nutty undertones similar to chestnut mushrooms. While extremely rare in the wild, they are predominantly cultivated and extracted for their remarkable health benefits.
5 Health Benefits of Cordyceps
Below are some of the health benefits of this weird yet extremely useful mushroom.
1. It may have energy-boosting properties
Incorporating cordyceps supplements into your diet may offer potential benefits, including increased energy levels, enhanced resistance to signs of aging, and improved immune system function.
A study conducted with 30 healthy older adults assessed the effects of cordyceps on exercise capacity using a stationary bike. Participants were divided into two groups, with one receiving 3 grams per day of a synthetic strain of cordyceps called CS-4 and the other receiving a placebo pill for six weeks.
At the end of the study, participants taking CS-4 exhibited a 7% increase in their VO2 max (a measurement used to determine fitness level), while those on the placebo pill showed no change.
2. It may improve cognitive performance
Cordyceps not only enhances physical performance but also plays a significant role in maintaining mental alertness and focus. By directly stimulating the central nervous system and adrenal glands, cordyceps promote a steady release of energy.
This heightened energy availability also benefits the brain. Studies reveal that increased oxygen uptake in the brain leads to improved blood flow to brain cells, helping combat mental fatigue and supporting cognitive function.
3. Anti-aging properties
Cordyceps have a rich history in traditional Chinese medicine, particularly among older individuals, as they are believed to provide energy, reduce fatigue, and enhance libido and sex drive. Its effects have even earned it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.” In traditional practices, cordyceps is often combined with ginseng and Rhodiola rosea to combat fatigue effectively.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of cordyceps on aged mice. Cordyceps supplementation has been shown to increase antioxidant levels in these mice, resulting in improved memory and sexual function. Also, one study revealed that mice administered cordyceps lived several months longer compared to those given a placebo.
4. It may have anti-tumor properties
Although more research involving human subjects is necessary, recent evidence indicates that cordyceps compounds might hold potential for cancer treatment.
A 2022 review of studies suggested that cordyceps may directly affect tumor cells, either inhibiting their growth or inducing cell death. It may also help prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body. In addition to that, cordyceps may play a role in enhancing the body’s immune response against cancer, bolstering the natural defense mechanism.
In specific test-tube studies, cordyceps has exhibited anti-tumor effects on various types of cancer cells, including leukemia, colon, lung, liver, bladder, breast, and prostate cancer.
5. Promotes heart health
It is important to note that cordyceps greatly benefits overall heart health due to their natural anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective properties. This potential adds to the mushrooms’ ability to enhance fitness capacity through improved cardiovascular health and circulation.
A review of studies conducted in 2020 revealed that cordycepin, the primary bioactive compound in cordyceps, could reduce the accumulation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides in animals.
Furthermore, a 2021 study discovered that CM1, a polysaccharide derived from cordyceps, effectively lowered blood lipid levels in hamsters.