Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses of Cordyceps

Cordiceps (Image from Wikimedia Commons)Would you eat an insect parasite priced above 18,000 USD per kilo?

For an ordinary person like me, my answer would be no. Hello? Eating an exotic food for the price of a brand new  car? I definitely could not afford to buy that parasitic thing. I think it’s not worth it.

But for people who are looking for something that will enhance their health or even treat their illnesses,  they probably can afford that expensive parasite. Those people are willing to spend more money for foods that promise longevity, sexual benefits, energy restoration, and improvement of quality of life.

What is the insect parasite I am talking about? It is Cordyceps, an edible fungus (mushroom) that parasitizes the caterpillar of the insect Thitarodes (Hepialus). Its scientific name is Cordyceps sinensis and its common names are “summer herb winter worm”, yartsa gunbu (Tibetan translation of “summer herb winter worm”), yarshagumba (Nepali), keera jhar (Indian) and dong chong xia cao (Chinese). It belongs to the family Ascomycota (ascomycete fungi) that includes more than 400 identified species worldwide. Cordyceps and its host (insect larva/caterpillar) grow in grass and shrub lands of Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas, at an altitude of 9,800 to 16,000 ft. The fungus attacks caterpillar while feeding on plant roots. It will invade the body of the caterpillar, filling its entire body cavity with mycelium (vegetative part of fungus), and eventually killing and mummifying it. In spring or early summer, the dark brown to black fruiting body (mushroom) of Cordyceps will emerge from the forehead of the caterpillar, growing from 5 to 15 cm.

Cordyceps Weighing (Image from Wikimedia Commons)The caterpillar with the attached Cordyceps is collected and dried before being used or sold. Cordyceps has been used in Traditional Chinese medicine and Traditional Tibetan medicine for thousand years. It is one of the most over-harvested mushrooms in the world and also one of the most expensive mushrooms, traded for 3,000 USD (lowest quality) to over18,000 USD (best quality) in 2008. The price fluctuates based on the supply and demand. Revenue from Cordyceps has a big impact to Tibetan economy; it contributes 8.5% to the GDP. Many Tibetans earn a living from collecting and selling Cordyceps. Despite of the economic benefits that Cordyceps provides, the environment may suffer in the long run. If the harvest of Cordyceps would not be controlled or regulated, the natural population of the fungus  will dwindle into an alarming degree. Like plants and animals, fungus can also be a candidate for extinction.

But what is so special about Cordyceps that makes it very expensive and highly in demand? What are the components of Cordyceps that benefits human? What are the medicinal uses and health benefits of Cordyceps? Is there any scientific research that backs up the health claims of Cordyceps? Continue reading to find out the answers to these questions.

Chemical Components of Cordyceps

According to, Cordyceps contains nucleosides including adenine, adenosine, uracil, uridine, guanidine, guanosine, hypoxanthine, thymine, inosine, thymidine, and deoxyuridine.  Nucleosides are compounds required in the production of DNA , RNA, and other biological molecules. In addition to nucleosides, Cordyceps also contains vitamins (B complex, E, & K), minerals, proteins, peptides, all essential amino acids, saccharides (carbohydrates), fatty acids, sterols, other organic acids, ergosterol, mannitol, and other unique compounds. Cordycepin (3′-deoxyguanosine) is considered the most important component of Cordyceps due to its large spectrum of biological activities including anti-inflammatory, pro-apoptotic, and anti-proliferative properties.

Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses

There are many claimed benefits of Cordyceps – the probable reason why Cordyceps is very expensive. Note that the following benefits of Cordyceps are just claims:

  • Improves sexual function
  • Fights infertility
  • Anti-tumor and anti-cancer
  • Immune booster
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Improves blood circulation
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Delays the aging process
  • Controls the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • Improves physical endurance and mental alertness
  • Helps with respiratory illnesses
  • Increases stamina and energy
  • Reduces fatigue
  • Decreases blood cholesterol levels
  • Alleviate joint pains
  • Fights liver, lung, and kidney dysfunction
  • Helps people with diabetes

What scientific researches show about Cordyceps health benefits?

Reduces lung metastases in breast cancer

J.L. Jordan et al. (2010) found out the oral Cordyceps sinensis is able to reduce lung metastasis but does not reduce tumor growth. The researchers said that cordycepin extract activates macrophages to produce factors that reduce metastasis of cancer cells.

Inhibits tumor growth

The research of Y.Y. Wong et al. (2010) published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry shows the ability of cordycepin (chemical in Cordyceps) to inhibit the uncontrolled growth and division of cancer cells. The researchers concluded that cordycepin interferes with the production of protein, leading to inhibition of cancer cells.

Scavenges free radicals (Antioxidants)

A team of Chinese researchers found out the ability of Cordyceps sinensis extract in neutralizing superoxide anion free radical and hydroxyl free radical. Free radicals are unstable and highly reactive atoms that can damage cells and accelerate the progression of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic diseases, and age-related diseases. The researchers said that the effective components of Cordyceps in scavenging free radicals are cordycepin and D-mannitol.

Treatment for Diabetes
– Several studies reported the ability of Cordyceps extract in lowering blood glucose levels. The researchers found the hypoglycemic effect of polysaccharides extracted from Cordyceps sinensis. (Kiho et al. 1993, Kiho et al. 1996, Zhao et al. 2002)

Liver Health

An extracted compound from Cordyceps was found to protect the liver from damage. (Peng et al. 2010)

*Researches have also been done to investigate the other health benefits of Cordyceps sinensis: treatment of  sexual dysfunction ; improvement of kidney function; anti-inflammatory properties; improvement of the immune system; improvement of cardiovascular and respiratory system; antimicrobial properties; and other claimed health benefits and medicinal uses  listed above.[ad#afterpost]



Treatment for Diabetes

– Several studies reported the ability of Cordyceps extract in lowering blood glucose levels. The researchers found the hypoglycemic effect of polysaccharides extracted from Cordyceps sinensis.