Cordyceps mushrooms are a popular ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine and have been used for centuries. But where do cordyceps mushrooms come from and what is their history? In this post, we'll explore the origins of cordyceps mushrooms and how they've been used throughout the years.
Did you know that Cordyceps, now a widely known superfood fungus, is also a highly regarded Chinese medicine mushroom?
It has been described as a mushroom with healing properties in the traditional books of Chinese and Tibetan medicine. What is interesting is that it is a rare combination of a caterpillar and a fungus and has been prized as medicine for centuries.
So let's delve deep into the Chinese medicinal mushroom cordyceps: what it is and what is known about it. We will also explore Cordyceps' traditional Chinese medicine usage and benefits.
Let’s start by understanding this mysterious fungus.
What Is Cordyceps, The Caterpillar Fungus?
Cordyceps in Chinese is known as Dong Chong Xia Cao, which literally translates to "winter bug, summer grass". It is an unusual, but beneficial medicinal mushroom that has long been regarded highly in the world of Chinese medicine. The benefits of cordyceps mushrooms are numerous, which is the reason the mushroom was highly prized in the traditional Chinese culture.
So what exactly is this mushroom? A fungus? A parasite?
Found in the Tibetan plateau, the Cordyceps mushroom is one of the world’s most valuable fungi. It parasitizes the larvae of ghost moths, a specific genus that is found in the Himalayas between the elevations of 3000 to 5000 meters.
The fruiting body produced is a valued herbal remedy and its demand has escalated in recent decades, even though it has long been a part of traditional Chinese medicine.
So what exactly happens here?
The fungus first infects the living caterpillar in the summer while they feed on plant roots as they are buried underground. It then grows in the body of the insect in the fall and winter, while slowly consuming them. Finally, the fungus kills and mummifies its host.
In the spring, when the overlying snow melts, the fungus forces its host towards the surface. A dark brown, spore-filled, stalk-like fruiting body then emerges from the corpse. This is a few centimeters long and stands upright. For this reason, it is locally known as “ yartsa gunbu”
The intact fungus-caterpillar body is then hand collected and harvested. The harvested cordyceps mushroom is highly valued as a medicine by herbalists.
In China, they say “those who buy it don’t eat it, and those who eat it don’t buy it.”. Even more, some say the Chinese medicine cordyceps is worth three times its weight in gold!
Well, we can't say this with absolute certainty, but we know that in Bhutan (one of the countries where the fungus is harvested), it accounts for a significant slice of the country’s gross domestic product.
Now let’s go back to the roots of this mushroom!
Cordyceps Chinese Herbal Medicine: History
Cordyceps sinensis has been officially recorded as a herbal drug in Chinese pharmacopeia(1) since 1964. But, its use dates long back to traditional Chinese medicine.
Cordceps is one of the longest used medicinal herbs in the Asian cultures, with its benefits ranging from anti aging properties and the treatment of cancer cells to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and the ability to treat cure or prevent diseases often caused by inflammation.
Research findings suggest that the use of caterpillar fungus as a folk medicine originated in Nepal and Tibet before moving to south western China. The oldest known document mentioning its usage is “Man ngag bye ba ring bsrel”(2) or "Instructions on a Myriad of Medicines", which was written in the 15th century. Here, the mushroom has been described as an aphrodisiac.
In traditional Chinese medicine, C. sinensis was first mentioned(3) in 1694. However, the fungus was put into the global spotlight much later.
In September of 1993, Chinese track and field athletes smashed several world records(4), a feat which was attributed to the consumption of the caterpillar fungus. This unearthed the fungus, catapulting it into a valuable commodity.
Now, you may come across queries like is Cordyceps a yin or yang?
Cordyceps is regarded as a tonifying herb that is found to possess both(5) 'Yin-nourishing' and 'Yang-invigorating' activities, in Chinese medicine.
Some say the mushroom has an excellent balance of both yin and yang because it is composed of both an animal and a vegetable.
Today, cordyceps is not just used in traditional Chinese homes. The mushroom has demonstrated its ability to promote better health and has been approved by the food and drug administration for use as a dietary supplement in western medicine.
In the following section, we will take a deeper look at some of the reasons cordyceps use is becoming more and more popular in western medicine—however, we will base our argument on how the mushroom was used as a natural product in traditional Chinese homes.
Cordyceps Benefits Chinese Medicine
Cordyceps mushrooms have occupied a place of high status in Chinese medicine, thanks to their health benefits.
For centuries, it has been thought that the mushroom can strengthen the kidneys(6) and lungs. This means that the mushroom had beneficial effects on people with respiratory problems. It was also believed that the mushroom improved a person’s essential vitality. The mushroom is one of the most commonly used ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of people with chronic kidney disease(7).
Even the traditional healers of North India recommend the mushroom to be used as a tonic for all illnesses(8). They recommend using the fungus as it increases endurance, stamina, libido, and sleeping patterns.
Today through studies, researchers found that the mushroom is known for its anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-metastatic, anti-oxidant, insecticidal, anti-microbial, fat and sugar lowering, anti-aging effects as well as for its protective actions on the nervous system and kidney. The mushroom also helps with blood circulation and maintains its reputation as a kidney yang as its anti inflammatory properties allow it to reduce the risk of kidney damage.
After years of scientific research(9), these benefits have been attributed to bioactive compounds like cordycepin, ergosterol, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and peptides containing α-aminoisobutyric acid.
Below, we will take a deeper look at some of the uses that cordyceps has been put to in Chinese history—we will look at modern research studies to verify whether cordyceps products indeed offer these benefits to modern humans:
1. Cordyceps Has Been Used to Boost Exercise Performance
One of the main reasons people used Cordyceps in Chinese medicine is to boost their exercise performance. Cordyceps pre-workout benefits gained world attention in 1993 when Chinese female runners achieved records in the 10,000 m, 3,000 m, and 1,500 m events. The women's coach attributed the team's performance and advanced function on the running tracks to a diet that contains cordyceps.
A research study conducted in 2010(10) to analyze the impact of cordyceps sinensis on fatigue and performance during exercise proved that supplementation with CS-4 (cordyceps sinenses) leads to improved wellness and better performance in older adults.
2. Chinese Used Cordyceps for Asthma
One of the best herbs when it comes to generating positive results and effect for patients with lung issues, cordyceps sinensis is one of the best remedies for asthma conditions. Chinese researchers conducted a study(11) between 2014 and 2015 to determine whether the mushroom was effective in the treatment of asthma infection. The study was conducted at Xuanwu Hospital.
The enrolled study subjects were at least 18 years old and were diagnosed with severe or moderate asthma whose symptoms included fixed airflow obstruction.
The research study concluded that the cordyceps sinensis mushroom species reduced asthma symptoms, as well as the frequency and intensity of asthma attacks, while also considerably lessening inflammation brought on by asthma during the 3-month intervention period, as seen by a decline in the expression of inflammatory biomarkers.
These recent discoveries offer important information about the use of Cordyceps sinensis in treating asthma in human populations.
3. Traditional Chinese Medicine Used Cordyceps to Improve Sexual Function
In the modern world, cordyceps is known to offer libido benefits. These benefits are a result of a combination of factors. To begin with, like Chaga mushroom offers blood pressure benefits, cordyceps also aids in the treatment of high blood pressure—high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is one of the leading causes of poor sexual health.
Like Lion's mane mushroom offers testosterone benefits, Cordyceps is also known to help with boosting testosterone levels. When people use cordyceps and Lion's mane, they enjoy higher testosterone levels, resulting in improved sexual health.
To verify whether Cordyceps was effective in treating libido problems in the traditional Chinese population, researchers conducted a study on Chinese participants in Huashan hospital, Chinghai, China. In the study, the effects of cordyceps on 286 impotent males were examined. 40 days of taking 1gram of cordyceps, three times a day, led to an improvement in sexual performance and sex life for 183 of the patients.
The evidence from this research literature showed that the mushroom is effective in helping any patient dealing with libido problems.
4. Traditional Chinese Medicine Used Cordyceps for Diabetes
Diabetes is a common health condition whose rate of prevalence is growing extremely quickly in different parts of the world. The condition carries a range of long-term negative effects, including decreasing kidney function, neuropathy, and much more. However, as Chaga mushroom helps with diabetes, cordyceps also helps with the treatment of diabetes.
To ascertain that Cordyceps mushroom was able to benefit the Chinese population when it comes to the treatment of diabetes, Chinese researchers did a study in 2021(12). The research authors concluded that cordyceps sinenses or militaris carry beneficial impacts on diabetes.
They suggested that the mushroom can be used as one of the diabetes treatment therapies although the patient may still need to visit a doctor so that they can combine cordyceps with other treatment options.
5. Traditional Chinese Medicine Has Used Cordyceps in the Treatment of Cancer
In addition to offering benefits on heart health, fixing immunodeficiency, preventing rheumatoid arthritis, and acting as a prevention measure for osteoporosis, research studies show that Cordyceps also offers cancer benefits. The mushroom has been doing this for hundreds of years in the Chinese community.
In 2018, Chinese researchers analyzed the impact that cordyceps has on cancer in a group of Chinese participants. The 2018 research study concluded(13) that cordyceps has potent anti-metastasis activity in a mouse breast cancer metastasis model possibly by down-regulation of the expression of several metastasis-related cytokines.
While research is yet to take a deeper look at all the benefits that traditional Chinese medicine associated with cordyceps, it is very clear that the mushroom had a large number of benefits to offer.
Today, when people use cordyceps mushrooms at the right dosage, they can expect to enjoy the same benefits. What's even better, research has shown that people can use cordyceps for dogs, with the benefits the dogs get being similar to those humans get.
Cordyceps is a Chinese medicinal herb revered for its many health benefits. There is a wide range of reported use of this high-altitude Himalayan mushroom, in the books of traditional medicine.
From protecting the lungs to the kidneys, the fungus has a long-standing historical presence. Even today, Cordyceps sinensis has received tremendous attention from the public, due to its purported benefits such as analgesic, aphrodisiac, anti-oxidant, and immune modulator to name a few.
If you’re curious about trying cordyceps mushrooms, there are a few ways to do so. You can find them fresh or dried at most Asian markets, or you can purchase them online. Have you tried cordyceps mushrooms? Let us know in the comments!
Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug (1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92758/
- The Tibetan and Himalayan library, (2) https://doi.org/10.1108/rr-07-2013-0186
Yartsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of Tibet’s Rural Economy, (3) https://doi.org/10.1007/s12231-008-9038-3
- The traditional Chinese medicine Cordyceps sinensis and its effects on apoptotic homeostasis, (4) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2004.09.029
- Pharmacological basis of ‘Yin-nourishing’ and ‘Yang-invigorating’ actions of Cordyceps, a Chinese tonifying herb (5) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lfs.2004.07.014
Cordyceps – A traditional Chinese medicine and another fungal therapeutic biofactory (6) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phytochem.2008.01.027
Cordyceps sinensis (a traditional Chinese medicine) for treating chronic kidney disease, (7) https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD008353.pub2
- Traditional uses and medicinal potential of Cordyceps sinensis of Sikkim (8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3121254/
- Cordyceps – A traditional Chinese medicine and another fungal therapeutic biofactory (9) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phytochem.2008.01.027
- Effect of Cs-4® (Cordyceps sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial, (10)https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0226
- Herbal Medicine Cordyceps sinensis Improves Health-Related Quality of Life in Moderate-to-Severe Asthma (11) https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6134593
- Therapeutic effects of Chinese herbal medicines and their extracts on diabetes, (12)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2021.111977
- Extracts of Cordyceps sinensis inhibit breast cancer cell metastasis via down-regulation of metastasis-related cytokines expression, (13) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2017.12.012