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Cordyceps: Friend or Foe?

Cordyceps: Friend Or Foe?

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Cordyceps: friend or foe?

Cordyceps is a famously frightening fungus. It’s the one responsible for “zombie ants” and other zombie creatures, and it’s the basis for the existential threat to humanity in the TV show The Last of Us.

It’s a parasitic fungus that controls the central and peripheral nervous systems of its host, slowly replacing the host’s body, as well as growing distinctive spines that erupt out of the host’s body. Taking over motor functions, it compels the host to do two main things, which are to eat more food, and climb to a position that will be good to release spores from.

Fortunately, none of that matters to humans. Cordyceps does not (unlike in the TV show) affect humans that way.

What does Cordyceps do in humans?

Cordyceps (in various strains) is enjoyed as a health supplement, based on a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and nowadays it’s coming under a scientific spotlight too.

The main health claims for it are:

  • Against inflammation
  • Against aging
  • Against cancer
  • For blood sugar management
  • For heart health
  • For exercise performance

Sounds great! What does the science say?

There’s a lot more science for the first three (which are all closely related to each other, and often overlapping in mechanism and effect).

So let’s take a look:

Against inflammation

The science looks promising for this, but studies so far have either been in vitro (cell cultures in petri dishes), or else murine in vivo (mouse studies), for example:

In summary: we can see that it has anti-inflammatory properties for mice and in the lab; we’d love to see the results of studies done on humans, though. Also, while it has anti-inflammatory properties, it performed less well than commonly-prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs, for example:

❝C. militaris can modulate airway inflammation in asthma, but it is less effective than prednisolone or montelukast.❞

Source: Effects of the immunomodulatory agent Cordyceps militaris on airway inflammation in a mouse asthma model

Against aging

Because examining the anti-aging effects of a substance requires measuring lifespans and repeating the experiment, anti-aging studies do not tend to be done on humans, because they would take lifetimes to perform. To this end, it’s inconvenient, but not a criticism of Cordyceps, that studies have been either mouse studies (short lifespan, mammals like us) or fruit fly studies (very short lifespan, genetically surprisingly similar to us).

The studies have had positive results, with typical lifespan extensions of 15–20%:

Against cancer

Once again, the studies here have been in vitro, or murine in vivo. They do look good though:

In vitro (human cell cultures in a lab):

In vivo (mouse studies):

Summary of these is: Cordyceps quite reliably inhibits tumor growth in vitro (human cell cultures) and in vivo (mouse studies). However, trials in human cancer patients are so far conspicuous by their absence.

For blood sugar management

Cordyceps appears to mimic the action of insulin, without triggering insulin sensitivity. For example:

The anti-hyperglycemic activity of the fruiting body of Cordyceps in diabetic rats

There were some other rat/mouse studies with similar results. No studies in humans yet.

For heart health

Cordyceps contains adenosine. You may remember that caffeine owes part of its stimulant effect to blocking adenosine, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. So in this way, Cordyceps partially does the opposite of what caffeine does, and may be useful against arrhythmia:

Cardiovascular protection of Cordyceps sinensis act partially via adenosine receptors

For exercise performance

A small (30 elderly participants) study found that Cordyceps supplementation improved VO2 max by 7% over the course of six weeks:

Randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial and assessment of fermentation product of Cordyceps sinensis in enhancing aerobic capacity and respiratory function of the healthy elderly volunteers

However, another small study (22 young athletes) failed to reproduce those results:

Cordyceps Sinensis supplementation does not improve endurance exercise performance

In summary…

Cordyceps almost certainly has anti-inflammation, anti-aging, and anti-cancer benefits.

Cordyceps may have other benefits too, but the evidence is thinner on the ground for those, so far.

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