Top 11 Health Benefits of Cordyceps Mushroom
Medicinal mushrooms have been sweeping the health and wellness industry in a storm of adaptogenic and immune boosting awesomeness. I believe it’s always a good idea to have knowledge before undertaking the addition to any functional food to your repertoire, which is why today we’re going to focus on a slightly less well known functional mushroom: cordyceps.
You’re likely relatively familiar with the benefits of reishi and chaga mushrooms as they tend to be the focus of more articles and healing elixirs.
However, cordyceps mushroom has a lot of powerful health benefits like:
- improving energy levels
- balancing blood sugar
- supporting athletic performance
- supporting sexual function
With this in mind, it might deserve pride of place in your kitchen cabinet.
History & Background of Cordyceps Mushroom
Something new that I learned about cordyceps in the process of researching this article is that it is actually a combination of fungus… and CATERPILLAR!
Yes, that’s right.
Cordyceps is a fungus that grows out of the larval body of an insect at altitudes about 3800m to create a powerfully healing medicinal mushroom (though not technically a mushroom, most practitioners classify it under that heading). Mother Nature is truly incredible!
It is believed that medicinal mushrooms, such as cordyceps, have been used in traditional healing and spiritual practices since approximately 5000BC.
Cordyceps (both the sinensis and militaris strains) itself has been mentioned in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Tibetan healing textbooks for centuries, if not millennia.
Often used as an all over curative medicine due to claims that it improves energy, appetite, stamina, libido, endurance, and sleeping patterns, this study(1) found that traditional and folk healers used cordyceps mushroom to treat at least 21 different ailments.
While we’re still uncovering all the constituents and beneficial properties of cordyceps, there is a lot of research supporting its usage over the years.
Most studies have found that cordyceps mushroom benefits are primarily due to bioactive polysaccharides, modified nucleosides, and cyclosporine like metabolites. While it’s not totally important for us lay-folk to understand the specific interactions and mechanisms of every component, it is nice to see science digging into traditional folk medicines and finding that the cultural knowledge was based upon powerful plant constituents.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the health benefits of cordyceps mushrooms that have been studied in the scientific literature.
Top 11 Benefits of Cordyceps
1. Supports Chronic Kidney Disease
One of the most well-researched areas of support and nourishment for cordyceps is its role in supporting kidney health, especially in cases of chronic kidney disease.
The kidneys play a crucial role in detoxification and elimination, filtering the equivalent of roughly 180 liters of blood per day. With such a heavy task load, giving your kidneys as much support as possible so that they can properly do their job is a great way to sustain lasting health.
Studies have shown that not only does cordyceps sinensis improve renal and immune function in those with chronic renal failure,(2) it may also help reduce the dosage of anti-rejection drugs in those undergoing kidney transplants.(3) It also shows promise in the treatment and prevention of renal fibrosis.(4)
So, if your kidneys are an area in your body that need some extra love and support it might be worth talking to your doctor or qualified healthcare practitioner about the role cordyceps mushrooms may play in your healing!
2. Improve Integrity of the Digestive Tract
You’ve likely heard or read about leaky gut syndrome (referred to as intestinal permeability) in the literature and how many researchers are pointing to its role in the development of chronic illnesses, including autoimmune diseases.
Leaky gut happens when the barrier between the small intestine and the inside of your body becomes compromised and large, undigested food particles, toxins, bacteria, fungi, and yeasts, are able to pass through unchecked, oftentimes inciting an immune response.
Since roughly 70% of the immune system resides in and around the digestive tract, if it is constantly on high alert due to foreign proteins and toxins, it can have a huge impact on your energy, mental health, skin health, and hormone balance. This is why addressing leaky gut is the first step I always take in any of my wellness plans.
Research shows that cordyceps sinensis demonstrates a gut-barrier protection effect in those with endotoxin induced sepsis.(5) Since most of us aren’t dealing with such an intense level of digestive illness, the effects of cordyceps mushroom may help protect and nourish a healthy intestinal wall in addition to other gut healing activities.
3. Boosts Energy Levels
I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who wouldn’t be happy with a little more energy to spread throughout his or her day.
With so many demands on our time, energy, and mental focus its no wonder most of us are wandering around daydreaming about an extra hour (or five!) of sleep on a regular basis.
While there are some great steps you can take with your diet, sleep hygiene, and exercise to help naturally boost your energy, sometimes when you’re coming from a place of severe deficiency it can be nice to have a herbal helper speed things along.
Both cordyceps militaris and sinensis have demonstrated promise in reducing physical fatigue, possibly by increasing your natural production of master antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione.(6)(7)(8)
4. Stress Management
Stress. It may be one of your constant companions, slowly wreaking havoc on everything from digestion to skin health to heart function. You may have already read my article on the Top 11 Adaptogens to Help the Body Cope With Stress, in which cordyceps mushroom makes an appearance.
This study(9) looked at the effect supplementing with cordyceps sinensis had on weight measurements of adrenal glands (our master stress hormone regulators!), thyroid, spleen, and thymus in stressed out animal models.
Changes in weight are often markers of an index of stress and this study found that not only was there no change, but that the animals improved their exercise capacity and lessened fatigue. Pretty impressive!
5. Anti-Cancer and Anti-Tumor Activity
In this day and age you’re hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t experienced cancer in some form either personally or within their family. While this disease is incredibly complex and has its roots in everything from environment to genetics, I am always a big fan of stacking the deck in my favor with foods, herbs, and lifestyle practices that have been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties.
This doesn’t guarantee I’ll never get sick, but it does ensure me I’m doing everything within my power to stay well, which is incredibly empowering!
Many medicinal mushrooms have been studied for their anti-cancer and anti-tumor activity and cordyceps militaris and sinensis are no exceptions!
This study showed cordyceps sinensis’s efficacy in down-regulating metastasis-related cytokines in breast cancer, thereby reducing the likelihood of developing metastatic breast cancer.(10)
Since breast cancer is such a common diagnosis in women, another study looked at the effect of an extract from cordyceps sinensis, cordycepin, and found that “exerted cytotoxicity in [breast cancer] cells confirmed by reduced cell viability, inhibition of cell proliferation, enhanced lactate dehydrogenase release and reactive oxygen species accumulation, induced mitochondrial dysfunction and nuclear apoptosis in human breast cancer cells.”(11)
When it comes to potential cancer treatment, cordyceps militaris also demonstrates anti-tumor effects in liver and breast cancer cells(12) and can control tumor cell proliferation and induce cancer cell apoptosis (programmed cell death).(13)
I like to take medicinal mushrooms as a preventative addition to my wellness routine, so if you have a strong family history of cancer, cordyceps may be the mushroom for you!
6. Helps Balance Blood Sugar
When I work with a client, the first place we usually start is by discussing the role of blood sugar balance in the maintenance of a healthy weight, stable energy, and the prevention of chronic illness.
If you are riding a daily blood sugar rollercoaster by eating or drinking too many refined carbohydrates or not balancing out healthy carbs with protein, fat, and fibre, then you could be setting yourself up for type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation, and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of symptoms associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes).
Luckily, there is a lot you can do nutritionally to support stable blood sugar and stay insulin sensitive. Cordyceps militaris and sinensis have both been shown to stimulate the release of insulin and down-regulate its metabolism to keep glucose levels stable.(14)(15)
If you’ve struggled with blood sugar levels in the past, then it might be worth discussing with your doctor whether cordyceps mushroom has a place in your wellness routine.
7. Liver Support
If you took a look inside your body you would be hard pressed to find an organ that works harder than the humble liver. I know it’s weird to have a favorite organ, but I would have to say that the liver ties with the adrenal glands when it comes to my all-time favorite endocrine organs!
Some estimates place the daily roles of the liver at upwards of 500 different tasks. The most well known are related to digestion and assimilation and the powerful detoxification pathways that help keep your body healthy and happy.
When it comes to liver health, providing all its required cofactors and nutrients through diet and smart supplementation can help alleviate the burden it faces every single day.
It should come as no surprise that cordyceps sinensis has some hepato-protective benefits to add to its impressive list of functions. This study found that it helped protect the liver from damage through mitochondrial support and the prevention of liver cell apoptosis.(16)
Cirrhosis, a serious disease of the liver, was responsible for over 1 million deaths world wide in 2010(17), a number that has been increasing since the 80s. A couple of studies have shown favorable results with cordyceps not only in the prevention of liver cirrhosis(18) but also within the potential reversal and amelioration of the disease!(19)
8. Boosts Exercise & Athletic Performance
As you’ve seen above, there are lots of promising studies on the impact of cordyceps mushroom (both sinensis and militaris) on fatigue and stress management, which often translates into improved athletic and exercise performance!
There are many ways this magical mushroom works to improve your exercise performance, but one of the most promising is that it actually increases cellular ATP (a molecule that stores and supplies energy within the cell), while decreasing the production of lactic acid and other reactive oxygen species that cause muscle fatigue.(22) Talk to a qualified healthcare practitioner to see if your athletic performance could benefit from the inclusion of cordyceps into your routine!
9. Powerful Anti-Inflammatory
As the research continues to dig into root causes, researchers are finding that many chronic diseases have underlying inflammation contributing to their progression. As with any illness, the mechanisms as always complex and you can rarely ever point to one singular thing and say “that’s why!”
However, something you can do is learn about some of the commonalities and impacts of diet and lifestyle on health outcomes and take steps to help reduce the burden on your body.
One great way to do so is to adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, which can include:
- going gluten-, dairy-, and sugar-free
- eating healthy amounts of omega-3 fats while lowering the amount of omega-6 fats in the diet
- exercising and managing stress
- getting adequate sleep and exposure to nature
- and finally incorporating targeted herbs that are known for their anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
10. Balance Immune Function
Having a robust and healthy immune system is the key to avoiding chronic illness and bouncing back quickly from colds and flus. Unfortunately, a lot of modern day stressors from poor diet, chronic stress, over-prescription of antibiotics, lack of sleep, and leaky gut, to name but a few, wreak havoc on your well-designed immune system.
When I work with clients we always start tackling a lot of these obstacles head on, but with so much stacked against you, it can be great to turn to some natural herbal remedies, specifically functional mushrooms, to help even the playing field.
In research studies both the cordyceps militaris and sinensis strains were shown to improve immune function by protecting the body against oxidative stress(27) and to harmonize the balance and effect of the TH1 and TH2 immune systems respectively.(28)
Since you don’t always want to stimulate the immune system, but give it the nutrients it needs to find its own balance, a wellness plan including cordyceps mushroom might be just the thing you need!\
11. Sexual Function
There’s something called the doctrine of signatures, which, in short, refers to the idea that foods that look like certain body parts are good for their health and vitality. For example avocados look like ovaries and are great for female hormone balance. Walnuts look like brains and contain the omega fats necessary for optimal brain function.
I think you might see where I’m going with this. If you Google a picture of cordyceps mushroom you will see that it is long and strong, which may be why it’s long been used to support sexual function and cure erectile dysfunction in China and Tibet. Animal studies on the same topic show promise in terms of its aphrodisiac, sexual function, and sperm production (amount and quality) properties.(29)(30)
How to Use Cordyceps Mushroom Daily
Now that you’re familiar with all the impressive benefits of cordyceps, you might be wondering how the heck to take it!
There are a couple of options depending on your preferences. My favorite way to take any medicinal mushroom is as an extract in a healing elixir such as this one. You can usually find a powdered extract that dissolves easily into water, allowing you to get creative with how you drink it every day.
Another great option is to pick up some capsules that contain a blend of several different types of mushroom so that you’re getting a wide spectrum of health benefits. This is the easiest way to take them as you just need a glass of water to wash them down.
Precautions and Contraindications of Cordyceps Mushroom
Because there is a lack of studies done on pregnant or breast-feeding women, it is always best to check with your doctor or other health care professional before taking a powerful herbal medicine such as cordyceps.
You also saw the powerful effect that cordyceps mushroom can have on the immune system, so if you have an autoimmune disease and are taking medications for it, ensure you talk to your doctor before incorporating cordyceps into your routine.
Otherwise, this mushroom has been shown to be quite safe for most populations. So if you’re dealing with any of the above issues chat with your trusted practitioner to see if medicinal mushrooms are right for you!