The genus Cordyceps
Cordyceps is a genus of many mushrooms that possess a rather lugubrious property: they are capable of parasitizing living insects and other arthropods and then killing them or causing very serious damage. These so-called entomopathogenic fungi enter the body of an insect whenn the animal accidentally takes a bite of something that contains a spore of a Cordyceps mushroom. The spore, or seed of the mushroom, germinates in the body of the insect, at the right temperature and humidity. Then the fungus starts to form inside and takes over the full control of the insect. In this way the insect turns into a zombie, you could say, and only listens to the wishes of the mushroom. Eventually, the insect dies. A Cordyceps species focuses on one specific insect. As mentioned earlier, there are many species within these fungi. Some of them may be very harmful to an ant, or a worm, but are extremely useful for humans. We will mainly focus on the beneficial properties of Cordyceps sinensis.
Paul Stamets: This is how to save a wooden house
Paul Stamets, the famous mycologist (mushroom researcher) with many scientific studies, talk shows and books in his pocket, is also extremely interested in the beneficial properties of certain Cordyceps species. He came up with a natural solution to a problem he had with a colony of wood ants. The construction of his house was completely eaten away by these ants and he found the perfect natural pesticide for this: Cordyceps. After several investigations he stumbled upon a species of Cordyceps that, just like this ant colony, lives off wood and has a close relationship with the insect. Just like other Cordyceps species, the fungus uses the body of a certain insect to spread. The fungus 'hopes' that the ant will get a spore of the mushroom when eating the wood. An infected ant is slowly but surely taken over by the mushroom. The Cordyceps takes over the motor skills of the ant when its brain is penetrated by the fungus. The Cordyceps mushroom directs the ant to the highest point in the area. Here the Cordyceps sprouts from the head of the ant, which dies. This sinister story repeats itself with the next ant, which gets the spores of the mushroom and turns into a zombie again. The story is a little more complicated than letting the mere ants eat the spores of this fungus. Because the ant and this Cordyceps mushroom species have been connected for centuries, the ant knows immediately when an infection has taken place. The wood ant itself has devised a clever system that ensures that members of the colony that have become infected with the Cordyceps mushroom do not enter the nest and are killed as quickly as possible. As soon as the other ants smell that the mushroom has struck, the buddy in question is decapitated without pardon and taken far away from the colony. Now Paul Stamets has managed to grow the Cordyceps on rice and to make a variant of it that sporulates sooner than the original species. When the wood ants ate from the rice, they were not prepared for the much quicker attack of this renewed Cordyceps mushroom. In no time the whole colony was exterminated and the house was also protected for potential future wood ants. They would smell that the Cordyceps had been here and would avoid the place. In this way Paul Stamets managed to come up with a very environmentally friendly and clever way of pest control, which he now also patented.
Cordyceps sinensis: medicinal mushroom from the Himalayas
As mentioned before, the Cordyceps mushroom is a very special kind of organism. The fungus possesses a unique property that guarantees its survival. Cordyceps sinensis (synonym for Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is a species that has served as a medicine for humans for thousands of years. It is mainly found in the Tibetan high mountains, China and the Himalayas. The insect that the fungus parasitises is less happy with it: the mushroom penetrates the body of a certain caterpillar, which is in the period before it turns into a butterfly. This caterpillar would turn into a moth, the hop root borer, family of the Hepiladiae. When the caterpillar is infected, it slowly but surely mummifies and sprouts from the caterpillar the fruiting body of the mushroom. The whole of the mummified caterpillar and the dried mushroom is considered a medicine in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and is highly valued. Together with Reishi, Cordyceps sinensis belongs to the mushrooms with the highest values of medicinal properties, with effects that can fight serious diseases and illnesses and have been used for centuries. Cordyceps sinensis is seen as medicinal mushrooms that can nourish the Yin and Yang, and is used for the kidney meridian and lung meridian. The lung meridian is seen as the most important meridian (energy pathway) of the body. The lung meridian starts at the chest, just below the collarbone, and continues its path through the shoulder to the elbow and ends at the thumb. This energy pathway is widely used in acupuncture and acupressure and is considered in Traditional Chinese Medicine as important points for different parts of the body and emotions, including grief.
Man used for centuries Cordyceps sinensis as a medicine to make the body stronger. Especially when endurance was put to the test, taking this medicinal mushroom was desirable. Many top athletes still use the properties of Cordyceps sinensis. In the 1990s, several Chinese runners broke records, who for some time followed a diet of which this mushroom was a part (Ma 1997).
The scientific studies that have been conducted into the efficacy of Cordyceps sinensis are promising and show that the mushroom can help the body become stronger in several ways.
Cordyceps sinensis is used to increase fertility and libido, strengthen physical stamina and increase vitality. The mushroom also has a beneficial effect on the airways, lungs, kidneys and heart and blood vessels. Research shows that the substance cordycepin, a substance contained in the Cordyceps mushroom, has strengthening properties for the body. This substance is therefore incorporated in the medicine ciclosporin, which is used in organ transplants. (Source: Gao J, Lian ZQ, Zhu P, Zhu HB., Lipid-lowering effect or cordycepin (3'-deoxyadenosine) from Cordyceps militaris on hyperlipidemic hamsters and rats, Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica, 2011 Jun;46(6):669-76). Further studies indicate that the mushroom raises energy levels and improves endurance, including lung capacity. In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, twenty healthy elderly (50-75 years) took an extract of Cordyceps sinensis for 12 weeks. The results showed a 10% reduction in acidification and an increase of more than 8% in maximum oxygen uptake. Exactly how this works is not yet clear. It could be that Cordyceps sinensis improves energy levels in cells and destroys free oxygen radicals, reducing oxidative stress and prolonging the availability of oxygen. Also, the tissue stays healthy longer. Oxidative stress causes, among other things, premature aging of the skin and in the long term promotes disease and premature aging.
Libido and fertility
As mentioned earlier, Cordyceps sinensis has been used for centuries within the TCM as a tool to improve fertility and increase libido.
Modern studies with rats show that the mushroom does indeed exert a beneficial influence within these areas. This was the case in both male and female rats. The results showed that the sperm was healthier (with a reduction in abnormal spermatozoa), the quantity of male sex hormones. Female fertility was also increased. (Source: Lin WH, Tsai MT, Chen YS, Hou RC, Hung HF, Li CH, Wang HK, Lai MN, Jeng KC, Improvement of sperm production in subfertile boars by Cordyceps militaris supplement. Am J Chin Med. 2007;35(4):631-41.)
The most well-known and most important substance of Cordyceps sinensis is cordycepin (3'-deoxyadenosine). This substance is capable of triggering interesting reactions in the body. For example, it lowers blood pressure, modulates the immune system, vasodilates and lowers lipids. In this way, it can be used as a medicine, without the body suffering any adverse side effects. Furthermore, Cordyceps sinensis contains so-called cordyceps acids that perform their therapeutic effects in various ways. These include D-mannitol, an isomer of quinic acid with a polyol structure. It has been shown that the substance has a direct beneficial effect on various disorders. For example, it provides immediate relief from coughs and asthma, works prophylactically in postoperative kidney failure and fights free radicals in the body. The substance is interesting to use in cases of reduced blood flow to the brain tissue, in order to improve the microcirculation and blood supply to the brain.
It is assumed that the strength of Cordyceps sinensis lies in the cooperation of the different constituents. This is also called synergy. In this way the different substances reinforce each other and together they provide a strong therapeutic effect. It is therefore important that Cordyceps sinensis in capsule form contains the various active ingredients.
Harvesting Cordyceps sinensis
In its natural habitat, the Cordyceps sinensis mushroom is not often found and can certainly not meet the high demand for its medicinal power. That is why Cordyceps is cultivated, where it lives on a soy or rice substrate. This does not include hop root borers, so the mycelium will not form a fruiting body. The advantages of this are that there is better control over harvesting for commercial use, less pollution by other fungi, bacteria and heavy metals and a better possibility of standardization. Research shows that the cultivated variety contains the medicinal ingredients as well as the wild variety. In this way, the two cannot be distinguished from each other in terms of chemical profile by means of laboratory tests.