Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that originally hails from China, but over the centuries has become a staple of both Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine. This strange looking fungus naturally grows at high altitudes on caterpillars and ants. In fact, it is a parasitic fungus that has some strains that can actually control ants and other insect to move to an ideal place for the parasite to grow.
Luckily most commercial cordyceps sinensis is grown in rice cultures instead of on caterpillars, although those are seen as a delicacy in China that sells for a high premium due to its rarity. Cordyceps mushroom is surprisingly beneficial to athletes and non-athletes alike. Some clinical trials have found that cordyceps may help to treat liver and kidney diseases, and several studies done by the University of Michigan have found that cordyceps has antioxidant effects. Cordyceps could also help protect kidneys from damage caused by certain medications like gentamicin and cyclosporin, says the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Some scientific evidence suggests that cordyceps may decrease toxicity in the kidneys due to cyclosporin and aminoglycosides, the Mayo Clinic notes.
The fungus is also great for improving immune function. Some evidence points to cordyceps’ ability to regulate the immune system, stimulating certain actions and inhibiting others. In China, cordyceps is used to treat lupus and hepatitis, as well as to help with organ transplants. Clinical trials have shown that cordyceps can decrease fibrosis and boost liver function in people with chronic hepatitis B, notes the University of Michigan Health System. The Mayo Clinic notes that cordyceps appears to stimulate T cells and strengthen lymphocytes, both of which are essential to immunity. Immune function is important for athletes since they are more prone to becoming sick, and illness can slow progress.
The real bonus for athletes using cordyceps is a potential increase in their VO2 Max. In a double blind, placebo controlled study with 30 volunteers, cordyceps sinesis herbal extract significantly improved the maximum amount of oxygen these people were able to assimilate. Other studies showed that cordyceps also increases cellular oxygen absorption by up to 40%, and improves heart function. Currently there are several endurance supplements on the market that include cordyceps extract in their formula, such as Cordygen5 and Drive. Many cordyceps users notice an increase in ease of breathing and as a result, better aerobic performance. Cordyceps can be taken with creatine to help with lifting workouts as well.
Cordyceps may also increase testosterone levels. This effect has been seen in multiple in vitro studies and was also recently seen in vivo in mice with low testosterone production in which cordyceps increased plasma testosterone levels by approximately 170%. It is hypothesized that the testosterone increase is due to polysaccharides and/or glycoproteins in cordyceps that are similar to LH in structure and bind to LH receptors, stimulating testosterone production.