The Complete Guide to Cordyceps

The Complete Guide to Cordyceps

Angelina Dickinson
Angelina Dickinson
June 21, 2023
7 min

Mushrooms have been a staple ingredient in herbal medicine for centuries. So while it may seem like medicinal mushrooms are a new wellness trend, that isn’t the case. Rather, modern science is confirming what ancient traditional medicine schools have known for hundreds of years. Today, we don’t have to wonder how mushroom-like cordyceps will support our body; instead, we get to better understand how it works its magic.

In this guide, we’ll talk about why cordyceps are different from other medicinal mushrooms (hint: it has to do with how they grow), how they can support your well-being, and much more. Let’s get to it!

What are cordyceps?

Cordyceps sinensis (c. sinensis) is a fascinating mushroom. While you might see cordyceps classified as ophiocordyceps sinensis, don’t be fooled. It’s still the same as cordyceps sinensis. C. sinensis is how it was previously classified. Other names you might see include caterpillar fungus, yartsa gunbu, and dong chong xia cao.

A medicinal fungus, cordyceps are different from many of the other mushrooms you may be familiar with, and it all has to do with their growing cycle. Which, fair warning, is a bit like nature’s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Like other mushrooms, cordyceps reproduce by spreading their spores. But unlike those other mushrooms, cordyceps’ ideal environment isn’t the forest floor. Instead, these mushroom spores are hunting for a suitable host organism, like insect larvae. 

Once the perfect conditions are found, cordyceps spores will start germinating. In its growing cycle, it’ll consume the host, which becomes its own personal smorgasbord of nutrients. Once cordyceps have sprouted, the mushroom’s life cycle is complete—just not without the host paying the ultimate price (1).

Psst: Cordyceps are notoriously difficult to find in the wild, so much so that wild cordyceps are sometimes more expensive than gold. Because of this, cordyceps militaris is used as a more sustainable and cost-effective option (2).

What do cordyceps look like?

Because of the cordyceps growing cycle, these mushrooms are reminiscent of their host. Cordyceps are long and slender instead of the familiar stem and bell-shaped cap or conk. And they tend to have one end that looks like a club. Remember, as they grow, cordyceps take over their host’s body, so while they are mushrooms, they can be a little more unique than one might expect (3).

They come in a variety of colors too. It’s not uncommon for cordyceps to be bright orange, although most are a shade of brown, tan, or black.

Psst: Did you know that for a time, cordyceps were believed to be worms and not a mushroom at all? When cordyceps were more thoroughly studied, we learned they weren’t insects. Well, not the way you’d think anyway. They’re more like former insects (3).

Where do cordyceps grow?

Where cordyceps grow depends on the species. Cordyceps sinensis isn’t native to the United States; it can be found in parts of Asia, notably in the mountainous regions of Tibet, Nepal, and China.

But if you’re looking for cordyceps militaris, that’s a different story. This species grows wild in the Eastern United States and is seldom found west of the Rocky Mountains. C. militaris grows in a moth or butterfly larvae hidden in loose soil, decaying wood, or moss (2).

Historical and medicinal use of cordyceps

Herbalist preparing some traditional medicine that contains cordyceps

This strange-looking little mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. And because of the positive effects of cordyceps on the body and its rarity, cordyceps were once reserved only for royalty. Some of the observed positive effects of cordyceps include higher sexual potency, greater energy, vitality, and endurance, and better exercise performance—adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is a constituent (4).

Chinese herbalists also recommend cordyceps for several cancers (gastric, cervical, and oral cancers) and infectious diseases (hepatitis B or C), lung inflammation, coughs, bronchitis, and asthma, as well as for protecting the kidneys. Cordyceps are also considered a beneficial tonic for older adults to strengthen the body’s yang energy.

Psst: In Chinese tradition, cordyceps are reserved for special occasions or given as a gift in business, to friends, or relatives. 

Health and benefits of cordyceps

Cordyceps are brimming with bioactive compounds that support the human body. While there have been some animal studies, further clinical studies in humans are needed. Here are some of the ways cordyceps mushrooms can help bring balance to overall wellness:

  • High in antioxidants: Cordyceps are high in antioxidants, including flavonoids, polysaccharides, and phenols. These antioxidants neutralize free radicals and the oxidative damage they can create in the body if left unchecked. The antioxidants in cordyceps mushrooms generate an anti-aging effect. It can also reduce inflammation, which could otherwise lead to various diseases and issues in the body, such as ‌rheumatoid arthritis, nervous system dysfunction, and atherosclerosis.
  • Improved heart health: Like other medicinal mushrooms, the compounds in cordyceps show a remarkable ability to help balance cholesterol, lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides (4).
  • Enhanced immunity: Cordyceps demonstrate a remarkable effect on the immune system. One study exploring the effects of cordyceps on lung cancer clearly showed how cordycepin (a particular compound in cordyceps) induced cell apoptosis (in this case, the death of cancer cells) (5). Its antitumor and anticancer effects are promising and may be applied to other cancers like melanoma. A review of cordyceps also discovered it can improve blood cell count in medication-induced leukopenia (6).
  • Blood sugar management: Because of its high antioxidant capacity, cordyceps mushrooms can have a positive effect on blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and glucose metabolism. This is especially helpful for type 2 diabetes patients (4).
  • Organ protection: The compounds in cordyceps have a protective and balancing effect on various organ systems in the body. It can protect the kidneys from the side effects of some medications and even slow the progression of kidney disease (2).
  • Support sexual performance: Traditional Chinese medicine believed the appearance of something could be an indicator of which body part it could support, and emerging research is demonstrating cordyceps may improve sexual performance. A study involving diabetic rats showed marked increases in testosterone levels, sperm count, and even reversed the effects of diabetes on mating behavior (7).

This is not medical advice. If you have underlying health conditions or are unsure if cordyceps are a fit for you, we suggest consulting with a healthcare professional or healthcare provider.

Ethically wildcrafting cordyceps

Portrait of a forest

You might be curious about gathering wild cordyceps the next time you enjoy the outdoors. If so, it’s essential to know the difference between foraging and ethically wildcrafting your cordyceps mushrooms.

Foraging is a broad term that typically refers to gathering a wild food source. Alternatively, wildcrafting is more clearly defined as harvesting local resources for medicinal needs. And while similar, there are some distinct differences in their approach. 

Ethically wildcrafting cordyceps mushrooms (or any other wild resource such as herbs, plants, nuts, berries, etc.) carefully considers the environment and local ecosystem. Time is spent learning about native species in the area, which may be endangered or threatened, and whether or not there are dangerous lookalikes.

Consideration of where to look for and harvest wild resources, and any permits or laws around gathering are also assessed.

Harvesting a wild food resource is about so much more than gathering an ingredient for a meal. It’s about being mindful of the impact picking mushrooms would have and how to collect them in the least damaging way possible.

When we set out to gather wild mushrooms, we’re talking about harvesting the fruiting body, which is only one aspect of the mushroom itself. There’s much more to mushroom anatomy than what we see. 

Just beneath the surface of a mushroom lies the mycelium, a highly sophisticated and delicate network of filaments called hyphae. The mycelia is often referred to as the “wood wide web” and facilitates communication between mushrooms and other plants in the environment. It can alert to changing environmental conditions, transport nutrients, and even warn of predators. 

Improper harvesting practices can damage this delicate network while overharvesting can cause lasting impacts on the ecosystem. Remember that deer, birds, insects, and other critters, large and small, feast on mushrooms too.

By taking the time to learn about the area you’ll be gathering from, you can help maintain the integrity of the local environment and ensure it can thrive for years to come.

How can you enjoy cordyceps?

Bowl of tea and some spices on the side

Like other medicinal mushrooms (chaga and reishi, for example), cordyceps aren’t consumed like the mushrooms you get at the grocery store. You won’t use cordyceps like a handful of morels or portobello mushrooms.

Instead, most cordyceps mushrooms are used in supplements and tonics. While cordyceps extract is common in a mushroom blend supplement, you can also find single cordyceps supplements on their own. These make an easy addition to your morning smoothie, coffee, or tea.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to go for a mushroom blend or single-ingredient cordyceps supplement, there are a few things to keep in mind as you shop around.

Look for companies that are transparent about how they process their mushrooms. There are different benefits associated with water vs. alcohol extracts, and one way you can enjoy both is to look for dual extraction on the label.

It’s also a wise idea to look at sourcing and quality. Organic and wildcrafted mushrooms are typically considered to be of higher quality. Third-party testing is also helpful in measuring quality while giving you the peace of mind that your cordyceps supplement is free from pesticides, mycotoxins, and other harmful substances.

Cordyceps: An unexpectedly mysterious medicinal mushroom 

Few medicinal mushrooms have the unique growing cycle of cordyceps. While cordyceps may be an unexpectedly mysterious and even spooky mushroom, its health benefits and ability to restore balance to the body have been proven for centuries and have stood the test of time. 

Be sure to keep up with all things mushroom on shroomer, where you’ll learn more about identification and all the latest breakthroughs and discoveries on functional and psychedelic mushrooms.


  1. Solis-Moreira, Jocelyn. “An Insect-Eating Fungus Could Help Us Fight Viruses—and Now We Know How to Grow It.” Popular Science, October 19, 2022. Accessed June 12, 2023. https://www.popsci.com/science/cordyceps-fungus-lab-insects/.
  2. Hobbs, Christopher, PhD. Christopher Hobb’s Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide. Storey Publishing, LLC, 2021. https://christopherhobbs.com/hobbs-news-archive/christopher-hobbss-medicinal-mushrooms-the-essential-guide/.
  3. Utah State University. “Caterpillar Fungus | Herbarium.” USU, n.d. https://www.usu.edu/herbarium/education/fun-facts-about-fungi/caterpillar-fungus.
  4. Comizio, Christine, and Johna Burdeos. “Cordyceps Mushroom Benefits.” US News & World Report, February 2, 2023. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/cordyceps-mushroom-benefits.
  5. Jo, Eunbi, Hyun M. Jang, Lei Shen, Kyeong Eun Yang, Min Jang, Yang O. Huh, Hwa-Seung Yoo, Junsoo Park, Ik Soon Jang, and Soo Young Park. “Cordyceps Militaris Exerts Anticancer Effect on Non–Small Cell Lung Cancer by Inhibiting Hedgehog Signaling via Suppression of TCTN3.” Integrative Cancer Therapies 19 (January 1, 2020): 153473542092375. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735420923756.
  6. Liu, Wei-Chung, Wei-Ling Chuang, Min-Lung Tsai, Ji-Hong Hong, William H. McBride, and Chi-Shiun Chiang. “Cordyceps Sinensis Health Supplement Enhances Recovery from Taxol-Induced Leukopenia.” Experimental Biology and Medicine 233, no. 4 (April 1, 2008): 447–55. https://doi.org/10.3181/0708-rm-230.
  7. Pohsa, Sureena, Wanthanee Hanchang, Nattapong Singpoonga, Peerasak Chaiprasart, and Pornnarin Taepavarapruk. “Effects of Cultured Cordycep Militaris on Sexual Performance and Erectile Function in Streptozotocin-Induced Diabetic Male Rats.” BioMed Research International 2020 (November 13, 2020): 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/4198397.

Fact Checked: Mar Yvette


Angelina Dickinson

Angelina Dickinson

Content Writer

Table Of Contents

What are cordyceps?
What do cordyceps look like?
Where do cordyceps grow?
Historical and medicinal use of cordyceps
Health and benefits of cordyceps
Ethically wildcrafting cordyceps
How can you enjoy cordyceps?
Cordyceps: An unexpectedly mysterious medicinal mushroom 

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