Cordyceps is a fungus found all over the world. The name Cordyceps derives from the Ancient Greek word κορδύλη kordýlē, which means “club”, and the Latin suffix -Ceps, meaning “headed”. Some of the rarest varieties are at higher altitudes in the Himalayan regions of China, Nepal, Tibet and India. In total, there have been more than 750 species of Cordyceps identified.(1) A lot of Cordyceps are parasitic in nature, which means they will spore onto living insects and infect them in order to grow. (This isn’t the Cordyceps we use!) Of the 750 different species, only 200 infect insects. This type of strain is known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, which controls the behaviour of insects by controlling their muscles.(2)
Before we unveil a host of fun findings about these mushrooms, let's address the elephant in the room: Can Cordyceps turn humans into zombies? No!
The HBO series, “The Last Of Us”, took the parasitic fungi concept and dramatised this into a fictional powerhouse show. However, as much as watching these fungi create human zombies is entertaining (or disturbing), the human body differs from the insects that these fungi commonly infect, including our physiology, nervous tissue, and body temperature. Hypothetically speaking, even if the fungi were to try to cause a minor infection, the machinery needed for the fungus to do such precise manipulation simply doesn’t exist.
Cordyceps have their origins in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine. Diverse variants of Cordyceps have had more than 1,500 years of use in Chinese medicine. They were first mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts dating back to the 15th century. They were also used for various mind-body techniques, such as acupuncture and tai chi. (3) The fungus was primarily used to treat multiple ailments, including fatigue, respiratory disorders, kidney problems, and low libido.
HOW CORDYCEPS GAINED THE WORLDS ATTENTION
Cordyceps gained particular attention in the world of sports when the Chinese women’s track and field team broke multiple world records in the Chinese 1993 National Games. The Chinese women dominated the National Games, breaking the records for 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 metre runs. The Chinese women’s coach Ma Junren refused to divulge the secret of his training; the following August, the Chinese women's team won every single-track distance event at the Stuttgart World Championships. These records caught the attention of the Olympics committee and speculation that they used performance-enhancing drugs. The rumours were proven wrong when their drugs tests reflected zero steroids. Ma Junren was known for using strange techniques and herbs, all of which were kept a secret.
After further questioning, he eventually explained that he had been using Cordyceps, a natural and legal fungi, also known as mother nature’s performance enhancer.
CORDYCEPS MILITARIS VS. CORDYCEPS SINENSIS
The two Cordyceps strains which are sold commercially are Cordyceps Sinensis and Cordyceps Militaris. However, due to the rarity of Cordyceps Sinensis, you will see how Cordyceps Militaris plays a vital role and why there is so much interest in this mushroom.
For hundreds of years, nomadic herders in Tibet and Nepal have been grazing the land in high altitudes uncovering Cordyceps Sinensis whilst doing so. Initially, local herders had observed that yak, goat, sheep, etc., were consuming Cordyceps Sinensis during their grazing in the forest and had become very strong and stout. Thereafter, local people and herders used the fungus powder to increase milk production and improve the reproductive capacity and strength of their cattle. Once they saw the benefits of this fungus, they wanted to explore its medicinal properties, collecting only the fruiting body, which they dried in sunlight as primary processing. When they started to consume the Cordyceps, they became convinced of its medicinal effects in enhancing vigour, vitality and aphrodisiac effects.
Today, finding this mushroom is a rarity, and many hunters risk their lives in high altitudes to locate it, as the results are worth their weight in gold, with a value achieving up to £16,000 / kg.
Since Cordyceps Sinensis is difficult to grow and obtain, scientists have found ways to cultivate Cordyceps Militaris in a controlled environment. DIRTEA uses Cordyceps Militaris, which uses rice grain as a base, decorated in chemical compounds and minerals that have been shown to interact with the human body and may support immune health and performance both in the gym and the bedroom…
Cordyceps Militaris has a very similar chemical profile to Cordyceps Sinensis, it presents many of the same benefits, even more in some cases, but it is much easier to grow. You can put your hiking boots down and forget to climb any mountains across the Tibetan plateau- researchers have got this.
Although the two species of Cordyceps are very similar, Cordyceps Militaris contains up to 90 times more cordycepin than Cordyceps Sinensis.(4)
But what is cordycepin?
Cordycepin is really interesting because it is structurally similar to adenosine, which makes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and this is the molecule that wraps around your cells and is responsible for cellular energy production to give you energy.(5) Although Cordyceps Sinensis (the naturally occurring strain) contains adenosine, it lacks cordycepin unlike Cordyceps Militaris. Cordycepin was first isolated in 1950 from Cordyceps Militaris and the content found in this strain is far greater than that of Cordyceps Sinensis.(6) Cordyceps Militaris has also been shown to have adenosine, Cordyceps polysaccharides, antioxidants and flavonoids.
THE GOODNESS WITHIN
Beta-glucans are the most vital polysaccharides found in functional mushrooms and are often cited for their potential to balance and support immune function. The beta-glucan concentration in Cordyceps is a factor in the mushroom's numerous potential effects on the immune system.
Below are some promising studies and insights into how the mushroom’s active compounds may positively interact with the body and may improve immunity, energy and libido. The results don’t necessarily mean that Cordyceps has the same effects in humans, but these studies provide insight into how the mushroom’s active compounds interact with the body.
Cordyceps may improve exercise performance, which could be associated with an increase in the production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is an important “energy molecule” found in all life forms. It is often referred to as the energy currency of the cell and can be compared to storing “energy” money in a bank. ATP may positively contribute to the way your body uses up oxygen and help you during training.
A 2016 study showed that a three-week supplementation period with Cordyceps Militaris resulted in significantly improved tolerance to high-intensity exercise, suggesting the potential for greater benefits with longer-term supplementation. (7)
In another study, 37 subjects of healthy elderly adults were tested for the effects on exercise capacity using stationary bikes.(8) Participants had received either a placebo pill for six weeks or 3 grams of the synthetic strain of Cordyceps per day for six weeks. The results showed that the participants who took the Cordyceps pill had increased their VO2 max (the number that describes your cardiorespiratory fitness) by 7%, and the placebo group showed no change.
Cordyceps has been used for endurance and its potential support for energy levels in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Recent studies conducted on animals have shown the potential anti-fatigue activity of Cordyceps.(9)
MAY SUPPORT LIBIDO
Libido is a term for sex drive. Despite people shying away from the topic, the concerns regarding low libido are real. According to NHS inform, low sex drive can affect 1 in 5 men and even more women at some point in their life.(10) Many causes can contribute to a low sex drive, including medical, ageing, or even emotional causes, and may adversely affect one's self-esteem.
Cordyceps has been used by both men and women in Asia for thousands of years to support their sexual energy. There has been promising research on boosting libido with Cordyceps Militaris. In one animal study, Cordyceps Militaris supported the improvement in sexual performance and enhanced aphrodisiac activity. (11)
Cordyceps extract powder has an earthy, nutty taste that mixes well with smoothies or juices. The powdered extract can be mixed with hot water, and it also tastes delicious on its own.
1. Can be used pre-workout and for recovery
2. May boost libido
3. May boost energy
4. Cordyceps Militaris is grown in a controlled environment and has many of the same benefits as Cordyceps Sinensis; however, Cordyceps Militaris has 90 times more cordycepin when compared with the wild Cordyceps Sinensis.
- Olatunji, O.J., Tang, J., Tola, A., Auberon, F., Oluwaniyi O., Ouyang, Z,. (2018). ‘The Genus Cordyceps: An Extensive Review of its Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry and Pharmacology’. Fitoterapia. 129, pp.293-316. doi: 10.1016/j.fitote.2018.05.010.
- Fredericksen, A. M., Zhang, Y., Hazen, M. L., Loreto,R. G., Mangold, C. A., Chen, D.Z., and Hughes, D. P., (2017). ‘Three-Dimensional Visualization and a Deep-Learning Model Reveal Complex Fungal Parasite Networks in Behaviorally Manipulated Ants’, PNAS, 114 (47), pp.12590-12595, doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711673114
- Panda, A.K., and Swain K.C. (2011). ‘Traditional Uses and Medicinal Potential of Cordyceps Sinensis of Sikkim’. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2(1), pp.9-13. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.78183.
- Yuan, J.P., Zhao, S.Y., Wang, J,H., Kuang, H,C., and Liu, (2008). ‘X. Distribution of Nucleosides and Nucleobases in Edible Fungi’. J Agric Food Chem. 56 (3), pp.809-15. doi: 10.1021/jf0719205. Epub
- Chamyuang, S., Owatworakit, A., and Honda, Y.(2019). ‘New Insights Into Cordycepin Production in Cordyceps Militaris and Applications’. Ann Transl Med, 7(Suppl 3):S78. doi: 10.21037/atm.2019.04.12
- Yuan, J.P., Zhao, S,Y., Wang, J.H., Kuang, H.C., and Liu, X.(2008). ‘Distribution of Nucleosides and Nucleobases in Edible Fungi’. J Agric Food Chem. 56(3), pp.809-15. doi: 10.1021/jf0719205.
- Hirsch, K.R., Smith-Ryan, A.E., Roelofs, E.J., Trexler, E.T., and Mock, M.G. (2017 ). ‘Cordyceps Militaris Improves Tolerance to High-Intensity Exercise After Acute and Chronic Supplementation’. J Diet Suppl. 14 (1), pp.42-53. doi: 10.1080/19390211.2016.1203386.
- Yi, X., Xi-zhen, H., and Jia-shi, Z. (2004). ‘Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial and Assessment of Fermentation Product of Cordyceps Sinensis (Cs-4) in Enhancing Aerobic Capacity and Respiratory Function of the Healthy Elderly Volunteers’. Chin. J. Integr. Med. 10, 187–192, doi.org/10.1007/BF02836405
- Lin, B., and Li, S. ‘Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug’.(2011). ‘Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects’. 2nd edition. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92758/
- NHS Inform (2023). ‘Loss of Libido’ Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/sexual-and-reproductive/loss-of-libido. (Accessed 3 July 2023)
- Nguyen, T.V., Chumnanpuen, P., Parunyakul, K., Srisuksai, K., and Fungfuang W. (2021). ‘A Study of the Aphrodisiac Properties of Cordyceps Militaris in Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Male Rats’. Vet World. 14 (2), pp537-544. doi: 10.14202/vetworld.2021.