Cordyceps are a type of mushroom that may have medicinal properties and potentially provide a wide range of health benefits. Though cordyceps have long been a staple ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, the mushroom has increased in popularity in recent years, with many commercial products now available.
“In general, cordyceps is touted as an energy booster, and research suggests that cordyceps mushrooms have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antitumor effects,” says Carrie Dennett, a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition By Carrie.
People often turn to cordyceps looking for a “health ‘magic bullet,'” she says. However, supplements can only go so far, and no supplement is going to be cure-all.
What Are Cordyceps?
The fungus cordyceps is a type of mushroom.
“There are about 750 species of cordyceps, and a small fraction of those have known medicinal properties,” Dennett says.
Cordyceps sinensis and cordyceps militaris mushrooms are the two common and commercially available species. Both species have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, initially to replenish the kidney and soothe the lungs, but it’s only recently captivated the scientific community as a means to improve human health.
Research suggests that cordyceps have nutraceutical properties — a combination of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” The term is used to describe a food source or product derived from food that is purported to provide medical or health benefits. Additional examples of nutraceuticals include fortified dairy products, like milk with vitamin D, or other herbal products like ginger or turmeric.
[See: Supplements for Athletes.]
Cordyceps Mushroom Benefits
Cordyceps touts many health benefits.
“It appears that they may benefit lung, liver, kidney and immune health, as well as helping to lower cholesterol,” Dennett says. “Cordyceps is also considered to be an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body ‘adapt’ to stress.”
According to research, adaptogens can decrease levels of cortisol — your body’s stress hormone. This research also found that adaptogens can regulate a stress-activated enzyme that plays important roles in regulating cellular functions and activation of the immune system.
Research suggests some top health benefits of cordyceps mushrooms include:
— Anti-inflammatory benefits.
— Cancer prevention benefits.
— Blood sugar control benefits.
— Athletic endurance benefits.
— Immune system support.
“Cordyceps mushrooms contain antioxidant properties, which help reduce inflammation in the body,” according to Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse with more than 37 years in geriatric care. “Studies show that compounds in the mushrooms promote antioxidant activity in the body, which is needed to neutralize free radical damage to cells. These free radicals often target cells of the pancreas, heart and blood vessels, among others.”
Cancer prevention benefits
At least one study demonstrated that methanol extract obtained from cordyceps sinensis was found to have cytotoxicity on cancer cell lines, meaning it can kill cancer cells and prevent further division and growth of cancer cells.
Another study indicates that an extract from cordyceps sinensis may inhibit tumor growth and be a potential adjuvant chemotherapeutic agent. Adjuvant chemotherapy is a type of augmentation therapy typically used in addition to a primary therapy in order to maximize treatment effectiveness.
Blood sugar control benefits
Cordyceps has been shown to reduce inflammation, help control blood sugar and potentially improve health.
Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, cordyceps is often considered important in the diet to safeguard against Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Mitchell says. That’s because there’s a link between inflammation and increased insulin resistance in the body.
“Insulin is the hormone responsible for lowering blood glucose levels and keeping them within a safe range,” says Mitchell. “When your cells don’t respond as efficiently to insulin, it often leads to chronic high blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes.”
High blood glucose levels are known to damage other cells in the body, like the kidneys and blood vessels — both of which play fundamental roles in the cardiovascular system. Impaired blood supply often leads to heart disease.
Athletic endurance benefits
According to a literature review published in Frontiers, cordyceps has been used as a remedy for fatigue and weakness. For example, it may be given to a patient as a means to mitigate altitude sickness symptoms.
The endurance benefits of cordyceps have been observed in athletes. Researchers saw an increase in ATP levels, which is your body’s source of energy. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is a molecule that stores energy in your body’s cells, and then releases it to your body in small, usable amounts.
According to the Frontiers literature review, there are a number of compounds present in cordyceps that exhibits immunostimulatory activity, meaning it modifies the body’s immune system response. Enhancing your immune response can help your body fight off infections and keep you healthy.
Most information relating to cordyceps’ effect on the immune system in fact actually derives from studies in cancer.
What the Research on Cordyceps Says
It’s important to note that most of the research on cordyceps and other medicinal mushrooms has been done on animals or in labs, Dennett says.
Further research on humans needs to be done to confirm many of the health claims about cordyceps. Anecdotal evidence shows that people with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, for example, may benefit the most from them.
Yet, “it’s important to keep in mind that no supplement is the key to health,” Dennett adds.
Side Effects of Cordyceps
This mushroom is considered generally safe to consume, and no major side effects have been reported. However, some users may experience certain negative side effects.
“Some people may experience mild symptoms, such as nausea, loose stools and/or upset stomach,” according to Feder.
Risks of Cordyceps
Consuming cordyceps may not be safe under certain circumstances.
“There’s not enough evidence to know if cordyceps is safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so to be safe, it should not be used by women at those times,” Dennett says.
Those with particular medical conditions should also avoid consuming cordyceps. Dennett points out that because it may activate the immune system, anyone who has an autoimmune disease — such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease — should avoid cordyceps, especially if they are taking immunosuppressant medications.
“It may also increase risk of bleeding when taken orally, so anyone who has an upcoming surgery or who takes blood-thinning drugs, should avoid cordyceps,” she adds.
Use Caution When Consuming Cordyceps Mushrooms
Any substance that can have an effect on our bodies or their functioning has the potential to cause harm, Dennett explains.
“Just because mushrooms and preparations made from them are ‘natural,’ doesn’t mean they can’t cause harm,” she says.
Naturally grown cordyceps are expensive and hard to obtain, so most of what the average consumer would buy is grown in a lab.
“Quality matters more than the exact formulation,” Dennett says.
The increased popularity of the medicinal mushroom spotlights the need for scrutiny. As interest has grown mass production has increased.
“That’s raised some concerns that we still have much to learn about all the compounds found in this mushroom, including those that are potentially toxic,” Dennett adds.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t closely regulate the supplement industry. Manufacturers aren’t required to prove that their products are safe and effective before selling them, Dennett says, meaning “the burden is on the consumer to sleuth out reputable products.”
Ways to Consume Cordyceps
Cordyceps can be consumed in many ways, such as in powder form, extracts, tinctures or pills. Mushroom coffee is a popular way to consume cordyceps, though not to worry — you’ll taste more coffee than mushrooms.
When looking for cordyceps on the market, Dennett says that quality cordyceps products should be dark brown, similar to dirt, and smell earthy and bitter.
On the other hand, “if the product smells slightly sweet, is light in color or contains the words ‘full spectrum,’ ‘mycelium,’ ‘myceliated brown rice,’ or ‘mycelial biomass,’ then it likely contains little of the mushroom cap and stem, which are the parts that have potential benefits,” she explains.
Your best bet is to consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist, who can help guide you in selecting a quality product as well as in practicing safe consumption.
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Update 02/02/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.