A Quick Guide to Cordyceps Mushrooms

A Quick Guide to Cordyceps Mushrooms

Cordyceps is a predatory mushroom that is also a healing powerhouse, prominently featured in ancient traditions. But could it cure cancer, reverse diabetes, and grant you superhuman powers in the bedroom as well as beyond?

While it might be a stretch, this caterpillar-eating mushroom really packs a lot of benefits. Let us dig in and learn more about this incredibly mushroom.

What are Cordyceps Mushrooms?

Cordyceps is one of the most sought-after Chinese adaptogenic mushrooms, and with good reason. It is tasty, and it has many health benefits that are supported by science.

Different Types of Cordyceps

Contrary to common perception, cordyceps is not a single species of mushroom. It is actually a genus of mushrooms, comprising more than 600 species.

Cordyceps sinensis (technically, Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and Cordyceps militaris are two of the more prevalent species of cordyceps in the world of health benefits, clinical studies, and supplements made from cordyceps mushrooms. There are countless other cordyceps species that have potential medical properties, such as Cordyceps cicadas, Cordyceps bassiana, and Cordyceps heteropoda.

These lack the strong body of research accrued by C. sinensis and C. militaris. Each, however, is a worthwhile topic for study on its own.

Cordyceps Sinensis or The Caterpillar Fungus

The best known and common species of cordyceps mushrooms is Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Formerly known as the Ophiocordyceps, it inserts into the caterpillars of Hepialus moths and grows.

When found in the wild, the mushroom will sit on top of the soil, while the insects body is underneath.

The species of cordyceps, cordyceps sinensis, is extremely rare in the wild due to the fungus life cycle and specific ecological growing conditions needed to make it flourish. It grows mostly in the higher altitudes in Tibet and in Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu Provinces of China. It is also found in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, but is not as plentiful there.

The High Price of Cordyceps Sinensis

Cordyceps sinensis is comparatively rare in nature, growing in only those restricted areas. This sparseness of wild varieties of cordyceps sinensis, as well as its desired health-promoting properties, have led to its expensive price (about $20,000 a kilogram). As such, these mushrooms are generally not found in supplements that you can easily buy. Due to a quick increase in price of this valuable resource, it has been called the “gold of Himalaya”.

It has become such a major source of family income in harvesting regions, so much so, that disputes over the area of harvesting are taking place, with outsiders trying to muscle their way in. There are now harvest permits issued by the Chinese government and the local landowners to enter harvesting regions. For more information about the harvesting of cordyceps and lifestyles in Tibet, please refer to an article in the journal Fungi written by Daniel Winkler.

Why Cordyceps Sinensis Is NOT in Most Supplements

It is true that the wild version of cordyceps sinensis (shown below) is missing from 99.9% of cordyceps supplements due to it is extraordinarily expensive. In fact, wild cordyceps sinensis costs more than $20,000 a kilogram, making it the worlds most expensive mushroom. It is sold almost exclusively in Asia, and very rarely makes its way to North American markets.

The high price tag for cordyceps mushrooms is due, in part, to the fact that Chinese scientists have not been able to grow the mushroom for years. This has contributed to increased demand for the fixed supply of wild-caught Cordyceps sinensis. Recently, Chinese scientists figured out how to grow this mushroom, but they are not at the production scale to impact the wild Cordyceps sinensis price, and growers are eager to capitalize on the higher wild-caught price.

Cordyceps Militaris | Widely Cultivated Alternative

There is now a species of cordyceps that is able to be cultivated commercially on a large scale for the production of mushrooms (fruiting bodies), which are becoming fairly popular for supplementation. Cordyceps militaris is known in the United States as Scarlet Club Fungus, or the caterpillar killer. It is a species of cordyceps that can grow on the largest variety of insects, and is found extensively throughout North America and Asia.

They are usually found on mountains, wetlands. This strain of cordyceps can fairly easily be bred commercially on a large scale, without the need for insects. Using Cordyceps militaris, it is possible to produce genuine extracts of cordyceps for the first time.

Cordyceps Sinensis vs Militaris | Why Militaris is Better

No insects were hurt during production of this mushroom: the cordyceps militaris is grown on sterile media, and no arthropods are present. It is the supercharged version of cordyceps, cordyceps militaris produces the health-supporting compound cordycepin (3-deoxyadenosine) at a far higher level than cordyceps sinensis.

A study published in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2008 confirmed that cordyceps militaris contains not only higher amounts of cordycepins than wild-type Cordyceps sinensis, but it has as much as 90 times as much!

This data is highly instructive, since products that touted the benefits of cordycepins, and were labelled as Cordyceps sinensis, were probably low in detectable amounts of this phytonutrient. This information makes it a lot easier to make your purchasing decisions when it comes to deciding if you should purchase or not the supplements made with the help of cordyceps sinensis versus militaris: Cordyceps militaris is the clear winner.

Cordyceps Militaris Mushroom Extracts

More studies are coming out showing similar benefits from the wild-caught cordyceps, cordyceps militaris. It has traditionally been used as an alternative to Cordyceps sinensis in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Given the prohibitive price tag for cordyceps sinensis, most supplements sold in North America would be extracts made by growing a strain of Cordyceps militaris mushroom. Note that North American-grown cordyceps militaris products are still granular, hyphal, rather than a true fungus extract. Pure mushroom extract powders are sourced almost exclusively from Asia, with China accounting for more than 90% of mushroom production globally.

There are significant differences among the cordyceps militaris products that are available in North America. So, do not run out and run down to that supplement aisle to get a cheap cordyceps bottle just yet. Read below for the essential facts that you need to know before going shopping for your own dose of cordyceps extract.

A Parasitic and Predatory Mushroom

Most varieties of cordyceps are endoparasitoid, meaning that they live as parasites on insects, usually on the larvae of a moth, that they ultimately kill. Also known as the fungus of caterpillars, cordyceps sinensis grows on larvae of ghost moths, typically found in southwest China and on the Tibetan plateau.

Due to limited geographical availability, Cordyceps sinensis is extremely expensive. Cordyceps militaris, in turn, is also grown on moth larvae and other insect pupae. Militaris has adapted to a far wider variety of hosts, so it is much more widely available than Sinensis.

Medicinal Properties of Cordyceps Mushrooms

Here are a few of the surface level benefits that have been confirmed:

  • immuno-modulator
  • antioxidant
  • anti-fatigue
  • anti-inflammatory
  • anti-tumor

Clinical applications of cordyceps for the treatment of cancer, hypertension, and other conditions are showing great promise. From a pure evidence-based standpoint, cordyceps merits further investigation.

Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris are fungal species that have an impressive potential for medicine. Although they were staples of Chinese medicine, Western medicine has only recently begun to pay attention to cordyceps mushrooms and the numerous uses for them. Cordyceps mushrooms have been gaining some attention from science recently. Clinical studies show these healing mushrooms may help boost exercise performance, or even combat cancer, among other benefits.

Exercise and Athletic Performance

Scientific American even featured a 2019 piece about the benefits of cordyceps, citing, among other benefits, its anti-aging and immune-boosting effects. Several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have suggested that cordyceps mushrooms may improve athletic performance. A 2018 study tested the effects of Cordyceps militaris on performance during high-intensity training.

After three weeks on the fungus, participants were able to perform more vigorous exercises than when given placebo. Since the experiment lasted just three weeks, continued use could yield even greater benefits over time.

Reduces Inflammation

When it comes to combating inflammation, the muscaria cordyceps has been a mainstay of Chinese traditional medicine. Although the majority of studies of the effects of cordyceps mushrooms on inflammation and immune function were done in mice, they showed promise.

Scientific data suggests cordyceps cultures of fungi mycelia and fruit bodies are rich in antioxidants. Cordyceps mycelia may stabilize the bodys free radicals. Furthermore, both the mycelia and the fruit bodies possess anti-inflammatory properties. Most studies investigating the effects of cordyceps on cancer are done in animals or test tubes.

Fights Cancer

Nevertheless, cordyceps cancer studies have shown promising anti-cancer effects. For instance, a 2015 study in a test tube showed the fruiting bodies of cordyceps militaris reduced lung cancer cell growth. Another investigated the mushrooms suppressive effects against Hepatitis C-infected hepatocarcinomas. Cordyceps helps to clear out the unwanted cells.

Heart Health

Most studies of Cordyceps benefits to heart health were done in mice, therefore, further studies of its benefits for humans are needed. Regardless, animal studies show that cordyceps has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. A 2011 study investigated the effects of cordycepins on high cholesterol (cordycepin is one of many bioactive compounds found in the mushroom cordyceps).

Best Way to Take Cordyceps Mushrooms

There are a number of easy ways to incorporate cordyceps into your diet, including mushroom powders, capsules, and others.

Cordyceps Powder

Nowadays, there are many options for powdered cordyceps mushrooms. Cordyceps powder is made from drying and crushing the mushroom fruit bodies with machines to make them into powder. The potency and dosage of a cordyceps powder will vary between brands. So, it is best to follow instructions, especially if you have not used cordyceps powder before.

Cordyceps Capsule Supplement

Cordyceps mushrooms in capsules are basically just the powdered mushrooms, pressed into capsules. As such, they are of a similar potency as the powder.

The average amount of powdered mushrooms in capsules is about 400 mg. Taking 2-3 capsules per day should be sufficient to improve your general health. However, some capsules can have a higher dose of 1000mg per capsule, so be sure to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Cordyceps Mushroom Tinctures

Cordyceps tincture is one of the most common ways to consume this mushroom. The process of extracting it allows for both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble compounds to be rendered into the tincture.

However, because it is primarily made from alcohol extracts, tinctures do not have long shelf lives. The water-soluble polysaccharides, which are supposed to improve immunity and fight cancer, begin to break down in just a couple of months. If you would like to extend your tinctures shelf life, store in a cool, dark place.

Cordyceps Tea

Tea is one of the easiest – and oldest – ways to use mushrooms as a plant medicine. Cordyceps Mushroom Tea has been used for centuries in Japan and China to treat various ailments and promote digestive health.

You can make mushroom tea from any type of cordyceps. Cordyceps militaris is fairly mild, so boiling for 15 minutes is enough time to extract healthy bioactive components from the mushrooms. While a tea of mushrooms is pretty healthy, boiling the mushrooms will only extract the water-soluble components. So, you are missing out on alcohol-soluble antioxidants that you might gain with powders or tinctures.

You can find our favorite capsules, powders, and tincture’s on the following pages of our website and learn more about each individually:

Best Cordyceps Supplement

Best Cordyceps Powder

Best Cordyceps Tincture

Best Cordyceps Mushroom Gummies

Our Final Thoughts

Although further studies are needed, cordyceps holds considerable promise in terms of its different health benefits. If you are looking for an easy way to incorporate this incredible mushroom into your diet, mushroom-infused granola could be an excellent option.

Additional Resources:

Best Substrate for Cordyceps Militaris

Cordyceps Mycelium

Updated 10/17/2022

About the author

Bruce Wilson

I've studied Mycology and Forest Pathology and love creating content to help other learn more about my passion. Follow along as I continue to explore the amazing world of functional fungi!

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