Cordyceps are a parasitic fungi that evolve in the body of different invertebrates, especially ants, worms and spiders. They feed from these insects until they cruelly end their life.
What is Cordyceps and how many types are there?
It is a fungi species that belongs to the Ascomyzota (the most numerous within the Fungi kingdom). There are three main different families: cordycipitaceae (to which Cordyceps sinensis belong), clavicipitaceae and ophiocordycipateceae. The genus Cordyceps  is made up by four hundred species approximately, such as longisegmentis, larvicola, militaris and sinensis. We will focus on the last one throughout the whole article.
These fungi have been used in Asia for thousands of years due to their incredible healing properties. However, there is still not enough research with concluding results. Although we can currently read more than a hundred scientific studies either complete or in-process.
Historically speaking, some farmers in the Himalaya discovered these fungi. They noticed that their female cattle was more fertile after feeding from a specific area. This happened because these fungi grew under the grass.
In the case of ants, the spores adhere to their exoskeleton. After twelve hours or so, it spreads on their organism and starts to deteriorate it, resulting in a painful death. All these happens without injuring their vital organs. The fungi invade the entire organism of their prey, progressively controlling the insect until they reach the brain. Once inside, they perform something like a neuronal deprogramming, and the ant becomes disoriented for hours. Then, automatically, the ant will climb a branch, bite it die there, completely paralyzed. This is the moment when the Cordyceps starts to grow and spread more spores massively. In this way, the cycle will repeat itself once again.
Something similar happens with the larva of the Himalayan bat moth, an insect from the lepidoptera family. The biological cycle on this insect starts by laying eggs. Then, the larvae will be born and evolve to a mature larva, once they reach this phase, they will bury themselves. They will remain there all the summer and they will reach their last phase at the beginning of autumn, becoming an adult insect (butterfly or moth). The fungi usually appear on the phase before the larvae become adults. They end their life by mummifying their body and growing inside the external layer of the corpse.
Are Cordyceps sinensis and Yartsagumbu the same thing?
In common language, they are similar terms. However, if we focus on their purely scientific meaning, they are completely different things. Yartsagumbu is the result of the parasitization of the Hepialus armoricanus insect (the Himalayan moth) by Cordyceps sinensis. So this term is much more complex than the name of the fungi.
Habitat and growth
Even if the approximately 400 species of the Cordyceps genus are quite cosmopolitan, most of the are native to Asia. They can be found in the Himalaya, China, Japan, Korea and part of southeast Asia. If we focus on Cordyceps sinensis, its habitat is the Himalayan mountains, including Tibet, Nepal, Northern India and some places of Southern China. However, it can also be found in places like the United States, New Zealand, Australian, Canada, Russia, Kenya and Tanzania.
In the Tibet, it grows spontaneously on the lepidoptera larvae. But its traditional cultivation and harvest requires is costly and need time, as well as a specific cultivation medium. But in this way it can be sold so that as many people as possible will have access to its extract and tablets.
At the beginning of spring, its mycelium restarts its metabolic activity and grows looking for the sun (that is why it has a positive phototropism). It can reach up to 4cm in height and weigh half a gram.
After the harvest, we can make up two different parts quite clearly. The first one is brown and it is the mushroom. The second one is the mummified body of the larva. Together, they are called yartsagumbu.
The origins of its preventive and therapeutic use
But, beyond its healing properties, its consumption has been used to explain why Chinese people lived longer and were more resistant to tiredness. In fact, Chinese philosophy has historically divulgated that Cordyceps contributes to the body-mind balance. This feature refers to its ability to find the balance between the organs of our body.
At the beginning, only the elite had access to this fungus. There is evidence of its use as a medicinal remedy during the Qing dynasty, the last monarchs of the dragon empire.
But if we travel to the 80s, this fungus started to become the focus of the international scientific community. At that time, there were more than 2,000 divulgative studies, with more or less rigor. A part of them has been used to describe the benefits of its intake at a renal, hepatic, genital-urinary, immune, energy and respiratory level.
Conditions for its cultivation
The spontaneous growth of Cordyceps occurs between 3,000 and 5,000 of height. One of the factors that stimulate its growth seems to be the lack of oxygen at these heights. Its ability to survive is quite impressive when compared to other potential competitors. In fact, there is direct relation between the harshness of the environment and quality of the fungus.
But there is an element that goes against obtaining interesting amounts of Cordyceps: it takes around six years for this fungus to fully develop. In spite of its scarcity, the economy of the surrounding towns is significantly conditioned by its harvest between the months of May and June. The inhabitants break their routines in order to look for these fungi. It is no surprise, since we are talking about one of the most expensive natural products in the entire world. A few years ago, it was even three times more valuable than gold (around 140,000 dollars per kilo).
In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why most of the Cordyceps that is sold in the world comes from programmed crops. The methodology that is used allows liquid and solid substrates. The first one tends to use cereal or soy beans, even though the liquid substrate is the most used in China. Basically, this consists of formulating a sterile liquid medium containing all the ingredients that the fungi need to grow quickly. This is usually done inside a fermentation tank by introducing the fungus mycelium. When the fungi are fully grown, they are filtered and dry, ready to use for their consumption.
The most important thing regarding the cultivation method is that it conditions the composition of the fungi. Unlike wild Cordyceps, it affects the quantity and quality of the final product, which is due to the complexity of the process itself. The researchers have studied the chemical composition of Cordyceps strains that have grown spontaneously. They have concluded that there are significant differences. There has been a hybridization of the fungi in order to enhance some of its healing properties. To do this, different strains have been cultivated in a specific solid medium which has been combined with rattlesnake venom. The purpose was to reduce the consistency of the cell walls of the fungi, which are naturally quite consistent. In this way, it will allow a genetic exchange resulting in a new kind of living being, a hybrid of the two original strains that will have more active components.
Main chemicals components and their benefits
Cordyceps has been massively used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine for centuries. However, western society has not remained indifferent to the properties of this fungus. Currently, the multinational pharmaceutic industry has welcomed it as one of its most select raw materials. It is used to make highly therapeutic drugs, like those that are designed to combat cancer or AIDs, for instance.
But, where does its incredible therapeutic power come from? The evidence for the Cordyceps components that could be pharmacologically active has not been deeply studied yet. Up until now, there are two chemical components that have been cataloged as active ingredients of the mycelium:
Cordycepin and cordyceptic acid. The first one was extracted from Cordyceps militaris, even though it is currently being synthesized industrially to meet the increasingly growing demand.
All the experts agree that its main component is cordycepin, a chemical substance known as 3´-desoxyadenosine. It is capable of participating in many biochemicals processes related to the inflammation, platelet aggregation, blood coagulation, metastasis, apoptosis, cell signalling.
Even though it mainly produces the effects of a natural antibiotic, it also has many organic functions such as:
- Anti-viral effect, specifically against the virus that triggers AIDs.
- Regulating the immune system, stimulating the interferon production (natural anti-viral agent) and cytokines.
- Improving the heart function and lung ventilation, which improves the breathing process.
- Lowering the cholesterol and triglyceride levels, limiting the LDL or bad cholesterol.
- Reducing the blood pressure.
- Protecting the hepatic and renal functions.
- Inhibiting the synthesis of some proteins (those called quinases, which intervene in the response to chemical and physical signals from the cells).
- Performing tasks on the central nervous system, mainly anti-depressant and anti-stress effects (it is regarded as an adaptogen).
- Increasing the resistance against asthenia and fatigue.
- Treating tinnitus (hearing unpleasant noises constantly).
- Stimulating the libido and improving the fertiliy.
- Good remedy against anemia.
- There are studies been focused on its anti-metastasis properties for certain types of cancer. However, there is still not concluding evidence.
All these features come from a bunch of active ingredients, among which we can find:
- Cordycepin (0,28 %).
- D-mannitol or cordyceptic acid (8 %).
- Antioxidant superoxide dismutase enzyme.
- Vitamins B1, B2 and E.
- Ergosterol (precursor form of vitamin D).
- Beta-carotene (precursor form of vitamin A).
- Macro-minerals and trace elements: zinc, manganese, selenium, chromium, phosphorus and potassium.
- Functional polysaccharides: beta-glucans (extraordinary immunity enhancers), proteoglycans (which modulate the signals between the cell and its environment) and galactomannans (soluble fiber that delays the absorption of glucose and cholesterol).
The antioxidant superoxide dismutase enzyme (SOD) is quite relevant because it performs two parallel tasks: inhibiting the breakdown of the lipids that make up the neuron myelin sheaths as well as the activity of the monoaminoxidase. This is an enzyme that is responsible for masking some neurotransmitters which are key for the functioning of the nervous system, such as serotonin. Consequently, the superoxide dismutase  can help to fight against the deterioration of our neurological functions and improve the mood.
Particularly, it is the most known fungus among athletes since 1993. At that time, some Chinese athletes attended a national competition and won several world records without being fatigued. These results were partly due to their diet, which included Cordyceps sinensis as the star ingredient.
At the same time, we can mention a series of scientific studies that have proven its ability to increase the use of oxygen and the ATP production. ATP is a key molecule in the cell metabolism to produce energy, increasing the power of the muscle fibers. Consequently, this results in a shorter post-workout recovery period and to improve the elimination of lactate. Moreover, Cordyceps also has anti-stress and anti-fatigue effects, which is connected to the ATP increase and the efficiency of the use of oxygen.
More than a hundred research essays  support all the properties of this fungus. That is why it is so hard to find a reason why we should not take Cordyceps sinensis dietary supplements.
Properties of its chemical substances
The efficacy of its extract is specially relevant in the respiratory, cardiovascular and renal functions. In addition, it increases the sex hormone levels both in men and women (testosterone and estradiol, respectively). It also produces a hypolipidemic and hypocholesterolemic effect (reducing the lipids in general and cholesterol in the blood flow).
In terms of the respiratory system, we want to highlight its antitussive, expectorant and anti-asthmatic effect, even against lung emphysema. This disorder consists of an accumulation of air between the alveolar walls. These effects are quite useful against pathologies such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD, respiratory insufficiency and even tuberculosis.
It is also a good diuretic element which can contribute to the proper functioning of the kidneys. Not in vain, it has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat Berger’s diseases , which is the most common form of glomerulonephritis. Some of its symptoms are excreting blood through the urine and it is caused by a special type of anti-bodies from the kidney glomerulus (which is where the filtration takes place).
In terms of the reproductive process, the intake of this extract seems to improve the sperm and its ability to fecundate as well as a libido increase. This is mainly due to its content in vitamins, zinc and amino acids which make up part of the proteins from Cordyceps.
It is an extraordinary ingredient against aging at the level of the plasma cell membrane. This is due to the fact that the Cordyceps extract enhances the antioxidant enzyme activity.
We also want to point to the fact that it can be used to treat hepatitis B and diabetes thanks to its hypoglycemiant effect.
Side effects and contraindications
However, we need to emphasize the contraindications. For example, you should consult your doctor if you are following a treatment with psychotropic, anti-coagulant, or bronchi-dilating substances, as well as serotonin. A professional should decide if the patient can or cannot take this type of supplementation.
On the other hand, there is evidence that the most relevant active ingredient, cordycepin, can affect the treatment with anti-thrombi drugs. That is why we should take precautions and avoid it if necessary. Something similar happens with the organic defenses: Cordyceps significantly affects the functioning of the immune system. Its supplementation is forbidden for those who are taking immunosuppressant drugs.
How to take Cordyceps capsules
The most common way of taking this fungus to benefit from all its properties is taking mycelium extract in supplements. Regarding its dose, a gram and a half of this mycelium extract daily seems to be enough.
There may be some who want to consume wild Cordyceps, who would be a minority due both to the price and difficulty to obtain it. They should know that this would include taking both the fungus and the mummified worm that was the host.
In any case, it is advisable to purchase this product from a laboratory that ensures the efficacy and innocuity of the fermentation processes and cultivation. The active ingredients should also be both registered and standardized.
Some of its combinations are quite interesting
Cordyceps, Reishi and ginseng
These trio is very well-known in the world of natural remedies. It is made up by Reishi, Cordyceps and ginseng, which create a powerful synergy when it comes to producing a powerful detoxifying effect.
But their benefits for natural medicine do not stop there, since they also share their role as adaptogen substances. This means that they buffer the biochemical processes that take place when we are stressed (also called adaptation syndrome); the main effect is that they regulate the organic response against cortisol. Its overproduction by the adrenal glands ends up disturbing the nervous system and the cardiovascular, reproductive and digestive systems.
In addition, they are three strong antioxidants which are very valuable against the free radicals which cause oxidative damage. These substances worsen the cell aging process with all its consequences. Stopping this phenomenon is possible thanks to the adaptogen properties of these three ingredients from natural medicine.
From the three members of the so called imperial trio, Reishi and Cordyceps are quite similar in terms of their therapeutic profile. Their combinations are widely known to control the fatigue and respiratory and liver disorders. Currently, there are Cordyceps and Reishi extracts being sold to strengthen the immune system, especially during stressful situations. However, even if most consumers have positive experiences, we still need more clinical studies to deepen into its therapeutic effects.
Cordyceps and ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba is contains many interesting substances. For example, it is rich in flavonoids derived from quercetin such as kampferol and isorhamnetin; specific bioflavonoids such as ginkgetin and isoginkgetin; specific terpenic substances such as ginkgolic acid A, B and C. From this cocktail, although incomplete, we can clearly see the antioxidant effect of ginkgo biloba. It is capable of restoring the cell membrane permeability after being damaged by the free radicals. Its therapeutic properties also include inhibiting the structural lipid oxidation and the prostaglandin stimulation, which are mediators in inflammatory and pain processes.
That is why it is easy to understand how they can support Cordyceps sinensis and slow down the aging process. In addition, they protect the cell membrane permeability, which is essential when it comes to preventing degenerative diseases.
Cordyceps and astragalus
Astragalus and Cordyceps make an interesting combination to treat chronic renal diseases . This is why astragalus fights against proteinuria (a protein excess in the urine) and improves the serum albumin. Said substance is a protein whose presence is crucial at certain levels to preserve the proper functioning of the renal glomerulus. That is why it tends to be used in patients subjected to dialysis.
It is interesting to know that there are studies  which have concluded that combining a dialysis medical treatment with a formula of Cordyceps and astragalus can reduce the serum creatinine rate. The reason why is because creatinine is a biochemical sign of kidney problems.
Cordyceps and acacia flower honey
Combining Cordyceps, preferably from ecological agriculture, with acacia honey flowers. This one is a variety with a thin bouquet and a pale color, which is perfect to combine with all kinds of fungi.
Acacia honey, apart from its nutrient supply, complete the ability of Cordyceps to restore the energy and vitality in a worn out organism. Additionally, both involve an important contribution to regulate the intestinal transit.
Studies and References:
- Ashok Kumar Panda and Kailash Chandra Swain. Traditional uses and medicinal potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2011 Jan-Mar; 2(1): 9–13.
- Carlos Illana Esteban. Cordyceps sinensis, un hongo usado en la medicina tradicional china. Rev Iberoam Micol 2007; 24: 259-262
- M.G.Shashidhara, Giridharc, Udaya Sankar. Manohar. Bioactive principles from Cordyceps sinensis: A potent food supplement – A review. Journal of Functional Foods Volume 5, Issue 3, July 2013, Pages 1013-1030
- Guo P, Kai Q, Gao J, Lian ZQ, Wu CM, Wu CA, Zhu HB. Cordycepin prevents hyperlipidemia in hamsters fed a high-fat diet via activation of AMP-activated protein kinase. J Pharmacol Sci. 2010;113(4):395-403.
- Cordyceps sinensis (un medicamento chino tradicional) para el tratamiento de la nefropatía crónica. Cochrane
- Bao-qin Lin and Shao-ping Li. Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition.
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