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Cordyceps: Benefits and Side Effects

What’s gross? Eating a baby caterpillar. What’s grosser than gross? Eating a mushroom growing on a baby caterpillar, and then eating the baby caterpillar.

Right now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “That’s not a thing though, right? Like, that can’t be a thing.”

Well, think again, fellas. It is a thing, and it’s called cordyceps. 

And we admit it: it sounds pretty unappetizing at first glance. But people have consumed this fungus and the larvae it grows on for hundreds, if not thousands of years. One would assume cordyceps is loaded with some kind of benefit, because it’s not every day people seek out insect larvae for their delicious flavor. 

What is Cordyceps? 

Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that grows on the larvae of certain insects. Both the mushroom and the larvae are included in the product referred to as cordyceps. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since ancient times. It appears in texts as old as 1694

The parasitic fungus attaches itself to larvae of the Hepialidae insect family — a family of moths— who live several inches below ground. As the fungus grows, it envelops the larvae until the insect is essentially “mummified”.  

Reportedly, cordyceps tastes sweet and neutral. Sounds good, right? 

Traditionally, cordyceps is found in the high altitudes of Tibet, China, and India. However, due to demand for the product, natural substitutes (like cordyceps militaris) and cultured versions of cordyceps are being produced for sale in the commercial market. 

Reported Benefits of Cordyceps 

As with many herbal medicines, there are numerous benefits attributed to cordyceps. According to traditional Chinese medicine and the Indian tradition of Ayurveda, cordyceps may be useful in the treatment of: 

  • Kidney problems 
  • Lung irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Diabetes
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Asthma
  • Infertility
  • Arthritis
  • Liver disease 
  • Jaundice 
  • General weakness
  • And more…

The list of possible benefits is long, but the list research supporting these benefits is not. Unfortunately, science has not substantiated all of these claims. Does that make them invalid? Not necessarily. But it does mean more research is needed to determine the true breadth of cordyceps benefits. 

Scientifically-Substantiated Benefits of Cordyceps

What we do know for certain about the benefits of cordyceps is limited. Much of the research on this fungus has been done in laboratory animals. When research is done in mice, for example, it can show promise that similar benefits may be found in humans, but it’s less convincing than if the study was conducted on people. 

Still, there is evidence that cordyceps may have a positive impact on immune health, kidney function, and blood sugar.

Immune health. Research in lab mice indicates cordyceps could help the immune system recover from damage due to radiation. A study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology indicates cordyceps can affect immune health at a cellular level, potentially inhibiting tumor growth in mice. Current research indicates cordyceps could have a future role in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and suppressed immune systems following organ transplant.

Kidney function. The scientific evidence for cordyceps benefits in kidney function is mixed. One study found positive effects in a very specific patient group: those who had previously received kidney transplants and had a condition called chronic allograft nephropathy. However, a 2014 meta analysis that reviewed 22 different studies found that while cordyceps may be beneficial for kidney function, the evidence is “poor” and “no definitive conclusions could be made” for people with chronic kidney disease.

Blood sugar regulation. Emerging research in rodents indicates cordyceps may aid in the regulation of blood sugar for type 2 diabetes. According to these studies, the fungus may assist in lowering blood sugar and total cholesterol levels.

Cordyceps Side Effects 

Cordyceps is believed to be generally safe. However, because it may have effects on blood sugar, hypoglycemics and diabetics are urged to talk with their doctor before taking. Also, it may increase the effects of blood thinning medication, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Is Cordyceps Right For You?

When it comes to any food, medicine, or herbal concoction, safety is a primary concern. Cordyceps is safe for most people. Secondarily, you have to determine if it will provide any benefit. While the research on cordyceps is limited, it is promising. There are no clear-cut, unequivocally proven benefits of taking cordyceps, but current research indicates it could be beneficial for kidney function, blood sugar regulation and immune health. 

This fungus-larvae combination has been used for hundreds of years, and used for many health purposes. It’s entirely possible that science just hasn’t caught up with the folk medicine of cordyceps and that yet-unproven benefits will be discovered with additional time and research. 

The bottomline: Indications point to cordyceps being safe and potentially beneficial for use, but more research on the topic is definitely necessary. In the end, the decision is one to be made by you and your healthcare provider.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.