Cordyceps sinensis, also called Chinese caterpillar fungus, Cs-4, Dong Chong Xia Caoor, or semitake, is a fungus native to the Tibetan plateau in China. The fungus is parasitic, and grows in the moth caterpillar. Spores enter the host, germinate, and ultimately kill the larva. Although species of cordyceps are seen in Europe and the Americas, only the Chinese form has been used medically.
Cordyceps has a long history of use in Chinese medicine. Its traditional roles have been restorative; improving the quality of life, and increasing energy and longevity.
Traditional uses of the thousand year "rejuvenation" herb include the following:
- impotence treatment
- increase fertility
- stimulate immune system
- improve resistance to bacteria
- increase resistance to viruses
- relieve fatigue
- vitality tonic for mind and body, especially in aging men
While most of the cordyceps research has been conducted in China, published studies in Europe and elsewhere indicate that the fungus may have many potentially useful properties. A Korean study of a related species of cordyceps indicates that it has components that may inhibit coagulation, making it potentially beneficial in stroke and heart attack prevention. A hot water extract of the fungus appeared to stimulate the immune system. This immune modulation effect is seen in other studies, which have reported that cordyceps may be useful in treating Hepatitis B. A study from Thailand reported that Cordyceps nipponica may have value in the treatment of malaria. Additional studies have indicated its possible benefit in preventing a recurrence of Lupus nephritis. However, another study that looked at herbs used as performance enhancers (to improve exercise and athletic performance), was unable to validate cordyceps' value for this purpose.
Another review concluded that cordyceps may be promising as a possible aid for fatigue, stress, heart health, lung function, and toxin exposure.
Cordyceps has physiological properties and benefits if used over time as a tonic, but taking it for a specific disease or problem remains an area needing further human studies and research. The traditional use of cordyceps was as an ongoing daily tonic, beginning in mid-life.
Cordyceps capsules are available in varying strengths (400 mg, 450 mg, 615 mg, and 800 mg). The liquid preparation is sold in 1 gram per 1.5 ml strength.
Cordyceps appears to be an exceptionally safe product, with no established toxic dose. In 1996, there were two reports of cordyceps products contaminated with lead, but this does not appear to be an ongoing problem.
There is a risk of allergic reactions to either the fungus or other ingredients in the formulation.
Formulations of cordyceps are not standardized. Products are labeled in terms of the quantity of dried fungus contained, but there is no way to determine the amount of active components in any product. Because of this, activity may vary between brands, and between individual samples from the same company.
Side effects appear to be mild. Patients have reported stomach upset, dry mouth, and nausea.
At this time, the only established interaction is due to the anticoagulant effects of the fungus, which may increase the risk of bleeding in patients taking warfarin (commonly known by the brand name Coumadin) or other anticoagulant drugs.
Because of the many different activities that have been attributed to cordyceps, it seems likely that other drug interactions will be reported in the future.
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Samuel Uretsky, Pharm.D.