Cordyceps species / Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Cordyceps sinesis)
(from Medicinal Mushrooms - A Clinical Guide by Martin Powell, Pub. Mycology Press 2014)
Japanese name - Tochukas
Chinese name - Dong Chong Xia Cao
English name - Caterpillar Fungus
Cordyceps species are unique among the medicinal mushrooms in growing on an insect host rather than a plant host. To date over 700 species of cordyceps have been identified worldwide, in most cases growing parasitically on their insect hosts. However, it has also been suggested that in some cases a symbiotic relationship exists whereby the insect host derives a selective advantage from the fungal anamorph (the asexual form of the fungus), especially in marginal environments where energy efficiency is at a premium, such as the high Tibetan plateau above 3,000m where the main species used traditionally, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, occurs naturally (although previously part of the Cordyceps genus, molecular phylogenetic analysis has now led to its being placed in a separate genus, the Ophiocordycipitaceae)1,2.
Although traditionally harvested cordyceps is still available, the vast majority of cordyceps on the market today is cultivated on non-insect, grain-based substrates leading to improved quality control and affordability. Despite the commercially cultivated cordyceps being grown on a different substrate from wild collected cordyceps, HPLC analysis shows identical chemical profiles and the two are seen to be interchangeable clinically3.
As well as polysaccharides and lipids, cordyceps species contain a large number of nucleoside analogues, prominent among which is cordycepin, 3-deoxyadenosine, which is found in high levels in Cordyceps militaris and which differs from adenosine in the absence of oxygen at the 3 position of its ribose part4-7. Because of its close similarity to adenosine some enzymes cannot distinguish between the two and it is able to participate in certain biochemical reactions, including RNA/DNA synthesis, where its incorporation leads to the termination of the RNA/DNA molecule, there being no oxygen to bond with the next nucleotide8-11.
This ability to interrupt RNA/DNA synthesis has led to the use of such nucleoside analogues, termed reverse transcriptase inhibitors, in the treatment of viral infections including HIV and hepatitis as well as cancer, under pharmaceutical names including AZT (Retrovir), Videx and Epivir. In normal healthy cells such reverse transcriptase inhibitors are out-competed by the corresponding nucleoside but in rapidly dividing cancer cells and virally infected cells they are able to exert effective inhibition of replication.
Adenosine in the form of adenosine monophosphate and adenosine triphosphate also plays a central role in energy metabolism and cyclic nucleotides including cAMP play an important role in signal transduction and regulation of hormone production, actions which correlate well with the observed activity of cordyceps in these areas.
As well as O.sinensis and Cordyceps militaris, a large number of trials have been carried out using a fungal strain isolated from wild O.sinensis specimens by China’s Academy of Sciences and selected for ease of cultivation by large-scale liquid fermentation technology. Termed Cs-4, this is currently identified as Paecilomyces hepiali and continues to be one of the main cordyceps related species used in China.
One in vitro study, however, showed Cs-4 to have immune-suppressive activity and the immune-suppressant drug Cyclosporin A has been shown to be present in other fungal strains isolated from wild O.sinensis specimens12-14.
ANTI-AGEING - O.sinensis has traditionally been used as a supplement for the elderly and those recovering from long illness. Studies with Cs4 in healthy elderly subjects showed significant increases in oxygen uptake, aerobic capacity and resistance to fatigue.
Experimental evidence based on polysaccharide extracts indicates that O.sinensis is also able to improve brain function and antioxidative enzyme activity (superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and catalase), which, together with its beneficial effect on cardiovascular function, makes it an excellent supplement for the elderly15.
ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE - The use of O.sinensis, together with other supplements, by the record breaking Chinese athletes of the early 1990s has attracted considerable interest in its potential to enhance athletic performance.
A 1996 study on long distance runners reported a significant improvement in 71% of participants and O.sinensis and C. militaris as well as the cordyceps anamorphs Cs-4 and Cs-HK1, have been shown to increase endurance in animal models. Studies on sedentary humans also show a significant increase in energy output and oxygen capacity16-20. However, three studies failed to demonstrate any effect on performance in competitive cyclists or other professional athletes and it has been suggested that this may be because such athletes are already operating at or close to their maximum aerobic capacity21, 22.
SEXUAL FUNCTION - O.sinensis produces clear benefits for male sexual hypofunction when taken over a period of time. Anecdotal evidence and reports from China also indicate possible benefits for female libido.
Based on animal studies O.sinensis and C. militaris have a clear effect on increasing levels of male sex hormones, improving testes morphology, sperm quantity and quality.
In vitro research indicates that cordyceps affects the signal transduction pathway of steroidogenesis after the formation of cAMP23-27.
FERTILITY - O.sinensis is increasingly being used by leading specialists in the field of infertility and clinical evidence suggests that cordyceps has a beneficial impact on female fertility and the success of IVF. In part this may be due to its ability to stimulate 17β-estradiol (oestrogen) production, through increased StAR (steroidogenic acute regulatory protein) and aromatase expression28. In common with other mushrooms, cordyceps’ ability to regulate immune function and in particular NK cell activity may also play a part.
The ability of O.sinensis to increase oestrogen production also has potential for the management of postmenopausal osteoporosis29.
DIABETES - Experimental evidence indicates that O.sinensis is able to:
- Trigger release of insulin
- Increase hepatic glucokinase
- Increase sensitivity of cells to insulin
In one randomized trial 95% of patients treated with 3g/day O.sinensis mycelial biomass saw improvements in their blood sugar profile compared with 54% treated by other methods. In addition it has been reported that consumption of 4.5g/day O.sinensis mycelial biomass by patients with alcohol induced diabetes also produced a reduced desire for alcohol3,30-34.
Recent evidence indicates that cordycepin and related nucleoside derivatives play an active role in the anti-diabetic action of O.sinensis and that C. militaris, which has high levels of cordycepin, also has significant hypoglycaemic activity35, 36.
HEPATOPROTECTIVE - Multiple studies have shown the ability of both O.sinensis and C.militaris to inhibit hepatic fibrosis and help restore liver function37-39. One clinical study using 3g/day O.sinensis mycelial biomass to treat alcohol-induced liver steatosis in 14 patients showed reductions of 70% in AST levels, 63% in ALT levels and 64% in GGT levels over a 90 day period40.
RENAL HEALTH - O.sinensis has traditionally been considered to support the kidneys and 3.5g/day has been shown to both improve kidney function in patients with chronic renal failure and speed recovery in patients with gentamycin-induced kidney damage3.
RESPIRATORY DISEASE - Traditionally O.sinensis has been used to treat respiratory ailments and is reported to be beneficial for asthma and COPD3.
ANTI-VIRAL - As mentioned above, the nucleoside analogues present in cordyceps species are able to inhibit viral replication. At the same time the polysaccharides in cordyceps modulate the immune response to viral infections. This combination of enhanced immune response and interrupted viral replication makes cordyceps, especially C.militaris, one of the most effective mushrooms for tackling chronic viral infections9,10.
CANCER - Because of its combination of immune-modulating polysaccharides and nucleoside derivatives, many practitioners consider Cordyceps to be one of the most useful mushrooms for helping improve treatment outcomes in cancer, with cordycepin reported to induce apoptosis (cancer cell death) in multiple cancer cell lines, including: oral, colorectal, bladder, leukaemia, melanoma, multiple myeloma, breast and prostate41-51.
Main Therapeutic Applications - Fertility and sexual function, energy, diabetes, lung function, kidney support, liver disorders.
Key Component - Nucleoside derivatives.
Dose - Cordyceps’ unique properties are principally those of its nucleoside derivatives and as these are largely excreted (research on C. militaris shows that 98% of cordycepin is secreted into the growth medium52) mycelial biomass products offer the natural dosage format for cordyceps. 2-3g/day mycelial biomass is used in most cases while higher levels have been reported to give good results in a range of cancers 2.
Some practitioners prefer to use C. militaris for cancer and viral infections due to its higher cordycepin levels53,54.
Caution - Hormone dependent cancers (prostate and breast) due to increased levels of oestrogen and testosterone.
Although Cs-4 shows benefits for exercise and endurance, possible immune suppression mitigates against its use in immune deficient conditions.
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- Immunosuppressive effect of CordycepsCS-4 on human monocyte derived dendritic cells in vitro. Tang J, Tian D, Liu G. Am J Chin Med. 2010;38(5):961-72.
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- Effect of medicinal plant extracts on forced swimming capacity in mice. Jung K, Kim IH, Han D. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Jul;93(1):75-81.
- CordyMax enhances aerobic capability, endurance performance, and exercise metabolism in healthy, mid-age to elderly sedentary humans. JS Zhu, JM Rippe - Gerontology, 2001.
- Effect of Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) on exercise performance in healthy older subjects: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Chen S, Li Z, Krochmal R, Abrazado M, Kim W, Cooper CB. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 May;16(5):585-90.
- Cordyceps Sinensis Supplementation Does Not Improve Endurance Performance in Competitive Cyclists. Parcell AC, Smith JM, Schulthies SS, Myrer JW, Fellingham G. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 2002;34(5):231.
- Does Cordyceps sinensis Ingestion Aid Athletic Performance? TB Walker. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2006
- Effect of Cordyceps militaris supplementation on sperm production, sperm motility and hormones in Sprague-Dawley rats. Am J Chin Med. 2008;36(5):849-59.
- In vivo and in vitro stimulatory effects of Cordyceps sinensis on testosterone production in mouse Leydig cells. Life Sci. 2003 Sep 5;73(16):2127-36.
- Influence of Cordyceps sinensis on Reproduction and Testis Morphology in Mice. Shenzhen Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine. 2005-6 .
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- Estrogenic Substances from the Mycelia of Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps ophioglossoides (Ehrh.) Fr. (Ascomycetes). Hirokazu Kawagishi, Kentaro Okamura, Fumio Kobayashi, Noriko Kinjo. Int J Med Mushr.2004;6(3):
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- The Co-effect of Cordyceps sinensis and Strontium on Osteoporosis in Ovariectomized Osteopenic Rats. Qi W, Yan YB, Wang PJ, Lei W. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2010 May 5.
- Hypoglycemic Activity of a Polysaccharide (CS-F30) from the Cultural Mycelium of Cordyceps sinensis and Its Effect on Glucose Metabolism in Mouse Liver. Kiho T, et al. Biol Pharm Bull. Feb1996;19(2):294-96.
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- Anti-hyperglycemic activity of natural and fermented in rats with diabetes induced by nicotinamide and streptozotocin. Lo HC, Hsu TH, Tu ST, Lin KC. Am J Chin Med. 2006;34(5):819-32.
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- Cordycepin Suppresses Expression of Diabetes Regulating Genes by Inhibition of Lipopolysaccharide-induced Inflammation in Macrophages. Shin S, Lee S, Kwon J, Moon S, Lee S, Lee CK, Cho K, Ha NJ, Kim K. Immune Netw. 2009 Jun;9(3):98-105.
- Aqueous Extracts of Cordyceps militaris (Ascomycetes) Lower the Levels of Plasma Glucose by Activating the Cholinergic Nerve in Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Rats. Cheng YW. Int J Med Mushr. 2013;15(3):277-286.
- Studies on the antidiabetic activities of Cordyceps militaris extract in diet-streptozotocin-induced diabetic Sprague-Dawley rats. DongYet al. BiomedResInt. Published online 2014 March 11.
- Inhibitive Effect of Cordyceps sinensis on Experimental Hepatic Fibrosis and its Possible Mechanism- Liu YK, Shen W. Department of Gastrointerology, the Second Affiliated Hosptial, Chongqing University of Medicial Sciences, Chongqing 400010, Chinga World J Gastroenterol. 2003. 2003 Mar;9(3):529-33.
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- Cordyceps sinensis Supplementation as Immunonutrition in Alcohol Induced Liver Steatosis-II. Santos C. Mycology News, 2004;1(9):2-3.
- RNA-directed agent, cordycepin, induces cell death in multiple myeloma cells. Chen LS, Stellrecht CM, Gandhi V. Br J Haematol. 2008 Mar;140(6):682-391. 30. Antitumour activity of Cordycepin in mice. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 31, S51-S53. 2004.
- Cordycepin inhibits protein synthesis and cell adhesion through effects on signal transduction. J Biol Chem. 2010 Jan 22;285(4):2610-21.
- Effect of cordycepin on interleukin-10 production of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. European Journal of Pharmacology, volume 453, Issues 2-3, 25 October 2002, Pages 309-317.
- Cordycepin suppresses TNF-alpha-induced invasion, migration and matrix metalloproteinase-9 expression in human bladder cancer cells. Lee EJ, Kim WJ, Moon SK. Phytother Res. 2010 Jun 17.
- Role of Cordycepin and Adenosine on the Phenotypic Switch of Macrophages via Induced Anti-inflammatory Cytokines. Shin S, Moon S, Park Y, Kwon J, Lee S, Lee CK, Cho K, Ha NJ, Kim K. Immune Netw. 2009 Dec;9(6):255-64.
- Involvement of autophagy in cordycepin-induced apoptosis in human prostate carcinoma LNCaP cells. Lee HH et al. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2014 Jul;38(1):239-50.
- Cordycepin: a bioactive metabolite with therapeutic potential. Tuli HS, Sharma AK, Sandhu SS, Kashyap D. Life Sci. 2013 Nov 26;93(23):863-9.
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- Extract of Cordyceps militaris inhibits angiogenesis and suppresses tumor growth of human malignant melanoma cells. Ruma IM et al. Int J Oncol. 2014 Jul;45(1):209-18.
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- Determination of nucleosides and nucleobases in different species of Cordyceps by capillary electrophoresis-mass spectrometry. Yang FQ, Ge L, Yong JW, Tan SN, Li SP. J Pharm Biomed Anal. 2009 Oct 15;50(3):307-14.