Cordyceps is a mushroom traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat sexual dysfunction and to improve the performance of endurance athletes.
Researchers have been able to identify several natural compounds present in cordyceps sinensis that they believe have the potential to treat and prevent many other conditions, such as cancer, kidney disease and inflammation.
There are several species of cordyceps, with the sinensis species being the one that is most used in Chinese medicine and the focus of several studies. Cordyceps contains a variety of compounds including cordycepin (the main bioactive), glucosamine, ergosterol, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. It is also rich in amino acids and polysaccharides (1).
Cordyceps appears to increase testosterone synthesis in rats. While cordyceps species have been traditionally used for the enhancement of sexual function in Chinese medicine, clinical evidence backing up this claim is still limited. In 2014, researchers set out to investigate the spermatogenic effect of the mycelium of cordyceps militaris in seven-week-old male rats.
Ninety rats (30 for each group) were selected to consume a regular diet or a diet supplemented with cordyceps militaris mycelium (1 percent and 5 percent).
After six weeks, increased serum testosterone concentrations were found in rats receiving the cordyceps militaris supplementation and percentages of motile sperm cells were also enhanced significantly (2).
The results indicate that supplementation with cordyceps militaris improves sperm quality and quantity in rats. More studies are needed, especially those involving human participants.
Cordyceps may provide a boost to the level of physical fitness of endurance athletes. In a 2014 Italian study, researchers headed a brief three-month trial of two fungal supplements, ganoderma lucidum and cordyceps sinensis in seven healthy male volunteers, who were all amateur cyclists participating in a cycling race.
The trial investigated the effects of the two fungal supplements on the level of physical fitness of the athletes by monitoring and comparing several biomarkers just before and after physical exertion.
The results show that after three months of supplementation, the testosterone/cortisol ratio changed in a statistically significant manner, thereby protecting the athletes from nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining syndrome.
In addition, the data demonstrated an increased scavenger capacity of free radicals in the athletes’ serum after the race, thereby protecting the athletes from oxidative stress (3).
Cordyceps may be a source of natural anti-tumor activity. Researchers of a 2015 study investigated the inhibitory effect of cordyceps militaris ethanol extract on a human colorectal cancer-derived cell line, RKO.
Mice were injected subcutaneously with human colorectal cancer cells and then administered ethanol extract of cordyceps militaris (100 mg/kg) or drinking water orally every day for three weeks. Researchers confirmed that continuous feeding of ethanol extract of cordyceps militaris significantly inhibited the growth of RKO cell-derived tumors. As a result, researchers observed a reduced mortality in mice administered the extract.
In addition, it was determined that the anti-cancer effect of cordyceps militaris in RKO cells was directly associated with cell cycle arrest and mitochondrial mediated cancer cell death (4).
In another study, researchers evaluated the effects of several fractions of cordyceps mycelium: petroleum ether, ethyl acetate, ethanol and hot water on cancer cell lines.
They discovered that all solvent extracts except hot water extract showed a significant and dose-dependent inhibitory effect on the proliferation of four cancer cell lines: breast cancer, mouse melanoma, human premyelocytic leukemia and human hepatocellular carcinoma.
The ethyl acetate extract, in particular, had the most potent effect against all the cancer cell lines (5).
It is important to note that while this extract has the potential to be a source of natural anti-tumor activity, these mechanisms have not yet been established in living models or compared against active control drugs to assess potency.
Powder preparation of cordyceps sinensis mycelia may prevent the reject response after kidney transplantation. Chinese researchers assessing the immunosuppressive effect of applying a dry powder preparation of cordyceps sinensis mycelia after renal transplantation, were met with early positive results.
One hundred and twenty-one patients participating in the study were randomly divided into two groups; group A was treated with cyclosporin A, prednisone and azathioprine; group B was treated with cyclosporin A, prednisone and the dry powder preparation of cordyceps sinensis mycelia.
At the end of the study, it was concluded that the dry powder preparation could effectively prevent the reject response after renal transplantation, protect renal and liver function, stimulate blood cell function, improve low levels of protein in the blood and reduce infection. (6).
Cordyceps may have an effect on liver function. Researchers believe cordyceps contributes to the treatment and protection of liver disease in a couple of ways. First, it has a potential enhancing effect on the immunological function of patients suffering from chronic hepatitis B and from posthepatic cirrhosis.
Second, is has shown to inhibit and reverse liver fibrosis via degradation of collagen in rats with liver cirrhosis induced by dimethylnitrosamine (a semi-volatile organic chemical that is highly toxic a suspected human carcinogen) (7,8).
Do not take if you are on insulin or other blood-glucose lowering medications as it may have an additive hypoglycemic effect.
Do not take if you have a myelogenous type cancer such as acute myeloid leukemia or chronic myeloid leukemia as it has been shown to increase the spread of red blood cell precursor cells that arise from the same lineage as the cells that cause myelogenous cancers.
Do not take if you are on blood-thinning medication as cordyceps may increase the risk of bleeding (9).
As studies are ongoing, optimal dosage has not yet been determined for this supplement.
Cordyceps sinensis is a mushroom traditionally used in Chinese medicine to primarily treat sexual dysfunction and to improve the performance of endurance athletes. While it has been touted by users for its ability to produce favorable results, there have only been limited studies performed on humans.
Researchers have been able to identify several natural compounds present in cordyceps sinesis — including cordycepin, polysaccharides and ergosterol — that they believe have the potential to treat and prevent several other conditions, such as cancer, kidney disease and inflammation.
Given time, researchers hope to better understand how cordyceps sinensis exerts these effects, and to evaluate its efficacy and safety when used in humans both short term and long term.