The cordyceps fungus is said to have the power to fix a host of health problems from muscle fatigue to diabetes. But are the claims too good to be true?
A stronger immune system, more energy, improved endurance, and better stamina … one ingredient promises all of that. Whether it’s as an extract, a pill, or powdered into your coffee, the cordyceps fungus is promoted as a one-stop-shop to cure what ails you. Known as Himalayan Gold because it is often farmed in the Himalayan plateaus, cordyceps has long been used in ancient Chinese and Tibetan medicine for curing diarrhea, headache, cough, rheumatism, liver disease, kidney disease, and much more. But is it too good to be true?
What is Cordyceps?
As we discussed in a previous episode, the cordyceps fungus grows like a parasite out of the brains of insects and spiders. The fungus takes over the bodies and brains of its victims forcing their zombified bodies to permanently relocate to the trees and low-lying jungle plants where the conditions are ideal for the fungus to thrive.
The cordyceps fungus takes over the bodies and brains of its victims forcing their zombified bodies to permanently relocate to the trees and low-lying jungle plants where the conditions are ideal for the fungus to thrive.
There are around 400 different species of cordyceps and many different biologically active compounds, but those most commonly used in medicine tend to be cordyceps sinesis and cordyceps militaris. A jar of 90 capsules will run you around $20, but if you want your dose straight from the source, a single dried wild Himalyana cordyceps sinsensis can cost $10 or more.
Cordyceps May Fight Muscle Fatigue
The species cordyceps militaris has been found to have anti-fatigue effects in mice. In one study, mice were given forced swimming and forced running tests. The mice treated with cordyceps had increased ATP levels. (ATP, which stands for adenosine triphosphate, is a chemical that provides energy to our cells for things like muscle contraction.) The treated mice also had lower levels of lactic acid relative to untreated mice. But more research is needed to understand whether humans would see similar results.
Multiple studies involving average, non-athletes have shown a slight increase in VO2 max for participants taking cordyceps sinesis and cordyceps miliatris supplements over those taking a placebo pill. A person’s VO2 max is a measure of how fast the body delivers oxygen to the muscles so that the muscles can use that oxygen to produce energy. Elite runners, for example, have almost double the VO2 max of an average person.
Cordyceps May Have an Antiaging Effect
Again, research in this area used mice rather than humans. In mice tested for learning and memory, studies have shown that taking extracts of cordyceps sinesis and cordyceps militaris improved brain function. It also boosted antioxidative enzyme activity which helps combat the cell damage that generally comes with age. The same extract was found to improve the sexual function in castrated rats and gives you an idea of how the fungus also gets the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.”
Cordyceps May Help with the Management of Type 2 Diabetes
For diabetics, the body has trouble making or using insulin, which results in excess sugar in the blood. That excess blood sugar can cause significant health problems. So, those with diabetes have to carefully monitor their blood sugar levels, often with the help of additional insulin. Several studies—again, in mice—have shown that taking cordyceps supplements effectively plays the role of that extra insulin shot by mimicking insulin to the decrease the blood sugar levels. Some of the rats even showed signs of improved kidney function, an issue that often accompanies diabetes.
Several studies—again, in mice—have shown that taking cordyceps supplements effectively plays the role of that extra insulin shot by mimicking insulin to the decrease the blood sugar levels.
Cordyceps May Help Boost the Immune System
In studies of cell cultures—think cells in dishes rather than in bodies—cordyceps extracts have been shown to increase proinflammatory cytokines. These molecules are excreted from immune cells like T cells and macrophages to regulate inflammatory reactions, which in turn aids in boosting the immune system. The potential revealed by these studies not only suggests an ability to combat an existing disease, but also to enhance the body’s innate ability to resist new diseases.
Because most of the clinical studies on the health benefits of cordyceps focused on mice and rats, whether or not these benefits extend to humans remains a big question mark. But centuries of Chinese medicine, as well as recent anecdotal evidence, strongly suggest there is a lot of potential in these fungal stalks. The small number of human-based studies that exist are promising. As is true for other types of natural medicines that have been used over many years without clinical trials to back them up (like breastmilk), just because concrete evidence does not yet exist doesn’t mean it’s not out there.
Eating a zombie ant fungus for better health may sound bizarre, but using a fungus to fix us is not that unusual.
Eating a zombie ant fungus for better health may sound bizarre, but using a fungus to fix us is not that unusual. After all, we rely on penicillin, which is derived from the fungal species penicillium, as a powerful antibiotic. There is also growing clinical evidence that cordyceps may have the potential to assist in drug development for fighting things like tuberculosis and even cancer cells.
If you are looking to feel less tired or have more energy, adding a little mushroom to your coffee probably won’t hurt. They boast their own nutritional value as they are rich in amino acids, and vitamins like B1, B2, B12, and K. As with all forms of medical treatment, if you’re looking to address something more serious, its best to consult with a physician.
GET MORE Ask Science
You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image courtesy of shutterstock.