Have you ever heard of the fungus that turns ants into zombies? While the zombie part is a bit exaggerated, such a fungus does exist! And not just for ants either. In fact, many insects can be affected by different species in this family.
What is this fungus? The general term for it is Cordyceps. We say 'general' because there are actually about 600 different species within this group.
Did you know that a couple of them have medicinal properties? Here we will focus on one such fungus called Cordyceps sinensis.
What is Cordyceps Sinensis?
Cordyceps sinensis was previously a member of the Cordyceps genus. In 2007, this fungus along with other similar species was found to be quite different from typical Cordyceps species. Because of this, they were reclassified into a new genus, Ophiocordyceps.
Despite the name change, Cordyceps sinensis is still referred to as its old name (like in this article).
Even though it’s not technically a mushroom, it is classified as a medicinal mushroom due to its health benefits.
This species is also known as caterpillar fungus due to how it reproduces. Like the zombie-ant fungus, this one is also an entomopathogenic fungus. What this means is that these fungi grow in insects.
Ecology & Life Cycle
In nature, this specific type is known to infect the larvae of ghost moths living in the Tibetan Plateau of Southwest China and the Himalayan regions of Bhutan and Nepal. These fungi only grow at elevations between 3000m and 5200m and in temperatures below 21°C.
Their Tibetan name is yartsa gunbu, which means ‘summer grass, winter worm.’ It may seem like a strange name, but it is surprisingly accurate to the fungus’ life cycle.
In the late summer, the fungus releases its spores that attach to the ghost moth larvae living underground. In late autumn, chemicals in the caterpillar’s skin activate the infection. The mycelium spreads through the caterpillar’s body and eventually kills it.
After winter, a dark brown fruiting body emerges from the caterpillar’s head and breaks through the soil above. These stalks are scattered throughout the area and, thus, have the appearance of brown grass. And that’s why they’re called ‘summer grass, winter worm.’
Nowadays, Cordyceps mushrooms can be produced in labs so we don’t need to harm caterpillars in the process. The natural form is still considered valuable which will be discussed in more detail later.
Cordyceps Sinensis vs Cordyceps Militaris
When it comes to Cordyceps, there are two main species on the market: Sinensis and Miliatris. Cordyceps Militaris gained popularity as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to Cordyceps Sinensis when demand for the latter skyrocketed (skip to the next section to learn more).
In terms of health benefits, the two fungi are on par with each other. The main differences between the two are as follows:
- Rare to find the natural form in the wild
- Only found in certain regions, like the Tibetan Plateau
- Currently impossible to grow the insect larvae form in a lab (can be grown on substrate though)
- Found widely throughout the northern hemisphere
- Can be commercially cultivated at a large scale with or without insects involved
History of Cordyceps Mushrooms
The first mention of Cordyceps sinensis in history was by a Tibetan doctor (Zurkhar Nyamnyi Dorje) in the late 15th century. This fungus was later introduced into traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in 1694. Cordyceps sinensis earned its first mention there in Wang Ang’s compendium of materia medica, Ben Cao Bei Yao.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Use
In TCM, these fungi are known for having an ideal balance of yin and yang. This is because they considered this fungus as both an animal and a vegetable. It supposedly replenishes the kidney and soothes the lung.
More specifically, TCM claims that Cordyceps sinensis is a herbal remedy that treats the following ailments:
- Excessive phlegm
- Weakness after a severe illness
- Renal dysfunction and failure
Cordyceps Sinensis as a Status Symbol
Did you know that caterpillar fungus is known as “soft gold” in China? In the past two decades, the demand for Cordyceps sinensis from Chinese urban consumers spiked.
What caused the spike though? In 1993, two female Chinese runners broke four world records over six days. The explanation? Their coach attributed their success to a combination of intense training, turtle shell soup, and cordyceps sinensis
Whether the critics of this performance were right or not, caterpillar fungus was a new target for many Chinese people.
As of 2018, it was worth about $50,000/kg USD in Shanghai. For comparison, gold was worth $38,000/kg USD. Quite the valuable little guy, don’t you think?
It’s no surprise then that these fungi are seen as status symbols in China. For example, they are given as gifts by those that want to impress the receiver. Who would have thought that gifting bugs would be a good thing?
Due to the demand, the harvesting of caterpillar fungi has become a vital part of the economy in the Tibetan Plateau. So much so, that entire villages will participate during harvesting season. Many people rely solely on the harvest to make money and survive.
Threats to Cordyceps Sinensis
While the demand for Cordyceps sinensis remains at an all-time high, the supply is struggling to keep up.
There are two many reasons for this dwindling supply: overharvesting and climate change.
With overharvesting, many caterpillar fungi are taken from their habitat before they can reproduce properly. This means there will be less the following year. The cycle repeats over and over again over the years until it goes extinct.
Although harvesters are warned of this issue, many find it hard to stop due to not having any other alternatives to survive. Even with protections, poachers are a common issue.
“Even if I don’t pick it, other people will pick it.” – A Tibetan harvester
Adding climate change into the mix makes the situation even worse. The temperatures in the mountains aren’t as cold as they used to be. Without the usual low temperatures, caterpillar fungus either can’t grow properly or can’t grow at all.
These two factors caused cordyceps sinensis to land on the endangered species list.
Recent advances in artificially grown cordyceps mushrooms paired with stricter protections will hopefully stop the problem from getting worse.
Cordyceps sinensis (CS for the rest of this section), like many medicinal mushrooms, has only recently caught the attention of the scientific community. The research that has been done shows promise for the medicinal use of caterpillar fungus.
Before we get into medical research, CS has been studied in other non-medical ways.
Natural vs Artificial Product
Concerns have been raised over the effectiveness of lab-grown CS versus natural CS.
In a 2014 study, researchers evaluated the effect of natural versus artificial CS specimens when it came to neuromuscular activity in mice. They concluded that the artificial CS was almost equal in potency compared to the natural version.
Real vs Fake Product
When you have a popular product, there will always be cheap knockoffs. CS is no different. The problem is that it’s hard to tell which one is real/pure and which one isn’t.
This is where scientists come in. Researchers have begun to explore scientific ways to determine the validity of cordyceps sinensis products.
One study in 2017 found that DNA-based identification could be used to identify the fake fungus. Although harder for a consumer to perform, it’s a good starting point for filtering the market.
The most interesting area of CS research is how it can be used for medicinal purposes. There are many areas it is being tested in, but here are the most promising ones:
One of the most well-known traditional uses of this fungus is to fight fatigue and increase energy.
A 2010 study around healthy elderly subjects found that CSs enhanced exercise performance and might help wellness in similar individuals.
Another study in 2011 showed that CS improves exercise endurance capacity. This improvement is caused by an activation of skeletal muscles and muscle regulators, plus an antioxidant response.
Prolonging your youth is a common want for many people and CS may be able to help with that.
In 2009, a study examined how CS extract enhanced brain function and antioxidative enzyme activity in aged mice. As well, the study looked at how CS promoted sexual function in castrated rats.
Another study in 2015, scientists found that a CS oral liquid extended the life of fruit flies through an anti-oxidative stress effect.
With further research, CS could be a viable strategy for prolonging human life.
CS has shown promise in helping support diabetes treatment.
A 2004 study found that CS fruiting body reduced multiple symptoms of diabetes, including weight loss, extreme thirst, and high blood sugar levels.
Like many other natural remedies, CS has been tested against cancer.
Fast forward to a study in 2007 where CS water extract once again showed anti-metastatic properties against Lewis lung carcinoma and B16 melanoma.
Benefits of Cordyceps
As you can see from the scientific research, there are plenty of potential Cordyceps sinensis medical benefits being studied.
What about just every day benefits though?
In general, caterpillar fungus is your go to medicinal mushroom for an energy boost. Whether you’re working out or just need more energy to get through your work day, these fungi have you covered.
Cordyceps Mushroom Supplements
When it comes to supplementing your diet with Cordyceps sinensis, here are some considerations to keep in mind.
Cordyceps mushroom supplements come in two main forms: capsules and liquids (tinctures).
Capsules are great if you want to get your dose of fungi quickly. You can just pop a capsule in your mouth, wash it down with water, and then you’re done.
Meanwhile, tinctures are great for adding to drinks. You could try adding a mushroom tincture to your morning smoothie or coffee. With alcohol-based tinctures, the effects are especially fast-acting.
Cordyceps sinensis is generally safe to consume. For some people it may cause the following side effects:
- Upset stomach
- Dry mouth.
If you take any other medications or have prior health conditions, it’s always best to consult your doctor before adding supplements, including cordyceps mushroom.
Active (only available in the US) is our mushroom tincture that harnesses the power of both Cordyceps sinensis and Rhodiola. Together these ingredients form an effective energy supplement that boosts your body and your brain.
With Active, you can optimise your mental and physical performance to excel in your day.
Defend (only available in the US) is our super shroom capsules that blend 10 different adaptogenic mushrooms. This balanced combination ensures that you get the daily immune support you need.
With Defend, you’re sure to enhance your overall health so you can thrive every day.
Despite its slightly unsettling origin, Cordyceps sinensis is a fascinating fungus that everyone should know more about. If you want to try out some of these fungi now, check out our Cordyceps mushroom products today!