Natural nootropics: Cordyceps mushroom

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Ancient Chinese practitioners have been using the Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis), a medicinal mushroom, for its purported mental and physical wellness benefits since at least 1757 AD.[1]

In recent years, renewed interest in this unusual fungus has been sparked by research in China, Japan, Korea, and the US uncovering a number of its natural ingredients that show health benefits on blood pressure, cognitive performance and athletic performance.

So, should you consider adding this natural nootropic to your nutritional supplement regime?

First up, what exactly are Cordyceps mushrooms?

Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus native to the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau. It is considered a parasite as it lives on a host caterpillar (Hepiaidae). 

The Chinese name for Cordyceps is Dong Chong Xia Cao (DCXC), meaning “winter worm and summer grass”, reflecting some of the life cycle of the fungus. 

In winter, the fungus covers the caterpillar in wispy tendrils that can resemble a white worm while in summer, a fruiting body emerges from the ground, standing upright like grass.[1]

When picked and dried, they take on an orange-brown hue, looking like a cross between a piece of dried fruit and a worm. Strange but true. And here they are:

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Cordyceps in traditional Chinese medicine

‘DCXC’ is a widely used herb in traditional Chinese medicine known for its invigorating properties, often added to soup to ‘renew’ those suffering from an illness.[2

According to tradition, Cordyceps improves the ying and yang of the lungs.  The Chinese Pharmacopoeia lists “replenishing the kidney, soothing the lung, staunching bleeding and dispersing phlegm” as common uses for the fungus.

How do Cordyceps work?

Much of the therapeutic potential of Cordyceps centres around its ability to boost oxygen utilisation and ATP production, as well as stabilising blood sugar. 

Although we don’t yet fully understand how Cordyceps interacts with the human body, scientists believe that two natural chemicals - cordycepin and cordycepic acid - play an important role.  

Sustainable production

Due to excessive harvesting of Cordyceps for natural medicine, the fungus is now an endangered species.  As an eco-friendly alternative, Cordyceps can be artificially cultivated on rice to produce fruiting bodies with similar activity to the natural fungus.[6]

Cordyceps for cognitive performance

A 2018 research study on 120 mice showed statistically significant effects on improved learning and reduced memory impairment from Cordyceps. [7]

Neuroprotective properties & Alzheimer’s Research

Tests have shown the medicinal mushroom has significant neuroprotective properties (reduction of neuronal cell death) in the hippocampal region, where dementia is found. [9]

Rat studies have shown it can match Donepezil, one of the most prominent Alzheimer’s drugs on the market, on improved spatial memory for example. [9]

Cordyceps for athletic performance

While more research is needed before we can come to any solid conclusions on Cordyceps for athletic performance, there is some evidence that it may improve endurance, increase haemoglobin levels and aerobic capacity.[3

The Chinese Olympic female running team of 1993 claimed Cordyceps were responsible for their three new world records at the Games, having regularly consumed the medicinal mushroom after training for its energizing properties.

Legendary alternative medicine expert Dr. Andy Weil is a fan of the Cordyceps for this same reason, recommending several months of daily consumption for increased energy and endurance.

A 2010 double-blind placebo-controlled trial on 20 healthy adults aged between 50 - 75 years based on a 1000mg daily dose over 12 weeks revealed significant changes in metabolic threshold (10.5%) and ventilatory threshold by 8.5%, although there was no change in VO2 MAX. [8]

Cordyceps for sleep

Tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, is one of 18 amino acids found in Cordyceps.  It is a well-known sedative and may help to counteract insomnia [4], suggesting that they may be best taken at night rather than first thing in the morning.

Cordyceps for the heart

Preliminary evidence suggests that Cordyceps may lower blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, in addition to protecting the heart from arrhythmias.[5][1]