Common Names

Botanical Name
Cordyceps sinensis

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What is it?

Cordyceps is naturally found at high altitude in the mountains of China, Nepal and Tibet. It is also known as the Caterpillar fungus as it grows on and obtains nutrients from several different kinds of caterpillars.




How has it been used?

Cordyceps came to global attention in 1993 when a group of Chinese runners broke nine world records in the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Germany that year. The coach of the athletes attributed the remarkable improvement in his teams results to the use of a medicine that was based on Cordyceps sinensis, long held in high regard in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a tonic for energy, stamina and endurance.

Cordyceps has only been able to be produced on a commercial scale in recent years so it has now become much more available but for many centuries it could only be obtained through a great deal of pain-staking searching in very specific areas, especially the high mountain plains of Tibet. In the past Cordyceps was such an extremely rare medicine that it was by far the most expensive product in Oriental medicine i.e. 75 thousand dollars a kilo in San Francisco in the late 20th century! Historically it was mostly used by the Emperor and members of the nobility as a kind of super-Ginseng, to help them with rejuvenation and to regain some stamina, especially in the bedroom!

Collecting Cordyceps in Tibet


Science on Cordyceps

There has been a great deal of modern scientific research into Cordyceps, especially through the state sponsored Chinese medical system which still uses herbs as its mainstream medicine.

~ More than 2000 patients have been involved in clinical trials using Cordyceps. Placebo-controlled studies have shown it to particularly benefit elderly patients with fatigue and to improve libido in those who have reported a low sex-drive (Yang, W., et al. Clinical study of Cordyceps Sinensis on treatment of hyposexuality. J. Admin Traditional Chinese med 5, 1995: 23-24).

~ Cordyceps has a strong traditional use for treating chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma and bronchitis. Studies have shown that it does improve respiratory function but noted that the effects are accumulative and took 5-6 weeks to achieve a maximum benefit. Hans, SR. Experiences in treating patients of chronic bronchitis and pulmonary diseases with Cordyceps capsules. J. Administration Traditional Chinese Med 5(suppl) 1995: 33-34).

~ Chinese physicians have long regarded Cordyceps as one of the best medicines to aid sick kidneys and a modern study with 30 patients with renal failure have shown that it does indeed protect against toxic chemical damage to the kidneys as well as significantly improve overall kidney function (Chen =, Y. P., et al. Chinese Traditional Herbal Drugs 17(6), 1986: 256-258)

~ Both human and animal studies have shown that Cordcyeps gives multiple benefits to the cardiovascular system, even with such severe issues as ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias and chronic heart failure. (Lou, Y., et al. Cardiovascular pharmacological studies of Cordyceps. Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs 17(5), 1986:17-21; 209-213) (Feng, M.G., et al J Chinese Materia Medica 12(12), 1987:745-749)

~ Although no single drug or herb is equally effective in all patients, it appears rare for a patient’s arrhythmia to remain unaffected by the addition of Cordyceps to the treatment regimen. Cordyceps has been used traditionally to treat patients with heart disease and those recovering from stroke. In studies of patients suffering from chronic heart failure, the long-term administration of Cordyceps, in conjunction with conventional treatments—that is, digoxin, hydrochlorothiaside, dopamine, and dobutamine, promoted an increase in the overall quality of life. This included general physical condition, mental health, sexual drive, and cardiac function, compared to the control group. (Chen DG. Effects of JinShuiBao capsule on the quality of life of patients with heart failure. J Admin Trad Chin Med. 1995;5:40–3)

~ A double blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study which lasted 2 months showed 76% of patients having more than a 10% increase in HDL (good) cholesterol with over half having more than a 20% decrease in harmful triglycerides and a more than 10% decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol. Shao, G., et al. Treatment of hyperlipidaemia with Cordyceps sinensis Intl J Orient Med 15(2), 1990: 77-80.

Clinical studies on Cordyceps in the treatment of cancer

Numerous clinical studies have been conducted in China and Japan involving cancer patients; 37 of them yielding clearly positive results.

In one study of 50 patients with lung cancer who were administered C. sinensis at 6 grams per day, in conjunction with chemotherapy, tumors were reduced in size in 46% of the patients studied.

Another trial involving cancer patients with several different types of tumors found that C. sinensis, taken over a 2-month period at 6 g per day, improved subjective symptoms in the majority of patients, white blood cell counts were kept at 3000 per cubic millimeter or higher and, even with radiation or chemotherapy, other immunological parameters showed no significant change, whereas tumor size was significantly reduced in approximately half of the patients observed, indicating an improved tolerance for radiation and/ or chemotherapy

A serious side effect to the use of conventional cancer chemotherapy and radiation therapy is the suppression of the patient’s immune system. The use of C. sinensis in combination with conventional chemotherapy appears to have an immunostimulatory effect, which enhances the effectiveness of conventional chemotherapy by balancing its side effects. (Zhou J-S, Halpern G, Jones K. The scientifi c rediscovery of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine: Cordyceps sinensis. J Altern Complement Med. 1998;4:429–57)

~ There are nearly 150 published studies and articles on Cordyceps, a PDF showing their titles, authors and when and where they were published can be found here

Safety of Cordyceps

Coryceps has an extremely high safety profile and there are no adverse reports from its use in the medical literature. Note that if a person is using blood sugar lowering medications then they may find their levels dropping after using Cordyceps for a while but of course this would only be a reason to use less of the drugs, not the herb!

General safety note on herbs

Therapeutic substances, and this certainly all includes all medicinal herbs, can do good and, therefore, also have the potential to do harm. The maxim that 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us and the ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. So, not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs but, equally, we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this old, proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities and medical publications that no so long ago decried herbal medicines as ineffectual have now taken up a different kind of adversarial position. That they are dangerous substances that should not be taken for a long list of reasons and really should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. It is absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver, and fear has also been long proven to be effective when used to manipulate and control others.

I realise that the reader who comes to a page like this is unlikely to be swayed by such misinformation, but I nevertheless want to remind you that the reason that herbs cannot be patented or owned by any individual or corporation is that they are the people's medicine. They belong to us all and it is my great hope that you will learn how to use them safely and wisely for yourself and the people you care for. Be safe but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

I have used Cordyceps for a great many patients and have developed a strong trust in its ability to deliver a potent tonic action when needed. The people I most often use it for have a weakening in their heart, lungs or kidneys that may sometimes be obvious in their health problems or may simply show in their complexion, the appearance of their tongue or the sound of their heart. If they are quite unwell I will use two concentrated capsules of Cordyceps twice a day until they are noticeably improved then reduce the dose to just two a day if we need to keep the tonic effect going for some time.

There are many Cordyceps products on the market. Like every other herb it is truly a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware) and you should know that historically there has been a great deal of adulteration and frank dishonesty in the supply of Cordyceps. In my personal opinion I believe that, at the time of writing, the best place to get Cordyceps is from JHS in the USA. This is a company that only does mushrooms and it does them really well (disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this company other than that I use their products) JHS ship all over the world so if you do not have a herbalist or herbal supplier that already have them or can get them for you then you will still be able to do it yourself.

Cordyceps combines perfectly with, Panax Ginseng and Withania as general health and energy tonics. I think it also works beautifully with Juniper for the kidneys and with Hawthorn for the heart.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Cordyceps is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B.

There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Cordyceps can particularly offer its benefits when a nourishing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd