Mother nature possesses a large medicine cabinet, much larger than all the products of the pharmaceutical industry together. A simple plant can produce 100-500 different chemical compounds, of which many have a special value for us. Only think about the use of caffeine, cocaine, morphine, cannabis etc. But also many modern medications find their origin in plants: digitalis for cardiac problems, paclitaxel for cancer, artemisia against malaria, and of course the antibiotics from fungi.

One of the problems with natural medicine is that the supply is limited, mother nature only produces limited amounts. Also the composition of natural products differs from time to time. Think about wine, the difference in taste between a good and bad wine year. The solution for this is to standardize these products so they always contain the same concentration of effective components.

But the biggest issue with natural substances is that they are relatively cheap, that they work and that they often have less negative side effects than synthetic medications. One cannot apply for a patent on natural products, unless one modifies the molecule. Patents and profits is what keeps the pharmaceutical industry alive.

So the pharmaceutical industry and governments aren’t really happy with the competition of natural medicine such as medicinal plants.

There is however another important difference between synthetic drugs and natural medications. Synthetic products almost always consist of one single molecule, whereas natural herbal products consist of many different compounds which enhance, complement or regulate each other’s effect. In musical terms: synthetics are a tone, while naturals are an accord. Synthetics are one single key, while natural are a keyring with many different keys.

We now know that many health problems are controlled by multiple metabolic pathways and multiple receptors in and on the cell. Receptors are like “locks” while hormones, neurotransmitters or medications function as keys to initiate specific processes within a cell. It is hard to open a door with different locks when you only have one key.

Natural products can influence multiple different processes at the same time, so they can have a positive effect on more diseases at the same time.

An example is an old natural product that is not very well-known in Europe or the US, but famous in most of Asia.  It is called Cordyceps sinensis or Ophiocordyceps sinensis. It is a caterpillar that has been attacked and then used as a host by a fungus. Cordyceps can only be found at high altitudes in the mountains of the western part of China, in Tibet or Nepal and in Kazakhstan (1). In Tibet and Nepal the name is Yartsagumba (2).

Cordyceps sinensis from the 1990’s from China

It is hard to find and only in certain areas and during certain periods. The caterpillar is also particular in what plants it eats.  Still, Cordyceps has been used for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. There are many Cordyceps subspecies, but only three have been proven to be of medicinal value (3-16). The supply of Cordyceps is very limited. Tibet, Nepal and China have almost exhausted their natural resources of Cordyceps (17-18).

Since it has been proven it is impossible to cultivate Cordyceps sinensis, there are now attempts to grow Cordyceps militaris in laboratories and factories by using biotechnology. Technically this works but the effect of Cordyceps sinensis cannot be equaled.(19).

Until recently Cordyceps sinensis was not very well-known in Kazakhstan, but in the East of Kazakhstan, bordering on the western part of China, Cordyceps is found. And these days  Chinese people come to Kazakhstan to harvest Cordyceps illegally as they have almost depleted their own supply. Cordyceps sinensis can be found in remote, untouched and unpolluted areas of East-Kazakhstan..

Cordyceps was already expensive as it is rare and hard to find, (18) but since the COVID pandemic, the prices went up steeply and the demand is very high, since Cordyceps can be of use in case of COVID-infection. The high price unfortunately also makes it attractive to dilute with other substances or sell fake Cordyceps products. Only laboratory quality control can reveal the truth. (20). In China Cordyceps has often been used in case of lung and respiratory problems and is used by elite athletes, especially endurance athletes.

Here are some scientifically proven effects of Cordyceps sinensis:

Cordyceps works as:

  • Antiviral substance, especially interesting for COVID-19 (22)
  • Antibiotic against bacteria (as this is often the case with fungi, think about penicillin)
  • Anti-aging: it can slowdown certain aging-processes (23)
  • Immunostimulant: it stimulates the immune system as a defense against bacteria and viruses (24)
  • Protector of organs like lungs, heart, kidney and liver protecting these from inflammation and free radical damage
  • Anti-cancer substance, indirectly by stimulating the immune system, but also directly inhibiting the growth processes of the cancer cell (25-33)
  • Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant
  • Aphrodisiac, stimulating the libido (34)
  • Anti-fatigue product and increasing aerobic qualities of endurance athletes (35,36)
  • Anti-hypoxic: protects against the effects of hypoxia (= lack of oxygen) and therefore used for high-altitude expeditions or altitude training of endurance athletes (37)
  • Cosmoceutical: improving the quality of the skin from the inside out, or in cosmetics for external use (38)

Because of the many different compounds, Cordyceps sinensis can be used for a wide range of applications. One of the most researched compounds is Cordycepin (39).

A special feature of Cordyceps is that despite its strong and long-lasting effects there are hardly any negative side-effects, and even taken in large amounts it does not cause any problems or damage (40).

I am in the lucky position to have experienced the positive effects of Cordyceps for the longest time now, almost 30 years. While in East-Kazakhstan I investigated Cordyceps sources and found a supply line for the very best Cordyceps available on the market, in capsules, with standardized, micronized powder (= very finely grounded for better absorption) and under quality control of the Ministry of Health of Kazakhstan.

Cordyceps does not need to be taken continuously. One month on, five months off is an adequate protocol. The effects last for a long time.

For further reading:

  1. Yi Li;  Xiao-Liang Wang: A Survey of the Geographic Distribution of Ophiocordyceps sinensis; The Journal of Microbiology (2011) Vol. 49, No.6, pg. 913-919
  2. Sudipta Chakraborty, Sailee Chowdhury, Gouranga Nandi: Review on Yarsagumba (Cordyceps sinensis) – An Exotic Medicinal Mushroom; International Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemical Research 2014, 6(2), pg. 339-346
  3. Halpern, G.M.: Cordyceps – China’s Healing Mushroom; Avery Publishing, 1999
  4. M.G. Shashidhar;  P. Giridhac; K. Udaya Sankar; B. Manohara: Bioactive principles from Cordyceps sinensis: A potent food supplement – A review; Journal of Functional Foods, Vol.5, No.3, 2013, pg.1013-1030.
  5. Hui-Chen Lo; Chienyan Hsieh, et al: A Systematic Review of the Mysterious Caterpillar Fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis in Dong Chong Xia Cao and Related Bioactive Ingredients; Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 3 (2013), pg. 16-32
  6. Yi Liu; Jihui Wang, et al: The Chemical Constituents and Pharmacological Actions of Cordyceps sinensis;  Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Volume 2015, Article ID 575063, 12 pages
  7. R. N. Mishra; Yogesh Upadhyay: Cordyceps sinensis: The Chinese Rasayan- Current Research Scenario; International Journal of Research in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 2(4) Oct – Dec 2011, pg.1503-1519.
  8. Xuanwei Zhou; Zhenghua Gong, et al;  Cordyceps fungi: natural products, pharmacological functions and developmental products; J. of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 2009, 61: pg.279–291
  9. John Holliday; Matt Cleaver: Medicinal Value of the Caterpillar Fungi Species of the Genus Cordyceps (Fr.) Link (Ascomycetes). A Review; International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 10(3), pg.219–234 2008
  10. Sheng-Yuan Wang; Ming-Shi Shiao; Pharmacological Functions of Chinese Medicinal Fungus Cordyceps sinensis and Related Species; Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2000, pg.248-257.
  11. Seth, R; Haider S.Z; Mohan, M: Pharmacology, Phytochemistry and Traditional uses of Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc: a recent update for future prospects; Indian J. of Traditional Knowledge, Vol.13(3), 2014, pg.551-556.
  12. John Holliday; Matt Cleaver: On the Trail of The Yak: Ancient Cordyceps in the Modern World; internet publication, pg.1-63.
  13. Miller, R.A: The Cordyceps sinensis medicinal mushroom: Nexus Magazine, April-May 2008, pg. 23-28.
  14. Shashidhar, G.M;  Giridhar, P;  Manohar, B: Functional polysaccharides from medicinal mushroom Cordyceps sinensis as a potent food supplement: extraction, characterization and therapeutic potentials – a systematic review; RSC Adv., 2015, 5, pg.16050-16066
  15. Kai Yue;  Meng Ye: The genus Cordyceps: a chemical and pharmacological review; Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 65, 2013, pg. 474–493
  16. Shashidhar, G.M;  Giridhar, P;  Manohar, B: Functional polysaccharides from medicinal mushroom Cordyceps sinensis as a potent food supplement: extraction, characterization and therapeutic potentials – a systematic review; RSC Adv., 2015, 5, pg.16050-16066
  17. Richard Stone: Last Stand for the Body Snatcher Of the Himalayas?; Science, Vol.322, Nov.21, 2008, pg. 1181-1182.
  18. Shah. N.C: Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Cordyceps sinenesis ): the Costliest Endangered Medicinal-drug in the World; Herbal Tech Industry, Vol 10 (3), 2013, pg. 1- 6
  19. Hui Mei Yu; Bor-Sen Wang, et al: Comparison of Protective Effects between Cultured Cordyceps militaris and Natural Cordyceps sinensis against Oxidative Damage; J. Agric. Food Chem. 2006, 54, pg. 3132-3138
  20. Fu-Li Zhang;  Xiao-Feng Yang, et al: A simple and effective method to discern the true commercial Chinese cordyceps from counterfeits; Scientific Reports, 2020, 10, pg. 2974
  21. Xuhua Yu;  Yuquan Mao: Effectiveness and Safety of Oral Cordyceps sinensis on Stable COPD of GOLD Stages 2–3: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis; Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2019, Article ID 4903671, 12 pages.
  22. Eunhyun Ryu;  Myoungki Son, et al:  Cordycepin is a novel chemical suppressor of Epstein-Barr virus replication; Oncoscience 2014, Vol.1, No.12, pg.866-881
  23. Deng-Bo Ji; Jia Ye; Chang-Ling Li, et al:  Antiaging Effect of Cordyceps sinensis Extract; Phytother. Res,  23, (2009), pg. 116-122.
  24. Wasser, S.P: Medicinal mushrooms as a source of antitumor and immunomodulating polysaccharides; Appl Microbiol Biotechnol, 2002, 60, pg.258–274
  25. Kazuki Nakamura; Kazumasa Shinozuka; Noriko Yoshikawa: Anticancer and antimetastatic effects of cordycepin, an active component of Cordyceps sinensis; Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 127 (2015), pg.53-56.
  26. Hardeep Singh Tuli; Gaurav Kumar et al: Apoptotic effect of cordycepin on A549 human lung cancer cell line; Turk J.Biol. (2015), 39, pg.1-6      
  27. Noriko Yoshikawa; Kazuki Nakamura, et al:  Cordycepin and Cordyceps sinensis reduce the growth of human promyelocytic leukemia cells through Wnt signaling pathway; Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology (2007), 34, S61–S63
  28. Zheng Wang; Xue Wu, et al: Cordycepin Induces Apoptosis and Inhibits Proliferation of Human Lung Cancer Cell Line H1975 via Inhibiting the Phosphorylation of EGFR; Molecules 2016, 21, 1267
  29. Di Wanga; Yongfeng Zhanga, et al: Cordycepin, a Natural Antineoplastic Agent, Induces Apoptosis of Breast Cancer Cells via Caspase-dependent Pathways; Natural Product Communications Vol. 11 (1) 2016, pg. 63-68.      
  30. Md. Asaduzzaman Khan;  Mousumi Tania:  Cordyceps Mushroom: A Potent Anticancer Nutraceutical; The Open Nutraceuticals Journal, 2010, 3, pg.179-183    
  31. Hongwei Cai; Jing Li, et al: Extracts of Cordyceps sinensis inhibit breast cancer cell metastasis via downregulation of metastasis-related cytokines expression; Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 214 (2018), pg. 106–112 
  32. Jian-Hui Xiao; Jian-Jiang Zhong: Secondary Metabolites from Cordyceps Species and Their Antitumor Activity Studies; Recent Patents on Biotechnology 2007, 1, pg.123-137
  33. Jin Woo Bok; Leonard Lermer: Antitumor sterols from the mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis; Phytochemistry 51 (1999) pg. 891-898
  34. Kashyap D, Tuli HS, Sharma AK: Cordyceps: A Natural Himalayan Viagra with Promising Aphrodisiac Potential; Austin Andrology. 2016; 1(2): 1010
  35. Rajesh Kumar; P.S. Negi, et al:  Cordyceps sinensis promotes exercise endurance capacity of rats by activating skeletal muscle metabolic regulators; Journal of Ethnopharmacology 136 (2011), pg. 260–266.
  36. Chae, S.-W, et al: Mechanisms Underlying the Antifatigue Effects of the Mycelium Extract of Cordyceps (Paecilomyces hepiali, CBG-CS-2) in Mice in the Forced Swimming Test;  Food and Nutrition Sciences, 6, 2015, pg. 287-298
  37. Mamta Pal; Kshipra Misra:  Cordyceps sp.: The Precious Mushroom for High-Altitude Maladies; in: Management of High Altitude Pathophysiology; Springer 2019, pg. 93-114.
  38. Wai-Yin Cheng; Xue-Qin Wei, et al:  Cosmetic and Skincare Benefits of Cultivated Mycelia from the Chinese Caterpillar Mushroom, Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Ascomycetes); International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 20(7), 2018, pg.623-636
  39. Hardeep S. Tuli;  Sardul S. Sandhu, A. K. Sharma:  Pharmacological and therapeutic potential of Cordyceps with special reference to Cordycepin; Biotech (2014), 4, pg. 1–12
  40. Shin Yee Fung; Sook Shien Lee, et al:  Safety assessment of cultivated fruiting body of Ophiocordyceps sinensis evaluated through subacute toxicity in rats; Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 206 (2017), pg. 236–244


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