Nowadays natural remedies are entering more and more into everyday life and are gaining importance also among the medical-scientific communities; in fact, they are often prescribed alone or in association with traditional therapies to treat the pathologies and disorders that most afflict the population in order to limit or eliminate the undesirable effects of drugs or avoid drug resistance.
In the course of history, in fact, natural remedies have aroused the attention of traditional medicine thanks to the discovery of interesting biological and therapeutic activities, so much so that the active ingredients of some of them are currently also used as chemotherapy. For many centuries, the mushroom Cordyceps, of the family of Cordycipitaceae (which includes over 400 species), has been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
This article will illustrate the properties of Cordyceps, demonstrated through scientific studies that have identified bioactive compounds with anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-hyperglycemic and hypocholesterolemic, immunomodulatory, nephroprotective, hepatoprotective, antitumor activity. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic the Cordyceps it has also been used for more than 2000 years as a tonic tonic, to preserve energy, to improve sexual performance and as a natural remedy against aging.
For these reasons, it is often also called the Mushroom of Youth in China. Precisely, according to the TCM, the action of the Cordyceps it focuses on the meridians of the kidneys and lungs, seat of life and vital energy on which reproductive capacity also depends. Bones, bone marrow production and lung respiration are also connected to the kidneys, therefore the fungus is also useful in pathologies that involve hemoptysis, such as tuberculosis.
The Cordyceps sinensis
The Cordyceps it is a parasitic Ascomycete which, through its spores, infects the larvae of some insects and arthropods; the numerous species are spread all over the world and there are varieties that also infect other fungi. The spores of Cordyceps they are deposited on the insect and then germinate and form the hyphae which, during the winter, will continue to grow inside the host. The grown hyphae are transformed into mycelium which spreads and continues its growth by consuming the insect from the inside, coming to occupy the whole body.
At this stage, some species of Cordyceps they are also able to influence the host's behavior. After the winter, once the optimal environmental conditions have been established, a mushroom, shaped like a blade or rod, will be produced by the insect's head. This protuberance is called the fruiting body and determines the death of the insect and the beginning of a new life cycle for the fungus, with the release of new spores. Even if its reproductive cycle can make us think of the film Alien or precisely of the alien mushroom "Ripley" from the novel "Dream Catcher" by Stephen King, we must not be alarmed as it is absolutely harmless for us humans, indeed the benefits it brings are many and they will surely change your mind about him.
Among the more than 400 species of Cordyceps, the C. Sinensis it is the best known and used all over the world, as well as being the variety for which the most scientific studies have been produced. The C. Sinensis it is found exclusively in the area of the Himalayan plateau, between 3000 and 5000 meters above the sea level. Its host is a moth that belongs to the genus Thitarodes Armoricanus, known as "ghost moth" or "caterpillar insect" and, consequently, the C. Sinensis it is also called "Caterpillar mushroom". Its Chinese name is instead "dong chong xia cao”Which means“ caterpillar in winter, plant in summer ”due to its ability to transform during its reproductive cycle. In Latin the term Cordyceps comes from the Latin and means "plant from the head" e Sinensis means "Chinese".
The discovery of the benefits of Cordyceps Sinensis date back to over 2000 years ago, by Tibetan shepherds. In fact, every year the shepherds waited for the end of winter to bring their oxen, the Yaks, to graze in the highlands of the plateau in the spring. The shepherds began to observe a curious behavior of their animals: the yaks dug into the ground to extract and eat a strange plant that grew on the heads of some dead caterpillars.
They understood that it was a mushroom and noticed that the Yaks, after eating it, were much more vital, reactive and agile, and also their reproductive capacity was increased allowing the shepherds to have a larger livestock. Intrigued, shepherds also began to introduce mushrooms into their diet and noticed an improvement in respiratory capacity at high altitudes such as that of the Himalayan pastures.
They also noted that they were less prone to the common pathologies that plagued their population. In ancient China, the Cordyceps it was revered to such an extent that its use was reserved exclusively for the royal family. Its properties along with its numerous health benefits are also extensively described in Ben-Cao-Cong-Xin, or the new draft of the Chinese Materia Medica.
The Cordyceps however, he became famous only in 1993, on the occasion of the Chinese national games in Beijing in which several Chinese runners had beaten track and field records. Those records remained unbeaten for 23 years and their manager claimed that his team's success was due to a tonic based on C. Sinensis and turtle blood: this preparation passed anti-doping tests therefore, the use of this unknown mushroom began to spread throughout the world.
The C. Sinensis, unlike other mushrooms, it has also attracted the attention of the pharmaceutical industry for the production of alternative drugs to traditional treatments and dietary supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA, the American body responsible for the controls on drugs and foods) said the Cordyceps a food generally recognized as healthy (GRAS, "Generally Recognized as Safe") and many researchers also consider it a "super food".
Curiously, given the scarce diffusion of the variety Sinensis, its cost is very high, over 20,000 $ / kg, making the Cordyceps the most expensive mushroom in the world. This cost is due to the initial difficulties in growing this mushroom and to meet the North American market's demand for medicinal wild mushrooms. Recently in Asia techniques have been developed for the cultivation of C. Sinensis, however, they are not yet adequate to support large-scale production. Several scientific studies have emerged that have shown that the alleged extraordinary properties of the Caterpillar mushroom go far beyond simple superstition or folkloristic traditions and in this article they will be described in detail.
Active ingredients of Cordyceps Sinensis
The main components of the Cordyceps deputies to carry out beneficial actions in our body are:
- Cordycepine, which is a purine nucleoside acting as a natural antibiotic with anticancer properties;
- Ergosterol and ergosterol palmitate, both precursors of vitamin D2 also contained in other fungi and yeasts;
- Cordycepic acid: it is the D-Mannitol sugar that facilitates the entry of bioactive chemicals into the brain;
- Polysaccharides such as cyclofurans, β-glucans, b-mannans which, together with the aforementioned cordycepic acid, have an immunomodulating function;
- Mineral salts including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc;
- Vitamins E, K, B1, B2 and B12;
- Essential amino acids, or those substances essential to perform certain functions that the body is unable to produce and that it assumes with food.
Medicinal properties of the Cordyceps Sinensis
To date, several studies have been conducted in the medical field on the beneficial properties given by the chemical constituents of the mushroom, with potential therapeutic applications. The main benefits are:
- Immune system stimulant with anti-inflammatory effects
- Natural antimicrobial and antiviral
- Lung protection
- Cardioprotective property
- Liver protection
- Maintenance of renal function
- Hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic action
- Antioxidant, anti-aging and antidepressant
- Antitumor activity and support for traditional oncological treatments
- Increases stamina and improves athletic performance
- Improves libido, sexual function and fertility (also called Hymalaya viagra)
Immune system stimulant with anti-inflammatory effects
Several scientific studies have shown, either in vitro be in vivo, the immunomodulatory properties of C. Sinensis. In fact, the fungus is able to increase the number of white blood cells, or cells that constitute the first line of defense of our body and that protect us from attacks by external agents such as bacteria and viruses, but also from toxic substances or cancer cells. which can form as a result of mutations in DNA.
According to a study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional Western Medicine, it seems that the high content of polysaccharides, and in particular of β-glucans, does not act directly on the agent responsible for the disease but on the cells of our immune system, increasing their number. and enhancing their activity for a faster and more effective response leading to the destruction of the pathogen or diseased cells.
Research has found a significant increase in the number of macrophages and Natural Killer cells (particular types of immune cells) both in healthy individuals and in sick individuals with leukemia and therefore with a compromised immune system. In this way, thanks to the activated immune defenses, the intensity of the symptoms will be milder and, eventually, recovery will be faster. This effect has also been observed in other immunosuppressed patients, such as those who have undergone transplants, chemotherapy or suffering from chronic autoimmune or viral diseases.
The C. Sinensis, by virtue of its immunomodulatory capacity, it also has anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation, as it is known, is the basis of many pathological processes such as trauma, infections and cancer. The fungus has been shown to suppress the production of COX-2 (Cyclooxygenase type 2), NFkB (Nuclear B cell activation factor k) and TNFα (tumor necrosis factor α), which are proteins that are produced in the acute stages of the inflammatory process.
Natural antimicrobial and antiviral
Thanks to the numerous active ingredients present in the fungus, research has focused on identifying those substances that have natural antibiotic activity. In fact, it has been shown that, together with polysaccharides, cordycepine acts effectively against all bacterial strains that have developed, or are recently developing, resistance to traditional antibiotics (for example penicillin, also derived from a fungus).
The C. Sinesis it is capable of inhibiting the growth of Gram positive and Gram negative bacteria while exhibiting low activity against fungal and yeast infections. In numerous clinical trials conducted in China and Japan, the intake of Cordyceps it has been shown to be particularly effective in the treatment of tuberculosis and leprosy. Further experiments demonstrated antibacterial activity in particular against Staphylococcus Aureus (infections affecting the skin, skeletal, urinary, respiratory and central nervous system) andEscherichia Coli (intestinal, genitourinary diseases, meningitis, peritonitis, pneumonia, septicemia).
Regarding the antiviral activity, several studies have observed that Cordycepine is able to inhibit the replication of the genome of some viruses such as influenza, Epstein-Barr (responsible for infectious mononucleosis or "kissing disease"), and even HIV-1, the virus responsible for AIDS, stabilizing the disease. Cordycepine is also active against viruses that infect plants, crops and livestock.
The C. Sinensis plays an important relaxing action on the bronchi, inducing a greater secretion of adrenaline by the adrenal glands. In Tibet and Nepal the population used the Cordyceps to face the fatigue resulting from the work they carried out at high altitudes because their oxygenation capacity increased. It has been shown that the extract of Cordyceps it inhibits tracheal contractions as it increases the flow of air into the lungs, which is of particular importance for asthma patients. It is also an antitussive, expectorant with anti-asthma action and is able to prevent pulmonary emphysema. Many studies have also illustrated the use of the Cordyceps in the treatment of various respiratory diseases such as obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic bronchitis
Studies in both laboratory animals and humans have shown that the Cordyceps is able to strengthen the heart muscle, improving its functionality. In fact, it increases tolerance in case of cardiac hypoxia as it reduces the consumption of oxygen by the myocardial cells. Thanks to this property, the mushroom has been approved in the treatment of arrhythmias and in recovery from stroke, in China. The introduction of the Cordyceps in the diet, it has also brought an improvement in the quality of life in patients with chronic heart failure.
As is known, immunosuppressive drugs are routinely used to prevent rejection in the case of organ transplantation such as the heart. However, prolonged treatments with these substances lead to serious side effects, including damage to the kidneys and renal filtration system and, ironically, an increased risk of heart disease. Therefore, a promising study conducted in 2008 showed that the extract of Cordyceps can reduce the rejection reaction in a mouse model of heart transplant, opening up the possibility of using the fungus in the immediate future as an important adjuvant in post-transplant therapy.
The Cordyceps efficiently increases liver function. In fact, Traditional Chinese Medicine has always focused its research on the study of natural compounds capable of preventing liver pathologies or containing their symptoms. Some clinical studies have actually observed that the C. Sinensis is able to reduce the amount of toxic substances released by the body and to improve the function of liver cells by increasing the function of the liver, with consequent reduction of steatosis and fibrosis in patients with acute hepatitis A and chronic hepatitis B and C. As already described, it is also able to regulate the cells of the immune system by increasing the body's anti-viral defenses, preventing or containing the symptoms of viral hepatitis. It is mainly polysaccharides that exert these beneficial effects.
Maintenance of renal function
In China, the Cordyceps it is used regularly in the treatment of kidney diseases, including chronic nephritis, chronic pyelonephritis, renal dysfunction or failure and nephritic syndrome. The results obtained from laboratory studies and clinical trials indicate that the Cordyceps plays an important protective role during kidney transplantation, in a very similar way to that described for heart transplantation.
For example, a particular preparation based on mycelium of Cordyceps reduces the rejection reaction of the transplanted kidney, improving and increasing the functions of the liver and kidney, stimulating the production of red blood cells and, thanks to the antibacterial action, reducing the susceptibility to infections of transplant patients. Similarly, in patients with chronic renal insufficiency, the extract of C. Sinensis boosts kidney function by decreasing blood urea and creatinine levels.
Hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic action
Numerous studies have observed that the Cordyceps proves useful in managing blood sugar levels. In particular, the polysaccharides isolated from Cordyceps are responsible for lowering blood glucose in a mouse model of diabetes.
Furthermore, the consumption of the extract of C. Sinensis increases insulin sensitivity and simultaneously lowers the glycemic peak due to the consumption of carbohydrates in healthy, non-diabetic rats; also in laboratory rats, this extract, administered for 17 days, also slows down the excessive weight loss induced by diabetes, reduces thirst and improves glucose tolerance. All these properties are a protection against the risk of diabetes.
Human studies are still being completed, especially as regards the definition of efficacy and safety. In fact, people with diabetes need to be careful when taking supplements based on Cordyceps as excessive lowering of blood sugar levels could be harmful; it is always advisable to consult a doctor before introducing the Cordyceps in your diet. The Cordyceps it is also able to lower the circulating levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and instead increase those of HDL, or high density lipoproteins also known as "good cholesterol", thus reducing atherosclerosis.
Antioxidant, anti-aging and antidepressant
In some parts of Asia and China, the Cordyceps it is traditionally used in the elderly population to improve symptoms of weakness, slow movement and fatigue associated with aging. Few clinical studies have been conducted, however it has been found that the active ingredients contained in the mushroom are able to reduce oxidative stress caused by an excess of free radicals by increasing the levels of SOD enzymes in serum, liver and muscles. (superoxide dismutase) and catalase, which transform free radicals into harmless compounds such as water and oxygen.
Free radicals, when present in excessive quantities, can attack the main constituents of cells, causing damage to organs and tissues resulting in premature aging. The biologically active compounds of the fungus especially protect membranes with a high lipid component such as central and peripheral nervous tissue. Neurons are coated with myelin, which is a sheath made up of lipids for 80%, which envelops and protects the cells allowing correct transmission of the nerve impulse. Myelin can therefore be severely damaged by free radicals.
In this scenario, the Cordyceps proves to be an excellent ally in cognitive disorders and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease ... In addition to this antioxidant action, the C. Sinensis it helps in maintaining the normal balance of neurotransmitters, ie those substances which, through the synapses, carry information between neurons. Studies currently conducted only in vitro showed that, unlike some antidepressant drugs with serotonergic effect (they act by selectively inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin), the Cordyceps it acts on the adrenergic and dopaminergic systems therefore it can be associated with common antidepressants improving the mood and perception of events by the treated subjects.
Antitumor activity and support for traditional oncological treatments
Cancer is the second leading cause of disease-associated death in the world. Several anticancer drugs have been synthesized from natural active ingredients due to the limitations of some surgical approaches and the numerous toxic effects of traditional radio- and chemotherapies. Promising laboratory studies have shown that the Cordyceps possesses antitumor activity in various types of neoplasia, including lymphoma, melanoma, prostate, breast, liver and colorectal cancer.
In particular, polysaccharides and sterols are the bioactive compounds that induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis (that is, they push diseased cells to "commit suicide"), consequently reducing the size of the tumor and its ability to proliferate and metastasize. Trials conducted in China and Japan have identified that the therapeutic dose of Cordyceps to observe the effects is equal to 6.0 grams per day. A subsequent study of 50 lung cancer patients showed that the intake of 6.0 grams of Cordyceps per day for 2 months, associated with chemotherapy, demonstrated a reduction in tumor size in 46% of cases.
The researchers also observed a significant improvement in symptoms in patients, with greater tolerance towards radio- and chemotherapy; this mechanism also seems to be due to the fact that the Cordyceps enhances the immune response by increasing the reactivity of immune cells against malignant cells. These studies, although still limited, lay the foundations for the use of the fungus as an adjuvant in cancer therapy.
Increases stamina and improves athletic performance
As already mentioned in the introduction, the Cordyceps it is known for its ability to increase physical endurance and is used by sportsmen. Some research has shown that, even in sedentary people or those who practice moderate physical activity, the Cordyceps, thanks to cordycepine, adenosine, cordycepic acid, d-mannitol, polysaccharides and vitamins, cell bioenergy increases, i.e. the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, an indispensable molecule in metabolism); consequently the organism uses oxygen more effectively, has a faster energy recovery and less fatigue. The Cordyceps it also prevents or reduces the contraction of blood vessels which interferes with the blood supply to the lower limbs, thus increasing the resistance of the legs.
It improves libido, sexual function and fertility
For centuries the C. Sinensis it is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in Eastern cultures to treat both male and female sexual problems, such as decreased libido, impotence and infertility and, as regards men, it increases the count and the sperm survival. Three different clinical trials were conducted in China on a sample of 200 adult males who had "reduced libido and other sexual problems", who were given placebo or extract of Cordyceps.
At the end of the study important results were obtained as the 64% of users of Cordyceps found a significant improvement. In another study, conducted in a similar way but on a sample of elderly women, with similar problems, the 90% of users of Cordyceps reported a significant improvement in their initial conditions. Further studies conducted on a mixed sample of women and men, for a total of 189 patients, showed an improvement in 66% of cases.
Further studies on male subjects also showed that after 8 weeks of taking the Cordyceps, sperm counts increased by 33% along with a 79% increase in their survival while the incidence of malformations decreased by 29%. These properties of the Cordyceps seem to depend on the ability to regulate steroidogenesis and increase testosterone release.
The C. Sinensis it is also widely used in the field of infertility treatments and in particular, some evidence suggests that the fungus exerts a beneficial effect on female fertility and on the chances of successful fertilization in vitro (IVF, in vitro fertilization); this is partly due to the mushroom's ability to stimulate the production of 17β-estradiol (or estrogen) by increasing the expression of proteins and enzymes involved in steroid synthesis. This mechanism is also of fundamental importance for the management of postmenopausal osteoporosis.
The C. Sinensis it is usually sold in the form of tablets, capsules or powdered preparation. It is also possible to find it as a food additive in preparations based on chocolate or honey but, in this case, since the concentration is very low or present in traces, the benefits are mild.
In the formulations it is possible to find: the mycelium, the most widespread on the market; the extract, more concentrated and obtained with various techniques for the extraction of active ingredients whose therapeutic activity, at the same dose, is superior to mycelium powder; synergistic or a mix of mycelium and extract in variable percentages, thus combining the benefits of both formulations.
The supplements available on the market typically provide between 500 and 1000mg of extract Cordyceps per portion.
Scientific studies have identified that the daily intake of Cordyceps to have beneficial effects on health it is in the range of 1000-3000mg; this dosage must also be adapted to the type of activity of the subject, age, sex and needs and for athletes it can even reach 6000-9000mg. The dosage can be taken at once or before meals and, to facilitate the absorption of the active ingredients of the Cordyceps, the intake of Vitamin C is suggested.
Side effects and contraindications
The consumption of Cordyceps it is considered safe for humans and no significant health damage due to its consumption has been documented. In a very small portion of users, temporary and resolvable gastrointestinal disorders or, rarely, the sensation of dryness of the oral cavity have been reported. Being in any case a fungus, episodes of allergy to some active ingredients can occur in sensitive subjects. As a precaution, as with most natural substances with medicinal properties, it is not recommended to take it during pregnancy and breastfeeding and in any case it is always advisable to consult your doctor.