Imagine you’re a humble ant, roaming around the forest in search of food or helping your colony expand its nest, when all of a sudden you step on a webbed, white substance. Thinking nothing of it, you carry on with your day, until you notice that this white substance has wrapped it’s way around your feet and limbs, hard exoskeleton, and antennae. You suddenly feel compelled to climb: up the trunks of trees, past branches and leaves, meters beyond where you normally go until you have a bird’s eye view of the forest. By then, your body feels numb, and you’re falling in and out of consciousness. As you exhale your last breaths, a strange spindly mushroom grows out of your head and rains spores down the forest floor. You turn into nothing but a hard, white mummy.
It’s rather morbid, isn’t it? And If you’ve never heard of the word “Cordyceps” before, or played “The Last Of Us” video game, the scenario at least gives you a sense of what happens when an insect falls prey to a Genus of entomopathogenic fungi called Cordyceps. Entomopathogenic fungi are a group of fungi that are able to parasitize insects, infecting them with mycelium and eventually killing them. Fungi of the genus Cordyceps or Ophiocordyceps are those that parasitize various arthropod species, eventually forming mushroom fruiting bodies from these insects. Otherwise known as “The Zombie Fungus,” species of Cordyceps manipulate insect behavior by having them climb up trees or away from their colony to an area where, as they become mummified and the fruiting bodies form, sporulation has the best chance of infecting more insects.
Crazily enough, eating Cordyceps is good for us! While the idea of consuming a mushroom that has consumed an insect might sound meta at best and horrific at worst to you, specific species of Cordyceps can be beneficial for anything from aiding in digestion to boosting athletic performance and stimulating libido. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through everything involving Cordyceps: the ethnomycology of Cordyceps, why they’re good for you, and how to cultivate them.
The Ethnomycology of Cordyceps
The oldest and most prolific use of Cordyceps can be found within Chinese and Tibetan culture. The species Ophiocordyceps sinensis, otherwise known as the caterpillar mushroom, infects caterpillar larvae and fruits from mature caterpillars. These Cordyceps are particularly abundant in the Eastern Tibetan highlands and the mountainous areas in the West of China. Folklore has it that two thousand years ago, nomadic Tibetan yak herders noticed a change in herd behavior after moving to an area of the highlands where grazing fields were abundant in a “mysterious golden flower.” Since then, Tibetan nomads have been ingesting Cordyceps for hundreds of years, citing an array of medicinal benefits. The zombie caterpillar fungus is believed to be an aphrodisiac, boosting both energy, mood, and libido, and often taken in teas in the morning before the day's work. The practice of taking Cordyceps for medicinal benefits has transformed Tibetan and Chinese culture since its widespread use several hundred years ago, with a kilogram of Cordyceps selling for $3,000 today compared to $60 thirteen years ago.
Research and Various Species
Over the last few decades, research on new cultivation techniques, undiscovered compounds, and the medicinal benefits of various species of Cordyceps have been pouring in, particularly from China and Eastern Asia. The most common species of Cordyceps used for medicinal practices in Chinese culture are Ophiocordyceps sinensis, Cordyceps guangdongensis, and Cordyceps militaris, however over 350 species of Cordyceps have been discovered over the last few decades alone. As medicinal mushrooms are becoming more established in the Western world, much of our use of Cordyceps is restricted to Cordyceps militaris, due to sustainable methods of cultivation on supplemented rice rather than on insect larvae, the latter of which raising questions of ethics. However, recent studies within the last five years suggests that researchers in China might have discovered groundbreaking methods for the sustainable cultivation of Ophiocordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps guangdongensis without the need for insect larvae.
What is Cordycepin?
Cordyceps have been sited to increase metabolic function, enhance athletic performance, and increase energy and libido, and much of these benefits can be contributed to a novel compound found in Cordyceps militaris and Ophiocordyceps sinensis in high concentrations: cordycepin. Cordycepin (3’-deoxyadenosine) is a derivative of adenosine, which is the core component of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an organic compound that is crucial to providing energy to living cells. Much of our cellular and respiratory energy–the uptake of oxygen in our muscles, the driving force of metabolism and athletic performance–requires ATP. When consuming Cordyceps, cordycepin acts in similar pathways to ATP, which then increases oxygen uptake in our muscles and boosts cellular performance. Studies done on cordycepin reveal that this novel fungal molecule has anti-cancer and antioxidant properties by decreasing apoptosis, a term in cellular biology describing cell death, a prevalent phenomenon in cancer patients. By delivering more oxygen to cells and increasing cellular performance, cordycepin is also able to boost libido, enhance athletic performance, uplift the immune system, and regulate digestive health.
What to Look for in Cordyceps Products
All medicinal mushroom products are not created equal! With more brands emerging in the functional mushroom space, it’s important to be discerning in what to look for. Here are some helpful tips when choosing Cordyceps-based products (as well as other medicinal mushroom products, such as Reishi, Lion’s Mane, and Turkey Tail):
- Look for a concentrated extract rather than a dried and powdered mushroom product. Powdered, dried mushroom products that have not been extracted yet still contain a protein called “chitin” in them that is not digestible and can give you stomach issues. Mushroom extracts do not contain chitin, and are much more concentrated, meaning you’ll get more bang for your buck.
- Read through the label to check the extraction ratio. An informed brand should reveal the ratio of extraction on the label details. The higher the extract ratio, the more value you’re getting for money depending on the price of the extract.
- Make sure the extracts are from the mushroom fruiting body, rather than mycelium on grain. Purchasing an extract from fruiting bodies guarantees that there are no fillers, and you’re getting 100% mushroom extract rather than grain.
- Look at the extraction method. Different types of mushrooms have different ratios of beneficial compounds that are alcohol or water soluble. Reishi, for instance, has a high ratio of beneficial tri-terpenes that are alcohol soluble, in which case it’s important to look for a dual extract: an alcohol and water extracted product. The most beneficial compounds in Lion’s Mane, on the other hand, are it’s B-glucans and erinacines, which are water soluble, meaning both water-only extracted and dual-extracted products would suit just fine. When it comes to Cordyceps, we recommend a dual-extracted product. Long story short: dual-extraction is best, but a few mushrooms such as Lion’s Mane will still be quite beneficial when hot-water-only extracted.
- Medicinal mushroom products come in different forms: dry powders, capsules, and tinctures are the most common three forms, however there are an array of creative products such as mouth sprays and kombuchas. We recommend you purchase the product form that is the most convenient to you. Dry powders are versatile because they can be incorporated into smoothies, coffees, currys, and essentially any meal. Capsules, however, are quite simple and straightforward: take once or twice a day orally, just swallow with water. Tinctures, while extremely bitter tasting because they often come suspended in high-proof alcohol, can be taken orally or incorporated in meals and drinks. Choose the best product form that fits with your lifestyle.
If the idea of consuming a zombie insect fungus hasn’t freaked you out too much, we hope this blog post has inspired you to become as fascinated with Cordyceps as much as we are. From it’s ancient history of consumption to the science behind its active compounds, there’s enough evidence to inspire us to incorporate more Cordyceps-based supplements in our daily lives: before getting on the Peloton, in coffee before starting the work day, or even to treat digestive issues in place of or alongside probiotics. The benefits of consuming more medicinal mushrooms are endless. If you're curious about the cultivating your own cordyceps, check out our strain of choice Cordyceps genetics.