Wild Cordyceps sinensis is a powerful medicinal fungus that grows off the ghost moth caterpillar in rich Himalayan soil at altitudes above 3,800 meters. It is the world’s most expensive biological resource and can be sold as high as US$ 27,000 per kilo.
The fungus grows, essentially feeding on the body of the caterpillars underground, until their death. Then the mushroom’s bright tendrils grow out of the caterpillar’s head and up through the soil. By the time the mushroom is mature, there is little caterpillar left, other than the mummified remains. Thus, completes the transformation from animal to mushroom.
The story goes, according to the locals, that a group of yak herders discovered Ophiocordyceps sinensis, better known as Cordyceps sinensis, about 1,500 years ago. They stopped to let their animals graze, and the yaks wound up eating the mushrooms and became unusually playful and full of energy.
It has been a part of traditional Asian medicine ever since, used for its immune-boosting properties and providing increased stamina.
In Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, indigenous peoples have witnessed the curative power of Cordyceps first-hand for generations, and centuries-old Traditional Chinese Medicine texts like the Ben Cao Cong Xin praise the fungus’s innumerable abilities to ward off common colds, combat back pain, suppress coughs, sharpen the senses and more. In the region it is also known as the Himalayan Viagra “Yarsa gumba,” which translates as “winter worm, summer grass.
Cordyceps sinensis became world famous in 1993 at the Chinese national games in Beijing where multiple Chinese runners shattered track and field records. One of their records still stands today. Their coach, Ma Junren, claimed their success was due to a tonic that included Cordyceps sinensis.
The Top benefits of Cordyceps
Cordyceps Sinensis has been used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine to improve mental and physical performance, longevity, vitality and immunity. Traditional Eastern healers recommend this caterpillar-fungus either as a single medicine or combined with other herbs. Today, the benefits of this rare adaptogen are well documented and researched:
Strengthens the immune system
In studies of cell cultures, cordyceps extracts have been shown to increase pro-inflammatory cytokines. These molecules are excreted from immune cells like T cells and macrophages to regulate inflammatory reactions, which in turn aids in boosting the immune system. The potential revealed by these studies not only suggests an ability to combat an existing disease, but also to enhance the body’s innate ability to resist new diseases.
Because most of the clinical studies on the health benefits of cordyceps focused on mice and rats, whether or not these benefits extend to humans remains a big question mark. But centuries of Chinese medicine, as well as recent anecdotal evidence, strongly suggest there is a lot of potential in these fungal stalks.
Cordyceps is said to help fight inflammation in the body. Although some inflammation is good, too much can lead to diseases like heart disease and cancer. Research has shown that when human cells are exposed to Cordyceps, special proteins that increase inflammation in the body become suppressed (Trusted Source).
Thanks to these potential effects, researchers believe Cordyceps may serve as a useful anti-inflammatory supplement or drug. In fact, Cordyceps have been shown to reduce inflammation in the airways of mice, making them a potential therapy for asthma. However, the fungi appear to be less effective than commonly prescribed drugs used to provide relief for inflamed areas of the body.
Enhances vitality and longevity
The elderly have traditionally used Cordyceps to reduce fatigue and boost strength and sex drive. Researchers believe their antioxidant content may explain their anti-aging potential.
Several studies have found that Cordyceps increase antioxidants in aged mice, helping improve memory and sexual function (Trusted Source). Antioxidants are molecules that fight cell damage by neutralising free radicals, which can otherwise contribute to disease and ageing.
Boosts athletic performance hence its nickname the ‘athlete’s ally’
Often nicknamed ‘the athlete’s ally,’ cordyceps is known for its ability to enhance athletic performance using one of its superstar ingredients: adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is a nucleic acid and high-energy molecule used in every single movement that the body makes. Not only does cordyceps contain it, it also encourages the body to naturally produce more of it, enabling longer and more powerful workout sessions.
Bhutan’s sustainable harvest practices
Bhutan has strict sustainable harvest guidelines in place to protect the environment, the collectors and the sustainability of the Cordyceps.
The Royal government of Bhutan, who recognises happiness as their most valuable commodity, is aware of the gold rush that overcame areas of Nepal and are taking careful and wise measures to manage and ensure a sustainable future for both the fungus as well as the local economy. They are determined to protect Cordyceps, the villagers who harvest it, and the pristine environment it grows in. To ensure that the fertile mountain slopes are managed sustainably, the Bhutanese government has instituted several policies since then to ensure it’s only being worked by local people who are approved using old-world techniques that protect the soil and that fungus harvesting is only conducted during a certain point in the growing cycle – typically May or June. This ensures that the Cordyceps is extracted at just the right time to deliver the best product and also that spores are deposited to begin the new cycle.
It’s not just collectors that benefit from the Cordyceps harvest, but also the exporters who auction it to buyers from around the world. Cordyceps has elevated the standard of living for many Bhutanese and opened up new opportunities in business and education that previously would have been unimaginable.
Wild versus lab grown Cordyceps
Because of the rarity and high cost of Cordyceps sinensis, most supplement manufacturers use artificially cultivated fungus in a lab that is created either in liquid tanks or grown on grains, wood chips or sawdust. These lab-grown imitations are less expensive, but also not as effective as wild-harvested Cordyceps, as they often contain only a small percentage of this prized mushroom’s natural medicinal properties. They are often mostly grain and can be contaminated by pesticides and harsh solvents used in the extraction process.