the Medicinal Mushroom for Energy, Vitality, Immunity, Jet Lag, and More
I first wrote about Cordyceps in our October 2002 newsletter. I feel it’s important to point that out, since Cordyceps is now trending on social media as the newest, hottest thing . What I’m trying to say is, I’m not jumping on any bandwagon!. I’ve been firmly ensconced on the bandwagon for more than two decades.
Why the surge in interest? Well… there’s a new TV show called “The Last of Us,” and millions of viewers are tuning in to watch as mutant cordyceps fungus infects a large portion of humanity and turns them into aggressive zombie-like killers. Plus, there’s character development, politics, family, suspense, and redemption. Good writing and good acting. But basically: Cordyceps takes over your brain. Carnage ensues. It’s spooky.
As we’ll see, there’s a sliver of truth in that backstory. Cordyceps does in fact infect living beings (insects). It can take over their brains (sort of).
BUT – this isn’t that. This is an article about how Cordyceps is a wonderful herb for energy and vitality. AND – remember! — the cordyceps we sell is dead and sterilized. And grown on plants. So it’s not going to infect anything.
In 1993, the Chinese women’s track team shocked the world when its runners set 5 new world records at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The team tested clean for performance-enhancing drugs, but the coach later disclosed that he had given his athletes at least one (entirely legal) performance-enhancing substance: the medicinal mushroom, Cordyceps. In 1999, I tried it for the first time, when a friend gave me a couple of droppersful of the tincture on a steep hike. I hiked the mountain like it was a gentle hill!
WHAT IS CORDYCEPS?
Cordyceps is a family of over 600 fungi, some of which are used as tonics in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. In particular, C. sinensis and C. militaris. Both thrive at high altitudes. Both are among the most bizarre entries in the Materia Medica. In the wild, Cordyceps spores float, dormant, until one lands on an ant or caterpillar. The spore infiltrates and parasitizes the insect, transforming the host tissue to fungal tissue, and eventually killing it. (In the process, Cordyceps also compels certain insects to climb – to the top of a blade of grass, for example – from where they can better spread the fungal spores. Hence, the idea of “mind control.”) Eventually the fruiting body (the “above-ground” part of the mushroom) will sprout out of the insects head like antlers. Hence the names “Caterpillar Fungus” and “Summer Plant, Winter Worm.”
Cordyceps doesn’t find hosts often, so the mushrooms are extremely rare in the wild. So rare in fact, that for a while, in China, it was a crime for anyone outside the Emperor’s palace to use it. In the last few decades, however, people have figured out how to cultivate Cordyceps. Today, we can leave the insects out of the equation, and grow Cordyceps on sawdust, rice bran, soybeans, etc. It’s gotten a lot cheaper, too. Not cheap-cheap, perhaps, but a lot cheaper than the $3,000-$15,000 per pound you’d pay for the wild stuff.
CORDYCEPS FOR PHYSICAL ENERGY:
Cordyceps is first and foremost an energizer and invigorator. It really works, and you can really feel it! (Or, at least I can…) How does it work? Within 30 minutes on an empty stomach, Cordyceps begins to work on the lungs, increasing gas exchange. More oxygen into the blood, more carbon dioxide out.
Oxygen is the breath of life, as they say. Just think what feeling short of breath does to us. With a surplus of oxygen, we produce ATP more efficiently, we can go longer, climb higher, run farther, stay awake later. There’s no caffeine jolt, no caffeine buzzzzzzzzzz – just pure calm energy. You don’t feel different, you just feel… awake? Alive? Better? It’s hard to put into words.
Cordyceps really helps when you’re pushing yourself – running, biking, hiking – anything that might leave you short of breath. I recommend it to competitive athletes and weekend warriors alike. It can also help with everyday mild fatigue. More on how to dose for these different situations below.
When I wrote my first article on Cordyceps 21 years ago, I of course said how great is was, but also noted there was almost no research on the subject. Since then, there’s been a fair amount published. Long story short: we see that cordyceps (along, or combined with adaptogenic herbs) increases stamina, aerobic potential, and athletic performance.
CORDYCEPS FOR WAKEFULNESS & BRAIN ENERGY:
There’s more to energy than just athletics. There’s also brain energy: wakefulness and cognitive stamina. Burning the midnight lamp? Try Cordyceps. Bear in mind it won’t stimulate you, like caffeine. You can even sleep through it, usually. In fact, one of my favorite ways of using cordyceps is to take it, right when you’re going to bed, if you’re only going to be able to sleep a few hours. You’ll sleep just fine (it doesn’t keep you up), but you’ll often wake up feeling more rested than you have a right to.
Older folks who just need that afternoon nap… need it less with Cordyceps.
Me, I got into cordyceps when I was in school. I finished college full-time nights while working full-time days at the store. I’d get up for work at 6 am, and finish my last class at 9:30 or 10 at night. Cordyceps was an absolute lifesaver. It gave me the energy I needed, but still let me get to sleep afterwards. And it didn’t leave me drained the next day like coffee could. (Please note: I am not disrespecting coffee. I love coffee!) Cordyceps also helped me climb a few (small- to medium-sized) mountains, and stay on the basketball court with teenagers when I was in my 30s.
CORDYCEPS FOR TRAVEL – ALTITUDE SICKNESS & JET LAG:
I recommend straight Cordyceps if you’re going to be at altitude for just a day or two, too short a time to truly acclimate. Or with herbs that speed acclimation, if it’ll be longer. I especially like Rhodiola and Eleuthero roots for this. I mention a product below, under “Formulas” that combines all three.
For jet lag, ditto. I suggest starting the formula when you get on the plane, and continuing for 2-4 days. It helps you survive sleep deprivation better, and helps you get over the jet lag faster.
Any time we increase the energy-generating potential in muscle cells, we give the heart a leg up (so to speak). Beyond that, there is some evidence that Cordyceps may reduce blood pressure by helping dilate blood vessels, and may also reduce cholesterol. Cordyceps isn’t my first choice for either, if that’s all I were trying to do. Still, it’s nice to know it might help.
Just like the heart, the kidneys are organs that need to constantly generate and use energy. Again, Cordyceps may be useful in cases of kidney impairment.
IMMUNE FUNCTION & INFLAMMATION:
There’s been a lot of research on cordyceps vs. immune function. Suffice it to say, cordyceps improves cell-mediated immunity (the kind of immunity most relevant to viruses and cancer). I’m not sure if cordyceps is really special in this regard vs. any other good medicinal mushroom. But it’s nice to know it helps.
As for inflammation, there’s also a lot of research here. Cordyceps is not a traditional anti-inflammatory. It doesn’t block or suppress inflammation in a direct way. However, it can modulate inflammation by reducing excessive immune responses, perhaps in autoimmunity. It’s a little early for me to say exactly how and when to use it. But, nice to know there may be some potential.
I use Cordyceps differently than I usually see recommended on the back of most bottles. Mostly, what the companies selling it recommend is to use a low-to-moderate dose regularly , 2-3 times a day, every day. That’s one way to do it, and it certainly works, if you’ve got a mild-to-moderate everyday issue – low energy, chronic lung issues, etc.
My approach is to save it for when I really need it, then I use a hefty dose – two droppersful, maybe three, of the tincture. Or 5-6 capsules. Depending on brand, of course… As something that works within an hour, you’ll feel it, and figure out dosing that works for you.
There are exceptions to every rule. But the rule is: Cordyceps is safe. Having said that, we should probably use some caution with off-the-beaten-track immune abnormalities. Beyond that, the major side effect is… increased libido. Now, whether or not that’s a positive or a negative side effect is entirely a personal choice, and frankly none of my business. Either way, it doesn’t effect everyone. It’s more likely to effect males.
- Cordyceps combines well with adaptogenic herbs like Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwagandha and Eleuthero for chronic low energy, adaptation to stress, and what we tend to call “adrenal fatigue.” For example, consider the Pine Mountain Cordyceps Tablets, with Eleuthero and Rhodiola. Or some of the coffee substitutes from Rasa Tonics
- It also works well with Reishi mushroom for chronic lung weakness. For example, consider the Host Defense “Breathe” formula.
- More complex formulas may be used. The “Cordyceps 9” formula from the Seven Forests company can be useful in situations where lung weakness/asthma is exacerbated by chronic fatigue and low blood pressure, or a reliance on antiinflammatory steroid medications.
There are those who insist that the wild stuff sprouting out of a wasp head from some remote Himalayan peak is really worth the $10,000 a pound you’d pay for it. Maybe they’re right. Certainly, the ancient Chinese and Tibetan medical texts talk about Cordyceps doing things that sound almost magical, beyond what the stuff cultivated on rice and soy and sawdust will do.
I don’t have personal experience with wild Cordyceps. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were better. No matter how much the parasitic fungus transforms its original host, there are still going to be insect compounds left. In Traditional Chinese medicine, some insects are used as medicines, and are considered profoundly strengthening… ants, male silk moths… Once again, I have no experience here. And if you want to buy the wild insect-grown stuff, I can’t direct you.
When it comes to the cultivated stuff, I have been a fan of the extracts produced by Paul Stamets’ Fungi Perfecti company, since I first took them in 1999. They’re phenomenonal. They sell it under the brand name Host Defense now. Of course this isn’t to say other brands can’t be good, too. But after more than two decades, I’m loyal.