Cordyceps sinensis

CordycepsCordyceps is in the same class of tonics as the popular herb, ginseng. It was brought to the attention of the west in 1993 when the Chinese women’s track team beat nine world’s records. Their secret was cordyceps, a very unusual remedy from traditional Chinese medicine.

Cordyceps is a fungus that grows on the larvae of a caterpillar. While the caterpillar is hibernating underground, the fungus invades the organism and consumes the bug. The result is a caterpillar shaped mushroom. In the spring, it puts up a stem-like mushroom, which gives the herb its Chinese name—dong chong xia cao. Literally translated this means, “winter bug, summer grass.”

I took the photo that accompanies this article on my 2006 trip to China. When I saw the herb in the pharmacy I had to take a picture. The Chinese pharmacist knew a little English and when I pointed to the herb and told him, “winter worm, summer grass,” his face lit up.  You can see the caterpillar shape of the mushrooms in the photo.

Wild cordyceps grows only in high altitude environments in southwestern China, Nepal and Tibet. It also grows in isolated localities in Norway, Finland and Sweden. The wildcrafted herb is rare and expensive, but a modern process is being used to grow the fungus in a commercial manner. This makes the supplement more affordable and available.

Cordyceps is an energy tonic in Chinese medicine and has been used for about 1,500 years. It enhances both the yin and the yang energy in the body and it supports the Chinese kidney (water) and lung (metal) energy. 

The Chinese kidney system includes some aspects of adrenal function, because it relates to basic energy and stamina. There is also an aspect of reproductive function in the Chinese kidney energy system. Cordyceps helps in all these areas. It increases energy, improves stamina and can overcome sexual dysfunction. 

In one study using mice, the mice who were given cordyceps tea were able to increase their swimming time from 75 to 90 minutes. Cordyceps also reduced levels of toxic exercise waste products in the body.

Cordyceps stimulated testosterone production in laboratory animals and increased a type of estrogen essential to fertility in another study. This correlates with its Chinese reputation as a tonic for sexual weakness and reduced libido.

The lung or metal energy in the Chinese system relates to the immune function in Western medicine. It enhances the ability of the body to prevent and fight infection. It is very helpful for people who have weak lungs and are constantly getting sick. 

One benefit of cordyceps to the respiratory system is its ability to reduce inflammation in the lungs. This makes it beneficial in helping asthma, a use that has been confirmed with animal studies. It has also been beneficial for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Improvements in symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, appetite and energy have been reported.

Cordyceps is a good remedy for the elderly. Doses of just 3 grams per day (about 6 capsules) have resulted in improvements in energy, libido, memory and tolerance to cold, and reductions in dizziness, cold intolerance, tinnitus and frequent nighttime urination.

Another area where cordyceps offers potential health benefits is the cardiovascular system. It has antioxidant and free radical scavenging effects and has been shown to be anti-inflammatory. In a Korean study, it lowered cholesterol in animals. It has also lowered blood pressure in rats. In another study a dose of 3-4 grams proved beneficial for 64 patients with chronic heart disease.

One study showed cordyceps helpful for animals with systemic lupus. Another animal study suggested cordyceps could inhibit liver fibrosis. It is beneficial for Hepatitis B patients. It appears to have a hepato-protective effect and to improve lymphatic and kidney function.

Cordyceps may also lower blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity. It may also enhance chemotherapy and be a beneficial remedy in some types of cancer. It reduces blood vessel growth to the tumors.

I personally find cordyceps to be a very valuable remedy for people with weak lungs. In the dry desert area where I live in St. George, it is a good remedy for lung conditions in the cool, dry winter weather.  I also find it very useful for general immune weakenss.

Recommended Use: A typical dose for enhancing respiratory or immune function would be 2-3 capsules three times daily. It also works well in combination with other immune-enhancing herbs and is a major ingredient in Immune Stimulator. Cordyceps appears to be safe; there are no known side-effects or drug interactions. 

Additional References

Secrets of Chinese Herbs by K.P. Khalsa and Steven Horne

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