Remedy Focus – Cordyceps
In a recent podcast I interviewed medicinal mushroom expert Jeff Chilton. One of the points we spoke about that was enlightening for me is the diversity of ways that one popular medicinal mushroom can be grown and sold, Ophiocordyceps sinensis– sometimes referred to as Caterpillar fungus.
This fungus (which isn’t quite a mushroom) is so interesting, in many ways. The way it grows in it’s natural state is a bit scary but it’s also interesting because of how many benefits Cordyceps has.
There are lots of different species of the Cordyceps fungus, but they all have something in common. They are a parasitic fungus. Each type of Cordyceps as it’s own host, and that is the body of an insect, a different insect for every cordyceps. There’s one type of Cordyceps fungus that exists in the jungles of Brazil and targets ants. It takes over the body of the ant it’s inhabiting and effectively turns it into a zombie, controlling it’s host body to get to a place that is just right for the fungus to grow. This type of Cordyceps is called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
Scientists who have been studying the fungus have found that it can control the ants by growing into the spaces around the ants muscles and controlling the muscles like a puppet. It leaves the brain intact to keep the ant alive, but severs the connection between the ants brain and it’s muscles, so it’s quite possible the ant is trapped in a body that is acting against it’s will. Freaky stuff.
You probably know already that I’m a nerd in more than one form – I love digging through scientific literature and reading text books, but I also love to read fantasy fiction and play video games. One of my all time favourite video games is the Playstation game ‘The Last of Us’. This game takes the zombie apocalypse concept and puts a different spin on it to the standard virus concept – and it’s all to do with our friend the Cordyceps fungus. The premise is much like how the fungus affects ants, but with humans as the victim, and so we have a group of zombies infected with the Cordyceps fungus running around biting people. Of course this is fiction, and like all good fiction there’s a nod to reality.
If you don’t like video games I have heard this is coming out as a movie soon! I for one am excited to see it.
Thankfully, the type of Cordyceps mushroom humans use as medicine is quite different – no mind control here! Also, Cordyceps can’t infect humans so if you ever encountered the ‘zombie’ form, you wouldn’t have an issue then either.
This fascinating fungus has been used in traditional Chinese medicine, however the form that is originally sourced from is incredibly rare and expensive. Wild Ophiocordyceps sinensis takes residence in the caterpillar of the ghost moth. The fungus spreads throughout the caterpillar, consuming the nutrients of it’s host, and the caterpillar then expires. It is gradually covered by dirt and over time a fungal protusion will emerge from the caterpillar, a blade-like mushroom body growing from one end. The size of the mushroom is tiny, and when harvested the caterpillar is usually taken along with it. Its common Chinese name is “Winter worm, summer grass” because of the life cycle of the pair.
This is Cordyceps sinensis. It grows out of the head of the caterpillar, and when uses medicinally the whole caterpillar and the mushroom itself is used. It is tiny. So when it started becoming popular you can understand how the rarity of it has forced the price to $20,000 USD per kilo.
There isn’t anyway to cultivate this particular strain of mushroom so it has to be wild harvested, but this is damaging to the environment. So, scientists have found a way of growing the mycelium of this mushroom by growing it on liquid fermentation (no caterpillars involved) but it doesn’t grow a fruiting body. The mycelium has been shown to have a similiar chemical profile to the wild Cordyceps and is used in many cordyceps supplements – this product is known as Cordyceps CS-4.
There is also a different type of Cordyceps called Cordyceps militaris, and researches have found that the chemical profile is actually quite similiar to that of the fruiting body of the Cordyceps sinensis, in fact some of its constituents are actually higher than C. sinensis, making this a great alternative.
Benefits of Cordyceps
A lot of the claims for Cordyceps come from the traditional use of Cordyceps sinensis. It has been used for:
- Boosting energy
- Supporting athletic performance
- A tonic for those who have been recently ill
- A tonic for the post-partum period
- A sexual tonic, boosting libido
- To boost lung health, helpful for coughs and asthma
The cultivated mycelium known as CS-4 and the similiar Cordyceps militaris have been found to have properties which support these traditional uses. They have been shown to improve physical performance and fitness in athletes, to improve energy and to support immune health.
How to Take Cordyceps
Like most medicinal mushrooms you need to take it consistently for a few weeks to observe an effect.
You can mix the powder into your food or drink (such as coffee) or take the capsules.
The dosage varies on the form that you choose, so follow the instructions on the product or take as advised by your practitioner.
Always look for quality – look for CS4 or the Cordyceps militaris fruiting body