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- The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence
- How Caffeine Affects Neurotransmitters and Profoundly Changes Your Brain
- A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It
- Almost Every Bodyweight Exercise Ever (150+ Moves)
Cordyceps – The OP Supplement for Energy, Strength and Virility?
Cordyceps sinensis is a fascinating supplement that I’ve been taking lately and that I’m almost certain is having more than a placebo effect and helping me to get more done, run further and feel less fatigued. It’s relatively little known among fitness enthusiasts and nootropics lovers too, so I thought I’d be a mate and share my experience and some of the information I’ve discovered on it here…
What is Cordyceps?
Cordyceps is not something that you would be naturally inclined to put in your mouth were you to come across it in the wild. That is because cordyceps sinensis (ophiocordyceps sinensis to you), is a fungus and a parasite. The fungus germinates living larvae, kills them and then mummifies them before a growing out of the corpse as a stalk-like ‘fruiting body’. It’s also known as ‘caterpillar fungus’ for that reason and it is closely related to the infamous cordyceps unilateralis. Cordyceps unilateralis is famous for actually hijacking the nervous systems of ants and taking control of their bodies – which provided the inspiration for the zombie disease in The Last of US
That’s what we’re eating here but it’s still a fungus that mummifies things. So… yeah.
But disturbing though the various strains of cordyceps may be, it has actually been consumed in China for over 2,000 years where it is known as Dōng chóng xià cǎo. Traditionally, it was believed to have many beneficial health effects and to improve the lungs, kidneys and erectile dysfunction. And is sometimes the case, science is now providing a basis for at least some of those claims. Better yet, the fungus can now be grown cheaply and affordably in a lab, making it widely available for a reasonable price-tag.
But before we get to the science, the circumstantial evidence alone is actually worth a mention here.
Discovering the Power of Cordyceps
Cordyceps first became popular for medicinal use when herders in the Himalayas noticed their livestock consuming the fungi as they grew out of the ground and becoming increasingly ‘strong and stout’ (1). They then began to feed it to the animals in order to increase their milk production, vitality and reproductive capacity. It wasn’t long before the locals themselves were consuming it to boost their own vigor and for purported aphrodisiac effects.
The even more interesting tale concerns the Chinese women’s distance running team that entered the Olympics in 1993. During that competition the team broke 3 world records and their MVP – Wang Junxia – went on to win more records 2 months later at the National Games in China.
This led to rumours of steroid use and after the competitors were tested and found to be clean, the then coach Ma Junren revealed his secret weapon: cordyceps sinensis (you knew that was coming).
What’s exciting is that the research seems to back up a lot of the claims surrounding cordyceps and is nearly just as impressive.
Cordyceps contains more than 20 bioactive ingredients which include a number of powerful antioxidants. On top of this, cordyceps also appears to increase ATP production and thereby improve energy levels and mitochondrial performance. Mice given cordyceps increased their liver levels of ATP by an impressive 18.4% for example. This would likely then stack very well with creatine, which improves the body’s ability to recycle used ATP (2).
It seems that cordyceps is particularly useful when it comes to increasing liver production of ATP during stress that would normally cause fatigue and I have heard of people using it to combat adrenal fatigue. It has also shown to improve ATP levels and blood flow in anaemic mice (3). Other studies show that it can improve the production of ATP in the heart muscle and the immune cells (4, 5).
Cordyceps might also have anti-inflammatory effects, though this hasn’t been proven on animals or humans as yet (6). The list of benefits go on and one, with other potential advantages being improved
So far so awesome but that’s before we’ve even covered the really cool bits.
As well as boosting ATP production, it is also thought that cordyceps may be able to improve oxygen uptake and delivery via vasodilation and other activities, thereby improving athletic performance further. The studies looking at this effect are very mixed though, with some showing strong effects and others showing no benefit.
In one study for example, 22 cyclists were given cordyceps and found no change in their aerobic capacity on 3.15 grams over 5 weeks (6). Another study though, found that when 20 healthy elderly subjects were given 33mg of cordyceps over a period of 12 weeks, they did experience a significant improvement in their exercise performance as well as general wellness (7). Another study found that cordyceps would improve the athletic endurance of rats via skeletal muscle metabolic regulator activity (8). Mice saw their swimming endurance improve 1.32X, via alterations in AMPK, PGC-1 and antioxidant genes such as MCT1 and NRF-2. In short, it encouraged glucose and lactate uptake versus the control group.
In short, it might encourage running not only through increased ATP but also improved oxygen use and lactate threshold. And that’s not even it – it’s also thought to be a slight adaptogen (meaning it acts as a direct stimulant) and to lower resting heartrate (9). And as we’ve seen before, it might also help to prevent overtraining and this has been demonstrated in yet another study (10). Here, cyclists were found to have better testosterone:cortisol ratios after training, which is a measure of overtraining.
And this is where another useful function comes in for athletes: cordyceps sinensis pretty reliably boosts testosterone. In fact, I’m very surprised that we haven’t seen a ton of testosterone products popping up on the market that include the ingredient. The evidence is seemingly more robust than it is for many other supposed testosterone boosters (11, 12). Cordyceps works through its content of glycoproteins and polysaccharides which are able to bind to the luteinizing hormone receptors, thereby stimulating the release of testosterone. This would make it a great choice to stack with DAA, which works by stimulating leydig cells. While I can’t find the study, some articles report an in-vivo study using mice that increased testosterone by 170%.
Traditionally, cordyceps was used (among other things) as an aphrodisiac. These findings would seem to explain where they got that idea from…
As a Nootropic
Should this be of interest to the nootropics crowd? I’d say certainly yes. As I’ve discussed in the past, I think the best nootropics are not the ones that are profoundly psychoactive but rather the ones that just make you feel like you at your best. Theoretically, cordyceps can work as a cognitive metabolic enhancer and also improve endurance, motivation and resilience via testosterone and energy. All of this could help to aid your productivity, mood and alertness, which is what I have been finding myself (see below).
Oh and there’s also a little bit of research on the effects of cordyceps on memory and learning, which looks promising (13).
My Experiences and Conclusions
So for the past few weeks, I’ve been taking a stack of cordyceps, DAA and creatine – and I have to say that I’ve been feeling pretty great! I recently moved house to Bicester and the whole process was very stressful. It also happened around a time when I was training particularly hard and had a massive amount of work from my business. All good stuff but I’m pretty sure that once I got here, I completely burned out and it hurt my productivity and my training for a good while.
But since taking the cordyceps I feel like I’m ‘back’. I’m training hard again, I’m easily doing double my workload in a day without losing motivation and I don’t feel half as tired. As for my athletic performance, I do feel as though I am able to go for longer without getting out of breath, although that could also have something to do with the huge amount of walking I’ve been doing.
Oh and I’ve been waking up ‘happy’ again, which hadn’t been happening for a while (if you get my drift). That suggests to me a bit of a testosterone boost going on (which could also be to do with the DAA).
Let’s not get carried away though. For starters, there’s that negative study on cyclists. Then there’s the fact that I’m not actually getting the best kind of cordyceps either. The most potent form of cordyceps is the fruiting body, whereas what I’m getting is Cs-4 or mycelium on grain – which is likely to have lower bioactivity. That said, some of the studies use Cs-4, so it’s not all bad.
It’s also worth noting that according to my Garmin VivoActive, my resting heartrate has not gone down during the period I’ve been taking it. Actually, it has gone up slightly!
And then there’s always the possibility that the positive effects I am feeling are coming from placebo.
But who cares if it’s a placebo? And actually, I don’t think it’s likely on this occasion. The Chinese described cordyceps as being generally able to increase chi. This is a subject I intend to look at on this site soon, but generally ‘chi’ is life-force or health. And this correlates with what I’ve experienced: cordyceps gives you a general boost in vitality and just helps me feel at the top of my game. Maybe it will work for you too?
I’m not saying it definitely works but the studies, the potential mechanisms of action and the anecdotal evidence all make it likely that it does something. Far more likely than many of the supplements that enjoy a lot more publicity, that’s for sure.