Cordyceps Mushroom (Cordyceps Sinensis)
The Cordyceps mushroom (Ophiocordyceps sinensis, formerly known as Cordyceps sinensis) belongs to the genus Cordyceps, which includes some 600 species of fungi. O. sinensis — commonly referred to as simply the Cordyceps mushroom — also goes by the name of caterpillar fungus in colloquial English.
This mushroom is an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that grows on insects) and belongs to the family Ophiocordycipitaceae. It is mainly found in the meadows above 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) on the Tibetan Plateau in Southwest China and the Himalayan regions of Bhutan and Nepal.
The Cordyceps fungus parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body that has been used as a herbal remedy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). O. sinensis germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then a dark brown stalk-like fruiting body (a few centimeters long) emerges from the corpse and stands upright.
Caterpillar fungus contains the compound cordycepin, an adenosine derivative. This chemical can offer benefits such as anti-cancer and antidepressant properties and the ability to reset our circadian rhythm, thus improving sleep.
However, it’s important to note that fruiting bodies harvested in nature typically contain high amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals. For this reason, they are potentially toxic, so the CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) has strictly regulated sales since 2016.
In Tibet, “yartsa gunbu” (the Tibetan name for O. sinensis, meaning “summer grass, winter worm”) has become the most important source of cash income. The price of the Cordyceps mushroom has increased dramatically on the Tibetan plateau, about 900 percent between 1998 and 2008.
The search for O. sinensis is often seen to threaten the environment of the Tibetan plateau where it grows. While this fungus has been collected for centuries and is still common in the area, current collection rates are much higher than in historical times. Caterpillar fungus is also being harvested in Bhutan, the quality of which is equal to that of the Tibetan one.
Cultivated O. sinensis mycelium is an alternative to the wild-harvested type. Producers claim the former can offer improved consistency. Most cordyceps mushroom supplements are made in a lab.
In this guide on caterpillar fungus, we’ll be covering:
- Cordyceps mushroom benefits
- Cordyceps mushroom side effects
- Growing cordyceps mushrooms
- How to cook cordyceps mushrooms
- How to make cordyceps mushroom tea/coffee
- Cordyceps mushroom powder
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Contents of this article
- Cordyceps Mushroom Benefits
- Cordyceps Mushroom Side Effects
- Growing Cordyceps Mushrooms
- Cordyceps Mushroom Recipes
- Cordyceps Mushroom Tea/Coffee
- Cordyceps Mushroom Powder
Cordyceps Mushroom Benefits
We have already mentioned a few of the potential benefits of the cordyceps mushroom, but there are some others worth highlighting as well. Let’s take a look at six potential health benefits.
While these are science-backed benefits, bear in mind that a lot of the research is limited to animal or lab studies, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the effects of cordyceps mushrooms on people.
Improved Exercise Performance
Cordyceps mushrooms are thought to increase the body’s production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for delivering energy to the muscles. This may improve the way your body uses oxygen, particularly during exercise.
In one study, researchers tested the effects of the Cordyceps mushroom on exercise capacity in 30 healthy older adults using a stationary bike. Participants were given eight three grams per day of a synthetic strain of O. sinensis called CS-4 or a placebo pill for six weeks.
By the end of the study, VO2 max (a measure used to determine fitness level) had increased seven percent in participants who had taken CS-4, while participants who received the placebo pill showed no change.
In a similar study, 20 healthy older adults were given either one gram of CS-4 or a placebo pill for 12 weeks. While the researchers found no change in VO2 max in either group, participants who received CS-4 showed improvements in other measures of exercise performance.
On the other hand, there is other research showing that Cordyceps mushrooms are not effective at improving exercise performance in trained athletes.
Older people have traditionally used Cordyceps mushrooms to reduce fatigue and boost strength and sex drive. Researchers believe the antioxidant content of the Cordyceps mushroom may explain its anti-aging potential.
Multiple studies have found that O. sinensis increases antioxidants in older mice, helping improve memory and sexual function. Antioxidants are molecules that fight cell damage by neutralizing free radicals, which can otherwise contribute to disease and aging.
One study demonstrated that mice given CS-4 lived several months longer than mice given a placebo. Another study showed that O. sinensis was able to extend the lives of fruit flies, further supporting the belief that the fungus has anti-aging benefits. However, it’s unknown if the Cordyceps mushroom offers the same anti-aging benefits in humans.
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Potential Anti-Tumor Effects
The potential of Cordyceps mushrooms to slow the growth of tumors has generated significant interest in recent years. Researchers believe the fungus may achieve this in a variety of ways.
Cordyceps mushrooms may also reverse the side effects associated with many forms of cancer therapy. One such side effect is leukopenia, a condition where the body doesn’t have enough disease-fighting white blood cells (leukocytes).
One study tested the effects of an O. sinensis extract on mice that developed leukopenia after radiation and treatments with Taxol, a common chemotherapy drug. The researchers found that the extract reversed the leukopenia. These results indicate that Cordyceps mushrooms may help reduce complications associated with some cancer treatments.
However, since this experiment was performed on mice, it’s not clear if the same benefits would apply to people taking a Cordyceps mushroom extract.
Improved Management Of Type 2 Diabetes
The Cordyceps mushroom contains a special type of sugar that may help treat diabetes, a disease in which the body either does not produce or respond to the hormone insulin, which normally transports the sugar glucose into your cells for energy. The result is that glucose cannot enter the cells, so it stays in the blood. Over time this can cause serious health problems.
This is why it’s crucial for people with diabetes to ensure that their blood sugar levels are well controlled. The Cordyceps mushroom may actually achieve this effect by mimicking the action of insulin.
In several studies in diabetic mice, the Cordyceps fungus is able to decrease blood sugar levels.
There is also some evidence to suggest that Cordyceps mushrooms may protect against kidney disease, a common complication of diabetes. In a review of 22 studies including 1,746 people with chronic kidney disease, those who took Cordyceps mushroom supplements experienced improvements in kidney function.
Nevertheless, these results are by no means conclusive. The authors of the review underscore that many of the studies examined were low quality. Therefore, they could not make any conclusions about the effects of O. sinensis on kidney function in humans with chronic kidney disease.
Possible Heart Health Benefits
The world’s biggest killer is coronary heart disease (heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries), which is responsible for 16 percent of the world’s total deaths. It’s vitally important, therefore, that people take any steps they can to protect their heart health. As it turns out, the Cordyceps mushroom could be helpful in this regard.
One study found that O. sinensis significantly reduced heart injuries in rats with chronic kidney disease. These sorts of heart injuries are thought to increase the risk of heart failure, so reducing these injuries may help avoid this outcome.
In this study, the researchers attributed the results to the adenosine content of the Cordyceps mushroom. Adenosine is a naturally-occurring compound that has heart-protective effects.
This fungus may also have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. Animal research has shown that O. sinensis decreases “bad” LDL cholesterol. This type of cholesterol, in contrast to “good” HDL cholesterol, can raise your risk of heart disease by leading to the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.
However, similar to the other potential benefits of the Cordyceps mushroom, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the fungus benefits heart health in humans.
Potential Anti-Inflammatory Effects
The Cordyceps mushroom is also said to fight inflammation in the body. While some degree of inflammation is protective, too much can lead to diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Research has revealed that CS-4 has anti-inflammatory effects in mice with allergic rhinitis and asthma. Thanks to multiple studies showing these effects, researchers believe this fungus may serve as a useful anti-inflammatory supplement or drug. Nonetheless, the potential inflammation-fighting properties of O. sinensis have yet to be observed in humans.
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Cordyceps Mushroom Side Effects
There are no studies available on the safety of the Cordyceps mushroom in humans. However, the fungus has a long history of use in TCM. In fact, the Chinese government approved CS-4 for use in hospitals and recognizes it as a safe, natural drug.
As already mentioned, O. sinensis harvested in the wild can contain high amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals, and therefore could be detrimental to human health. However, since most Cordyceps mushroom supplements come from production in a lab, you don’t need to worry about this danger.
Due to limited research in humans, there is no consensus on dosages. The dosage range commonly used in human research is 1,000-3,000 mg per day. This range does not have association with side effects. In fact, it may provide certain health benefits.
Growing Cordyceps Mushrooms
While the Cordyceps mushroom grows in a very specific region of the world, it is still possible to grow it at home. You should be aware, nevertheless, that the conditions need to be just right in order for the grow to be successful.
Due to the difficulty in growing Cordyceps mushrooms and the high ecological impact of harvesting the fruiting bodies in the wild, most people will purchase supplements containing CS-4.
Nonetheless, you can cultivate O. sinensis mycelium (the rootlike structure of the fungus), allowing you to get the same active compounds as found in the wild fruiting body. This is assuming you grow the mycelium correctly, of course.
There are essentially two different ways you can produce O. sinensis mycelium, with the two methods yielding significantly different results.
O. Sinensis Grown As Liquid Culture
The best way to produce Cordyceps fungus mycelium is to grow the mycelium in a nutrient-rich liquid culture. Picture large fermentation tanks, with the strands of mycelium suspended in a liquid, rapidly growing and expanding. When the mycelium has expanded as much as it can, you will pull it out of the liquid, dry it, and then pulverize it into a powder that is 100 percent pure mycelium.
Producing O. sinensis in this manner will ensure that the end product has a compound profile similar to that of wild-harvested fruiting bodies.
O. Sinensis Grown As Mycelium On Grain
A cheaper (but less effective) way to grow caterpillar fungus is to grow the mycelium on grain, similar to the production of grain spawn as done in commercial mushroom farming operations. Once the mycelium has colonized the grain, you will pulverize and dry the grain (without separating the mycelium from the grain).
This will result in an end product that is mostly starch, not anything closely resembling pure mycelium. However, you will still be able to enjoy most of the same beneficial compounds as found in the pure mycelium, but in significantly lower concentrations.
Here are the steps for growing the fungus on grain:
- Place the cereal grain, such as rye, rice, or millet in a dry plastic bag or glass jar. Make sure to sterilize the bag or glass jar with hot water beforehand.
- Inoculate the substrate with the O. sinensis fungus. The temperature should be 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit. There should be diffuse light and atmospheric oxygen conditions comparable to sea level. Growth under these conditions should be for 28-30 days.
- Move the fungus and substrate in its glass or plastic containers to a controlled environmental chamber with 50 percent oxygen and 50 percent nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. The temperature should be 37 degrees Fahrenheit with no light. The fungus should grow under those conditions for 15-20 weeks.
- Harvest and dry the mushrooms for long-term use.
Cordyceps Mushroom Recipes
Unlike several functional mushrooms that are tough or inedible, and therefore not suitable for adding to meals, there are tons of great recipes that can include the addition of Cordyceps mushrooms.
This fungus has a sweet, umami, earthy, nutty flavor and it works well in a variety of soups and stews, particularly Chinese versions.
You can also add Cordyceps mushroom extract powder to smoothies, desserts, and pasta dishes.
Cordyceps Mushroom Tea/Coffee
Another way to consume Cordyceps mushroom powder and enjoy its benefits is in the form of tea or coffee.
How To Make Cordyceps Mushroom Tea
The ingredients you’ll need to make Cordyceps mushroom tea are:
- 1 tbsp of Cordyceps mushroom powder
- ½ lemon or 2 tsp of lemon juice
- 4 thin slices of fresh ginger
- 1 ½ cups of water
Here are the steps to follow:
- Heat water in a large pot on the stove until it reaches a rapid boil.
- Add in the Cordyceps mushroom powder and steep for 10 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to medium and add in the ginger slices and lemon/lemon juice. Steep for an additional five minutes.
- Use a fine mesh strainer to remove the ginger and Cordyceps mushroom powder.
How To Make Cordyceps Mushroom Coffee
If you’re more of a coffee drinker, then you can make Cordyceps mushroom coffee instead. Here are the ingredients you need to make a great-tasting latte:
- 2 tsp of instant coffee (whatever your favorite brand is)
- 1 tsp of Cordyceps mushroom powder
- 1 tbsp of maple syrup
- 1 ½ tsp of cacao powder or unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
- 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch of sea salt
- 1 cup of dairy-free milk
- ¼ cup of hot water
- Add and blend the Cordyceps mushroom powder, maple syrup, cacao power (optional), cinnamon, and sea salt in a small blender.
- In a cup, dissolve the instant coffee with hot water.
- Steam the milk until it’s hot and add it to the blender along with the instant coffee.
- Blend on high for 30 seconds to one minute, or until frothy and fully mixed.
- Serve as is, or top with more cinnamon.
If it’s a hot day, you can also enjoy a spiced Cordyceps mushroom cold brew coffee. You’ll need:
- 1 cup of cold brew coffee
- ½ cup of coconut cream or dairy-free milk
- 1 tsp of cinnamon
- ¼ tsp of ginger
- ⅛ tsp of cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp of almond or cashew butter
- 1 tsp of Cordyceps mushroom powder
- 1 scoop of vegan protein powder
- 1-3 drops of vanilla stevia
- A handful of cashews and coconut shreds
Simply add all of the above ingredients to a blender, then blend until reaching the consistency you desire.
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Cordyceps Mushroom Powder
You can purchase Cordyceps mushroom powder from a variety of vendors online.
However, be aware that there are two different forms of Cordyceps mushroom powder:
- CS-4 powder, which is manufactured through a process of liquid fermentation.
- Cordyceps mushroom extract powder. This is a more concentrated form of the Cordyceps fungus, in which the active constituents are extracted. By using an extract powder, you will consume a much lower dosage to get the same medicinal benefits. Extracts can vary widely in terms of strengths (and therefore dosages), so make sure you follow recommendations for dosing when buying an extract.
Many vendors also sell mushroom powder multi-blends, combining O. sinensis powder with reishi, chaga, and lion’s mane, for instance. Some blends will contain even more types of mushrooms. These blends allow you to easily enjoy the medicinal benefits of each mushroom.