Cordyceps often gets tossed right in the mix with other adaptogenic and nootropic mushrooms, but it’s easily one of the most unique classes of functional fungi in the world.
For starters, this “zombie fungi” is usually endoparasitic, meaning it lives and grows on bugs. Plus, it contains one bioactive compound you won’t find in other mushrooms–cordycepin–which may be the superpower behind cordyceps’ potential benefits, like improved athletic endurance, digestive support, immune regulating effects, stress relief, and more. In fact, cordyceps is often framed as the best nootropic for enhancing energy.
All in all, there is so much to understand about this unique class of therapeutic mushrooms, but we’ll start from the top:
Cordyceps is a functional mushroom with a lengthy history of medicinal use.
Some sources suggest that it’s been used to improve blood and oxygen flow to increase endurance, performance, and vitality.
Most people use Cordyceps powder or capsules, usually made from Cordyceps Sinensis, for therapeutic purposes.
Cordyceps was initially discovered by Tibetan herdsmen as a solution for reversing the effects of oxygen deprivation caused by working at such high altitudes. Cordyceps, however, actually refers to an entire genus of mushrooms containing over 600 species.
When used in therapeutic context, however, the term cordyceps usually refers to one of two primary species known for medical effects–Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris. Cordyceps militaris is the primary type used for supplements.
Here's the difference:
Cordyceps sinensis grows on the larvae of the ghost moth, primarily within the Himalayas. Its unique but complicated growth cycle makes it difficult to farm and impossible to grow on a commercial scale.
In fact, most Cordyceps sinensis is wild harvested, but due to its limited growth and years of over-harvesting, it's now very difficult to find. Now, this rare species of mushroom can cost around $200 per gram, or $200,000 per kilogram and is not commonly used in supplements due to this high cost.
Cordyceps militaris, on the other hand, has been commercially adapted and can be commercially produced at a much more affordable rate.
This species is also naturally endoparasitic, but it doesn't have to be grown that way. In fact, the militaris species is usually grown on rice, soy, or other grains, similarly to other therapeutic mushrooms.
The fruiting bodies and the mycelium can both be harvested, though the fruiting bodies are generally the preferred portion of this mushroom when using it for therapeutic effects. (To learn more about why, read “Mycelium vs Fruiting Bodies.”)
Sinensis vs Militaris
Aside from price and accessibility, research has also shown that cordyceps militaris may be the most beneficial of these two species. The primary therapeutic difference between the two boils down to their concentration of bioactive compounds.
Cordyceps sinensis contains more adenosine than the militaris variety, but contains no cordycepin. Cordyceps militaris, however, contains both, which may lead to more well-rounded therapeutic effects.
For the intents and purposes of this article, we are going to discuss the benefits, dosage threshold, and usage of Cordyceps militaris, the form of cordyceps most often used in supplements.
We mentioned that Cordyceps was traditionally used (In traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine) for a variety of reasons. Traditional uses of Cordyceps include increasing blood flow and oxygen flow throughout the body, improving stamina, and boosting immunity.
Western interest in the mushroom has spurred more research and we now better understand the potential benefits of Cordyceps. Before we dive into the available research, let’s discuss the therapeutic compounds in Cordyceps that help produce these effects:
Cordycepin is a bio-metabolite that’s found only in a few forms of Cordyceps mushroom. It was originally investigated for its antibiotic potential, but that research fell through to a much wider therapeutic potential. A review published in 2020 stated:
“Cordycepin is known for various nutraceutical and therapeutic potential, such as anti-diabetic, anti-hyperlipidemia, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-aging, anticancer, antiviral, hepato-protective, hypo-sexuality, cardiovascular diseases, antimalarial, anti-osteoporotic, anti-arthritic, cosmeceutical etc. which makes it a most valuable medicinal mushroom for helping in maintaining good health.”
Beta-glucans are a type of polysaccharide that are much more bioactive than other carbohydrates. Because they are bioactive, they are often linked to the positive health effects of many medicinal mushrooms. Many sources believe that beta-glucans are the primary component behind the holistic benefits of any mushroom formula.
Like other mushrooms, Cordyceps also contains many different terpenoids, a modified classification of terpenes. These are lipids that are believed to give various mushrooms their immunomodulatory benefits.
There are a number of bioactive compounds in Cordyceps that make it a super-mushroom, but we can’t overlook all of the healthful compounds that make it a superfood mushroom. Cordyceps contains a decent bit of fiber, antioxidants, and numerous vitamins that can help amp up your wellness routine, including:
- B-complex vitamins
- Vitamin D
- Amino acids
To learn more about these benefits, read “Cordyceps Benefits.”
Although evidence regarding Cordyceps’ benefits is limited mostly to animal trials, we do have some research to help us understand its therapeutic potential. Here are some areas where Cordyceps may be useful for promoting wellness:
Boosting Physical Performance and Endurance
Some evidence suggests that Cordyceps may help to increase the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the body, which researchers believe may help to improve physical performance by improving oxygen flow in the body during physical activity.
A 2004 study, for instance, tested the effects of a strain of Cordyceps called Cs-4, or cordyceps Sinensis, on exercise capacity in 30 healthy older adults. 7% of the Cordyceps group experienced increased fitness levels over just 6 weeks, while the placebo group experienced no change.
Some evidence also suggests that it may increase endurance, though more human trials are needed. In a 2016 study, mice were able to continue swimming significantly longer after taking cordyceps. A placebo-controlled study from 2006 confirmed similar results in humans while doing exhaustive running exercises.
Antioxidant (and Anti-Aging) Effects
In Chinese medicine, Cordyceps has been used for centuries to improve endurance and performance (including sexual performance) in elderly people. A 2016 study suggests that these popular anti-aging effects may be due to Cordyceps’ antioxidant properties. Various studies (2009, 2010, 2012) have found that Cordyceps to help to boost antioxidant levels in aged mice, leading to various benefits, like improved sexual function and improved memory.
Balancing Blood Sugar
Various animal studies (2004, 2015, 2016) found Cordyceps capable of decreasing blood sugar levels by mimicking the actions of insulin. This is potentially due to a special carbohydrate found in the mushroom, though more trials are needed to fully understand Cordyceps potential for managing diabetes.
Decreasing Diabetic Risk of Kidney Disease.
In a 2014 review of 22 studies, researchers concluded that subjects who took cordyceps often experienced improved kidney function. However, the authors of this review pointed out that many of these studies used were flawed, so more conclusive evidence is needed to understand how effectively Cordyceps could be used in this aspect.
Improving Heart Health
Cordyceps is an approved treatment for heart arrhythmia in China, a condition characterized by an irregular heart beat, likely because it may increase adenosine, a naturally occurring compound that is also used in medications designed to treat arrhythmia. One animal study found that Cordyceps supplementation may also help to reduce the risk of heart damage caused by kidney disease, subsequently reducing the risk of heart failure.
Lowering Bad Cholesterol
Some evidence suggests that it could also benefit heart health in a less direct way–by helping to manage cholesterol. Some evidence suggests that Cordyceps may help to decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and lower triglyceride levels, both of which could also have a beneficial impact on heart health.
In addition to having antioxidant properties that can help relieve inflammation, various studies (1996, 2002, 2003, 2015) have pointed out that Cordyceps may help to increase the production of proteins that help to regulate inflammation in the body, therefore helping to decrease inflammation levels.
To learn more about these benefits, read “Cordyceps Benefits.”
How to Use Cordyceps
Cordyceps has been used for centuries to support endurance and vitality, but it’s only recently making its way into the Western world of wellness. You can easily incorporate Cordyceps supplements into your daily wellness routine, but you need to understand some basics, like how to choose a high quality formula, how to dose it correctly, and how different forms of cordyceps supplements may perform.
Let’s start from the top:
Source and Quality Importance
In the U.S., supplements are not regulated the same way as prescription medications, so it's up to the consumer to ensure that they are getting a high-quality product.
Look for a Cordyceps product that is sourced from fruiting bodies and ideally is a Cordyceps extract (as opposed to a whole mushroom supplement) to reap the most benefit from your supplement. You should also check to see if the products are lab tested to ensure the absence of potential contaminants, like mold or heavy metals
When Should I Take Cordyceps Mushrooms?
Cordyceps’ potential benefits are expansive, and there’s no incorrect time to take Cordyceps mushrooms. Of course, many people like to take their Cordyceps first thing in the morning or an hour before work, working out, or activities where full attention and endurance is required.
Keep in mind that it may take several days or up to two weeks to experience the full benefits of Cordyceps supplementation, so taking it daily is important.
Read "Best Time to Take Cordyceps Mushroom" to learn more.
How Much Cordyceps Should I Take Daily?
Raw cordyceps mushrooms contain around 3.79% beta-glucans and 11,533.22 mg/kg of cordycepin, or 1.15%.
When using a whole-mushroom product, you may find that you need a larger dose to get these therapeutic compounds in useful amounts. A dose of 1-3 grams of whole Cordyceps powder is most common.
For Cordyceps extract, many people experience positive results from doses between 0.5-1 grams.
Read "Cordyceps Dosage" to learn more.
In the available research, Cordyceps is generally well-tolerated by both humans and animals, but more evidence is needed to understand if some groups of people may be more at risk of Cordyceps side effects than others.
For now, we know that people with certain conditions or ailments should talk to their doctor before taking Cordyceps, especially since Cordyceps could interfere with some medications.
You should talk to your doctor before taking Cordyceps if:
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding. There is no information regarding the impact of cordyceps supplementation while pregnant or breastfeeding.
- You have an auto-immune disease, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or other conditions.
- You have a bleeding disorder. Cordyceps may prevent blood clotting and increase the risk of bleeding.
- You are expecting surgery. Since Cordyceps may increase risk of bleeding, it should not be used before or after surgery.
- You have had allergic reactions to mushrooms previously.
- You have a heart condition.
- You take medications, especially those used to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, and blood sugar.
The best way to ensure your safety when trying Cordyceps for the first time is to choose a Cordyceps product from a high-quality manufacturer. Look for a brand that uses cGMP-compliant manufacturing facilities and can provide test results that rule out contaminants, like pesticides or mold.
Read "Cordyceps Side Effects" to learn more.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does Cordyceps do for you?
Some evidence suggests that Cordyceps supplementation may help to regulate immune functions, decrease stress, and improve energy and endurance, but more research is needed to understand the full benefits of cordyceps.
What are the side effects of Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is generally considered to be safe, but some people may experience mild side effects, like stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and dry mouth. There are some risk factors that can make you more susceptible to Cordyceps side effects, like certain medications or disorders that increase bleeding risk, so always talk to your doctor before starting cordyceps supplementation.
How do Cordyceps make you feel?
Cordyceps may make you feel buzzy and energized thanks to its potential ability to increase oxygen and blood flow. Many people describe the effects of Cordyceps as stimulating, similar to a mild cup of coffee.
When should you not take Cordyceps?
Those who are at risk of bleeding or expecting surgery, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and children should all avoid Cordyceps. Talk to your doctor before taking Cordyceps if you have any chronic health conditions or take daily medications.
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- “Immunomodulatory Effects of Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms and Their Bioactive Immunoregulatory Products” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346759543_Immunomodulatory_Effects_of_Edible_and_Medicinal_Mushrooms_and_Their_Bioactive_Immunoregulatory_Products
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- “Cordyceps sinensis (a traditional Chinese medicine) for treating chronic kidney disease” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25519252/
- “Chapter 5: Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92758/
- “Cordyceps sinensis protects against liver and heart injuries in a rat model of chronic kidney disease: a metabolomic analysis” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814030/
- “Lipid-lowering effect of cordycepin (3'-deoxyadenosine) from Cordyceps militaris on hyperlipidemic hamsters and rats” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21882527/
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- “Immunomodulatory functions of extracts from the Chinese medicinal fungus Cordyceps cicadae” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12413710/
- “Methanol extract of Cordyceps pruinosa inhibits in vitro and in vivo inflammatory mediators by suppressing NF-kappaB activation” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12831777/
- “Anti-inflammatory effects of Cordyceps mycelium (Paecilomyces hepiali, CBG-CS-2) in Raw264.7 murine macrophages” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4371127/
- “Functional Cordyceps Coffee Containing Cordycepin and β-Glucan” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7333010/#:~:text=%CE%B2%2DGlucan%20contents&text=The%20%CE%B2%2Dglucan%20content%20of,total%20glucan%20content%20of%209.70%25.