Although Cordyceps sinensis is often described as an herb, it’s actually a combination of a parasitic fungus and the larvae of a moth (a caterpillar). The fungus attacks the caterpillar and destroys it from within. The remaining structures of the caterpillar along with the fungus are dried and sold as cordyceps.
Cordyceps has a long history of use in China as a “tonic,” a substance said to generally strengthen the body, particularly following illness. It was also used to treat bronchitis, kidney failure, and tuberculosis.1
What Is Cordyceps Used for Today?
Cordyceps is widely marketed today as treatment for many conditions. However, there is no reliable scientific evidence that it actually provides any medical benefits.
Most research on cordyceps was done in China and is not up to modern scientific standards. In general, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies are the most reliable form of evidence. (For information on the reasons why, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?) However, such studies have to be performed and reported according to certain standards. Although several double-blind studies have been reported on cordyceps, they all fall considerably short of the level necessary for scientific validity. These somewhat dubious double-blind trials hint that cordyceps might be helpful for reducing high cholesterol2 and improving male sexual function.3,4
Weak evidence hints that cordyceps may modulate the immune system, which means that it stimulates some aspects of the immune system while suppressing others.8-13
Highly preliminary test-tube and animal studies hint that cordyceps may help fight stress,19 control blood sugar levels (potentially making it useful in diabetes),20-22reduce cancer risk,23 lower high blood pressure,24 and help protect the kidney against damage caused by the drugs cyclosporin and gentamycin.25-27
Other test-tube studies hint that cordyceps may stimulate production of hormones, such as cortisone and testosterone.28-33 However, contrary to what some websites say, these studies are far too preliminary to indicate any therapeutic hormonal effect.
Typical traditional recommended doses of cordyceps range from 5-10 grams per day. Concentrated extracts are also available, taken at a lower dosage.
Use of cordyceps does not generally cause apparent side effects. However, comprehensive safety studies have not been reported. In addition, there are two case reports in which cordyceps products contained enough lead to cause lead poisoning.34 Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Pegler DN, Yao YJ, Li Y. The Chinese ‘caterpillar fungus’. The Mycologist. 1994;8:3-5.
2. Shao G., You ZH, Cu XC, et al. Treatment of hyperlipidemia with Cordyceps sinensis. A double blind placebo control trial. Inter J Oriental Med. 1990;15:77-80.
3. Zhu JS, Halpern GM, Jones K. The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis. Part I. J Alt Comp Med. 1998;4:289-303.
4. Wan F, Guo Y, Deng, X. Sex hormone-like effects of JinShuiBao [Cs-4] capsule: pharmacological and clinical studies [in Chinese]. Chin Trad Patent Medicine. 1988;9:29-31.
5. Parcell AC, Smith JM, Schulthies SS, et al. Cordyceps sinensis (CordyMax Cs-4) supplementation does not improve endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004;14:236-242.
6. Xiao Y, Huang XZ, Chen G, et al. Increased aerobic capacity in healthy elderly human adults given a fermentation product of Cordyceps Cs-4. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999;31(suppl.): S174.
7. Colson SN, Wyatt FB, Johnston DL, et al. Cordyceps sinensis and Rhodiola rosea -based supplementation in male cyclists and its effect on muscle tissue oxygen saturation. J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19:358-63.
8. Chen DM, Zhang SL, Li ZN, Cheng ZQ, Liu XP. Effect of natural cordyceps and the cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis on murine immune organs and functions of mononuclear phagocyte system. Chin J lntegr Trad West Med. 1985;5:4241.
9. Chen GZ, Chen GL, Tang QM, et al. Effects of alcoholic extract Cordyceps sinensis on T-lymphocyte subsets. Bulletin of Hunan Medical College. 1987;12:311-314.
10. Koh JH, Yu KW, Suh HJ, Choi YM, Ahn TS. Activation of macrophages and the intestinal immune system by an orally administered decoction from cultured mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biosci BiotechnolBiochem. 2002;66:407-411.
11. Kuo YC, Tsai WJ, Shiao MS, Chen CF, Lin CY. Cordyceps sinensis as an immunomodulatory agent. Am J Chin Med. 1996;24:111-125.
12. Weng SC, Chou CJ, Lin LC, Tsai WJ, Kuo YC. Immunomodulatory functions of extracts from the Chinese medicinal fungus Cordyceps cicadae. J Ethnopharmacol. 2002;83:79-85.
13. Zhu XY, Yu HY. Immunosuppressive effect of cultured Cordyceps sinensis on cellular immune response [in Chinese]. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 1990;10:485-487, 454.
14. Yu J, Liu JW, Wu Y, et al. The application of cultivated Cordyceps sinensis in renal transplantation. J Am Soc Nephrology;5: 1016.
15. Yang YZ, Wang LS, Deng HY, et al. Short-term observation of treating chronic hepatitis B and post-hepatitis cirrhosis with XinGanBao. Research of Chinese Materia Medica. 1994;1:19-20.
16. Zhou L, Yang W, Xu Y, et al. Short-term curative effect of cultured Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc. mycelia in chronic hepatitis B [in Chinese]. China J of Chin Materia Medica 1990;15:53-55.
17. Fu T, Lin J. Effect of Cordyceps sinensis on inhibiting systemic lupus erythematosus in MRL 1pr/1pr rats. Zhong Yao Cai. 2001;24:658-659.
18. Yang LY, Chen A, Kuo YC, Lin CY. Efficacy of a pure compound H1-A extracted from Cordyceps sinensis on autoimmune disease of MRL lpr/lpr mice. J Lab Clin Med. 1999;134:492-500.
19. Koh JH, Kim KM, Kim JM, Song JC, Suh HJ. Antifatigue and antistress effect of the hot-water fraction from mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 2003;26:691-694.
20. Kiho T, Ookubo K, Usui S, Ukai S, Hirano K. Structural features and hypoglycemic activity of a polysaccharide (CS-F10) from the cultured mycelium of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 1999;22:966-970.
21. Zhao CS, Yin WT, Wang JY, et al. CordyMax Cs-4 improves glucose metabolism and increases insulin sensitivity in normal rats. J Altern Complement Med. 2002;8:309-314.
22. Kiho T, Ookubo K, Usui S, Ukai S, Hirano K. Structural features and hypoglycemic activity of a polysaccharide (CS-F10) from the cultured mycelium of Cordyceps sinensis. Biol Pharm Bull. 1999;22:966-970.
23. Bok JW, Lermer L, Chilton J, Klingeman HG, Towers GH. Antitumor sterols from the mycelia of Cordycepssinensis. Phytochemistry. 1999;51:891-898.
24. Chiou WF, Chang PC, Chou CJ, Chen CF. Protein constituent contributes to the hypotensive and vasorelaxant activities of Cordyceps sinensis. Life Sci. 2000;66:1369-1376.
25. Zhao X, Li L. Cordyceps sinensis in protection of the kidney from cyclosporine A nephrotoxicity [in Chinese]. Zhonghua Yi Xue Za Zhi. 1993;73:410-412, 447.
26. Bao ZD, Wu ZG, Zheng F. Amelioration of aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity by Cordycepssinensis in old patients [in Chinese]. Chin J Integrated Med. 1994;14:259,271-273.
27. Li LS, Zheng F. Clinical protection of aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity by Cordyceps sinensis (CS). J Am Soc Nephrology. 1992;3:726 (abstract 24P).
28. Hsu CC, Tsai SJ, Huang YL, Huang BM. Regulatory mechanism of Cordyceps sinensis mycelium on mouse Leydig cell steroidogenesis. FEBS Lett. 2003;543:140-143.
29. Huang BM, Chuang YM, Chen CF, Leu SF. Effects of extracted Cordyceps sinensis on steroidogenesis in MA-10 mouse Leydig tumor cells. Biol Pharm Bull. 2000;23:1532-1535.
30. Hsu CC, Huang YL, Tsai SJ, Sheu CC, Huang BM. In vivo and in vitro stimulatory effects of Cordycepssinensis on testosterone production in mouse Leydig cells. Life Sci. 2003;73:2127-2136.
31. Huang BM, Hsu CC, Tsai SJ, Sheu CC, Leu SF. Effects of Cordyceps sinensis on testosterone production in normal mouse Leydig cells. Life Sci. 2001;69:2593-2602.
32. Huang BM, Ju SY, Wu CS, Chuang WJ, Sheu CC, Leu SF. Cordyceps sinensis and its fractions stimulate MA-10 mouse Leydig tumor cell steroidogenesis. J Androl. 2001;22:831-837.
33. Wang SM, Lee LJ, Lin WW, Chang CM. Effects of a water-soluble extract of Cordyceps sinensis on steroidogenesis and capsular morphology of lipid droplets in cultured rat adrenocortical cells. J Cell Biochem. 1998;69:483-489.
34. Wu TN, Yang KC, Wang CM, et al. Lead poisoning caused by contaminated Cordyceps, a Chinese herbal medicine: two case reports. The Sci Total Env. 1996;182:193-195.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 12/15/2015
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