It is important to recognize the truth behind cordyceps health benefits: That there is promise from these mushrooms but more human tests need to be conducted
Before diving into the medicinal research and cordyceps health benefits, and the important factors to distinguish when using medicinal mushrooms, I want to express my current position around medicinal mushrooms. There is a lot of preliminary research and general excitement around medicinal mushrooms. Much of that research has not made it to human trials and the objective benefits of mushrooms are far from clear in western science.
I believe mushrooms are an extremely powerful medicine that can heal our mind, body, and spirit. I also know there is a lot of money and misinformation involved in the medicinal mushroom supplement field. I think it is critical for users of medicinal mushrooms to have a relationship with the mushrooms they are consuming. Ultimately, one of the most powerful medicines we can develop is relationship. I was at a workshop that Joe Krawzyck (co-owner of Field and Forest) was teaching and something he said about medicinal mushrooms deeply resonated with me. He said something along the lines of “the only medicine with medicinal mushrooms I know works is doing it, being outside and growing mushrooms”. I hear deep wisdom in his viewpoint. To think we can take 3 capsules of medicinal mushrooms a day and be perfectly healthy and happy in our lives is foolish. We need to take responsibility for our health and happiness, build relationships with our medicine, and look to be with and in the land.
Cordyceps health benefits go beyond consumption
Taking Joe’s outlook, the process of learning and foraging for these medicinal mushrooms (cordyceps militaris grows wild throughout the northeast as does chaga, reishi, lions mane, turkey tail, and many other medicinal mushrooms), the process of cultivating them, of cooking them, processing them, watching them grow, looking at them, and touching them is all part of the healing process. Healing can happen, during all of these activities, regardless of the compounds that are found in the mushroom. I encourage everyone to start building a relationship with these fungal medicines, learn who these mushrooms are, how to cultivate them, listen to them and see what magic unfolds. If you have the time and energy, try making your own chaga tea, or reishi tincture, take a walk in the woods to hunt for cordyceps, inoculate some shiitake logs. Take the time to build a relationship with these fungal beings and it becomes part of the healing process.
There is a long list of potential cordyceps health benefits including anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activities. Equally as long, the list of compounds that are active and found in cordyceps include cordycepin, cordycepic acid, adenosine, polysaccharides, vitamins, and enzymes. Cordycepin was first isolated in the 1950’s and has been studied ever since then. Cordycepin has been shown in numerous studies in the East to be a powerful medicine in a range of applications. Most of these studies have been done either on animals or tissue of humans. Very few human studies have been conducted.
Cordyceps health benefits and trials with mice
One interesting study on mice given extracts of the fruiting body of cordyceps found a significant decrease in fatiguing during exercise. After consuming the extract for two or more weeks, mice showed increased ATP levels and the production of antioxidative enzymes during physical activity. The production of lactic acid and several other compounds decreased, allowing for more time before fatigue showed in the body. This similar study was repeated on 28 human subjects during high intensity exercise. The study found that after three weeks of cordyceps supplementation there was an increase in oxygen consumption and time to exhaustion. As the research and consumer interest in cordyceps grows, hopefully more human trials will be conducted. This will help to clarify if all these perceived benefits have the same impacts on the human body. It is amazing that this mushroom is fetching such an astronomical price while little to no research has confirmed medicinal benefits to the human body. It seems much of the benefit of cordyceps is inferred or transferred to the human body from other studies.
Cordyceps health benefits: Understanding mushroom supplements
There are three important questions to ask yourself when seeking cordyceps health benefits. First, what is actually being consumed: cordyceps or Yartsa Gunbu? Second, is it the fruiting body/mushroom or mycelium that is being consumed? And lastly, if it is mycelium being consumed how was this mycelium grown?
Currently, mushroom supplement providers can call their products “mushroom supplements” even if NO mushrooms are in the supplement. Even if it is exclusively mycelium, which is a fungus but not a mushroom, producers can call it a mushroom supplement. This causes a lot of confusion because the medicinal compounds people perceive they are consuming show up in different amounts in these different aspects of the fungal life cycle. Many consumers don’t even know what mycelium is but slowly people are understanding the differences between these products.
A mushroom extract product is the result of fruiting bodies extracted through alcohol and water and then either offered as a liquid or processed into powder form. A mycelial extract is mycelium grown on brown rice and then extracted and freeze dried. The rice is included in these products. When tested, the alpha and beta glucan contents (important indicators of health benefits) between these different products is massive. Historically, most studies have pointed towards beta glucans and polysaccharides as the primary marker of medicinal compounds in mushrooms. The mycelium grown on rice products have large amounts of alpha glucans, or starch, and low amounts of beta glucans, because they still contain the grain on which they were grown. The mushroom extracts are the inverse, containing high amounts of beta glucans but low levels of starch, or alpha glucans.
Cordyceps health benefits and the use of mycelium over fruited bodies
The reasons for using mycelium in a product instead of mushrooms are primarily related to scale and economics, the process being faster, cheaper, and easier to scale up as needed. Mushroom production, on the other hand, takes more time and is more expensive. There is no scientific reason to produce mycelial extracts instead of mushroom extracts. In a 2003 study by Paul Stamets, he confirms fruiting body extracts contain higher beta-glucan content but rice-grown mycelium produces a different constituent family, arabinoxylanes, which have similar impacts on immunomodulatory responses. Most studies focus on the beta-glucans produced by the mushrooms.
In summary, there is more to a medicinal mushroom product than meets the eye. Learning what species and what fungal part is in any product is critical. The mushroom supplement industry is at $34 billion and is expected to grow to $70 billion by the end of 2024. This is a lot of money, and that can lead to misleading information and marketing. Hopefully more research will come out on the impacts of mushrooms on the human body and the difference between mycelium and fruiting body products. Consumer education will be vital to continue growing this field in a way that supports the public rather than scamming them.