The Chinese Caterpillar Mushroom – Cordyceps
Also known as “Chinese caterpillar mushroom”, “Semitake”, and “JinShuBao”, the cordyceps mushroom (usually the cordyceps sinensis variety) has been used in Chinese medicine for many centuries to make lung and kidney tonics. The cordyceps mushroom gained fame when Chinese Olympic athletes in 1992 credited their successes to taking the mushroom as a supplement. But is there anything to the cordyceps mushroom’s medicinal uses, or is this mushroom just another case of an old wives’ tale that has gained popularity with the rise of the alternative medicine movement?
Traditional Uses of Cordyceps and Modern Research
In Chinese medicine, cordyceps has been used primarily to treat lung problems, specifically given when patients cough up blood or show other signs of lung inflammation.
A study by Taiwanese researchers showed cordyceps could be used to reduce lung inflammation in mice with symptoms of asthma. While cordyceps did not prove as effective as two other agents (including prednisolone, which is the active ingredient in several anti-asthma medications but whose side-effects can be as serious as inducing diabetes), the scientists did show cordyceps can indeed be used for lung problems.
Cordyceps helps with inflammation not just in the lungs: Korean researchers Noh et al showed that cordyceps is a great help in blocking the expression of rheumatoid arthritis. It potently blocked various chemicals that trigger rheumatoid arthritis.
Cordyceps and Cancer
More promising than its use in fighting inflammatory problems is its potential as a cancer-fighting agent. Like other medicinal mushrooms, the cordyceps mushroom contains a high concentration of polysaccharides. Polysaccharides are molecules that have cancer-fighting properties; numerous studies have shown that polysaccharide-rich compounds inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors in lab animals. Certain types of cordyceps have polysaccharides containing selenium, a chemical element that is toxic in large amounts, but trace amounts of selenium are necessary for cellular health. Selenium also forms the active centers of certain enzymes which act as anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants prevent cell damage caused by unstable molecules, or “free radicals”, and cells damaged by free radicals are one of the causes of cancer. Chinese researchers exploring the selenium-rich polysaccharides from certain types of cordyceps in tumor-bearing lab mice found that cordyceps showed “significant anti-tumor action with the inhibitory rate of 46.92%” (Zhong et al).
Meanwhile, Korean researchers Jin et al discovered that an aqueous extract of the same species of cordyceps (cordyceps militaris) could also be used to kill human breast cancer cells.
A Cruel Fungus Redeems Itself
Cordyceps is not just any cave-dwelling mushroom. A parasite that lives in the jungle, its spores gradually infiltrate a host insect, such as a grasshopper, ant, or caterpillar, and slowly drive the little creature mad. The fungal infestation eventually kills the host, and the main body of cordyceps erupts forth from the carcass. The main body of the cordyceps fungus grows again, until its spores are once again released onto a new group of insects.
Frightening as this sounds, cordyceps is non-toxic for humans, and mice who ingested their body weight in cordyceps did not show any ill-effects. On the contrary, even when investigated by modern science, this mushroom used for centuries is proving itself to be very helpful for human health. In addition to the uses already mentioned, clinical studies show that cordyceps also may help improve kidney function, alleviate the symptoms of anemia, treat chronic hepatitis and diabetes, and may also function as an anti-fatigue and anti-stress supplement (Drugs.com). It is no wonder ancient Chinese doctors considered this mushroom to be a powerful agent in increasing longevity.
Not much of the wild cordyceps is available, and most supplemental cordyceps grown in the west is made without the help of an ant or caterpillar corpse. Buyer beware of “the real stuff”: while some Chinese herbalists sell cordyceps complete with dead caterpillar in tact, the caterpillars have sometimes had lead filament added to their bodies to increase the weight, and therefore the cost. That means eating wild cordyceps can lead to accidental lead poisoning. Maybe it’s better just to take the cordyceps capsules found online or in your local natural food store.
Read More About Cordyceps
Gravelin, Rich. “Boost energy with cordyceps… Supplement brief.” Natural Health: August 2002.
Hsu et al. “Effects of the immunomodulatory agent Cordyceps militaris on airway inflammation in a mouse asthma model.” Pediatrics and Neonatology: October 2008.
Jin et al. “Induction of apoptosis by aqueous extract of cordyceps militaris.” Microbiology and Biotechnology: December 2008.
Zhong et al. “Effect of selenium-protein polysaccharide extracted from Se-rich Cordyceps militaris on tumor-bearing mice.” Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi: September 2008.