Cordyceps; The Himalayan Gold

Cordyceps militaris

Cordyceps grown in Viernam by SONITA Đông Trùng Hạ Thảo

When most people think of mushrooms, they think of them growing out of trees, decaying logs or leaves. That is not the case for one highly unusual genus of mushrooms; Cordyceps.

Cordyceps sinensis is known as the Caterpillar Mushroom. As you may have guessed from it’s nickname, may have something to do with caterpillars, Ghost Moth Caterpillars to be exact.  These caterpillars live underground throughout Europe and Asia. But the ones who live in the high plateaus of the Himalayas play a special role in the life of Cordyceps sinensis.

The spores of the fungus are throughout the soil and debris in which the caterpillars live and graze. When a caterpillar ingests some of the spores, the fungus begins to infect the caterpillar and begins to take the role of lead commander.

It is unclear whether or not the fungus has complete control over the caterpillar, but it sure looks like it does! It seems like the fungus can control everything, most importantly, its movements. It commands it’s host to move upwards towards the surface, head first. By the time the host reaches the surface, it’s work is done and the fungus digests what’s left of the caterpillar, then starts to grow it’s hyphae out of the caterpillars head. Emerging from the head, to the surface above, poking out of the soil like a blade of grass, the fruiting body sporulates into the wind hoping to infect another generation.

I hope all that didn’t gross you out, because this mushroom is the world’s most expensive natural medicine. Any why you may ask?

Here are some of the health benefits of Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris.

    • First, it’s an adaptogen, lowering stress, improving energy levels, improving strength and stamina both physically and mentally. It helps to regulate the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, especially after exercise. Adult males who ingested Cordyceps showered lowered signs of cortisol after exercise.
    • Stimulates and Strengthen the immune system by enhancing the activity of macrophages and natural killer cells.
    • Protects against pathogens, including lyme. Also antiviral.
    • Used in treating autoimmune disorders such as lyme disease and fibromyalgia.
    • Cordyceps contains vitamins B1, B2, B12 + K as well as different kinds of carbohydrates and various medicinally important polysaccharides, proteins, sterols, nucleosides, and other trace elements.
    • Kidney repair and kidney disease prevention.
    • Increased air flow. In the high altitudes of the Himalayas, the air is very thin. Anything that lives or grows in this region must be proficient at extracting oxygen from the atmosphere. Cordyceps give this gift to it’s consumer, helping the lungs breathe more fully and completely. With increased oxygen delivery comes increased ATP levels. (by nearly 28%!)
    • Used to treat diabetes.  Cordyceps helps regulate blood sugar levels.
    • Improve short term memory and concentration through inhibiting cerebral ischemia (caused when there is not enough blood flow to the brain) by improving blood flow and blood oxygen levels.
    • Anti-tumor & Anti-cancer properties. Cordyceps contain a number of unique polysaccharides that inhibit the growth of many forms of cancer including leukemia.
    • In Tibetan medicine, it has traditionally been used to strengthen the kidneys and heart, improve respiratory function, and enhance fertility.
    • In Chinese medicine, it has traditionally been used to regenerate and Yin and Yang elements in on primordial Qi. According to Chinese medicine, Qi is the source of our core vitality, where we store the energy used to heal. It is considered that having strong Qi keeps us youthful and resilient. With healthy Qi, it is also believed that we become more fertile and our offspring, stronger. Cordyceps are also in traditional Chinese medicine to recover from stress and over exhaustion as well as increase our libido. Cordyceps are the main component in the Chinese meridian tonic. Restoring balance throughout the meridians is thought to restore balance throughout the systems of the body; improving digestion, sleep, stress levels, concentration, and fatigue levels. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are also the home of the Qi; thus according to this belief the lung, nose, and throat disorders are helped with Cordyceps.
    • Cholesterol lowering properties. Cordyceps also inhibit cholesterol build up within the cardiovascular system.
    • Improved liver function
    • And last but certainly not least, throughout history Cordyceps have also been used as an aphrodisiac for thousands of years, first written record of this dates back to 200 AD! Studies show that Cordyceps increase testosterone levels, libido, and fertility giving it the nickname “fungal Viagra.”

This “Himalayan Gold” is a major source of income for villages at high altitudes in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Villagers here spend nearly everyday during the spring months looking for the ascocarp of the fungus between blades of grass along sweeping mountainsides. Cordycep sinensis is worth over 10 million US dollars a ton; making it like gold for these collectors. It is so valuable that the fruiting body becomes overharvested putting Cordycep sinensis on the endangered list. Cordycep sinensis cannot be grown in a lab, more a close cousin can.

Luckily, Cordycep militaris, a variety of Cordyceps that shares the same compounds and properties as Cordycep sinensis, is easily grown on substrate in a lab setting, is vegan friendly, and is helping suppliers meet the demand for one of the most powerful natural medicines on Earth.

On a side note, there are estimated to be over 680 different species of Cordyceps and counting! Growing mainly from insects and arthropods and some from other fungi, Cordyceps led ancient cultures to believe they were the key to immortality. In Tibet, stone effigies were placed in burial grounds with the dead.

Watch the magic of Cordyceps zombify an ant to do it’s bidding narrated by the Sir. David Attenborough:

What once was a delicacy, a magic elixir of life only enjoyed in the Emperor’s Palace, is now a powerful superfood that can be enjoyed by the masses, if the price is right and the supply is plenty. Are you interested in growing this mushroom yourself? No problem! Contact Antoni for all your consulting needs!

Images by Antoni Gandia and William Rafti. The image from Rafti was taken from Wikipedia under the GNU Free Documentation License

Information pulled from:
The Fungal Pharmacy by Robert Rogers, RH (AHG)
Wilderness Films India, Ltd.

Article written by: Rita Hamm, writer/editor;


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