Cordyceps: A Medicinal Mushroom with Countless Uses

Before moving to Oregon almost three years ago, my friend and I participated in a mycological foray at the Washington Crossing State Park in Western Jersey. After an hour and little to show for our foraging efforts, we were about to lose hope when we finally came across three super-sized Grifola. I couldn't carry the formidable fruiting bodies back to the meeting area, so I picked them up with my car. We gave away ten of our thirty-five pound fungal booty after displaying our prize upon the trunk, extraordinary hens of the woods, a.k.a. Maitake.

I've found honey mushrooms, oysters, Coriolus, chicken of the woods, and even some psychedelic Psilocybe in a Tennessee cow pasture, but someday I hope to find a wild Cordyceps sinensis. From the Latin, cord means club, ceps is head, and sinensis means Chinese. Varieties of Cordyceps exist throughout the world in extreme highlands, at altitudes of 12,000 - 15,000 feet.

Cordyceps sinensis is a significant tonic of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). According to Bensky and Gamble's Materia Medica, Cordyceps "tonifies the Kidney yang, augments the Lung yin, transforms phlegm, and stops bleeding. Because it tonifies both the yin and yang and is a very safe substance, it can be taken over a long period of time." Further discussion of Cordyceps as a medicinal mushroom must be preceded by a brief description of Cordyceps as the fascinating "creature complex" that it is.

The phallic appearance of Cordyceps' fruiting body is perhaps an expression of the yang nature of the fungus. When Georges Halpern and Andrew Millder, authors of Medicinal Mushrooms, brought up the Cordyceps mushroom's reputation as a 'yakrodisiac' to mycologist Malcolm Clark, he suggested that Cordyceps is not what makes the yaks rut in springtime. Clark said that probably the yak seeks out Cordyceps sinensis for the same reason that the female pig seeks out the truffle. The animal knows instinctively that eating the mushroom promotes good health.

Many varieties of Cordyceps exist in nature. They grow on/in centipedes, beetles, ants, crickets, cockroaches, and many other insects. Further disagreement exists about the growth and reproductive habits of the fungus. Like other fungi, Cordyceps reproduces from spores. Some theorize that the fungus grows outside the caterpillar. Others, including Clark, who travelled among the Mykot people to find Cordyceps in the Himalayas, believe the caterpillars consume the spores of Cordyceps. Clark explains that the spore "gets down through the esophagus and into the gut of the caterpillar, where it germinates. You can actually see the spot on the larvae which is softer and a different color, so what I'm proposing is that it's ingested and it germinates from the inside, where it grows almost like a tuber. It splits the caterpillar's head and grows out through there. When the ground starts to warm in the spring, the Cordyceps breaks through the ground and the mushroom appears." The "creature complex" concept acknowledges a theory that Cordyceps is composed of different organisms which work together symbiotically.

John Seleen, owner of JHS Natural Products, has described to me a component of Cordyceps that he called the "extra-cellular excretions", which contain compounds that may be most interesting; many are as yet unidentified.

Cordyceps has an array of known uses. According to TCM, Cordyceps goes to the root of life, the Kidney energy and increases vital essence, the Jing, one's bodily source of regeneration. Cordyceps helps lower blood cholesterol, reduces blood viscosity, and protects the inner lining of the arteries. Cordyceps is an immunomodulatory agent that calms the immune system. It is anti-diabetic and lowers plasma glucose. Cordyceps contains an array of amino acids and aids in gene regeneration and repair. It inhibits DNA and RNA synthesis in cancer cells. C. sinensis has anti-tumor activity and inhibits HIV. It normalizes the endocrine and nervous systems by acting on the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. It is thus considered an adaptogen by herbalists. Cordyceps boosts ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the common cellular energy compound which also benefits the liver. Cordyceps normalizes cardiac arrhythmias and enhances oxygen uptake by the brain and heart. The fungus became well-known when Chinese athletes broke numerous world track and field records in 1993 during the National Games in Beijing. They had included C. sinensis in their training regimen.

Cordyceps quality may vary considerably on the market. High quality cordyceps is produced through fermenting on silkworm residue. Interestingly, the Mykots make a yogurt out of Cordyceps and yak milk. Inferior Cordyceps may be cultivated on substrates and media of grains. Cordyceps is obviously difficult to obtain from the wild, so the Chinese government has developed a clinically proven strain called CS-4. A fermentation product of this strain yielded increased aerobic capacity in healthy elderly Chinese test subjects in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

In using Cordyceps and other herbs, combining and synergy are especially important. You may find Cordyceps in combination with Reishi, Coriolus, Maitake, Shitake, Chaga, and other fungal extracts. These are often mixed in tonics.

An immune-strengthening soup in Donald Yance's book, Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, contains Cordyceps. Traditionally, Chinese cooked Cordyceps in the belly of a male duck. It was food for the emperors.

In using all herbs and supplements, proper dosage is key. Clinical studies indicate that at least 4-6 400 mg. Cordyceps capsules should be taken daily in divided doses between meals for therapeutic benefits.

Written by Michael Altman

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