Cordyceps sinensis, the Cordyceps species most widely used as a dietary supplement, naturally grows on the back of the larvae of a caterpillar from the moth Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur found mainly in China, Nepal, and Tibet. The mycelium invades the caterpillar and eventually replaces the host tissue. The stroma (fungal fruit body) grows out of the top of the caterpillar. The remaining structures of the caterpillar along with the fungus are dried and sold as the dietary supplement cordyceps.
Commonly known as "dong chong xia cao" (summer-plant, winter-worm) in Chinese, cordyceps has been used as a tonic food in China and Tibet and has been used as a food supplement and tonic beverage among the rich because of its short supply due to over harvesting. It is also an ingredient in soups and other foods used traditionally in Chinese medicine for thousands of years helping debilitated patients recover from illness.
Cordyceps is used therapeutically for asthma, bronchitis, chemoprotection, exercise performance, hepatitis B, hepatic cirrhosis, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), as an immunosuppressive agent, and in chronic renal failure.
The fungus became popular in 1993 when two female Chinese athletes, who admitted using cordyceps supplements, beat the world records in the track and field competition at the Stuttgart World Championships for the 1,500-, 3,000-, and 10,000-meter runs. The women were drug tested for any banned substances such as steroids and were negative. Their coach attributed the performance to the cordyceps supplementation.
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These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Cordyceps may stimulate the immune system and improve serum gamma globulin levels in hepatitis B patients. Currently, there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of cordyceps for chronic hepatitis B. However, the results are promising. Additional study of cordyceps and current hepatitis treatments is needed.
Hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol)
Cordyceps may lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, although these changes may not be permanent or long lasting. Longer studies with follow up are needed to determine the long-term effects of cordyceps on hyperlipidemia.
Cordyceps may improve various symptoms related to aging. However, higher quality studies testing specific symptoms of aging are needed before the effects of cordyceps can be described. Currently, there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of cordyceps for anti-aging.
Cordyceps may reduce some asthma symptoms. Additional studies are needed to make a firm recommendation.
There is insufficient evidence from controlled clinical trials to recommend for or against the use of cordyceps for bronchitis. Most studies using cordyceps have found improved symptoms with cordyceps more than the control drugs. Although results are promising, more studies should be performed before a firm recommendation can be made.
There is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of cordyceps as a chemoprotective agent in aminoglycoside toxicity. However, the results are promising.
Exercise performance enhancement
In 1993, two female Chinese athletes, who admitted using cordyceps supplements, beat the world records in the track and field competition at the Stuttgart World Championships for the 1,500-, 3,000-, and 10,000-meter runs. However, there is insufficient evidence from conflicting controlled clinical trials to recommend for or against the use of cordyceps for improving exercise performance. More studies are needed in this area.
Two studies using combination herbal treatments that included cordyceps indicate that these combinations suppressed the immune system in kidney transplant and lupus nephritis patients. However, as these treatments used combination products, the effect of cordyceps cannot be defined. More studies with cordyceps as a monotherapy are needed.
Liver disease (hepatic cirrhosis)
In traditional Chinese medicine, cordyceps has been used to support and improve liver function. In two studies using herbal combinations that included cordyceps, liver function improved liver and immune function. However, as these studies used combination treatments, the effect of cordyceps alone is unknown.
Renal failure (chronic)
In traditional Chinese medicine, cordyceps is used to strengthen kidney function. Two studies indicate that cordyceps may improve renal function in patients with chronic renal failure. More studies are needed to confirm these findings.