Cordyceps sinensis – an introduction

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Probably the most unusual of all medicinal mushrooms, the Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that grows only in a specific type of caterpillar. It is very rare and only found in the highlands of Tibet and a few Chinese, Nepalese, Indian and Bhutanese regions, 3000-5000 meters above sea level. The Cordyceps sinensis’ spores are spread by the wind over the soil and on plants.



top: this is how the ‘worm’ and the fruiting body look when still in the soil.

bottom: after having been dug up.

When the caterpillars emerge from the soil to nibble on the roots and leaves of their favorite plants they get infected. The spores will open and the mycelium (the ‘roots’ of the fungus) will start spreading inside the caterpillar, killing it and eventually completely replacing its host’s tissue. Only the skin remains, yellowish to brown in color.

The Tibetan name for the Cordyceps is ‘yartsa gunbu‘ and in Chinese it is known as ‘dong chong xia cao‘, both names meaning ‘summer grass, winter worm‘. These names are well chosen, because during spring to early summer the Cordyceps will show its fruiting body, 5-15 cm long, club-shaped and cylindrical.

It will grow from the forehead of the caterpillar (which remains hidden underground) and is almost invisible in the grasses and the other vegetation. The fruiting body is the final stage of the Cordyceps’ lifecycle, emerging solely for the purpose to spread spores. The part with the greatest potency, however, is the ‘worm’ filled with mycelia. A well-developed worm with a tiny fruiting body is considered the highest quality Cordyceps and is the most expensive. A large fruiting body with a small ‘worm’ is seen as sub-standard.

competition between harvesters has grown to extreme levels in recent years

For many of the local people harvesting Cordyceps is their main income.

The prices for wild-harvested Cordyceps have always been high but in the past few years rose to insane levels; a kilo of good quality Cordyceps costs the equivalent of a mid-class car (auction prizes in China – local people get around $5000 p/kg). A good quality dried Cordyceps sinensis weighs about half a gram and is about 6-8 cm long. On a good day a gatherer can collect up to 20 Cordyceps, but usually it’s less.


In Tibet the Cordyceps is actually not used a lot in traditional medicine, although the oldest references to Cordyceps were found in a 15th century Tibetan text. It’s mainly used as an aphrodisiac and as a tonic, to improve general health. However, most Tibetans see Cordyceps mainly as a trade item .

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) Cordyceps sinensis was first mentioned in the 18th century and was said to provide lung protection, kidney improvement and yin-yang double invigoration (balancing) – all of which was confirmed by 20th century scientific research. It is very popular, not in the least because of its function as an aphrodisiac.cordyceps-1

Because natural Cordyceps sinensis is rare and the demand is high, Chinese biotechnology has invested lots of time and money in researching the Cordyceps’ life cycle with the aim to develop techniques for isolating fermentable strains of the fungus, which would make commercial production possible. The first three isolated strains were not giving the desired results, but the fourth strain, CS-4, (isolated for the first time in 1982) was containing similar pharmacologically active components as the natural Cordyceps. In fact, several compounds were developing even better in cultivation, most notably adenosine and other nucleosides.

In 1987 China’s Ministry of Public Health approved CS-4 for use by the general public. It became the first traditional Chinese medicine that was officially approved in the country since TCM medicines were being evaluated using China’s new and more strict Western scientific standards.

Over the past 30 years the fermentation techniques, chemical composition, therapeutic functions and the toxicity have been thoroughly investigated, including many clinical trials. Over 2000 people with various medical problems were involved and the results indicate that CS-4 is very effective and safe.

The proclamations from some American producers that the CS-4 strain is not actual Cordyceps sinensis but a related species are therefore irrelevant – almost all published research so far has been done with the CS-4 strain, not with their product, and the research results they use to market their products are in fact CS-4 results and should not be claimed for their products just like that.

Cordyceps’ effects on health; clinical research details

Improvement in vitality and energy

A recent study presented at the 46th annual meeting of The American College of Sports Medicine gave the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled CS-4 trial. CS-4’s effects were tested on 30 healthy, elderly subjects randomly assigned to receive three grams a day of either CS-4 or a placebo. Exercise performance was tested before and after six weeks of treatment using a symptom-limited, incremental work-rate protocol on a cycle ergometer. Those taking CS-4 during the six-week trial significantly increased maximum oxygen uptake from 1.88 to 2.00 liters per minute. Those taking the placebo showed no change in performance.

A similar trial in the US with 24 young and well-trained males however showed no effect after using CS-4. The main difference with the previous trial was the administration of the supplement – 1 hour before the actual test took place, whereas the elderly people were using a CS supplement for six weeks. This indicates that the effect of CS-4 is not immediate but builds up slowly over time.

Cordyceps sinensis has been known for centuries for its benefits as a tonic against aging and senescence. Several papers recently reported an improvement of vitality, coupled with an increase in superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity and a decrease in oxygen free radicals. It is generally known that one of the main factors related to aging is a dramatic reduction of cellular superoxide dismutase (SOD – anti-oxidant) functions, leading to a build-up of oxidative damage to cells. In one clinical study, 66 senescent elderly patients on CS-4 (3 g/day for 3 months), had a significant (15%) increase in SOD activity and improved vitality and energy scores including a higher tolerance to cold than the control group.

Heart health

A long clinical study with CS-4 was completed in 1995. Researchers at Fu-Jian Medical College in China were testing CS-4 for its potential effects on the quality of life of 64 chronic heart failure patients. Two groups were created: a control group of 30 randomly assigned patients who received only conventional Western medicines and a group of 34 randomly assigned patients who received CS-4 as an adjuvant therapy. The dosage of the CS-4 was 3 to 4 gr/per day, 500mg capsules for an average of 26 months. The patients were regularly checked for changes in their ECGs, quality of life, and other measurements according to Western medical standards.

The researchers found no significant differences in the number of patients that died in each group, but they found very significant differences in all other readings. In the shortness of breath/fatigue index, the control group only taking Western medicine improved in average ± 25%. But in the group on CS-4 plus the Western medicine the improvement averaged 66%. Statistically significant improvements were found in the CS-4 group; in their cardiac output, stroke volume, and heart beat.

Measurable improvements were found in general activities in 12 of the 30 control patients, but in the group using CS-4 plus Western medication 27 out of 34 improved. Overall the people in the CS-4 group also felt better and felt more in control.

Cordyceps and Healthy Cholesterol Levels

The largest study of Cordyceps in China for promoting healthy cholesterol levels was a multi-center clinical trial at 9 hospitals including 273 patients. Cordyceps was shown to promote healthy HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which helps in lowering the LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. In two placebo-controlled clinical trials with elderly patients, CS-4 was shown to reduce the age-related oxidation of fats in the system. The red blood cells of 60 to 84-year-old patients on the CS-4 therapy (3 grams/day for 3 months) had significantly higher levels of the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) after using CS-4. SOD levels increased so much (from 882.74 ± 138.05 to 1021.16 ± 144.95) that they reached levels comparable to those of 17 to 20-year-olds (949.16 ± 125.18) who were checked for comparison.

A study of elderly patients on CS-4 for 4 weeks also showed a significant decrease in cell-damaging free radicals known as lipo-peroxides. Lipo-peroxides are formed when lipids (fats) in the body are oxidized or burnt by the system. Researchers can measure them in the form of something called plasma malondialdehyde, or MDA levels. The MDA levels were initially high in the elderly patients, but after 23 months on CS-4 levels got significantly lower; they reached the levels found in the 17 to 20 year olds. These findings indicate that CS-4 reduces oxidative damage to cells caused by free radicals which contribute to the formation of plaque in artery walls.

Promotes Healthy Lung Function

In TCM, Cordyceps is said to keep the lungs fit, and is called lung-nourishing. Cordyceps helps to keep the lungs healthy through its ability to increase the activity of the body’s own antioxidant, SOD. The lung is bombarded with free radicals (pollution, dust, smoke) and can only defend itself by producing endogenous antioxidant free radical scavengers, such as the aforementioned SOD. In one study, lung patients placed on a course of Cordyceps mycelium powder (3 x 330 mg capsules, 3 times a day) for 21 days, showed a highly significant increase (35.7%) in levels of the naturally-occurring SOD compared to their pre-Cordyceps reading. The increase indicated to the investigators that tissue repair and protective mechanisms had gone into higher gear.


  • The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine- Cordyceps sinensis: part 1JIA-SHI ZHU, (15 pages)

  • The scientific rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine- Cordyceps sinensis; part 2JIA-SHI ZHU, (29 pages)

  • Pharmacological Functions of Chinese Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps sinensis and Related SpeciesSHENG-YUAN WANG, (10 pages)

  • Quality control of Cordyceps sinensis, a valued traditional Chinese medicineS.P. Li (14 pages)

  • Effects of a supplement designed to increase ATP levels on muscle strength, power output, and endurance Trent J Herda (5 pages)

  • Genetic diversity of Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a medicinal fungus endemic to the Tibetan Plateau: Implications for its evolution and conservationYongjie Zhang (12 pages)

These articles can all be downloaded from this link, for educational purposes only.