Cordyceps is one perplexing and ruthless fungus – in the mountainous regions of Asia, this mushroom invades insect larvae and grows out of their body. Folks have been using it for centuries to boost energy and libido and combat lung and kidney diseases. Find out what the science says, how cordyceps is typically produced, and whether you should be taking it.
Cordyceps is the name for a group (genus) of fungi, all of which are parasites of various insects or other fungi. There are over 750 species of Cordyceps fungi around the world. They primarily grow in South Asia, Europe, and North America [1, 2].
With so many mushroom species, it becomes hard to say exactly which one someone is referring to when they talk about “cordyceps.”
The most well-known and studied one is Cordyceps sinensis. In 2007, scientists discovered that this species is unrelated to most of the others and placed it in an entirely new genus (Ophiocordyceps). Although its name has been changed to Ophiocordyceps sinensis, it is still commonly referred to as C. sinensis, or just cordyceps [3, 4].
Cordyceps is no typical mushroom. The way it grows in nature has fascinated scientists for a long time and earned it the nickname “caterpillar fungus.”
Namely, the spores of the fungus infect moth caterpillars. These tiny spores then grow into a large fungal mass called mycelium that spreads throughout the insect body, eventually killing the larvae. A thin stalk called a fruiting body then sprouts from the corpse, releases spores, and continues the cycle .
In fact, the fungus-caterpillar combination is among the most famous traditional Chinese medicines. It has been used for hundreds of years in tinctures and teas to boost libido, reduce fatigue, and fight lung and kidney diseases [2, 6, 7].
More broadly, cordyceps is considered a general tonic claimed to increase vitality and longevity. Standardized extracts are even used in medical clinics throughout China and some are classified as drugs [2, 6, 7].
While C. sinensis is by far the most valued and studied Cordyceps species, others have also been used for their potential health benefits. Among these, Cordyceps militaris is the most well-known and researched one. Despite their longstanding popularity and use, few clinical trials have been conducted on either C. sinensis or C. militaris, and no human studies have investigated the other species .
C. sinensis is found exclusively in the Tibetan plateau, the world’s highest plateau that covers most of Tibet and some of the neighboring regions. Its average altitude is astonishing, reaching 4,500 m or 14,800 ft. Cordyceps is an important part of traditional Tibetan medicine and the Tibetan economy. Harvesting of wild C. sinensis accounts for nearly 40% of the income in rural Tibet and 9% of the region’s GDP [6, 8, 9].
C. sinensis caught the attention of the world in 1993, when Chinese long-distance runners broke several world records in the Chinese National Games. Their coach credited their success to a daily tonic containing the fungus .
Because it is adapted to a specific host, geography, and climate, wild C. sinensis is scarce and impossible to mass-produce using its natural life cycle. This, coupled with increasingly high demand, has led to skyrocketing prices. In 2017, high-quality C. sinensis pieces were being sold for more than $63,000/lb ($140,000/kg) in Beijing, over 3x the price of gold at the time! .
Due to overharvesting, wild C. sinensis is now classified as an endangered species. To fulfill the demand that can’t be satisfied by harvesting the wild form, artificial cultivation methods have been developed. Thanks to these methods, large-scale manufacturing of both C. sinensis and C. militaris is now possible .
There are two main ways to mass-produce Cordyceps.
One involves the fermentation of the fungus in a liquid medium containing yeast, sugar, and other nutrients, set at a specific temperature and pH. Once the mycelium (non-reproductive part of the fungus) has fully grown, it is extracted and purified. This method allows to grow Cordyceps quickly and is popular with Chinese manufacturers [9, 13].
Different strains of wild C. sinensis are added in the fermentation process to various products. For example, Cs-4 is a standardized product from a specific strain of C. sinensis .
The other method of producing Cordyceps involves growing the mycelium on a solid medium of grain (rice, millet, wheat). This method takes longer and is used by many manufacturers in Japan and the United States .
Although it is cheaper to manufacture Cordyceps this way, there are issues with the end-product containing high amounts of grain relative to active components. This is because unlike liquid mediums, the grain can’t be separated entirely from the mycelium .
- May protect the liver and kidneys
- May improve immune system function
- May help with asthma and COPD
- May improve aerobic exercise capacity
- Generally safe with minimal side effects reported
- A long history of use
- Lack of clinical trials
- Hard to produce in large quantities
- Wild C. sinensis is extremely expensive and endangered
- Possible interaction with antidiabetic and antiviral drugs
- May increase prostate cancer growth
The two most important active components found in both C. sinensis and C. militaris (and a few other Cordyceps species) are cordycepin (3’-deoxyadenosine) and D-mannitol (also known as cordycepic acid) [16, 1].
D-mannitol is a sugar alcohol used clinically as a diuretic in people with fluid buildup (edema) due to kidney disorders and to decrease swelling in the brain after trauma or stroke .
- Polysaccharides (CPS-1, CPS-2, CS-F30, CS-F10, beta-glucans, and mannoglucan)
- Nucleosides (adenosine and thymidine)
- Sterols (ergosterol and beta-sitosterol)
- Vitamins: B1, B2, and K
- Minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium
- Others: peptides, amino acids, sugars, fatty acids, and enzymes
- Immune system-balancing
D-mannitol acts as a diuretic, helps maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside cells, and reduces inflammation .
Carbohydrates in Cordyceps may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and cholesterol– and blood sugar-lowering effects. They may also help boost the immune system [28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34].
Note: This section contains research related to the benefits of both C. sinensis and C. militaris due to the similarity in active compounds and effects. Any mention of Cordyceps refers to both species.
Cordyceps may protect the kidneys from damage caused by certain antibiotics, enhance kidney function, and help balance the immune system in people with kidney transplants.
Aminoglycoside are a broad class of antibiotics commonly prescribed to children (gentamicin and neomycin are some examples). Unfortunately, they can seriously damage the kidneys. C. sinensis prevented kidney damage in 21 people taking aminoglycoside antibiotics [35, 36].
In a clinical trial on 98 people with chronic kidney disease, C. militaris (400 mg/day) delayed the progression of the disease. The authors of the study believed it did so by blocking a signaling pathway (TLR4/NF-kB) .
In rats with kidney disease, Cordyceps reduced inflammatory cytokines, decreased oxidative stress, and improved kidney function. C. sinensis also prevented cell death and decreased inflammation in rats with poor blood flow to the kidneys [40, 41, 42+].
In a review of five studies and 447 kidney transplant patients in total, cordyceps reduced the number of complications (organ rejection, infections, and kidney and liver damage). It also improved kidney, liver, and immune function. Patients taking cordyceps needed less cyclosporin A, a drug used to prevent organ rejection that has severe side effects [43, 44, 45, 46].
By balancing the immune system, cordyceps seems to protect against organ rejection, reduce infections, and improve organ function in kidney transplant patients. However, long-term studies (>1 year) are needed to determine the extended benefits in this population.
Taken together, limited evidence suggests that cordyceps protects the kidneys in people with chronic kidney disease, taking antibiotics, and undergoing medical procedures (including kidney transplants).
If you are in any of these situations, you may discuss with your doctor if cordyceps may be helpful as a complementary strategy in your case. Since these conditions are all serious, you must carefully follow your doctor’s recommendations and never use cordyceps to replace what they prescribe.
Cordyceps seems to improve immune function, but that doesn’t mean it should be classified as an immune booster. Its action is balancing: lowering immune overactivation in autoimmune diseases while heightening defense when the immune system is weakened or under attack.
In a study of 44 patients with autoimmune thyroid diseases, the more common type of cordyceps – C. sinensis – reduced levels of thyroid antibodies and balanced pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cell levels .
In another trial on 39 healthy adults, supplementation with cultured C. sinensis for 8 weeks increased natural killer cell activity by almost 40% .
In mice, C. sinensis prevented the decline in immune cells caused by chemotherapy and improves the ability of immune cells to fight pathogens. And although this is promising, no clinical studies have confirmed its ability to counter chemotherapy side effects [49, 50].
The other cordyceps species, C. militaris, increased the activity of immune cells involved in fighting infections (natural killer cells, IL-2, and IFN-gamma) in a trial of 79 people. It was safe and more effective than placebo. In cell-based studies, it increases the activity of phagocytes, cells involved in engulfing bacteria and other small particles [51, 52].
Again, limited evidence suggests that cordyceps may improve immune system function. You may discuss with your doctor if it may be helpful in your case.
Another study of 50 people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) found that the mushroom improved lung function and shortness of breath .
Rat studies revealed similar benefits. Cordyceps reduced lung inflammation and prevented scarring and thickening of the airways in rats with COPD .
Once again, promising but limited evidence suggests that cordyceps may improve lung function in people with asthma or COPD. Discuss with your doctor if it may help as an add-on to your treatment regime and never take cordyceps in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.
In two studies of 57 older adults, taking 1-3 g of cordyceps extract (Cs-4) improved their capacity for intense exercise. It reduced their fatigue and helped them use oxygen more effectively during a cycling workout [10, 57].
However, the same extract (3 g/day) did not improve endurance exercise performance in trained cyclists in another study .
Mice given cordyceps were able to swim up to twice as long before getting tired. This is likely because cordyceps increases ATP levels, which releases energy. Plus, it reduces oxidative stress and lactic acid buildup, which are both associated with prolonged exercise [59, 60, 61, 62, 63].
All in all, 3 clinical trials (with different results in older adults versus well-trained athletes) and some animal studies cannot be considered conclusive evidence that cordyceps improves exercise performance. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed to shed some light on this potential health benefit.
Cordyceps may protect the liver by boosting protective antioxidants and preventing the buildup of fats in the liver. It might also help people with hepatitis and liver cirrhosis, although the evidence is very limited.
In 60 hepatitis B patients, cordyceps reduced inflammation and scarring in the liver and improved liver function. A traditional Chinese multi-herbal medicine with cordyceps (Fuzheng Huayu) reduced liver damage in 40 people with liver cirrhosis. Unfortunately, neither of the studies has been translated from Chinese and we couldn’t access their specifics for a critical analysis [64, 65].
In mice with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, it decreased fat stores and increased liver antioxidants. In rats, cordyceps protected against liver injury due to kidney disease and prevented scarring of the liver due to alcohol [66, 67, 68].
One cell study sheds light on its potential mechanism. In the study, cordyceps prevented the buildup of fat in liver cells by increasing the activity of genes involved in fat-burning. At the same time, cordyceps decreased the activity of a gene involved in fat-storage .
Two small trials, and some animal and cell-based research cannot be considered sufficient evidence that cordyceps protects the liver. More clinical trials on larger populations are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.
No clinical evidence supports the use of cordyceps for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Interestingly, cordycepin helped convert inactive fat cells (white adipose tissue) into calorie-burning fat cells (brown adipose tissue) .
In Northern India and Nepal, cordyceps is known as the “Himalayan viagra.” Apparently, local herders first observed that yaks, goats, and sheep that ate cordyceps became much stronger and bulkier. Subsequently, the mushroom became very popular for increasing vitality and as an aphrodisiac .
A couple of studies suggest there might be some truth to this.
This hormonal boost likely underlies the fertility-enhancing effects of cordyceps. Plus, testosterone supports muscle-building, adding to the exercise benefits mentioned above. And as an add-on, testosterone boosts libido, especially in people with low levels [82, 83, 84, 19, 85].
Cordyceps reduced high cholesterol and triglyceride levels caused by diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol in mice. In turn, it may protect the blood vessels and prevent their clogging [75, 86].
Cordycepin from the mushroom may also protect the heart. It prevented plaque buildup mice, reducing the risk of heart disease .
In rats, cordyceps helped prevent irregular heartbeats. It also reduced oxidative stress and improved recovery after poor oxygen supply in mice hearts .
Cordyceps may be a good nootropic and brain-protective medicinal mushroom, according to animal studies. It seems to boost brain circulation and reduce brain cell damage, but we have yet to see if this holds true in humans.
In gerbils (a type of desert rat), cordyceps prevented short-term memory loss and the loss of neurons due to stroke. It’s possible that it might also help in cases of poor brain circulation .
Cordyceps protected against memory loss, prevented brain cell damage, and reduced inflammation in the brains of mice with dementia. It also increased the birth and growth of new neurons and reduced memory loss in rats [90, 91].
Cordyceps may offer some skin protection, although its use in skincare products is still not commonplace.
In one study, cordyceps extracts protected skin cells from damage due to UVB radiation by reducing free radicals and increasing antioxidants. In another cell study, cordyceps helped prevent the breakdown of skin collagen and provided UV protection equivalent to SPF 25 [93, 94].
Cordyceps also reduced skin inflammation in mice with eczema .
In mice, cordycepin reduced symptoms of depression faster and stronger than the common antidepressant drug imipramine (Tofranil) .
The more common cordyceps species, C. sinensis, prevented the loss of bone density and mineral content in rats with osteoporosis. In turn, it also improved their strength .
In Northern India, cordyceps is highly valued as a longevity-promoting remedy. Despite the traditional claims, only one scientific study has explored its anti-aging potential .
In mice with accelerated aging, cordyceps increased levels of key antioxidants, reduced oxidative stress, and improved brain and sexual function .
Below, we will discuss some preliminary research on the potential anticancer effects of cordyceps. It’s still in the animal and cell stage and further clinical studies have yet to determine if its extract may be useful in cancer therapies.
Do not under any circumstances attempt to replace conventional cancer therapies with cordyceps or any other supplements! If you want to use it as a supportive measure, talk to your doctor to avoid any unexpected interactions.
Cordyceps slowed cancer growth, reduced tumor size, and increased survival time in mice with skin, immune cell (lymphoma), lung, and liver cancers. It also helped prevent cancer from spreading [103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109].
In cell-based studies, cordycepin, ergosterol, and polysaccharides from cordyceps triggered programmed cell death, which is needed to remove cells that start behaving cancer-like. These compounds also increased the activity of cancer-fighting immune cells (macrophages and natural killer cells) and prevented the growth of blood vessels that provide nutrients to cancer [110, 111, 104, 112, 113, 114+].
However, cordyceps may not be beneficial for all cancers. Certain types of prostate cancers may be fueled by androgens such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone. C. sinensis increased the growth of prostate cancer in mice due to its ability to increase testosterone levels [117, 83].
In a study of 18 athletes undergoing altitude training, those taking cordyceps and Rhodiola crenulata saw twice the improvement in run time until exhaustion compared to placebo. They were also able to handle stress better by improving their heart rate variability .
In summary, Rhodiola crenulata may synergize better with cordyceps than Rhodiola rosea in improving aerobic capacity and exercise performance.
And similar to cordyceps, ginkgo also improves blood flow. Plus, many of ginkgo’s health benefits overlap with those of cordyceps while both remedies are classified as tonics .
Lupus nephritis is an inflammation of the kidneys in people with lupus. A 5-year study looked at the effect of cordyceps and artemisinin – a molecule extracted from wormwood – in patients with lupus who were treated for this condition and no longer had the disease. The combination improved kidney function and prevented lupus nephritis from returning in 30 out of 31 patients .
A lot of the research on Cordyceps has been conducted in China and conflicts of interest and other important limitations could not be determined. Additionally, much of the clinical research conducted in China is inaccessible.
Also, much of the research is in animals and many of the benefits attributed to Cordyceps have yet to be examined in human studies.
Bailing capsule is a supplement used in China made from mycelium of C. sinensis. Corbrin capsule (CS-C-Q80) is also made from C. sinensis mycelium and is classified as a drug in China .
Cs-4, known as Jin Shui Bao in China, is a specific strain of C. sinensis that is grown via the liquid fermentation method. It is standardized to contain no less than 5% D-mannitol and 0.14% adenosine .
As wild C. sinensis is prohibitively expensive, you should be very cautious of any affordable product that is advertised as such.
Because cordyceps is not approved by the FDA for any condition, there is no official dose. Users and supplement manufacturers have established unofficial doses based on trial and error. Discuss with your doctor if cordyceps may be useful as a complementary approach in your case and which dose you should take.
For the typical cultured Cordyceps sinensis (the Bailing capsule), studies used 3 g/day divided into three doses .
For the fermented powders of Cordyceps sinensis (Corbrin capsule), 2 g/day was used to improve autoimmune thyroid disease .
To sum it up, clinical studies suggest 1-3 g/day as the dosage for most cordyceps extracts. Most supplements contain 600–1,000 mg of the extract per capsule.
Keep in mind that the safety profile of cordyceps is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is not a definite one and you should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.
Side effects were rare in clinical trials, but may include :
- Dry mouth
While it is deadly for insects, cordyceps taken as a supplement will not infect your cells.
A case report found that a patient taking C. sinensis daily experienced excessive bleeding after dental surgery. Individuals with bleeding disorders should use caution when supplementing with cordyceps .
There have also been a couple of reports of lead poisoning from C. sinensis. Make sure you are buying from reputable vendors who routinely test for levels of contaminants in their products .
Men with an enlarged prostate or prostate cancer may want to avoid cordyceps due to its ability to increase the growth of the gland as well as prostate cancer in mice .
Pregnant and lactating women should avoid taking cordyceps due to its ability to increase sex hormone levels .
Supplement/Herb/Nutrient-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let them know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.
Blood Sugar-Lowering Drugs
Consult your doctor before supplementing if you take medication or have a serious health condition.
The opinions expressed in this section are solely those of cordyceps users, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. Their reviews do not represent the opinions of SelfDecode. SelfDecode does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.
Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare providers because of something you have read on SelfDecode. We understand that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.
The most common benefits of using cordyceps reported by users were increased physical and mental energy and improved mood. Many mentioned increased aerobic capacity and found it easier to breathe during cardio workouts.
Some users reported improved sleep, libido, and immune system function. Others reported no effects.
Negative effects were rarely reported and stopped with discontinued use. These included upset stomach, increased anger, irritability, aggression, and anxiety.
Effects generally seem to last with continued use and tolerance does seem to be an issue according to user reviews.
C. sinensis is a parasitic fungus that is highly valued in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine systems. Traditional uses for the fungus include increasing energy and reducing fatigue, boosting fertility and libido, and treating a wide range of diseases including colds, diabetes, and cancer. The fungus is only found on the Tibetan plateau and research has uncovered many active components including cordycepin, cordycepic acid, and polysaccharides. Because wild C. sinensis is scarce and hard to produce on a large enough scale to meet demand, artificial cultivation methods using liquid fermentation or solid grain mediums are used. Clinical research suggests that Cordyceps may be effective in improving outcomes and organ function in kidney transplant patients, helping improve liver and lung function, helping with autoimmune thyroid diseases, and improving aerobic exercise capacity. While it shows strong anti-cancer effects in animals, it may also increase prostate growth by stimulating testosterone production. Despite centuries of use as well as promising animal and cell studies, clinical trials are still lacking.