Cordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungi that grows on the larvae of insects.
When these fungi attack their host, they replace its tissue and sprout long, slender stems that grow outside the host’s body.
The remains of the insect and fungi have been hand-collected, dried, and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and low sex drive.
Supplements and products containing cordyceps extract have become increasingly popular due to their many purported health benefits.
Of the more than 400 species of cordyceps discovered, two have become the focus of health research: Cordyceps Sinensis and Cordyceps Militaris.
However, much of this research is limited to animal or lab studies, so health experts currently can’t conclude their effects on people.
However, their potential health benefits are promising.
This article highlights 6 potential benefits of cordyceps, based on science.
1. Cordyceps may boost exercise performance
Cordyceps are thought to increase the body’s production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for delivering energy to the muscles.
This may improve the way your body uses oxygen, especially during exercise.
In one study, researchers tested their effects on exercise capacity in 30 healthy older adults using a stationary bike. Participants received either 3 grams per day of a synthetic strain of cordyceps called CS-4 or a placebo pill for six weeks.
By the end of the study, VO2 max had increased by 7% in participants who had taken CS-4, while participants given the placebo pill showed no change.
VO2 max is a measurement used to determine fitness level.
In a similar study, 20 healthy older adults received either 1 gram of CS-4 or a placebo pill for 12 weeks.
While researchers found no change in VO2 max in either group, participants given CS-4 improved other measures of exercise performance.
One study also tested the effects of a cordyceps-containing mushroom blend on exercise performance in younger adults.
After three weeks, participants’ VO2 max had increased by 11%, compared to a placebo.
However, the current research suggests cordyceps are not effective at improving exercise performance in trained athletes.
Summary: Cordyceps has been shown to improve measures of exercise performance in older and younger adults, but not in well-trained athletes.
2. Anti-aging properties of cordyceps
The elderly have traditionally used cordyceps to reduce fatigue and boost strength and sex drive.
Researchers believe their antioxidant content may explain their anti-aging potential.
Several studies have found that cordyceps increase antioxidants in aged mice, helping improve memory and sexual function.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight cell damage by neutralizing free radicals, which can otherwise contribute to disease and aging.
One study found that mice that were given cordyceps lived several months longer than mice given a placebo.
Another study found that cordyceps extended the lives of fruit flies, further supporting the belief that they have anti-aging benefits.
However, it’s unknown if cordyceps have these same anti-aging benefits in humans.
Summary: Research in mice suggests cordyceps have anti-aging properties. While these findings are promising, it’s unknown whether they apply to humans.
3. Cordyceps may have potential anti-tumor effects
Cordyceps’ potential to slow the growth of tumors has generated significant interest in recent years.
Researchers believe the fungi may exert anti-tumor effects in several ways.
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In test-tube studies, cordyceps have been shown to inhibit the growth of many types of human cancer cells, including lung, colon, skin, and liver cancers.
Studies in mice have also shown that cordyceps have anti-tumor effects on lymphoma, melanoma, and lung cancer.
Cordyceps may also reverse the side effects associated with many forms of cancer therapy. One of these side effects is leukopenia.
Not to be confused with the cancer leukemia, leukopenia is a condition in which the number of white blood cells (leukocytes) decreases, lowering the body’s defenses and increasing the risk of infection.
One study tested the effects of cordyceps on mice that developed leukopenia after radiation and treatments with Taxol, a common chemotherapy drug.
Interestingly, cordyceps reversed the leukopenia. These results suggest the fungi may help reduce complications associated with some cancer treatments.
However, it’s important to note that these studies were performed in animals and test tubes, not humans.
The effects of cordyceps on leukopenia and tumor growth in humans are unknown, so health experts can’t currently conclude.
Summary: Test-tube and animal studies suggest cordyceps may have the potential to treat cancer, as well as some side effects of cancer treatments. However, these effects have not been shown in humans, and more research is needed.
4. Cordyceps may help manage type 2 diabetes
Cordyceps contains a special type of sugar that may help treat diabetes.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body either does not produce or respond to the hormone insulin, which normally transports the sugar glucose into your cells for energy.
When your body does not produce enough insulin or respond well to it, glucose cannot enter the cells, so it stays in the blood. Over time, having too much glucose in the blood can cause serious health problems.
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Therefore, people with diabetes need to make sure their blood sugar levels are well controlled.
Interestingly, cordyceps may keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range by mimicking the action of insulin.
In several studies in diabetic mice, cordyceps have been shown to decrease blood sugar levels.
Some evidence suggests that they may also protect against kidney disease, a common complication of diabetes.
In a review of 22 studies including 1,746 people with chronic kidney disease, those who took cordyceps supplements experienced improved kidney function.
However, these results aren’t conclusive. The authors of the review stated that many of the studies were of low quality. Therefore, no conclusions could be made about the effects of cordyceps on kidney function in humans with chronic kidney disease.
Summary: Chronically elevated blood sugar levels are common in people with uncontrolled diabetes and can have serious health effects. Research in animals suggests cordyceps may have potential as a diabetes treatment.
5. Cordyceps may benefit heart health
As research emerges on the effects of cordyceps on heart health, the benefits of the fungi are becoming increasingly apparent.
Cordyceps are approved in China for the treatment of arrhythmia, a condition in which the heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular.
A study found that cordyceps significantly reduced heart injuries in rats with chronic kidney disease. Injuries to the heart from chronic kidney disease are thought to increase the risk of heart failure, so reducing these injuries may help avoid this outcome.
The researchers attributed these findings to the adenosine content of cordyceps. Adenosine is a naturally occurring compound that has heart-protective effects.
Cordyceps may also have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
Animal research has shown that cordyceps decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol.
LDL can raise your risk of heart disease by leading to the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.
Similarly, cordyceps have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels in mice.
Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. High levels are linked to a greater risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether cordyceps benefit heart health in humans.
Summary: Cordyceps may benefit heart health by helping prevent arrhythmias and lowering levels of triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol.
6. Cordyceps may help fight inflammation
Cordyceps is said to help fight inflammation in the body.
Although some inflammation is good, too much can lead to diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Research has shown that when human cells are exposed to cordyceps, special proteins that increase inflammation in the body become suppressed.
Thanks to these potential effects, researchers believe cordyceps may serve as a useful anti-inflammatory supplement or drug.
Cordyceps have been shown to reduce inflammation in the airways of mice, making them a potential therapy for asthma. However, the fungi appear to be less effective than commonly prescribed drugs used to provide relief for inflamed areas of the body.
Cordyceps may also have topical uses. One study found it reduced skin inflammation when applied topically in mice, further demonstrating its anti-inflammatory properties.
The potential inflammation-fighting properties of cordyceps have yet to be observed in humans.
Summary: Research suggests cordyceps decrease inflammatory markers in animals. However, their effects on inflammation in humans remain unknown.
Taking cordyceps supplements
Cordyceps Sinensis is difficult to harvest and carries a price tag of more than $9000 per pound.
For this reason, the majority of cordyceps supplements contain a synthetically grown version called cordyceps CS-4.
To ensure you buy high-quality cordyceps supplements, look for brands that carry the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International (NSF) seal.
These are third-party organizations that ensure supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label, without impurities.
Due to limited research in humans, there is no consensus on dosages.
The dosage commonly used in human research is 1,000–3,000 mg per day. This range is not associated with side effects and has been found to have certain health benefits.
Side effects and safety
No studies have yet examined the safety of cordyceps in humans.
However, a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine suggests they are nontoxic.
The Chinese government approved cordyceps CS-4 for use in hospitals and recognizes it as a safe, natural drug.
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Summary: Cordyceps supplements are grown in labs due to the high costs of wild-harvested Cordyceps Sinensis. Dosages in humans range from 1,000–3000 mg. There are currently no studies on their safety in humans.
Cordyceps are well known in Traditional Chinese Medicine and have been used for centuries to treat many health ailments.
Though the fungi show promise in many areas, there’s little research on their effects in humans. Thus, more research is needed before experts can make any recommendations.
Animal and lab studies suggest cordyceps have the potential to improve heart health and fight inflammation, cancer, diabetes, and aging. However, many of these studies are of poor quality, and the results cannot be extended to humans.
Nevertheless, there have been human studies on cordyceps’ effects on exercise performance. The fungi have been found to potentially boost energy and oxygen use during exercise.
Currently, there is no consensus on the dosage people should take to reap its potential health benefits, or how safe it is.
If you choose to take cordyceps supplements, make sure they’ve been tested by a third-party organization for purity and quality.
Only time will tell if the health benefits of cordyceps observed in animal and laboratory studies apply to humans.