What are Cordyceps?

What are Cordyceps?

Cordyceps does not refer to a specific species of mushroom but rather to hundreds of species within the genus Cordyceps. That being said, only two Cordyceps species, Ophiocordyceps sinensis — technically no longer under the genus Cordyceps —  and Cordyceps militaris, are currently the focus of extensive health research. 

In this article, we will focus on the two species of Cordyceps mushrooms most commonly cultivated and thus most prevalent in today’s supplement market- Cordyceps militaris, and CS4, a mycelia fermentation product of Ophiocordyceps sinensis.


Bugs for Breakfast


Cordyceps is a very unique fungus for a number of reasons.


For one, it is within the Ascomycota division of the fungal kingdom. Ascomycota fungi comprise about 75 percent of all described fungal species and represent most of the fungi used in making beer, bread, and fermented foods. However, most of the edible, medicinal, cultivated, and wild harvested mushrooms people know of — e.g. Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, Portobello — are within the Basidiomycota division.


Another fun(gi) fact about Cordyceps is that the most expensive mushroom in the world is a Cordyceps mushroom. A dry kilogram of wild harvested Ophiocordyceps sinensis (formerly known as Cordyceps sinensis) can run you a cool $20,000.


But Cordyceps’ greatest crowd-pleasing attribute may be that it is a parasitic, entomopathogenic fungus, which is a fancy way of saying that it parasitizes and feeds on insects for its life blood.


There are some Cordyceps mushrooms — e.g Cordyceps lloydiithat seemingly come from a science fiction movie, attacking living ants and secreting a chemical that compels the ants to climb to the top of a tree, attach themselves to a leaf, then slowly die as the mushroom erupts from the ant's head/body and disperses its spores into the wind.


Cordyceps militaris, however, is a bit more tame, preferring the pupa or larva of moths and butterflies and using its mycelium to effectively colonize the living insect and mummify it from within — while keeping it alive — until enough mycelial biomass is generated to produce the club-like, orange mushroom fruit body specific to Cordyceps militaris. In this way, Cordyceps militaris is then able to release its spores to the surrounding environment and begin its life cycle anew. 

Nowadays, Cordyceps militaris is also cultivated commercially without the need for bugs. Typically, Cordyceps militaris mycelium is grown in a nutrified liquid broth, expanded onto nutrified rice, and then fruited and harvested from this rice substrate. 


A Needle in a Haystack


Foraging for any Cordyceps mushroom is much more difficult than foraging for most other medicinal and edible mushrooms and takes considerable research, planning, experience, and luck. Nonetheless, here are some general morphographic traits to look for when searching for Cordyceps militaris:


  • Orange fruit body, club-shaped, top wider than the base, 2 to 8cm long, up to 0.5cm wide
  • Upper fruit body portion is orange and pimply, lower portion smooth and orange to pale orange, often curved
  • Spores segmented and threadlike, breaking into elliptical segments


Cordyceps militaris most often appears as a small orange node near wet, mossy areas, especially near the edge of creeks. Upon closer inspection and after gently digging around the fruit body, it is typical to find the mushroom extruding from a buried larva or pupae. It can be found throughout the northern hemisphere and in Europe and Northern America, it typically fruits from August through October in humid, temperate, and tropical forests.


Promising, Unproven Potential


Though Ophiocordyceps sinensis has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat sickness, kidney disease, low sex drive, and general fatigue, its introduction to the western world is rather recent. As a result, much of the research on Ophiocordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris has thus far been limited to animal or lab studies. Nonetheless, it has shown promising potential.


The medicinal compound credited for many of Cordyceps’ health benefits is Cordycepin, — 3'-Deoxyadenosine — which has shown the potential to modulate the immune system, inhibit tumor growth, lower blood pressure, and lower blood vessel wall tension. 


One of the most highly touted benefits of consuming Cordyceps is that it increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which delivers energy to muscles. It’s believed Cordyceps may help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently, especially during exercise, and may delay exercise-induced fatigue. 


Cordyceps may also possess anti-aging and anti-inflammation effects and help people navigate heart conditions and the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.


CS4, a mycelia fermentation product of Ophiocordyceps sinensis common in China, has been shown to increase antioxidant counts in aged mice, helping to improve their memory and sexual function. In two separate studies, mice and fruit flies given CS4 survived longer than the control group.


Cordyceps’ anti-tumor effects have been demonstrated in test-tube studies, where Cordyceps have inhibited the growth of human lung, colon, skin, and liver cancer cells. The anti-inflammatory properties of Cordyceps have been found in studies on Ophiocordyceps sinensis as well as a few other Cordyceps species.


In China, Cordyceps are approved for the treatment of arrhythmia, a condition where the heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular. The presence of adenosine in Cordyceps is attributed for this heart-protective effect. Animal research has also found that Cordyceps can decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in your blood that’s linked to heart disease.


Finally, Cordyceps contains a type of sugar that may help people with Diabetes better control their blood sugar levels by mimicking the action of insulin.


While Cordyceps’ potential to help people with all sorts of conditions, improve the athletic performance of healthy, active people, and contribute more generally to a happier, healthier life for all people is exciting, the proof of and mechanisms behind these effects in humans are also rather unexplored. As interest and funding pours into the medicinal mushroom space over the next decade, expect to hear more about Cordyceps.




Author: Sam Blackstone

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