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The anti-aging market is booming. It seems like nearly every week, a new herbal medicine or plant makes the headlines as the latest miracle cure for aging. While there aren’t too many “miracle cures”, some of the anti-aging options available do have more evidence than others.
Cordyceps, a type of fungus, is one such promising plant on the market.
It’s been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine but has gained popularity in the West over the past 20 or 30 years. Studies suggest its anti-inflammatory properties might make it an effective anti-aging substance.
Let’s look at the potential health benefits of cordyceps.
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Cordyceps and skin
First things first: Does cordyceps help the skin? There’s a good chance it does in a few different ways.
Researchers have studied how cordyceps interacts with UVB, one of the parts of UV radiation from the sun that’s responsible for age-related skin changes (Amaro-Ortiz, 2014). One study suggests that cordyceps extracts applied to the skin might undo UVB damage or prevent it from happening in the first place (He, 2020). That study was done on a cellular level, not in human research subjects, so more research is needed, but it’s certainly promising!
Another potential effect of cordyceps on the skin is it may improve skin cancer outcomes. Specifically, a certain species of cordyceps called Cordyceps militaris has been shown to keep malignant melanoma (a type of skin cancer) tumors from growing (Ruma, 2014). Melanoma is a major concern in aging patients, so if cordyceps might have antitumor activity in melanoma tumors, that could have far-reaching impacts on people as they get older (Hegde, 2009).
Lastly, you’ve probably heard that antioxidants are good for the skin. Our skin is exposed to oxidative stress throughout our lifetimes, but as we get older, the effects of that stress become more obvious. Antioxidants can help slow down this process.
At least in in vitro studies (meaning in a laboratory—not studied in humans or animals), it seems that cordyceps can act as a powerful antioxidant and could protect against the oxidative stress that leads to fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration (Park, 2014).
What is cordyceps?
So, what is cordyceps, exactly? Cordyceps is a broad term for a genus made up of more than 400 species of fungi that grow on certain types of insects—it’s sometimes called “caterpillar fungus.”
Traditional Chinese medicine has used cordyceps for hundreds of years as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant supplement, and it’s become more popular in Western society over the past few decades (Yue, 2012). There’s some promising evidence that cordyceps might be useful for anti-aging and other conditions, but we need more human studies to know just how effective it is.
There are two main species of cordyceps in use—Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris.
Cordyceps sinensis (also called Ophiocordyceps sinensis or C. sinensis) is closely related to mushrooms and grows in the Himalayan mountains in China, Tibet, and Nepal. It’s been used for centuries by folk practitioners claiming it improves longevity, the immune system, liver function, kidney function, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol levels. Cordyceps is sometimes called “Himalayan Viagra” because it’s believed to help with sexual function, improving libido, erectile dysfunction, and even male infertility.
Many of these claims have been studied more recently and may hold water, but most of the research we have currently is in mice, in vitro, or small-scale human studies (Panda, 2011).
If you think this fungus sounds too good to be true, the price tag might make you think twice. The changing ecology in the Himalayas has made Cordyceps sinensis hard to come by, so it can cost up to $20,000 per kilogram, according to some reports (Lo, 2013).
Cordyceps militaris (C. militaris) is very similar to Cordyceps sinensis with similar benefits (though each may be slightly more or less beneficial than the other for different conditions) (Yu, 2006). And just like Cordyceps sinensis, natural Cordyceps militaris is expensive and can be difficult to find.
There’s good news, though. One of the main extracts of Cordyceps militaris, called cordycepin, is now being produced in a lab, making it more accessible, which is especially important from a research standpoint. One of the main reasons we lack sufficient research on cordyceps is that it’s expensive to study. While we have plenty of studies suggesting cordycepin’s potential benefits as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drug, we need more scientific evidence in human subjects to know for sure (Tuli, 2014).
With more research, though, cordyceps has the potential to be a goldmine—not just monetarily, but in terms of its potential impact on health and longevity. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the other possible benefits more research may confirm.
Other benefits of cordyceps
In traditional Chinese and folk medicine, cordyceps is considered something of a panacea, seemingly able to treat every condition under the sun. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, studies show it might have a wide range of health benefits.
Cordyceps and cancer
One of the most intriguing possible benefits of cordyceps is its potential effects on cancer cells. We’ve already talked about how cordyceps may prevent melanoma tumors from growing, but it may impact other types of cancer, as well. In vitro and animal studies show that cordycepin (a cordyceps extract) may have anti-cancer effects on other types of cancer, including lung and liver cancer (Nakamura, 2014).
Cordyceps and male sexuality
We mentioned earlier that cordyceps has been called “Himalayan Viagra,” believed to be a powerful medicinal for male virility. There seems to be some truth to this claim based on a study done in aging rats, which showed Cordyceps militaris improved testicular function, leading to better erectile function, libido, and testosterone levels (Kopalli, 2019).
Of course, that study was done in rats, but further human studies might show cordyceps to be an effective drug for male sexuality.
Cordyceps and exercise performance
In addition to all these possible benefits, cordyceps may improve athletic performance, too. In a small study done on cyclists, taking cordyceps supplements appeared to protect athletes against exercise-induced oxidative stress (Rossi, 2014). Another small study showed better tolerance for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in athletes taking cordyceps (Hirsch, 2017). Yet another study showed improved energy levels in mice given polysaccharide extracts from Cordyceps militaris before swimming (Xu, 2016).
These possible impacts on athletic performance are likely because of the same antioxidant effects of cordyceps that can protect the skin against aging. Exercise can induce oxidative stress on the body, so antioxidants may help.
Downsides of cordyceps
Cordyceps is a supplement with many potential upsides and few (if any) side effects. The biggest downside, though, is we simply don’t have enough research. Since natural Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris are scarce and expensive, there have been limits on how much research can be done on them. Hopefully, more scientific studies on cordyceps will become available in the coming years, showing the benefits of cordyceps for a wide range of health problems.
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- He, H., Tang, J., Ru, D., Shu, X., Li, W., Li, J., Ma, L., Hu, X., Xiong, L., & Li, L. (2020). Protective effects of Cordyceps extract against UVB‑induced damage and prediction of application prospects in the topical administration: An experimental validation and network pharmacology study. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy, 121. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2019.109600. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31707352/.
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