The first written record of the Cordyceps mushroom comes from China, in the year AD620, at the time of the Tang Dynasty, which spoke of a creature, whose annual existence alluded to a transformation from animal to plant, in summer, and then again from plant to animal, in winter. Cordyceps has a long history as a rare and exotic medicinal fungus with a number of far reaching medicinal effects.
There are currently more than 680 documented species of Cordyceps. All Cordyceps species have similar life cycles and have developed mechanisms to invade insects and grow on them; the major difference being the locality where they grow and the host insect they infect. Cordyceps species remain dormant in soil until they get in contact with a host. They all grow inside the host body before emerging from the host body in the summer. Besides their morphological diversity, they also differ widely in cultivability.
Two species of Cordyceps mushroom most widely used and valued in traditional Asian medical practice are C. sinensis and C. militaris. Although C. sinensis may be the most famous and expensive fungus, it is comparatively rare and cannot be easily grown in culture whereas C. militaris is the most successfully cultivated species.
Recent studies have shown that the natural populations of C. sinensis are decreasing because of over-collection. Because of the scarcity and high price of wild C. sinensis specimens, many counterfeit materials including cultured products are sold in the market, resulting in the need for their authentication and quality control.
While C. sinensis may be the most well-known species, modern science has now uncovered potentially valuable medicinal properties in C. militaris. C. militaris has been increasingly viewed as a substitute for C. sinensis because of their similar chemical capacities and medicinal properties.
In TCM, Cordyceps is also believed by many, particularly in and around Tibet, its place of origin, to be a remedy for weakness and fatigue; and it is often used as an overall rejuvenator for increased energy while recovering from a serious illness. It is often prescribed for the elderly to ease general aches and pains.
Cordyceps species contains a broad range of compounds which are considered nutritional. Cordyceps species contains all of the essential 18 amino acids, vitamins E, K, B1, B2 and B12, polysaccharides, proteins, sterols, nucleosides, macro- and microelements (K, Na, Ca, Mg, Fe, Cu, Mn, Zn, Pi, Se, Al, Si, Ni, Sr, Ti, Cr, Ga, V and Zr).
The main active ingredients of Cordyceps militaris are: cordycepin, cordycepic acid (d-mannitol), sterols (β-sitosterol, ergosterol) as important vitamin D source, nucleosides (adenosine, uracil, and adenine), polysaccharides, and SOD (superoxide dismutase – a biologically active protein, is an important key enzyme. Pharmacological studies have shown that these effective components play an important role in human healthcare.
A comparison study between Cordyceps militaris and C. sinensis revealed that C. militaris has higher content of Cordycepin and Cordycepic acid and other important bioactives than C.sinensis.
There are many reports in the literature about the biological actions of C. sinensis and its free radical scavenging property.
Meanwhile, Cordyceps militaris, has received increased attention in recent years due to the recognition that it has biological effects with health-stimulating properties and medicinal effects.
C. Sinensis has been traditionally taken in tea or eaten whole, either by itself or cooked with a variety of meats. Today, in addition to the established traditional means of consumption, powdered mycelium and mycelial extracts are also available in capsulated and non-capsulated form. In general, clinical trials have been conducted using 3 to 4.5 g of C. sinensis per day.
Cordyceps militaris cultures have two main uses:-
Very few toxic side effects have been demonstrated with Cordyceps spp. use, although a very small number of people may experience dry mouth, nausea, or diarrhea. Once study reported that a patient had developed a systematic allergic reaction after taking a strain of cultivated C. sinensis called Cs-4; however, this type of reaction is not common. There is little published data on the use of Cordyceps spp. in pregnant or lactating women, or in very young children, and appropriate precautions should be taken with these types of patients.