Adaptogens in Focus: Cordyceps

May 27, 2012
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A few years back I took a trip to Nepal, and spent nearly a month hiking through the Annapurna mountain range. It was absolutely breathtaking scenery, to say the least—miles of trails on which we rarely saw other people. Other than a daily dose of donkeys and porters, our encounters were limited to local Nepalese and their yaks spread thin through tiny, scattered villages.

On one morning hike, however, I came across an unusual sight. I rounded a bend in the trail and entered a huge subalpine meadow, recently dusted with snow. There in the meadow, where one would expect quiet and emptiness, were multiple white figures milling about; men fully garbed in hazmat suits, collecting something from the ground and placing it in buckets.

I think I chalked up the experience to high-elevation hallucination and continued on. It was only days later that I remembered to ask a local guide about what they were doing. His answer, “collecting mushrooms,” left me baffled.

As it turned out, however, this wasn’t just any (perhaps radioactive?) mushroom these men were collecting, but a long sought-after medical fungus called cordyceps, one of the most powerful fungal adaptogens on the planet.

Our phenomenal fungal friends

Cordyceps sinensis is a tiny, strange-looking sac fungus that behaves as a rather nasty parasitic species. Documented in traditional Tibetan Medicine since the 15th century, cordyceps has been and still is used as a “primary Jing tonic” in Chinese Medicine, taken to reinvigorate the life force. As it was such a rare and difficult thing to find, the fungus was purportedly reserved for use by only the Emperor, ingested to ensure his long life and vitality.

Fortunately for us, a Catholic priest visiting China in the 17th century was given some of the medicine, and consequently brought cordyceps home with him to the West. It is now a widely used herbal supplement, a healer with what seems like endless benefits for body and mind.

Cordyceps, like other adaptogens, assists the body in creating and maintaining balance during times of stress. It directly influences how our cells make ATP, the body’s energy currency, and enhances oxygen utilization. Where stress depletes overall vitality—and specifically can take a toll on sex drive and physical exertion—cordyceps acts as a stimulant and phenomenal aphrodisiac, reinvigorating the neuro-endocrine system.

As long-term stress also diminishes the activity and balance of the immune system, cordyceps has been found to be extremely effective at reducing infection and enhancing defense mechanisms in the body, specifically the T lymphocyte activity involved in cell-mediated immunity. Particularly in cases of respiratory illness, cordyceps significantly reduces healing time, and appears to prevent future infections if taken regularly. Given this natural affinity for the lung system, it is also used as an effective treatment for asthma and elevation sickness.

Compounds found in cordyceps also assist in the removal of excess cholesterol, increasing the fluidity of the blood and reducing the potential of cardiovascular challenges and damage. Through protecting liver function it helps to reduce the production of excess cholesterol and to balance glucose utilization, protecting against blood sugar imbalances, detoxification issues and the potential for diabetes.

Finally, cordyceps appears to act as an antioxidant in the body, picking up the damaging free radicals produced in metabolic processes. In this way it protects against overall cell aging, memory loss, and damage to cellular membranes during times of excess stress.

Cordyceps has still more healing properties, and I encourage you to research and experience it for yourself. It appears that there are very few conditions we experience in our stressful lives that it won’t help in some way.

Fortunately we no longer have to wait on men in hazmat suits to gather cordyceps for us, as it can be grown in culture and will still retain its healing ability. But ensure you are getting the CS-4 strain of cordyceps, the only strain that is capable of developing the necessary compounds in the absence of the elevation and environmental stress that would normally stimulate their development.

While you can still buy cordyceps sourced from the Tibetan plateaus, the global demand for this healer has resulted in significant ecological damage to those areas, and I don’t personally endorse it.

Standard dose is 1000 mg per day, and I recommend the Mushroom Science brand. Their extract is made using a hot water process that significantly enhances the availability of the healing components. Depending on the condition that you’re attempting to treat or balance, you may want to try higher doses as well, and a Pharmaca practitioner can advise you in this. Side effects are relatively unknown, though it has been suggested that those people taking immuno-suppressive drugs may want to avoid it, and so far it has not been studied enough to be considered safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Ciel is a certified Wellness Coach and Holistic Health Practitioner in Berkeley, Calif., and works at the Rockridge Pharmaca in Oakland. She employs her background in herbs, nutrition, psychoneuroimmunology and Shamanic practices (and a few hundred other modalities) to guide people to a greater understanding of their life processes, leading to vibrant health and much more laughter.

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