Cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus often mistakenly referred to as a mushroom. Though in the western world cordyceps is most often taken in the form of an extract, it’s use as a food source in China dates back many millenia. It was cooked into soups, with poultry, and with meat, and was only consumed by the wealthy and among members of the Chinese Imperial Palace.
Some common names for cordyceps sinensis include: caterpillar fungus (English), dong zhong chang cao, dongchongxiacao, semitake (Japan), zhongcao, and chongcao (China).
Cordyceps sinensis grows wild at altitudes above 3000 meters in the mountainous regions of China. One of the unique qualities of this parasitic fungus is it’s host organism. Most fungus and mushrooms grow out of decomposing plant matter. But cordyceps sinensis is parasitic to the larvae of moths, especially bat moths.
Once the insect has been colonized, it’s insides are filled with mycelium and the fruiting body (stroma) grows out, usually through the head of the host organism. Throughout this process, the outward form of the caterpillar is retained.
Cordyceps biochemical makeup is highly unique and diverse. Though not fully understood, many of the chemical compounds present are known to have health promoting properties. A carbohydrate present called a polysaccharide has been shown to have immune boosting properties that include anti-tumor activity. Also contained in the parasitic fungus are nitrogenous compounds that inhibit platelet aggregation. There are many more, one being studied very extensively in the research community today is beta glucan. Beta glucan has been found to have immune modulating properties.
Cordyceps Sinensis-Therapeutic Uses
Cordyceps sinensis has been used as a traditional Chinese medicine for millennia. It was introduced to the west in the early 1900′s through a Chinese pharmacy in Denver, Colorado. It is currently being used and studied as an herbal medicine for many conditions including chronic nephritis, sexual dysfunction, arrhythmia, gastric spasm, tinnitis, gastric atony, consumptive cough, excessive sweating , kidney and liver health, and autoimmune diseases. The list of cordyceps benefits is truly impressive.
Olympic Athletes Break World Records
What brought cordyceps sinensis out into the public eye was an impressive performance at the 1992 Olympics. Several Chinese athletes broke world records in track by a significant margin. Immediately, everybody suspected steroid use. But the Chinese athletes insisted that cordyceps were the real key to their success.
This effect has been duplicated in clinical studies, but with more modest results. More research is needed in this area before we can draw any significant conclusions about the cardiovascular effects of cordyceps sinensis. It is believed that the cardiovascular benefits may be due to more efficient use of oxygen and increased blood flow to organs.
Cordyceps Animal Studies
Several studies in China have demonstrated that cordyceps sinensis can prevent gentanicin- induced nephrotoxicity in animals. Cordyceps promoted DNA synthesis of kidney cells, lowered lysosyme levels, and delayed proteinurea.
An extract of the cultured fruit bodies of cordyceps sinensis was studied in female mice for activity against spontaneous metastaces of B16 melanoma and drug resistant Lewis lung carcinoma. The mice in the cordyceps group had 20% and 47% less tumor weight than the mice in the control group. However, because of a wide variety of controlling factors these differences were not seen as significant. More testing is needed.
Researchers used the same water extract for a test of in vitro anti-tumor activity, the researchers found that dr-LLC cells decreases by 96% after 96 hours. From the same dose after 48 hours B16M cells decreased by 62% and by 85% after 96 hours compared to controls. But because of some inconsistencies in the actual chemical makeup of the test preparation, it calls into question the actual species of cordyceps actually cultured and used in this study.
Cordyceps sinensis research in mice also showed an increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity in mice infected with melanoma, and showed a significant increase in survival time. Along with anti-tumor activity and increased B cell activity, lymphoma bearing mice infected with Salmonella enteritidis lived 2.48 times longer than mice from a control group. The results of increased NK cell activity were also confirmed with in vitro testing.
Autoimmune Diseases and Asthma
Along with increased NK cell activity and increased immune response, cordyceps has also been shown to be an immune modulator. Most research on cordyceps sinensis shows a heightening of immune function, but there are parts of the fruiting body that have been shown to inhibit tumor necrosis factor, interleukin, and natural killer (NK) cell activity.
This effect is not completely understood and more research is needed. However, it appears as if the test preparations studied tend to boost immune activity when a threat is present, and modulate the immune system so that it doesn’t attack healthy tissue. This effect has been studied in mice and people with asthma, lupus, and kidney disease. Beta glucan is another chemical compound present in cordyceps sinensis that is currently being studied for immune modulation.
Human Studies of Cordyceps Sinensis
Cordyceps has been widely regarded as an effective kidney tonic, and there is evidence that it may be of use in the treatment of Berger’s disease.
The successful use of cordyceps sinensis (3 g/day) was reported in a placebo controlled study of 69 kidney-transplant patients. Twelve weeks after organ transplantation, matched patients receiving cyclosporin (5 mg/kg per day for 15 days) were randomly assigned to a cordyceps or placebo group. Over the course of 15 days, the cordyceps group showed an increasingly significant decrease in nephrotoxicity compared to the placebo group-in blood urea nitrogen, N-acetylglucosamine, and serum creatinine. The cordyceps sinensis seem to have provided some protection against the toxic effects of cyclosporin in the patients.
Several other studies seem to indicate there are additional benefits to kidney health in elderly patients.
Traditionally, wild cordyceps sinensis is taken in a dosage of 5-10 g daily. However, for use of commercially available cordyceps extract, it is recommended that you follow the instructions from the manufacturer or consult a licensed medical doctor experienced in herbal and holistic medicine.
Safety and Drug Interactions
No information is available on drug interactions with cordyceps sinensis; however, people taking anticoagulant medications such as warfarin (Coumadin) should use caution, as cordyceps has anti-clotting activity. Also, because of cordyceps use as an immune supressing agent, anybody taking corticosteroids should consult their physician and discuss possible additive effects and closely monitor dosage.
No information is available on the safety of cordyceps sinensis for pregnant women or breastfeeding infants. It’s use in pregnant or lactating women is not recommended.
No cordyceps side effects have been reported. This supplement appears to be safe when consumed in the form of a high quality capsule or powder extract.
It is recommended that you consult a doctor trained in herbal and holistic medicine before taking any vitamin or supplement including cordyceps sinensis. Herbal supplements are able to act in the same way as medications.
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