Cordyceps is a genus of parasitic fungi that grows on insect larvae. (Our cordyceps is not you will be glad to hear).
When these fungi attack their host, they replace its tissue and grow long, slender stems outside the host's body.
For centuries, the remains of insects and fungi have been hand-collected, dried, and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and low sexual drive.
Cordyceps extract supplements and products have grown in popularity due to their numerous purported health benefits.
Of the over 400 Cordyceps species discovered, two have become the focus of medical research: Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris.
However, because much of this research is limited to animal or lab studies, health experts are unable to draw conclusions about their effects on humans at this time.
Their potential health benefits, on the other hand, are promising.
Based on scientific evidence, this article highlights six potential Cordyceps benefits.
1. Improves Exercise Performance
Cordyceps is thought to boost the body's production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is required for muscle energy delivery.
This may improve your body's use of oxygen, particularly during exercise (1, 2).
In one study, researchers used a stationary bike to test their effects on exercise capacity in 30 healthy older adults. For six weeks, participants were given either 3 grammes of CS-4, a synthetic strain of Cordyceps, or a placebo pill.
By the end of the study, participants who took CS-4 had increased their VO2 max by 7%, while those who took the placebo pill showed no change (3).
The VO2 max test is used to determine one's level of fitness (4).
In a similar study, 20 healthy older adults were randomly assigned to receive either 1 gramme of CS-4 or a placebo pill for 12 weeks (5).
While neither group's VO2 max changed, participants given CS-4 improved other measures of exercise performance.
Another study looked at the effects of a Cordyceps mushroom blend on exercise performance in young adults (6).
Compared to a placebo, participants' VO2 max increased by 11% after three weeks.
However, current research indicates that Cordyceps is ineffective for improving exercise performance in trained athletes (7, 8).
Cordyceps has been shown to improve exercise performance measures in older and younger adults, but not in highly trained athletes.
2. Anti-Aging Capabilities
Cordyceps has traditionally been used by the elderly to reduce fatigue and increase strength and sex drive.
Their antioxidant content, according to researchers, may explain their anti-aging potential (9).
Cordyceps has been shown in several studies to increase antioxidants in aged mice, thereby improving memory and sexual function (10, 11, 12).
Antioxidants are molecules that protect cells from damage by neutralising free radicals, which can cause disease and ageing (13, 14, 15).
According to one study, mice given Cordyceps lived several months longer than mice given a placebo (16).
Another study discovered that Cordyceps increased the lifespan of fruit flies, lending credence to the notion that they have anti-aging properties (17).
However, it is unknown whether Cordyceps has the same anti-aging properties in humans.
According to mouse studies, Cordyceps has anti-aging properties. While these findings are encouraging, it is unknown whether they are applicable to humans.
3. Anti-Cancer Properties
Cordyceps' ability to slow tumour growth has sparked considerable interest in recent years.
Researchers believe the fungi may have anti-tumour properties in a variety of ways.
Cordyceps has been shown in test-tube studies to inhibit the growth of many types of human cancer cells, including lung, colon, skin, and liver cancers (18, 19, 20, 21).
Cordyceps has also been shown in mouse studies to have anti-tumour effects on lymphoma, melanoma, and lung cancer (22, 23, 24, 25).
Cordyceps may also be able to reverse the side effects of many types of cancer therapy. Leukopenia is one of these side effects.
Leukopenia is a condition in which the number of white blood cells (leukocytes) decreases, lowering the body's defences and increasing the risk of infection. It is not to be confused with the cancer leukaemia (26).
One study looked at the effects of Cordyceps on mice who developed leukopenia after receiving radiation and Taxol, a common chemotherapy drug (27).
Cordyceps, interestingly, reversed the leukopenia. These findings suggest that fungi may aid in the reduction of complications associated with some cancer treatments.
It is important to note, however, that these studies were conducted on animals and test tubes rather than humans.
Because the effects of Cordyceps on leukopenia and tumour growth in humans are unknown, health experts cannot draw conclusions at this time.
Animal and test-tube studies indicate that Cordyceps has the potential to treat cancer as well as some of the side effects of cancer treatments. These effects, however, have not been observed in humans, and more research is required.
4. May Aid in the Management of Type 2 Diabetes
Cordyceps contains a type of sugar that may aid in the treatment of diabetes.
Diabetes is a condition in which the body fails to produce or respond to the hormone insulin, which normally transports the sugar glucose into cells for energy.
When your body does not produce enough insulin or does not respond well to it, glucose is unable to enter cells and remains in the blood. Too much glucose in the blood can lead to serious health problems over time.
As a result, it's critical for diabetics to keep their blood sugar levels under control.
Interestingly, Cordyceps may maintain healthy blood sugar levels by mimicking the action of insulin.
Cordyceps has been shown in several studies in diabetic mice to lower blood sugar levels (28, 29, 30).
Some evidence suggests they may also protect against kidney disease, a common diabetic complication.
In a meta-analysis of 22 studies involving 1,746 people with chronic kidney disease, those who took Cordyceps supplements had better kidney function (31).
These findings, however, are not conclusive. According to the review's authors, many of the studies were of poor quality. As a result, no conclusions about the effects of Cordyceps on kidney function in humans with chronic kidney disease could be drawn.
People with uncontrolled diabetes frequently have chronically elevated blood sugar levels, which can have serious health consequences. Animal studies indicate that Cordyceps has the potential to be used as a diabetes treatment.
5. Potential Heart Health Benefits
The benefits of Cordyceps on heart health are becoming more apparent as research on the fungi emerges.
In fact, Cordyceps is used to treat arrhythmia, a condition in which the heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular (32).
Cordyceps significantly reduced heart injuries in rats with chronic kidney disease, according to one study. Chronic kidney disease injuries to the heart are thought to increase the risk of heart failure, so reducing these injuries may help avoid this outcome (33).
The researchers attributed these findings to Cordyceps' adenosine content. Adenosine is a naturally occurring compound that protects the heart (34).
Cordyceps may be beneficial to cholesterol levels as well.
Animal studies have shown that Cordyceps reduces "bad" LDL cholesterol (35, 36, 37).
LDL can increase your risk of heart disease by causing cholesterol build-up in your arteries.
Cordyceps has also been shown to lower triglyceride levels in mice (35).
Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in the blood. High levels have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease (38).
Unfortunately, there isn't enough evidence to say whether Cordyceps improves heart health in humans.
Cordyceps may benefit heart health by preventing arrhythmias and lowering triglyceride and "bad" LDL cholesterol levels.
6. May Aid in the Fight Against Inflammation
Cordyceps is said to help the body fight inflammation.
Although some inflammation is beneficial, excessive inflammation can lead to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
According to studies, when human cells are exposed to Cordyceps, special proteins that cause inflammation in the body are suppressed (39, 40, 41, 42).
Because of these potential benefits, researchers believe Cordyceps could be a useful anti-inflammatory supplement or drug ((42).
Cordyceps has been shown to reduce inflammation in mouse airways, making it a potential therapy for asthma. However, the fungi appear to be less effective than commonly prescribed drugs for relieving inflammation in the body (43).
Cordyceps may also have topical applications. When applied topically to mice, it was found to reduce skin inflammation, demonstrating its anti-inflammatory properties (44).
Cordyceps' potential anti-inflammatory properties have yet to be observed in humans.
According to research, Cordyceps reduces inflammatory markers in animals. Their effects on inflammation in humans, however, are unknown.
Supplementing with Cordyceps
Cordyceps sinensis is difficult to cultivate and sells for more than $9,000 USD per pound (32).
As a result, the majority of Cordyceps supplements contain Cordyceps CS-4, a synthetically grown version.
Look for brands that have the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International (NSF) seal to ensure you're getting high-quality Cordyceps supplements (45).
These are independent organisations that ensure supplements contain only the ingredients listed on the label and are free of impurities.
There is no agreement on dosages due to limited human research.
The typical human research dosage is 1,000–3,000 mg per day. This range is free of side effects and has been shown to have some health benefits.
Safety and Side Effects
Cordyceps' safety in humans has yet to be investigated.
A long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, however, suggests they are nontoxic.
In fact, the Chinese government has approved the use of Cordyceps CS-4 in hospitals and regards it as a safe, natural drug (32).
Due to the high cost of wild-harvested Cordyceps sinensis, cordyceps supplements are grown in laboratories. Human doses range from 1,000 to 3000 mg. There are currently no human studies on their safety.
Cordyceps is well-known in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been used to treat a variety of health issues for centuries.
Though the fungi show promise in many areas, little is known about their effects on humans. As a result, more research is required before experts can make recommendations.
Animal and laboratory studies indicate that Cordyceps has the potential to improve heart health while also combating inflammation, cancer, diabetes, and ageing. Many of these studies, however, are of poor quality, and the findings cannot be applied to humans.
Nonetheless, human studies on the effects of Cordyceps on exercise performance have been conducted. The fungi have been discovered to potentially increase energy and oxygen consumption during exercise.
There is currently no agreement on the dosage that people should take to reap its potential health benefits, or on how safe it is.
If you decide to take Cordyceps supplements, make sure they've been tested for purity and quality by a third-party organisation.
Only time will tell if the Cordyceps health benefits seen in animal and laboratory studies apply to humans.