The range of therapeutic uses claimed for Cordyceps species is large indeed. In TCM, Cordyceps has been used to treat a wide range of conditions, including respiration, pulmonary diseases, renal, liver, cardiovascular diseases, hyposexuality, and hperlipidemia . It is also regularly used in all types of immune disorders, and as an adjunct in cancer therapy. Cordyceps is thought to be a remedy for weakness and fatigue and is often used as an overall rejuvenator for increased energy while recovering from serious illness. It has a large following that believe it to be a cure for impotence or act as an aphrodisiac in both men and women.
Cordyceps is often prescribed for the elderly to ease general aches and pains. TCM practitioners also recommend regular use of Cordyceps to strengthen resistance to infections, treat colds and flues and generally improve the homeostasis of the patient. Cordyceps has traditionally been, and is still most often used for kidney and lung problems, or health issues thought to stem from the lung or kidney meridian. For example, it is used to ease a wide range of respiratory ailments such as to reduce cough and phlegm, shortness of breath, bronchial discomfort, COPD, and asthma. Modern science has confirmed the efficacy of Cordyceps for most, if not all, of the traditional uses.
Today in the West Cordyceps is most widely used by two groups of people: Athletes and the elderly. The use of Cordyceps by athletes stem from the publicity surrounding the remarkable performance exhibited by the Chinese Women’s Track and Field team at the Chinese National games in 1993. In that competition, 9 worlds records were broken, and not just by a little bit, but by startling amounts! At first the governing sports authorities suspected that some performance-enhancing drug had been used. But it was freely admitted by the team’s coach that the secret to their success was in the Cordyceps he had been giving the team!
Recent research has confirmed that Cordyceps usage increase both the cellular ATP level (Guowei, 2001) and the oxygen utilization (Jia-Shi Zhu, 2004). ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) is the molecule that actually releases energy in the cell. We talk about consuming fats, and proteins and starches to gain energy, but what it all boils down to at the cellular level is ATP. ATP releases energy in the cell by losing a phosphate and converting from a three-phosphate form of adenosine to a two-phosphate form, called ADP (adenosine di-phosphate). When the ATP loses a phosphate, the breaking of that bond releases energy that is then available for the cell to use. An increase in cellular ATP means a real increase in actual energy, energy that is available for use.
This contrasts to the perceived increase in energy such as that which occurs from the use of CNS stimulants such as caffeine, ephedrine and the amphetamines. While some drugs such as amphetamines may make the patient feel like they have more energy, they actually don’t. That is a CNS effect rather than a cellular effect, and it results ultimately in an energy deficiency. That is why amphetamines lead to weight loss. The brain thinks there is plenty of energy to burn and keeps going. But of course with no actual extra energy available for the moment-by-moment needs of the cell, the body is forced to draw on its reserves, the fat stores. With Cordyceps use, the double 16 effect of increased ATP and better oxygen utilization go hand-in-hand; more fuel to burn and more oxygen to burn it with. This is why athletes gain extra energy with Cordyceps and soldiers use it for the lessening of fatigue. It has also found favor with the elderly for much the same thing; extra energy and easier breathing.
An interesting note is that the energy and performance increases seen with Cordyceps may be more profound in people that are less than optimally fit verses the highly trained athlete. In one recent study, Cordyceps was tested in highly trained professional athletes and, contrary to most of the other studies that mhave been done on the performance of non-professional athletes, it was shown to have no appreciable effect in increasing performance. Perhaps these subjects were already optimally fit, and an increase in available ATP or oxygen utilization was of no significant physiological value to them. For the rest of us though, it seems that Cordyceps could supply that bit of extra energy we need to get through our day-to-day hectic lifestyle. Perhaps we should consider Cordyceps to be the ancient herbal treatment for the stresses of modern life.