Cordyceps for stamina, against cancer

Cordyceps ophioglossoides

Cordyceps sinensis has been part of my anti-cancer formulas for many years, since Thai doctor Santi Rosswong suggested that I add it to my reishi formulas for stamina.  It appears from recent research that the herb stops cell proliferation as well.

Cordyceps is a strange herb, a fungus that colonizes then kills an insect, as shown in a BBC  video (with one of the other 680 described cordyceps species found on 6 continents.)  When the Cordyceps sinensis fungus attacks a host, in this case the  larva of the ghost moth genus Thitarodes which live on the Tibetan Plateau above 12,000 feet, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body grows into an elongated structure.  All Cordyceps species are endoparasitoids, mainly on insects and other arthropods . Another form found living in the woods around Ithaca, New York is the source of cyclosporin.  Of the many different varieties of cordyceps used for medicinal use include C. sinensis, C. militaris, C. sobolifers, C subsessilus, and C. ophioglossoides.

Cordyceps sinensis was first recorded as yartsa gunbu in Tibet in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje. It  was first recorded in the Chinese Ben Cao Bei Yaoi materia medica in 1694 and is known as dong chong xia cao (Winter caterpillar/summer grass) in Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine cordyceps is considered sweet and warm, entering the Lung and Kidney channels; the typical dosage is 3–9 grams.  In Tibetan medicine it is considered warm and unctuous, with a sweet and salty initial taste and a sweet post digestive taste.

The herb is an adaptogen, more valuable than gold in its pure form, with prices over $18,000/ kilo in 2008 for the best quality. It provides 40% of the GDP in the Tibetan plateau.  In the area around Lithang, Tibetan doctors say that cordyceps is primarily collected for export rather than for indigenous use, but those who do consume it take it in tiny bottles from a pint of arak where three to five specimens are tinctured for a few months.

Because of the high price, cordyceps can be adulterated with sticks or lead wire threaded through in an attempt to increase the weight.  It is important to break the fungus to test for adulteration when using the whole herb (although rare).  High prices have lead to overharvesting, especially with poverty in the Tibetan plateau. The valuable herb in a poor area caused enough problems between Tibetans,  that freedom fighter Rongay Adak seized the microphone during the 2007 horse racing festival in Lithang claiming, ” it is extremely disgraceful that we kill our own people over small matters like collection of caterpillar fungus,” suggesting that internecine fights would delay the return of the Dalai Lama.  Although Chinese government permits are required to harvest cordyceps, a recent visitor to the Lithang region reported noticing much black market dealing in  2008.  Cheaper cultivated mycelium may have only stimulated the market for the real thing.

Rongay Adak, Imprisoned for comments

Since 1980 the mycelium which is easily grown and is sold in lieu of the herb, has made up the majority of the market.  The first culture, CS4, was isolated in 1972 before DNA analysis was available and is still used by many companies.  It does not contain the full genome, nor do most of the other cultures.  The mycellium is grown on soybean or rice, sometimes with proprietary additives.   It has similar properties but lacks important constituents found in the insect-colonized form, so is really a different medicinal herb.

I do want to mention Aloha Medicinals which has created a quite different mycelial product.  They obtained or isolated over 400 different cultures, matching the  genome of the original herb by a patented organic process, then grow the cordyceps under low tempreature, pressure, moisture and oxygen conditions that replicate the Tibetan plateau, in Nevada.  My concerns about mycelial differences do not apply to their product.

The traditional uses are as a tonic,  aphrodisiac and to increase endurance.  In eastern Nepal a couple of mushrooms are boiled in milk as a tonic or aphrodisiac.  Bhattari quotes a Nepali saying that “if a person mixes yertsagumbu with 13 other herbs and takes the mixture over a period of three years, he will become as thick as an elephant, quick as a horse and pretty as a peacock.”  While in Tibetan medicine alternative herbs are considered similar in effect with lower cost, it is often used in Chinese medicine, having been part of the immortality elixirs and in current use to increase stamina in Olympic athletes. Now that the lower priced  mycelia is available, the herb is more widely used in supplements.

The listed uses in Chinese medicine are to treat kidney, lung, and heart ailments, male and female sexual dysfunction, fatigue, cancer, hiccups, and serious injury, to relieve pain, the symptoms of tuberculosis and hemorrhoids, to restore general health and appetite, and to promote longevity.

As an adaptogen, cordyceps is a nontoxic herb that works on the HPA axis to balance hormones and help the body achieve equilibrium.  It produces a nonspecific resistance in the body to physical, biological and psychological stressors.  And it has a normalizing effect on the body so that it won’t continue to stimulate the body after it reaches normal function. Cordyceps has the ability to increase oxygen capacity and increase ATP (adenosine triphosphate) levels.  This corresponds to its traditional ability to tonify the lungs and act as a tonic.

Known constituents include all of the essential amino acids,vitamins E K, B1, B2, and B12.  In addition,  it contains many sugars, including mono-, di-,  and oligiosaccharides, and polysaccharides, proteins, sterols, nucleosides, and trace elements (K,  Na, Ca, Mg, Fe, Cu, Mn, Zn,  Pi,  Se,  Al, Si, Ni, Sr, Ti, Cr, Ga, V,and Zr ), ophiocordin (an antibiotic compound), cordycepin, cordyceptic acid (D-mannitol), cordypyridones, nucleosides, bioxanthracenes, sterols, alkenoic acids, and exo-polymers.  Those with fruiting bodies that grow on insects include a range of ecdysteroids, a hormones that help insects molt but which are used for energy production in humans.

While the full range of cordyceps function has not been researched, there are a number of  studies that show important functions.  The most recent research shows that low doses of cordycepin, a constituent isolated from the mushroom, inhibited cell proliferation while large doses reduced the ability of cancer cells to stick to each other.  Cordyceps was found to protect the bone marrow and digestive systems of mice from whole body irradiation.  A Japanese experiment noted  Cordyceps sinensis was hepatoprotective and in China it is one of the most commonly used herbs for hepatitis.

It is interesting that one of the primary effects of Cordyceps sinensis is to enhance the immune system.  This is particularly notable since cyclosporin is an immunosuppressive drug made out of the asexual form of Cordyceps subsessilus.  There are some studies describing an immunomodulatory effect that would normalize function, but such studies are difficult to design and evaluate.  An interesting 1995 study in China showed that patients given both cyclosporin and cordyceps sinensis had fewer renal toxic side effects from the cyclosporin than those without cordyceps.

In a Chinese clinical study of elderly patients with chronic fatigue, most of the subjects treated with pure mycelium reported significant clinical improvement in the areas of fatigue, cold intolerance, dizziness, frequent nocturia, tinnitus, hypo sexuality, and amnesia.  Another group of people over 65 did better on stationary bicycles with more endurance and better oxygen capacity.  A mouse experiment with mice showed some anti-depressant effect (although depression in mice is admittedly difficult to test in terms meaningful for people.)  Any number of stamina tests has shown that treated mice will swim in a bucket longer than untreated mice.

Researchers have also noted that cordyceps has a hypoglycemic effect and may be beneficial for people with insulin resistance.  In one Chinese study 95% of people treated with 3 grams of cordyceps a day showed improved blood sugar profiles compared to 54% of people treated with other methods and no cordyceps.  Diabetic mice, both genetically and chemically induced, showed improved blood sugar in studies.  In an unpublished trial, blood sugar spikes after eating were both lower,  and dipped less afterward, which shows improved glucose metabolism.

Cordyceps has been found to improve heart arrhythmias,  according to modern research as well as traditional use.  The improvement mechanism is not well known, but most likely involves the adenosine, deoxyadenosine and related compounds  in the fungus which improve cerebral and coronary circulation.  It is not known to interact with any modern pharmaceutical medications for that condition.

The trouble with cordyceps research is that the there is insufficient differentiation between the full fungal form and the mycelium which is the predominant form sold as supplements today.  The traditional tastes, temperatures and applications all apply to the full fungal form of cordyceps which has the caterpillar larvae attached.  The caterpillar provides a yang element, which may be warming, compared to the soybean-grown mycellium, especially since soybeans are energetically cool.  This could be significant in an herb known for its ability to balance yin and yang. The mycellium, aside from the Aloha product described above,  is different in ways we don’t quite understand, and may be better for some purposes and less good for others.

There is no known toxicity for cordyceps in humans, (although mice have an LD50 of 27g/kg when injected) and no toxic effects on animals with oral administration.  Side effects are few, including dry mouth or nausea, but also including increased depth perception, seeing colors more brightly, mental clarity and increased libido.  These often subjectively fade after the first few days, whether by accommodation or other mechanisms.

sources below


NY Times.  Forget the Tropics, Pharmaceuticals May Lie in the Woods

Wikipedia.  Cordyceps

Wikipedia Cordyceps sinensis

Encyclopedia of Supplements.  Cordyceps

Corcyceps Sinensis from Aloha Medicinals

Alessandro Boesi and Francesca Cardi  Cordyceps sinensis Medicinal Fungus: Traditional Use among Tibetan People, Harvesting Techniques, and Modern Uses Herbal Gram 2009;83:52-61 American Botanical Council

John Holliday and Matt Cleaver.  Medicinal Value of the Caterpillar Fungus Species of the Genus Cordyceps (Fr) link (Ascomycetes)International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 10(3):219–234 (2008)

BBC News  Scientists discover how wild mushroom cancer drug works
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Ko WS, Hsu SL, Chyau CC, Chen KC, Peng RY (July 2009). “Compound Cordyceps TCM-700C exhibits potent hepatoprotective capability in animal model”. Fitoterapia. doi:10.1016/j.fitote.2009.06.018. PMID 19596425.

Zhao CS, Yin WT, Wang JY, et al. (June 2002). “CordyMax Cs-4 improves glucose metabolism and increases insulin sensitivity in normal rats”. J Altern Complement Med 8 (3): 309–14. doi:10.1089/10755530260127998. PMID 12165188.

Liu, Wei-Chung; Wang, Shu-Chi; Tsai, Min-Lung; Chen, Meng-Chi; Wang, Ya-Chen; Hong, Ji-Hong; McBride, William H.; Chiang (2006-12), “Protection against Radiation-Induced Bone Marrow and Intestinal Injuries by Cordyceps sinensis, a Chinese Herbal Medicine”, Radiation Research 166 (6): 900–907, doi:10.1667/RR0670.1

Winkler, Daniel (2008), “Yartsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of the Rural Economy in Tibet AR”, Economic Botany 62 (3): 291–305, doi:10.1007/s12231-008-9038-3

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