Life can be a challenge, especially in today’s society of constantly coming and going. We are all often burning the candle at both ends, which creates not just fatigue, but increased stress, and a loss of overall resistance in health. It is not a surprise that a high percentage of us succumb to the common cold, diabetes, cognitive issues, chronic fatigue and a loss of zeal for life. Cordyceps sinensis is one of those herbs, traditionally revered in Chinese Medicine as often the ‘cure all’ for many of our health complaints, serving as a primary adaptogen. It’s potency and respect in Chinese medicine has earned it many names, and with that a high cost, but is Cordyceps sinensis what they have claimed it to be?
In 2005, just prior to my own cancer diagnosis, I was run down, beat-up, and overall exhausted with life. My clients had me coming and going at all hours, which was taking a toll on my health. It was not a surprise, at least looking back, to see how my body deteriorated as a result, creating the open door for cancer development. In my recovery process, I began to truly seek answers, solutions, and try to understand why this happened to me and us, as a general population. A few things became obvious and even 14 years later, I am just beginning to truly understand.
One of the first things I became aware of was medicinal mushrooms and their power, not just in folklore and ancient arts of medicine, but in real-time research. A researcher in the world of mushrooms became a good friend, and we began to talk. At his recommendation, I put Cordyceps sinensis into my recovery process, using this herb alone, as a solo-therapy, to aid in my recovery.
What happened? I was 36-years-old at the time, a cancer patient, run down and felt like I was 80. Within a few days of supplementing with Cordyceps sinensis, I began to feel my body rebounding. I was sleeping better, waking well rested in the morning, and had more energy to complete my day. Over the next few weeks, I gained more strength, more zeal for my life, and my body was healing. I credit Cordyceps sinensis as a major part of my cancer recovery, along with a few other specific herbs, and dietary changes. In addition, due to experiencing the effects of Cordyceps sinensis in my own body, my mindset changed. I realized that not only was I capable of a recovery, using knowledge that I had acquired, but my approach as a doctor changed towards my patients.
Cordyceps and Historical Usage for Health
In September 1993, there was marked controversy involving the National Games in China. It was noted that in a single week, several women’s world track records were broken, involving some female Chinese athletes. Of course, the initial thoughts revolved around drug use, doping, or other methods of illegal performance enhancement, but all blood and urine tests on these female athletes were negative. It was soon revealed that the athlete’s were using a medicinal mushroom by the name of Cordyceps sinensis, which was a part of their daily regimen. (1)
The medicinal wonders of Cordyceps sinensis have been known in China for over a thousand years, being viewed as an herb, a mushroom, which can enhance energy and vitality. Legend has it that herdsmen in Tibet and Nepal noticed that their animals consumed some strange plant high in the mountains which resulted in increased energy and endurance, despite the high elevations. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the animals in the herd were consuming Cordyceps, which soon became a part of the herdsmen’s daily regimens. In further time, Cordyceps became well revered by the Chinese Emperor, and it became law that all harvested Cordyceps must be turned over to his empire. (1)
In the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Cordyceps is highly revered for its ability to impact health, energy, stamina, and vitality. Cordyceps sinensis (Dong Chong Xia Cao) is viewed as a sweet and warm herb, targeting the lung and kidney. Going further, Cordyceps is viewed as having these therapeutic actions in Chinese medicine.
- Tonifies Kidney Yang and Augments Jing
- Tonifies the Lung, Stops bleeding and Dissolves Phlegm
In Chinese medicine, given the 5-organ system, the kidneys are one of main importance, housing the Yin and the Yang within the body, and aiding in the generation of energy or Qi. The kidneys are not only involved in urine production and waste removal from the body, but serve as a vital source of overall energy, vitality, and sexual energy within the body as they are linked to the genital organs in both men and women.
As we age, and due to lifestyle factors, our kidneys tend to suffer immensely, draining them over time. This kidney drain can impact the Yin or Yang component, the Jing, or sometimes all three. It is not just a fact of aging and time, but our lifestyle, our work habits, our stress, and our diet impact and accelerate this process. As our kidneys are drained of their energy, our bodies then manifest clinical signs such as fatigue, urinary and kidney issues, immune compromise, infections, back pain, weakness, reduced sexual drive, low energy, impotence, and even cognitive impairment.
Given the extreme importance of the kidneys in the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it becomes obvious why ‘tonification’ or support of this organ was so well revered and respected. Cordyceps sinensis was just one of many herbs used for this purpose, which resulted in improvement in a variety of health complaints and enhanced energy for many people in the past and current.
Cordyceps sinensis and Modern Research
Cordyceps sinensis is not actually a mushroom by traditional sense, but is produced as a combination of a decaying caterpillar and a fungus. It is about a symbiotic relationship between the two which then produces the vital substance which is often referred to as the mushroom.
Traditional healers in ancient times viewed Cordyceps as a cure for ‘all-illnesses’, a tonic and supportive agent to help reinvigorate the body. They claimed it increased energy, appetite, libido, stamina, endurance, and sleeping patterns. It was consumed daily by both genders to increase sexual energy and desire. Cordyceps was also used traditionally for many health ailments including diabetes, wasting disease, cancer, bronchitis, asthma, erectile dysfunction, prostate concerns, and liver ailments. (2)
Cordyceps sinensis is viewed as being a primary adaptogen, helping the body to recover from illness and stress, rejuvenating energy and vitality. This adaptogenic property is what then benefits the body and recovery from illness, helping to restore balance and the original state of health.
In evaluating research, the pharmacological benefits to Cordyceps sinensis appear to revolve around the active polysaccharides, including beta-glucans, nucleosides, cordycepin, and even cyclosporine-like metabolites found within the mushroom. It has been well researched, demonstrating a range of biological effects on many organ systems within the body, including the immune response, sexual function, performance, and cancer. (2) Cordyceps has also demonstrated marked potential with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antioxidant, and anti-microbial properties. (3)
- Literature indicates that Cordyceps enhances cellular energy in the form of ATP (3)
- Impacts cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, stabilizing abnormal heart rhythms, improving cardiac output/contractility, lower blood thickness or viscosity and impact myocardial infarctions. (3)
- Demonstrated to have the ability to improve memory impairments and neuroprotection in cases of cerebral ischemia (4)
- Anti-cancer and anti-metastatic effects via Cordycepin (5)
- Impacts male reproduction and testosterone production (6)
- Demonstrates anti-stress and anti-fatigue properties (7)
Side Effects and Considerations for Cordyceps
In most research studies, supplementation with Cordyceps is well tolerated with side effects including dry mouth, nausea and diarrhea, which is not atypical for many mushrooms. However, when taking any supplement, it is wise to not just consider the research benefits, but more so the ‘energies and actions’ of the herb.
In the case of Cordyceps, there is much research on many health conditions from cardiovascular health to diabetes and even cancer, but this is not atypical for many other mushrooms. Cordyceps is viewed as a ‘kidney Yang tonic’, with Yang being the key word here. Yang tonics warm the body, so they have a heating component to them, but the ability to ‘warm’ the body can vary tremendously from one herb to the next. Some are just more potent than others. I, personally view Cordyceps as a mild Yang tonic, not too tremendously heating to the body, but slightly warming.
Each gender carries within them both Yin and Yang, but men are considered to be more Yang (hot) while women more Yin (cool). Both genders, men and women, can benefit from Cordyceps. Women can get too cool or cold, which contributes to fatigue, loss of sexual desire or energy, and indicates a need to tonify the Yang component. Likewise, men, due to lifestyle, stress, excess physical work and sexuality, can drain the Yang component, cooling them down too much and creating clinical problems.
The point to keep in mind is that balance between Yin and Yang is often the key to health, as viewed in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is possible to over consume, or over-tonify the Yang component in the body, which then results in effects such as irritability, burning sensations, dry mouth and heat in the head or even dry skin. These side effects are generally the result of a heightening of the Yang component and a relative decrease in the Yin. Hence, it is vital to take into consideration the entire picture of your supplement routine, making sure that herbs and foods are balanced. This approach can help to ensure a higher state of health and well-being.
If you are feeling run down, especially if experiencing some ‘cold’ symptoms in body temperature, Cordyceps sinensis may be worth while including into your daily regimen.
Formulas with Cordyceps sinensis:
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN
- Halpern, G. Healing Mushrooms, Square One Publishers, 2007
- Panda A, Swain K. Traditional Uses and Medicinal Potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim. J Ayurv Integ Med, 2011, Jan-Mar, Vol 2, Issue 1
- Tuli H et al. Pharmacological and Therapeutic Potential of Cordyceps with Special Reference to Cordycepin. 3 Biotech, 2014, 4:1-12
- Kim Y et al. Neuroprotective and therapeutic effect Cordyceps militaris on ischemia-induced neuronal death and cognitive impairment. Saudi J Biol Sci. 26 (2019) 1352-57
- Nakamura K et al. Anticancer and antimetastatic effects of Cordycepin, an active component of Cordyceps sinensis. J Pharm Sci. 127 (2015) 53-56
- Chen Y et al. Functional study of Cordyceps sinensis and Cordycepin in male reproduction; a review. J Food Drug. 25 (2017) 197-205
- Koh J et al. Antistress and antifatigue effect of the hot-water fraction from mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 2003. 26(5) 691-94