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Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

Written by
September 11, 2019
Updated May 15, 2020


– Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that grows on caterpillars at high altitudes in Asia.

– Cordyceps sinensis has a long history of use in Chinese medicine, but recent research indicates it can help promote endurance and other markers of exercise performance.

– Cordyceps militaris is a synthetic version of cordyceps, and appears to offer the same benefits.

Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

Cordyceps sinensis is a type of mushroom that’s been used for medicinal purposes in China since ancient times. In recent years, science has shown that it may be particularly beneficial for athletes looking to boost endurance. Global demand for cordyceps sinensis and its synthetic counterpart, cordyceps militaris, is increasing. In 2018, the cordyceps market was valued at more than $470 million, and it’s on track to be over $1 billion by 2026.

Here’s what we know about these mysterious mushrooms.

What Is Cordyceps?

Technically, cordyceps sinensis isn’t just a mushroom, but a hybrid of a fungus and a caterpillar that it grows on in the Himalayan mountains. Be warned: discovering how it grows is a little gross and sounds like something out of a sci-fi/alien movie.

In wintertime, the cordyceps spore lands on a moth caterpillar, and the caterpillar burrows into soil before it dies. In spring, a fungus sprouts from the caterpillar’s body in the shape of a club-like mushroom. This is the origin of the cordyceps name, as the Latin words “cord” and “ceps” mean “club” and “head,” respectively.

Cordyceps sinensis has been ground up and used in tonics in traditional Chinese medicine to treat various ailments, and is widely believed to promote energy, appetite, endurance, libido, and better sleep. However, there is little modern scientific evidence to support these claims.

Benefits of The Cordyceps Mushroom

Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

While the jury is still out on cordyceps sinensis’ affect on various heath qualities, there is strong evidence that it can aid exercise performance.

Cordyceps is rich in the molecule adenosine. If you graduated high school chemistry, that should ring a bell. Adenosine is a component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy source for all muscle movements. Because of this, cordyceps may help boost the body’s production of ATP, which could have a positive impact on your workouts.

A Chinese study tested cordyceps on men using stationary bikes. The subjects received either a synthetic strain of cordyceps or a placebo. After six weeks, the cordyceps users saw a seven percent increase in VO2 max, a marker of aerobic fitness, while the placebo group showed no such gains. A similar Japanese study found that healthy adults who supplemented with cordyceps sinensis saw a boost in energy generation and fatigue-resistance during a running test.

In a 2017 trial, a mushroom blend containing cordyceps militaris—another synthetic form of cordyceps—helped boost time to exhaustion in cyclists (they lasted about 28 seconds longer) and VO2 max by 11%. Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine on healthy older adults did not find cordyceps to affect VO2 max, but it did show subjects made a 10.5% gain in metabolic threshold (the level above which lactate accumulates) after 12 weeks.

The Difference Between Cordyceps Sinensis and Cordyceps Militaris

Cordyceps sinensis is rare and cultivated at high altitudes. Therefore, it’s expensive to harvest and bring to market. To improve availability, scientists have developed synthetic versions, such as CS-4® and cordyceps militaris. While some speculate that these aren’t as effective as the original Chinese strain, research (such as that cited above) has shown them to work just as well.

Are There Any Side Effects To Taking Cordyceps Supplements?

Cordyceps sinensis seems to be well-tolerated and is non-toxic. However, some users have reported gastrointestinal discomfort. Clinical trials are currently examining how cordyceps interacts with caffeine and immune system drugs; the ultimate effects are still unknown.

Who Should Take Cordyceps Supplements?

Cordyceps Sinensis 101: Why Is This Supplement So Popular?

It seems that cordyceps sinensis, and it’s lab-engineered substitutes CS-4® and cordyceps militaris, can help support endurance during activity, making them useful to athletes and recreational exercisers—particularly those who perform long-duration activity such as running and cycling. However, more research is needed to verify cordyceps’ effects, as well as prove or disprove the other health benefits that have been associated it.

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