When it comes to athletic performance, natural supplements are an increasingly appealing option these days. Not only can they enhance your natural abilities in a safe and effective way, but they also offer an opportunity to get vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients that your body needs. (1) One natural supplement that is gaining momentum is Cordyceps.
Read on to learn more about this unusual fungus and how Cordyceps may help you step up your game in more ways than one.
What Is Cordyceps Mushroom
While its origins might make you cringe, cordyceps are nevertheless becoming a major player for athletes. Often referred to as "caterpillar fungus," cordyceps grow on the larvae of insects (sometimes caterpillars) and replace the host's tissue to sprout long, finger-like stems.
Strange as that is, cordyceps have been part of Traditional Chinese Medicine—ancient practices from China that use herbal medicines and various mind-body techniques, such as acupuncture and tai chi—to treat illnesses ranging from fatigue to high cholesterol and more. (2)
Today, as people in the West have become more informed about using food as medicine and the potential health benefits of addressing ailments with non-pharmaceutical sources, it's no wonder that consumption of cordyceps extracts is on the rise.
Some of the primary health issues that cordyceps address include:
- Energy levels
- Sexual function
- Kidney disease
- Immune system
- Heart health
Cordyceps Militaris Vs. Cordyceps Sinensis
More than 400 species of cordyceps have been discovered, but there are two that researchers have zeroed in on: Cordyceps sinensis and Cordyceps militaris. The former grows naturally on caterpillars in high altitudes of the Tibetan mountains and other parts of the world. These wild cordyceps are extremely expensive due to their rarity, environmental factors, harvesting difficulty, and increasing demand. As such, they are not practical for use as supplements.
On the other hand, cordyceps militaris have very similar properties to cordyceps sinensis, can be commercially cultivated, and the fruiting bodies can be grown on a rice mixture, thus making it much more accessible and affordable. This is great news considering you probably wouldn't want to climb towering mountains across the Tibetan plateau just to find wild cordyceps, not to mention paying tens of thousands of dollars for a small amount!
Benefits Of Cordyceps For Athletes
Along with its long history in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, cordyceps have maintained their status as a go-to for athletes. In fact, there is a story involving the Chinese running team that quickly became the stuff of legend back in the early 1990s. That's when the Chinese Olympic women’s running team won multiple competitions and broke three world records. While they attributed their incredible athletic performance to cordyceps, their claims were tarnished years later when their coach Ma Junren was fired after six of his other athletes failed drug tests.
Still, the performance-enhancing effects and health benefits of cordyceps supplements should not be dismissed. While more clinical trials are needed, much of the available research shows promising results. A double-blind study on healthy elderly adults demonstrated that ingesting Cs-4 (a synthetic strain of Cordyceps sinensis) improved exercise performance and contributed to overall wellness. (3)
Furthermore, a 2016 study showed that a three-week supplementation period with cordyceps militaris resulted in significantly improved tolerance to high-intensity exercise, suggesting the potential for greater benefits with longer-term supplementation. (4)
Take a look at some other potential upsides of this caterpillar fungus that might improve your workout regimen.
1. Increase VO2 Max
VO2 max is defined as the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise (i.e. exercise of increasing intensity). Used as a method to determine one's fitness level (5), some studies show that cordyceps supplementation can improve exercise performance. (6) However, per the 2016 study mentioned earlier, this seems to be more beneficial for those who are not highly-trained athletes. (4) As such, trained athletes might need to increase the dosage to obtain the desired results.
2. Fatigue Resistance
Extract of cordyceps has long been used in Chinese medicine for fatigue resistance and endurance, and now science is seeking to verify those claims. Medical findings published in a 2015 study of mice swimming concluded that there was enough experimental evidence to "support clinical use of cordyceps militaris as an effective agent against fatigue." (7) Indeed, researchers confirm that many more human studies are needed, but the reviews thus far offer a favorable outlook on the potential health benefits of cordyceps including anti-fatigue properties. (8)
3. Boosts ATP During Exercise
At the root of increased VO2 max and fatigue resistance is the link between cordyceps and increased production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary energy carrier in all living organisms. (9) While clinical studies have not definitively proven that cordyceps boost ATP production during exercise, (10) there is evidence that the presence of adenosine is related to heart health. (11)
How Much Should You Take?
Most athletes start around 1 gram of cordyceps per day—either in a single dose or multiple doses with meals—but many will increase that dose to 2-3 grams depending on weight, age, and activity level. There is no established guideline on what makes an optimal dose, so keep it mind that dosage depends on your level of athleticism and individual composition. (12)
Side Effects Of Cordyceps For Athletes
Overall it's considered safe to consume cordyceps, but it's important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not review cordyceps or any other supplements for safety and effectiveness. (13) If you're pregnant, nursing, have an autoimmune disease or any other chronic condition, be sure to consult your physician and only buy supplements from reputable companies that clearly list the ingredients for each product and have been tested by a third-party.
Cordyceps As A Pre-Workout
Along with their positive impact on VO2 max, fatigue resistance, and ATP production, cordyceps offer a number of other potential health benefits including use as an anti-inflammatory supplement (14) and free radical-fighting antioxidant (15), both of which would be quite helpful before a workout. A good idea is to try a cordyceps mushroom elixir for a pre-workout boost of energy that will last even after you've ended your sweat session.
The Core Of Cordyceps
While it's clear that more research is needed to better understand the effects of cordyceps on humans, this funky-looking fungi has endured as a natural remedy for hundreds of years and will likely continue its ascent as a go-to source for better health.
To date, animal studies show that it not only regulates blood sugar levels (16), but it also works as an anti-tumor agent that kills cancer cells in various forms of the disease (17, 18, 19). If you're an athlete and want to take things to the next level, cordyceps just might be the supplement you've been looking for.
-spread the spores-
Mar Yvette is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle writer, editor and on-air host who has worked with some of the world’s most recognized media companies including E! News, ABC, Citysearch, Huffington Post, Playboy Magazine and Fox News Latino. She is the founder and editor in chief of Homegirl Talk, an online platform to connect and promote women from all walks of life. You can find her on Instagram at @therealmarpop