cultivated cordyceps mushrooms

Cordyceps mushrooms used to only grow in the wild. Now we can cultivate it.

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.

Cordyceps is a rare, high-altitude fungus, and one of the most bizarre entries in the Materia Medica. In the wild, Cordyceps spores float, dormant, until one is lucky enough to land on something fertile, usually a caterpillar. The spore infiltrates and parasitizes the caterpillar, transforming the host tissue to fungal tissue, and eventually killing it. Then the fruiting body (the “above-ground” part of the mushroom) sprouts out of the head like antlers. Hence the names “Caterpillar Fungus” and “Summer Plant, Winter Worm.” 

Cordyceps spores don’t land on caterpillars often, so Cordyceps is 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, we’ve 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.

So what makes Cordyceps so special?

Cordyceps is first and foremost an energizer and invigorator. Within 30 minutes on an empty stomach, Cordyceps begins to work on the lungs, increasing oxygen uptake. And oxygen is the breath of life. With a surplus of oxygen, energy-intensive metabolic processes simply run more efficiently. 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. You can go longer, climb higher, run farther, stay awake later. Competitive athletes who take it say they don’t feel any different; it just takes longer before they run out of gas.

This is of real value when you’re pushing yourself aerobically, but it’s also pretty amazing when you’re burning the midnight lamp. Think about it: we yawn when we’re tired – we’re trying to oxygenate.

Me, I did my school full-time nights while working full-time days at the store. I’d get up for work at 6 in the morning, and need to stay awake and alert through classes that lasted until maybe 10 in the evening. 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. (Please note: I am not dissing the java. I love the java). Cordyceps helped me climb a few (small- to medium-sized) mountains, and stay on the basketball court with teenagers.

For something so treasured and precious, there isn’t a whole lot of research on Cordyceps, and only two trials on anything that looked like energy and vitality. (Concepts as nebulous as “energy” and “vitality” are rarely the subject of formal, funded research trials).  In one of the studies, 12 weeks of cordyceps improved exercise capacity in adults 50-75 years old. It didn’t improve how far they could push themselves through pain and fatigue, necessarily, but it did improve by 10% how far they could push themselves before they started feeling pain or fatigue. These people were healthy, but not athletes. And they didn’t have to exercise as part of the trial.

In the other trial, however, five weeks of cordyceps supplementation did not improve exercise performance in young training cyclists. Why the discrepancy? It could be anything – dumb luck or random chance – but I think there’s actually a very good reason it worked for sedentary older adults, but not young training cyclists.

Bear in mind, training works – exercise works – because it’s hard. But cordyceps makes exercise easier. (It makes sense when you think about it!)

None of which is to say you shouldn’t take Cordyceps if you’re exercising, especially if it’s going to help get you out the door or up the mountain, or keep you on the tennis court longer. But if you’re already a highly-trained athlete, you might want to save Cordyceps for the actual competitions.

What else? Like almost all the medicinal mushrooms, Cordyceps is strengthening to the immune system and the liver. There’s evidence that Cordyceps can mitigate bone marrow suppression during chemo and radiation. There are few trials showing that it protects and restores kidney function around toxic drug exposure and dialysis. There have been mixed results in terms of using cordyceps to treat and control asthma. (I still like Cordyceps in lung ailments, but it ought to be combined with other herbs to round it out.) Cordyceps has been shown to increase libido and sexual function in older folks. But I, for one, do not consider Cordyceps “sexual.” I just think that, the older we get, the more that a feeling of “energy” makes everything run better.

QUALITY: There are those who insist that the wild stuff is worth the $3,000-$15,000 per pound. Maybe they’re right. Certainly, the ancient Chinese and Tibetan medical texts talk about Cordyceps doing things that sound almost magical, real deep strengthening that modern cultivated Cordyceps doesn’t seem to match.

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.

When it comes to the cultivated stuff, when we’re talking about energy specifically, I’m going to do something I do very rarely and endorse a specific brand: Paul Stamets’ Fungi Perfecti. Fungi Perfecti makes a liquid Cordyceps which is phenomenal, best I’ve ever used.

FORMULAS: Cordyceps can be combined with any other herbs that make sense. For allergic asthma, Cordyceps combines well with a bronchial antispasmodic/antihistamine like Butterbur. For general lung weakness as part of larger constitutional fatigue, “Cordyceps-9” from the Seven Forests company is a wonderful formula. For deeper, more chronic lung weakness, equal parts Cordyceps and Reishi mushroom work together nicely.

For energy and endurance, Cordyceps combines well with adaptogens (what I call the “ginseng-class herbs.”) Adaptogens are generally about stress response. They don’t make you stronger, but they keep stress from grinding you down as much. “Cordyceps Tablets” from the Pine Mountain company is a simple three-herb formula along these lines.  Also look for the Majijuan Championship Formula in little vials. It’s supposedly what the Chinese women’s track team was using.

For increasing oxygenation, combine Cordyceps with organic germanium (Ge-132). Cordyceps increases oxygen uptake from the lungs; germanium increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. It’s a nice 1-2 punch.

SAFETY: There are exceptions to every rule, but so far I haven’t encountered any to the following: Cordyceps is absolutely safe.

DOSING: I use Cordyceps differently than most herbalists. Most will use 20-40 drops of the standard low-alcohol tincture, or a standard capsule, 2-3 times a day. Me, I save it for when I really need it, then I dose it high – two droppersful, maybe three, sometimes four. As something that works within an hour of using it, you’ll find dosing that works for you.