Health Benefits Of Cordyceps: The Stamina Supercharger

  • Angus SinclairMaster's degree, Ethnopharmacology/ Ethnobotany, University of Kent
  • Jasmine Le BSc (Hons) Microbiology, University of Manchester
  • Richard StephensDoctor of Philosophy(PhD), St George's, University of London

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Introduction

Cordyceps: the stamina supercharger

Have you ever wondered if there's a natural way to boost your stamina, enhance your energy levels, and support your overall well-being? If so, you've come to the right place. In this article, we delve into the remarkable world of Cordyceps, a fascinating group of fungi with an array of health benefits that can help you achieve optimal vitality and endurance.

A brief explanation of Cordyceps

Cordyceps, hailing from the high-altitude regions of Asia, are not your ordinary group of mushrooms. They are parasitic fungi with a truly extraordinary life cycle. Cordyceps parasitise insects by invading their bodies and growing out of their corpses, essentially transforming them into 'zombies'.¹ This eerie yet captivating aspect of Cordyceps is often the subject of awe and curiosity.

This fungal marvel has earned a reputation as a potent natural remedy, particularly in traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), valued for its diverse range of health benefits.²

The importance of discussing its health benefits

"Why should I care about Cordyceps, and how can it benefit me?" is a question that you may be wondering now. Cordyceps' numerous health benefits are supported by current scientific research, clinical trials, and publications in prestigious medical journals; they are not only the result of old folklore.

In this article, we aim to provide you with a thorough understanding of Cordyceps' applications in health, by summarising its nutritional makeup, capacity to build our stamina, support our immune system and respiratory health, and much more.

What is Cordyceps?

Description

The fungus Cordyceps has been studied for its highly unusual life cycle.¹ Its ability to parasitise insects distinguishes it from other fungi. Upon contact with a prospective host, a Cordyceps spore penetrates the host insect's body using hyphae. These root-like structures seize control of the insect’s nervous system and grow inside the body until it explodes and protrudes out from the insect's corpse with a stalk-like form.¹,² Despite being the product of this gruesome act, this fungal growth is the portion of Cordyceps that is frequently used for medical reasons.2

Origin

High-altitude areas of Asia, such as the Himalayas, Tibet, Bhutan, and portions of China, are home to the majority of Cordyceps populations.2 These regions have severe, cold weather and being at high altitudes is perfect for Cordyceps growth. Both of these environmental conditions are essential for the production of bioactive chemicals that make Cordyceps a popular natural treatment.1

Different species and their uses

Cordyceps comprises various species. These species have been employed in traditional healing practices and have gained recognition for their distinct uses.1,5,6

Cordyceps Sinensis

  • This is the most well-known species 
  • It is most commonly used in TCM
  • It has purported effects on vitality, endurance, and immune support6,9

Cordyceps militaris

  • This species has the potential to enhance physical performance, particularly in athletes 
  • Its bioactive compounds may contribute to improved stamina and energy levels2,3

Cordyceps ophioglossoides

  • Found in North America 
  • This species has potential respiratory health benefits10 
  • It may be employed to alleviate respiratory conditions and promote lung function

Cordyceps unilateralis

  • A fascinating but sinister species known for its mind-controlling capabilities over ants
  • While not traditionally used for human consumption, its behaviour is of significant interest to researchers4

Understanding the diversity of Cordyceps species and their respective applications is crucial for harnessing the full spectrum of health benefits this fascinating fungus has to offer.

Nutritional composition

Cordyceps is rich in various vital nutrients, including:5

Proteins 

Amino acids 

  • Amino acids are crucial for numerous bodily functions
  • Cordyceps provides us with a spectrum of essential and non-essential amino acids
  • These can aid protein synthesis and energy production, and improve our overall health5

Vitamins 

  • Cordyceps is a natural source of vitamins for us, particularly in B vitamins like B1, B2, B12, and vitamin K
  • These vitamins play a central role in our energy metabolism and overall vitality5

Minerals 

  • Essential minerals such as potassium, zinc, and selenium are present in Cordyceps
  • These minerals contribute to our immune function and muscle health and have antioxidative properties5

Highlighting bioactive compounds

In addition to essential nutrients, Cordyceps contains various bioactive compounds that underpin its medicinal benefits.5,6

Cordycepin

  • Cordycepin is a nucleoside with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties5,6,7 
  • It may help mitigate oxidative stress and inflammation, making it a valuable asset in supporting overall health

Polysaccharides 

  • Cordyceps is rich in polysaccharides, which have immunomodulatory effects
  • These compounds can enhance the immune system's response, helping the body defend against infections6

Adenosine

  • Adenosine is known for its role in vasodilation
  • By widening our blood vessels, it can improve blood circulation and oxygen delivery to tissues6

Understanding these nutrients and bioactive compounds is crucial in appreciating how Cordyceps can positively impact your health and well-being.

Health benefits

Cordyceps mechanism of action

One of the most celebrated health benefits of Cordyceps is its ability to enhance stamina and boost energy levels. The mechanism behind this is intriguing: Cordyceps contains compounds that increase the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that serves as a primary energy source in cells.7 By increasing ATP production, Cordyceps provides your body with a natural energy surge, helping you combat fatigue and enhance endurance.

Cordyceps and athletes/fitness enthusiasts

For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, Cordyceps can be a game-changer. Studies have shown that Cordyceps supplements may improve exercise performance, oxygen utilisation, and endurance.8 Whether you're a dedicated runner, cyclist, or simply looking to increase your daily vitality, Cordyceps has the potential to assist you in reaching your fitness goals.

Immune system support

Cordyceps effects on the immune system

Cordyceps has garnered attention for its immunomodulatory effects. Its bioactive compounds, polysaccharides, may help regulate the immune system to defend against pathogens.9 This support can be particularly valuable during cold and flu seasons, as it may reduce the risk of infections.

Potential for disease prevention

The immune-boosting properties of Cordyceps have highlighted its potential for disease prevention. While more research is needed, initial findings suggest that Cordyceps may have a role in preventing certain illnesses and supporting overall health.9

Respiratory health

Respiratory conditions and Cordyceps

Cordyceps has a long history of use in traditional medicine for alleviating symptoms of respiratory disorders, such as asthma and bronchitis. Research indicates that Cordyceps may have bronchodilatory effects, which can ease breathing difficulties by widening our airways. This can boost overall endurance, particularly in aerobic exercise.10

Supporting lung function

For those concerned about lung health, Cordyceps may offer support. Some studies suggest that it can improve lung function and may be beneficial for individuals with chronic respiratory conditions.10

Antioxidant properties

Role in reducing oxidative stress

Cordyceps is recognised for its antioxidant properties. It contains compounds that combat oxidative stress by neutralising harmful free radicals.11 This role in reducing oxidative stress can contribute to cellular health and longevity.

Implications for overall health

Reducing oxidative stress is essential for maintaining overall health and may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Cordyceps' antioxidant properties may thus have broad implications for promoting long-term well-being.11

Cordyceps in traditional medicine

Cordyceps has a rich history in traditional medicine, particularly in TCM, and other cultures.2

Historical use in traditional chinese medicine (TCM)

Cordyceps has been used for centuries to address a multitude of health concerns e in TCM. It has been traditionally employed to tonify the kidney and lung meridians, making it a sought-after remedy for ailments related to these organ systems.2

Historically, Cordyceps was used to treat conditions such as:

  • Kidney and lung deficiencies
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Respiratory issues
  • Male and female reproductive health
  • Immune support

TCM practitioners regarded Cordyceps as an adaptogen, helping the body adapt to stress and restore balance. Its use in ancient Chinese medicine is a testament to its historical reputation as a natural healer.2

Other cultural applications

Beyond its prominence in TCM, Cordyceps has made its way into other cultures. 

Nepal and Tibet

  • In these regions, Cordyceps sinensis is known as "Yarsagumba" or "Himalayan Viagra" 
  • Locals harvest it for its purported aphrodisiac properties and consider it a precious natural resource12

Bhutan 

  • Cordyceps is a significant part of Bhutanese culture and economy
  • It is harvested and exported for its potential medicinal and economic benefits13

Traditional Tibetan medicine

  • Cordyceps is utilised in traditional Tibetan medicine to address ailments such as kidney disorders and respiratory conditions
  • It plays a vital role in healing practices passed down through generations13

The widespread use of Cordyceps across cultures underscores its versatility and enduring value as a natural remedy.

Dosage and safety

Recommended dosages

Cordyceps dosage can vary based on the form and specific health goals. Generally, for powdered Cordyceps supplements, a daily dose of 1,000 to 3,000 milligrams is common.4,15 However, individual factors like age, weight, and overall health should be considered, so consulting a healthcare professional is advisable for personalised recommendations.

Potential side effects and interactions

Cordyceps is considered safe for most individuals, with rare side effects like digestive discomfort or mild allergic reactions. However, it's crucial to be cautious when combining Cordyceps with blood-thinning medications, as it may have anticoagulant effects. Consultation with a healthcare provider is recommended when taking such medications.

Safety considerations

While Cordyceps is generally safe, always purchase products from reputable sources to ensure quality and purity. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions or those who are pregnant or nursing should seek medical advice before using Cordyceps supplements.

Summary

Cordyceps offers a multitude of health benefits. It has the potential to enhance endurance, fortify the immune system, improve respiratory health, and reduce oxidative stress. Its versatility as a natural remedy makes it a valuable addition to your wellness regimen.

While Cordyceps presents promising advantages, it's important to acknowledge that individual responses may vary. To make informed decisions about integrating Cordyceps into your health routine, it's advisable to seek advice from healthcare professionals who can provide tailored guidance. Your well-being remains the top priority, and well-informed choices are instrumental in achieving it.

References

  1. Sharma H, Sharma N, An SSA. Unique Bioactives from Zombie Fungus (Cordyceps) as Promising Multitargeted Neuroprotective Agents. Nutrients [Internet]. 2024 Jan 1;16(1):102. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/16/1/102
  2. Paterson RRM. Cordyceps – A traditional Chinese medicine and another fungal therapeutic biofactory? Phytochemistry [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 69(7):1469–95. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7111646/.
  3. Das G, Shin H-S, Leyva-Gómez G, Prado-Audelo MLD, Cortes H, Singh YD, et al. Cordyceps spp.: A Review on Its Immune-Stimulatory and Other Biological Potentials. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 11:602364. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7898063/.
  4. Evans HC, Elliot SL, Hughes DP. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Commun Integr Biol [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 4(5):598–602. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3204140/.
  5. Ashraf SA, Elkhalifa AEO, Siddiqui AJ, Patel M, Awadelkareem AM, Snoussi M, et al. Cordycepin for Health and Wellbeing: A Potent Bioactive Metabolite of an Entomopathogenic Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps with Its Nutraceutical and Therapeutic Potential. Molecules [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 25(12):2735. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7356751/.
  6. Liu Y, Wang J, Wang W, Zhang H, Zhang X, Han C. The Chemical Constituents and Pharmacological Actions of Cordyceps sinensis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 2015:575063. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4415478/.
  7. Tuli HS, Sandhu SS, Sharma AK. Pharmacological and therapeutic potential of Cordyceps with special reference to Cordycepin. 3 Biotech [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 4(1):1–12. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3909570/.
  8. Hirsch KR, Smith-Ryan AE, Roelofs EJ, Trexler ET, Mock MG. Cordyceps militaris improves tolerance to high intensity exercise after acute and chronic supplementation. Journal of dietary supplements [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 14(1):42. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5236007/.
  9. Lee C-T, Huang K-S, Shaw J-F, Chen J-R, Kuo W-S, Shen G, et al. Trends in the Immunomodulatory Effects of Cordyceps militaris: Total Extracts, Polysaccharides and Cordycepin. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 11:575704. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7735063/.
  10. Qu S-L, Li S-S, Li D, Zhao P-J. Metabolites and Their Bioactivities from the Genus Cordyceps. Microorganisms [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 10(8):1489. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2607/10/8/1489.
  11. Zhang D, Tang Q, He X, Wang Y, Zhu G, Yu L. Antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic activities of Cordyceps militaris spent substrate. PLoS One [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 18(9):e0291363. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490986/.
  12. Paterson RRM. Cordyceps – A traditional Chinese medicine and another fungal therapeutic biofactory? Phytochemistry [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 69(7):1469–95. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7111646/.
  13. Shrestha B. Diversity of Cordyceps Fungi in Nepal. Nepal Journal of Science and Technology [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 12:103–10. Available from: https://www.nepjol.info/index.php/NJST/article/view/6487.
  14. Wu D-T, Lv G-P, Zheng J, Li Q, Ma S-C, Li S-P, et al. Cordyceps collected from Bhutan, an appropriate alternative of Cordyceps sinensis. Sci Rep [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 6:37668. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5118747/.
  15. Lee C-T, Huang K-S, Shen G, Grumezescu AM, Holban AM, Wang Y-T. Trends in the Immunomodulatory Effects of Cordyceps militaris: Total Extracts, Polysaccharides and Cordycepin. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Mar 15]; 11. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/pharmacology/articles/10.3389/fphar.2020.575704/full.
  16. Lin B, Li S. Cordyceps as an Herbal Drug. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects [Internet]. 2nd ed. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011 [cited 2024 Mar 15]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92758/.
  17. Stierwalt EES. The Scientific Evidence for the Health Benefits of Cordyceps. Scientific American [Internet]. [cited 2024 Mar 15]. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-evidence-for-the-health-benefits-of-cordyceps/.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Angus Sinclair

Master's degree, Ethnopharmacology/ Ethnobotany, University of Kent

With a focus on medical writing, I bring a background in Ethnopharmacology and a Master's degree from the University of Kent. As a Medical Writing Intern at Klarity Health, I specialize in translating complex clinical data into accessible articles for diverse audiences. My skills include medical writing, research, and regulatory knowledge. I've previously held roles in engineering and marketing, showcasing my versatility. Committed to professional development, collaboration, and fostering inclusivity, I thrive in environments that value continuous learning and employee well-being.

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