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A nourishing fungi native to the Himalayan foothills, safe and supportive in times of stress

Cordyceps

Ophiocordyceps sinensis Ophiocordycipitaceae

A well loved tonic of the lungs reducing tension in the bronchi of the lungs

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

At risk from overharvesting and habitat loss. Commonly sourced from the wild though may also be in cultivation. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Antiasthmatic
  • Antioxidant
  • Antitumour
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • How does it feel?

    The tincture of Cordyceps is initially sweet and mildly acrid in taste. Energetically, this medicine is warm and moist in nature. The dried or powdered mushroom is similar in taste with more earthy undertones.

  • What can I use it for?

    Cordyceps can be used to support through times of acute or chronic stress, as a mildly relaxing adaptogen (a substance that supports the body’s resilience to the damaging effects of stress). It would therefore be useful where a directly calming effect is required.

    High levels of stress hormones can reduce immune function, disturb hormonal balance and metabolism.

    As an adaptogen, Cordyceps helps to restore natural balance and metabolic function during times of prolonged stress, protecting the most susceptible physical systems.

    A well loved tonic of the lungs, specifically for conditions where there is presence of a dry cough, excess phlegm and for asthmatics. Reducing tension in the bronchi of the lungs.

    Traditionally used in cases of low libido, raising vitality and virility in both men and women. Nowadays many people use it as a supplement to enhance energy levels.

  • Into the heart of cordyceps

    A deeply nourishing mushroom, rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids, Cordyceps packs its therapeutic punch on a number of levels.

    A herbalist will usually always use a combined approach, with a number of plants that work together to create the desired effect. Cordyceps is a foundation on which a deeply regenerative medicine can be created.

    In such times the stresses and demands of modern life can create disharmony in our body. Incorporating medicinal mushrooms such as Cordyceps in our daily lives, whether in capsule or tincture form, or mixed into broths, can offer huge support to our detox systems and and the systems which maintain hormonal balance, helping to reduce the risk of burnout.

    Energetically Cordyceps is moist, which is reflected in its rich fatty acid content, its warmth is reflected in its ability to raise the circulation and bring cellular balance.

    In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Cordyceps is esteemed as a medicine that brings harmony to the lung and kidney channels. The Kidneys and lungs are considered connected by their relationship in holding balance of air Qi. In TCM, it is believed that normal breathing requires assistance from the kidneys and that kidney disharmonies may result in respiratory problems, in particularly chronic asthma.

  • Traditional uses

    Believed to restore vigour and promote longevity (3), cordyceps has been long used as a tonic to raise energy and vitality, bringing a higher level of function and wellbeing on a cellular level (17). Cordyceps is a well known adaptogen (substance that supports the body’s resilience to the damaging effects of stress), also used in the convalescence stages of long term illness and stress exhaustion (5).

    Therapeutically in the energetic understating of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), the action of this medicine is related to the kidney and lung channels. The kidneys being the organ that manages elimination and blood quality, Cordyceps has been prescribed in TCM to counteract various types of anaemia, also increasing blood production and quality (6).

    In Chinese Medicine, cordyceps is considered a supportive medicine for asthma sufferers, with its ability to relax smooth muscle (i.e. of the lungs) (7).

    Known as Yartsa Gumbu in Tibet, Cordyceps has been used as a tonic for more than 500 years, specifically as a tonic for male virility. Male impotence and premature ejaculation being among some of the traditional applications mentioned in the Chinese Pharmacopeia (6, 8).

    Traditionally, cordyceps is also used in recovery from opium poisoning and addition (3, 6).

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Endocrine system: a widely used adaptogenic plant, that supports function of the adrenal glands, lending itself in excellence for the support of those experiencing prolonged periods of stress.

    Adaptogenic medicines such as cordyceps modulate our physiological responses to stress by helping to support and regulate the interconnected neuro-endocrine (neural-hormonal) and immune systems.

    The prolonged exposure to stress hormones can reduce our bodies ability to repair cell damage and lower our immune function, adaptogenic medicines reduce these effects whilst modulating physiological stress response (3, 6).

    Reproductive System: In male reproductive health, cordyceps is often considered an aphrodisiac to improve cases of hyposexuality, male impotence and premature ejaculation,  also increasing production of sperm (9, 6, 8). In female reproductive health, there are references of use for regulating the menstruation and also improving cases of hyposexuality (2, 9).

    Respiratory System: There is a strong thread of reference that suggests Cordyceps is used as supportive treatment for chronic respiratory conditions. Especially in the presence of a persistent dry cough, excess phlegm and respiratory inflammation. By its action in relaxing smooth muscle of the lungs, cordyceps is used to support those with asthma and bronchitis (3, 7).

    Immune system: Cordyceps can be used to modulate the function of the immune system and reduce inflammation in the body. Increasing the growth and activity of a number of important immune cells that support the body in its ability to activate and defend during infection and viral recovery (12, 13).

    Eliminatory system: Kidneys – cordyceps is traditionally used to support kidney function, removing waste from the blood and maintaining mineral and fluid balance in the body (10, 11). Traditionally used in supportive treatment for degenerative kidney disease, combined with nettle seed and rehmannia (3). A medicine which holds therapeutic value in treatment of disease of the liver, improving liver function and supporting its function in detoxing the blood (10, 11, 14, 15).

    Metabolism: Enhancing cellular energy stores and lowers blood cholesterol levels. As an antioxidant agent Cordyceps also helps to prevent cell damage and aid in cell repair caused by oxidative stress (3, 9, 13). By enhancing the cellular energy levels, cordyceps helps to increase overall well-being and the energy levels (17).

     

  • Research

    Cordyceps has clearly been of great interest among the scientific community. A number of research papers are able to offer some clarity around the known therapeutic values of this medicine.

    By the number of analytical assays to identify the active compounds present in cordyceps. Findings confirmed that there is a strong case for the presence of antioxidant activity and potentially cytotoxin inhibitory effects. This same assay suggests a definite presence of compounds likely to be responsible for its protective effects on kidneys (13).

    In a systematic review, there was found to be extensive research into the Antitumour effects of cordyceps. The Immunomodulatory action of this medicine is also also well covered, with a large number of compounds having been isolated (14, 15, 17).

    Cordyceps has also been found to have a protective effect in liver patients, including those with viral hepatitis A, chronic hepatitis B, chronic hepatitis C and hepatic fibrosis. It enhances cell immunological function, improving liver function and inhibiting hepatic fibrosis (14, 15).

    In a systematic review, cordyceps is found to stimulate mitochondrial ATP generation (cellular energy), leading to the enhancement of cellular antioxidant status. Also possessing clear immunomodulatory properties, boosting weak immune functions and suppressing overreactive or unbalanced immune response (17).

  • Did you know?

    Because of its rarity, in ancient China, cordyceps was reserved for use only by the Emperor and royal family. In China, cordyceps is used as a stuffing in a roasted duck. This preparation considered to be a delicacy, the mushroom would infuse the duck meat, which was believed to promote longevity, prevent illness and restore vitality.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Belonging to the family Ophiocordycipitaceae, cordyceps is a parasitic fungi that grows mainly on insects and other arthropods, primarily on lepidopterous (butterflies and moth) caterpillars.

    Cordyceps thrives in high altitude, cold, grassy, alpine grasslands of the Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Indian Himalayan areas.

    The spores of cordyceps are spread by wind over the soil and onto plants, where they come into contact with the larvae, particularly when the caterpillars emerge to feed on roots and herbaceous vegetation.

    Larvae were observed eating tender roots of alpine meadow species such as Polygonum, Astragalus, Salix, and Rhododendron.

    The infected hosts live underground where they can spend up to 5 years before pupating. Cordyceps spores enter the bodies of their host either through the mouth or the respiratory pores. The mycelium then invades the caterpillar’s body, filling its cavity, killing the insect, and eventually completely replacing the host tissue. The dead caterpillar appears yellowish to brown in colour.

    The cylindrical club-shaped fruiting body, 5-15 cm long and orange brown to reddish brown in color, grows up from spring to early summer, protruding and developing out of the caterpillar’s head.

    The length of the dried mushroom spans from 3 to 10 centimetres.

  • Common names

    In Chinese cordyceps translates as Cord (club), ceps (head), sinensis (from). Catapillar fungus, club head fungus, yartsa gunbu, dōng chóng xià cǎo (winter insect, summer grass)

  • Safety

    Anticoagulant / Antiplatelet drugs – may increase risk of bleeding

    Testosterone drugs – may increase testosterone levels

    For those with autoimmune diseases – Cordyceps may enhance immune activity

    Surgery – may increase risk of bleeding

    For those who are unsure, consult a Medical Herbalist or healthcare provider before using Cordyceps.

  • Preparation

    • Tincture
    • Decoction
    • Dried / Powdered Mushroom
    • Capsule
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:4, 1:5): 20 – 40 drops up to three times per day

    Decoction: Add one – half a tsp of powdered mushroom or mycelium to 300ml water, decoction (simmer) for one hour. Take one or two cups a day.

  • Plant parts used

    Mushroom, mycelium. However, more than ten related species as well as artificially cultured mycelium are today used as substitutes in commercial preparations. C. ophioglossoides, C. capita, and C. militaris are the most common species in commerce (1).

  • Constituents

    • Polysaccharides -galactomannins, Cordycepic acid (2, 3)
    • Amino acids (2, 3)
    • Glycoproteins (2)
    • Fatty acids – 31.69% oleic, 68.31% linoleic (2, 3)
    • Polyamines (3)
    • Ecdysterones (2)
    • Sterols – Ergosterol (4)
    • Cordycepin- ergosterol (4)
    • L-Tryptophan
  • References

    1. Yue QC, Ning W, Hui Z, Liang HQ. Differentiation of medicinal Cordyceps species by rDNA ITS sequence analysis. Planta Med 2002;68:635-39.
    2. Ying J. et Al, 1987. Icones of Medicinal Fungi from China. Translated by X Yuehan. Beijing: Science Press.
    3. Winston and Maimes, 2007. Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Inner Traditions / Bear & Company.
    4. B NG and H.X Wang, 2005. Pharmacological Actions of Cordyceps. A Prized Folk Medicine. Journal of Pharmacy and Phamacology.
    5. Huang, K. C. 1993. Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs. Boba Raton, FL: CRC Press.
    6. C. 1986. Medicinal Mushrooms.
    7. 1988. Phamacopoeia of The Peoples Republic of China. (English Ed. Beijing. People’s medical Publishing House.
    8. Huang et al, 1987.
    9. Zhu J.S, Halpern J.M, Jones K. 1998. The Scientific Rediscovery of Ancient Chinese Herbal Medicine: Cordyceps sinensis. Volume 4. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine.
    10. Zhang et al. 1991
    11. Zhou et al, 1990
    12. Yuh C.K et al 1996. Cordyceps sinensis as an Immunomodulatory Agent. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Vol 24.
    13. Hong Kong et al 2021. Antioxidant and Cytotoxic Effects and Identification of Ophiocordyceps sinensis Bioactive Proteins Using Shotgun Proteomic Analysis. Food Technology and Biotechnology. Vol 59.
    14. Zhou et al. 2009. Cordyceps fungi: natural products, pharmacological functions and developmental products. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Volume: 6.
    15. Hui-Chen Lo et al. 2013. A Systematic Review of the Mysterious Caterpillar Fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis in Dōng Chóng Xià Cǎo and Related Bioactive Ingredients. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Volume 3. Issue 1.
    16. Jin Jung et al. 2019. Immunomodulatory effects of a mycelium extract of Cordyceps (Paecilomyces hepiali; CBG-CS-2): a randomized and double-blind clinical trial. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume: 19 Issue: 1.
    17. Ko, K. and Leung, H. (2007). Enhancement of ATP generation capacity, antioxidant activity and immunomodulatory activities by Chinese Yang and Yin tonifying herbs. Chinese Medicine, Issue 2, volume 2.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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