Cordyceps sinensis, or Chinese cordyceps, is a fungus that grows at high altitudes in China’s mountainous regions. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine to restore strength in convalescing patients, combat stress and fatigue, stimulate immunity and sexuality, slow down ageing and boost physical energy as well liver, kidney and lung function. The subject of numerous studies, particularly the Cs-4 strain, it has demonstrated adaptogenic effects, a positive action against fatigue, liver and kidney problems and respiratory diseases, as well as benefits for sexual function and an ability to modulate the immune system and boost physical performance.
In ancient times, Cordyceps sinensis was attributed with ginseng-like properties and was used both as a tonic at the palace of the Chinese Emperor following extreme fatigue or long-term illness as well as a treatment for impotence, neurasthenia or back pain.
Credited with having contributed to Chinese athletic success, it began to attract attention in the West at the beginning of the 1990s.
More than 30 years’ research
With natural cordyceps (wild Cordyceps sinensis) in short supply, Chinese scientists began investigating its lifecycle with the aim of developing a technique to isolate a fermentable strain. At the end of the 1970s, the Beijing Institute of Materia Medica launched a 10-year study programme which, amongst others, led to the isolation in 1982 of a Cs-4 variety (Paecilomyces hepiali Chen) of wild Cordyceps sinensis. Since then, this Cs-4 fermentation product has been studied extensively in China. More than 2000 patients suffering from a range of diseases have been enrolled in clinical studies, the results of which suggest that Cs-4 is highly effective, safe and very similar to wild Cordyceps sinensis.
Animal research shows improvements in energy and physical performance
Animal studies have shown that Cordyceps produces an increase of 45–55% in the ratio of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to inorganic phosphate in the liver, an effect considered beneficial in terms of energy status and potential improvement in physical performance (Manabe et al., 1996).
In addition, mice fed Cordyceps and subjected to an extreme, low-oxygen environment were able to use oxygen 30-40% more efficiently, showed improved tolerance to acidosis and hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and lived two to three times longer than control mice (Lou et al., 1986). These results suggest that Cordyceps may improve bioenergy status by influencing an internal balance mechanism, an effect which may have enabled the animals to more effectively manage an inadequate oxygen supply and basic energy requirements for physical activity.
Recent research has confirmed these results and shown that Cordyceps increases levels of intracellular ATP (Guowei, 2001) and oxygen use (Jia-Shi Zhu, 2004).
Relieves fatigue in elderly patients
Perhaps one of the best-known effects of Cordyceps sinensis is its ability to relieve fatigue. According to Himalayan folklore, it was first discovered when ancient Tibetan and Nepalese herdsmen grazed their goats and yaks on mountainous pastures. They noticed the animals eating a type of brown, grass-like mushroom growing from caterpillar heads, after which the goats and yaks became frisky and appeared eager to mate with other animals. The herdsmen saw potential benefits in the animals’ increased ardour and began to pick and eat these small mushrooms themselves.
The increase in energy and performance produced by Cordyceps sinensis appear to be greater in people who are below optimum fitness than in professional athletes.
In a number of clinical studies conducted in China, primarily on older patients with fatigue or other ageing-related symptoms, subjects treated with Cordyceps reported significant improvements in their levels of fatigue and ability to tolerate low temperatures, as well as in their memory, cognitive ability and sexual behaviour (Wen, 1993 ; Zhang et al., 1995).
Overall, the efficacy with which Cordyceps relieved fatigue in older subjects was between 80% and 90%. In addition to its effects on energy levels – which are probably due to its adenosine content – Cordyceps produced effects in mice that were similar to those of sex hormone steroids, which might explain the increase in libido seen in several studies of older subjects.
Improves capacity for physical exercise
At the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers presented a small study which showed that taking Cordyceps sinensis (Cs-4 Cordymax) for six months resulted in an increase in maximum oxygen consumption and anaerobic threshold in older individuals, an effect which may help improve capacity for physical exercise and resistance to fatigue.
A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted on 131 healthy, sedentary, male and female volunteers aged 40-70. Capacity for physical exercise, stamina and exercise-related metabolic changes were measured before, in the middle and at the end of 12 weeks’ supplementation with Cordymax Cs-4.
Results showed an increase of 5.5% in peak oxygen uptake (VO2 max) in the supplemented group compared with just 2.2% in the control group, suggesting that Cordymax increases capacity for aerobic exercise.
The time it took to achieve VO2 max increased by 4.1% indicating enhanced physical strength for aerobic exercise. There was also an increase in endurance performance and a reduction in fatigue.
Good for endurance athletes
Scientists in California conducted a randomised, double-blind, six-week study to examine the effects of daily supplementation with 4.5g of Cordymax Cs-4 on a group of 30 highly-fit athletes. Their oxygen consumption, anaerobic threshold and heart rate were measured during maximal and sub-maximal treadmill tests. The endurance athletes were given Cordymax Cs-4 or a placebo. Before and after each period of supplementation, each subject completed a peak treadmill test followed the next day by a submaximal running test (60 minutes at 70% of peak VO2).
The Cordymax supplements, unlike the placebo, were shown to prevent weight gain during training, reduce submaximal heart rate and blood lactate during exercise, increase fat metabolism and therefore reduce the depletion of muscle glycogen during prolonged exercise. These results suggest that supplementing with Cordymax Cs-4 may have benefits for circulation and metabolism during submaximal exercise in endurance athletes.
However, contrary to the majority of studies conducted on performance in non-professional athletes, a recent study testing Cordyceps sinensis on highly-trained professional athletes found no significant increase in performance. This may have been because these subjects were already at peak fitness and an increase in available ATP or oxygen use was of no significant physiological value to them.
It would therefore appear that Cordyceps can provide the additional energy we need to deal with the daily stresses of modern life.
Beneficial for the respiratory system
Cordyceps has a long history of use in the treatment of chronic bronchitis, especially in older people, as well as in that of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis and other diseases of the respiratory system. Its reputation for protecting the lungs comes from its ability to promote better use of oxygen
Studies have shown that extracts of Cordyceps sinensis inhibit contractions of the trachea which is particularly beneficial for asthmatics because it allows increased airflow to the lungs.
One of Cordyceps’ most valuable pharmacological effects on the respiratory system involves expectoration and cough. In preclinical animal studies, an extract of Cordyceps Cs-4 increased secretion inside the trachea of rats, reaching a peak two hours after administration of the supplement, thus facilitating expectoration. Cordyceps has also demonstrated an anti-cough action and in a mouse study, Cordyceps Cs-4 treatment was found to be effective against experimentally-induced cough, with a similar effect to that of 60 mg/kg codeine.