What Is Cordyceps?

Cordyceps is a type of fungus long used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is said to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

When taken as a supplement, cordyceps benefits may include:

  • Increased exercise performance
  • Boosted immunity
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved heart health
  • Lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.

Some people even believe that cordyceps may have anti-aging and anti-cancer properties.

This article describes how cordyceps are used, including the possible benefits and risks. It also explains what to look for when choosing a cordyceps supplement and how to take it safely.

Supplement Facts

  • Active Ingredient(s): Cordycepin, polysaccharides, sterols, fatty acids, phenolic compounds
  • Alternate Name(s): Cordyceps sinensis, Cordyceps sobolifera, Cordyceps barnesii, Cordyceps hyphae, Cordyceps ophioglossoides, Cordyceps militaris, caterpillar fungus, cordyceps mushroom
  • Legal Status: Legal, available over-the-counter
  • Suggested Dose: There is not enough evidence to suggest a standard dose for cordyceps.
  • Safety Considerations: Mild side effects are possible when taking cordyceps. However, the safety of long-term use of cordyceps is unknown.

Uses of Cordyceps

There are over 400 known species of cordyceps, although the types used in most supplements are man-made in the lab.

Supplement use should be individualized and vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or doctor. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent a disease.

In complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), cordyceps is often used as a natural energy booster. Proponents also claim that cordyceps can protect against health issues like fatigue, high blood pressure, upper respiratory infections, inflammation, and kidney disorders, to name a few.
Some herbalists also believe that cordyceps can boost libido, slow aging, and protect against cancer.

However, much of the research on cordyceps has been completed on animal models or in lab settings. More human trials are needed before recommending cordyceps for health purposes.

Athletic Performance

Research into the performance-enhancing effects of cordyceps has yielded mixed results.

Cordyceps is thought to boost athletic performance. This claim first grabbed headlines in the '90s when Chinese track and field athletes achieved multiple world records, and their coach attributed their success to cordyceps-containing supplements.

A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that daily cordyceps supplementation gradually increased the maximum oxygen intake (VO2 max) in young adults after three weeks of use. Researchers believed these results meant that cordyceps might increase an athlete's tolerance to high-intensity exercise.

However, this study was small and over a short period. Therefore, we don't know if long-term cordyceps supplementation could safely improve exercise tolerance even further. More human trials need to be performed before we can know for sure that cordyceps is a safe and effective supplement for athletes.

Diabetes

In traditional medicine, cordyceps has long been used as a treatment for diabetes.

While there are no quality studies investigating these effects in humans, several animal studies have been conducted. However, animal studies on cordyceps and other supplements should not be used as evidence for human use.

One study found that a four-week course of a cordyceps extract improved cholesterol levels and weight gain in mice with diabetes. Cordyceps was also found to have the potential to protect insulin-making beta cells. However, cordyceps did not significantly alter blood sugar levels or improve insulin resistance in the mice.

Cordycepin, one of the active ingredients in cordyceps, has been associated with antidiabetic activity in animal models. A recent review of various studies noted that cordycepin's potential effect on diabetes might be due to gene regulation.

Again, these findings are based on nonhuman animal research and, therefore, cannot be used to determine human benefit.

Hyperlipidemia

Cordyceps is believed to have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, both of which may help prevent or treat hyperlipidemia, or high levels of fat in the blood.

Many of these benefits have been attributed to cordycepin, a bioactive component of cordyceps. Polysaccharides, or carbohydrates, found in cordyceps have also been found to be helpful.

Results from animal studies linked cordyceps use to lowered hyperlipidemia. In one such study, a polysaccharide extracted from cordyceps decreased total cholesterol and triglyceride levels in hamsters.

In other studies, cordycepin has been associated with improvements in hyperlipidemia. This has been attributed to its similar structure to adenosine, a naturally occurring chemical in the human body that is needed during fat metabolism and breakdown.

As with most research areas surrounding cordyceps, human trials are necessary before making any health claims.

What Are the Side Effects of Cordyceps?

Cordyceps is generally considered safe for short-term use. However, as with most supplements, side effects are possible. Still, most potential side effects associated with cordyceps are mild.

Common Side Effects

Some cordyceps users may experience common side effects. These can include:

Typically, symptoms resolve once the use of cordyceps stops. But talk with your healthcare provider if you experience side effects after taking cordyceps. They should be able to guide you through any necessary treatments.

Severe Side Effects

No severe side effects have been reported for cordyceps. But that does not mean they are not possible.

Despite its relative safety, the action of cordyceps is poorly understood and may cause problems in certain users.

You can be allergic to cordyceps, although it is extremely rare. Always take precautions when starting a new supplement and pay attention to any issues or changes in your body.

Cordyceps capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Precautions

Some people need to take extra precautions when using cordyceps supplements.

Little is known about the long-term safety of taking cordyceps. Although it is relatively non-toxic, there is not enough research to ensure its safety in all circumstances.

The following groups should avoid taking cordyceps supplements:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding people: Cordyceps research has not been conducted on people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Children: There is also no evidence of the effect of cordyceps on children. This means children should also avoid using cordyceps.

Therefore, these populations should avoid taking cordyceps and discuss any necessary alternatives with a healthcare provider.

More precautions may be needed when taking cordyceps. Before starting this supplement, talk with your healthcare provider and tell them if you are taking any medications or have chronic health conditions.

Dosage: How Much Cordyceps Should I Take?

Always speak with a healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that the supplement and dosage is appropriate for your individual needs.

There are no universal guidelines for an appropriate dose of cordyceps supplements.

Dosage varies significantly in studies looking at cordyceps. For example, studies on athletic performance have used doses of 1 gram daily up to 4.5 grams daily. In some animal studies, dosage ranged from 3 grams per day to 10 grams per kilogram (kg) per day.

As a rule of thumb, never use more than the recommended dosage on the product label or as instructed by your healthcare provider.

Stop and let your healthcare provider know if you develop any unusual symptoms or side effects after consuming cordyceps. Side effects often occur from taking a higher than usual dose.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Cordyceps?

When taken appropriately, cordyceps is not thought to be toxic. Overdose has not been reported.

However, there are concerns about cordyceps' potential to contain toxins. Long-term human trials on cordyceps have not been completed to date, so researchers are not confident in its long-term use.

There is a possibility that mycotoxins, or toxins that grow on fungi, could be present in cordyceps. More safety studies should be conducted on natural and synthetic cordyceps to prove or discredit these claims.

It should also be noted that one study on wild cordyceps found that the fungus may contain some levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a natural metal that can be poisonous when too much is consumed.

Again, more research is needed on the safety of cordyceps. Only take the recommended dose of cordyceps as stated on the label. Consult with your healthcare provider if you are unsure how much to take.

Possible Interactions

Certain medications may interact with cordyceps, including:

  • Certain diabetes medications (e.g., metformin): In some animal studies, cordyceps has been shown to lower blood sugar levels. Combining cordyceps with other antidiabetic medications may cause blood sugar to become too low, resulting in hypoglycemia.
  • Blood thinners and other anti-thrombotic drugs: Taking these medications along with cordyceps may lower the efficacy of these medications or increase the risk of bleeding. However, this interaction has only been reported in lab studies, not in humans. Human trials should be conducted.

Before starting cordyceps supplements, you should carefully read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel to know which ingredients and how much of each ingredient is included. Please review the supplement label with your healthcare provider to discuss potential interactions with foods, other supplements, and medications.

How to Store Cordyceps

Store cordyceps supplements in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. It is typically best to store supplements in their original, air-tight containers. Some cordyceps tinctures or oils may need to be refrigerated. Be sure to read all directions and labels regarding proper supplement storage.

Supplements should be discarded appropriately once the expiration date is reached.

How to Choose Cordyceps Supplements

You may find fresh cordyceps mushrooms online or in specialty grocery stores. However, they are not common and may be challenging to track down. In the United States, cordyceps is mostly available in supplement form.

Cordyceps is typically available in capsule, tablet, tincture, or powder form. Dried whole cordyceps are often used to make tinctures and extracts, while powdered cordyceps can be blended into smoothies and protein shakes. The best supplement form for you may be the one that fits best into your lifestyle.

It's important to remember that dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States. Supplements do not undergo rigorous testing like medications do. However, you can ensure better quality and safety by buying supplements that have been tested and certified by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or other recognized organizations.

Along with this, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that Chinese herbal products are sometimes contaminated with drugs, toxins, or heavy metals. Others may not even include the listed ingredients.

Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider for additional tips on how to find the right supplements for you.

Similar Supplements

Cordyceps has a long list of purported uses, many of which may also be present in other supplements.

Supplements that may be similar to cordyceps include:

  • Beetroot juice: Beetroot juice has also been examined for its role in athletic performance. Studies have shown that using beetroot juice may improve efficiency, cardiorespiratory performance, and oxygen intake.
  • Chromium: Chromium is a trace mineral involved in the insulin response. Although research results have been mixed, some show that chromium may help people with diabetes control their blood sugar.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA have long been linked to better heart health. At a dose of 4 grams daily, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce triglyceride levels in the blood by more than 30%.

It's typically best to take just one supplement for a single purpose. If you are unsure which supplement is right for you, talk with your healthcare provider for more information.

Summary

Cordyceps is a type of fungus that mostly grows in Asia and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries.

Although more research is needed, cordyceps has been studied for its use in improving athletic performance, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and other health concerns. Cordyceps has few side effects and precautions, but you should still follow the proper dosage and directions when using it. Before starting cordyceps supplements, talk to your healthcare to ensure it is the right decision for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is cordyceps toxic to humans?

    Cordyceps is not thought to be toxic to humans. It is generally considered to be a safe supplement.

    In China, the country's National Medical Products Administration has approved more than 50 medications plus two dietary supplements derived from cordyceps.

  • Are cordyceps mushrooms healthy to eat?

    Wild cordyceps are rich in a number of nutrients (although, they would be hard to obtain for cooking). These nutrients include various essential amino acids and B vitamins, vitamin K, sterols, and polysaccharides. Cordycepin is another active ingredient in cordyceps and has many potential uses.

  • Does cordyceps give you energy?

    Cordycepin, an essential component of cordyceps, has a structure similar to adenosine. Adenosine is found in ATP, a molecule made and used by your body for energy.

    Because of these similar structures, cordyceps is thought to increase energy levels. One study found cordyceps to have the potential to increase the time to exhaustion in athletes.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Brittany Lubeck, RD
Brittany Lubeck, RD, is a nutrition writer and registered dietitian with a master's degree in clinical nutrition. 

Originally written by
Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong

Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.

Learn about our editorial process