Cordyceps is a fungus (mushroom) that grows on the larvae of the caterpillar Hepialus armoricanus Oberthuer. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine and by herbalists as a treatment for a variety of illnesses. As cordyceps must be grown in high altitudes, it is somewhat difficult to cultivate and can be expensive.
Cordyceps has been used as a healing mushroom in China for thousands of years. The first written notation of cordyceps dates back to the Tang Dynasty. It has been through rigorous clinical trials in China and has been used as a prescription medicine there since 1988 under the name of Jin Shui Bao. Cordyceps was introduced to the United States in the mid-19th century. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved cordyceps as a dietary supplement only, so consult your physician before using it in a medicinal manner.
Cordyceps is used to treat numerous, diverse illnesses including liver, kidney, and heart disease, immune system disorders, diabetes, respiratory and pulmonary conditions and high cholesterol. It is used as a collaborative treatment to chemotherapy and radiation in cancer patients. Cordyceps is also thought to be a remedy for fatigue, low sex drive, weakness and aches and pains.
An April 2009 study by the The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in China indicates, “cordyceps sinensis, a well-known traditional Chinese medicine, possesses activities in anti-tumor, anti-oxidation and stimulating the immune response.” The study concludes that cordyceps triggers immune responses (see Resources below).
No serious side effects have been reported, however, some people may experience nausea, diarrhea or dry mouth. Cordyceps should not be used by pregnant or lactating women or children, as it has not been studied enough in these patient categories. Cordyceps is considered a non-toxic fungus. No known drug interactions have been found, but due to cordyceps’ effect on blood glucose, diabetics should carefully monitor their blood sugar during use. Cordyceps is a red blood cell progenitor; therefore, it should not be used by people suffering from myelogenous cancers.
There are several other names for cordyceps, such as vegetable caterpillar, semitake, Chinese caterpillar fungus and yarsha gumba.