Home > Herbal Glossary > Chinese Herb List > Cordyceps sinensis
>>Where Does It Grow?
>>Nature and Flavor
>>Identified Active Components / Major Chemical Constituents
>>Drug actions in TCM
>>Traditional Use in TCM
>>Pharmacological Actions
>>Administration and Dosage
>>Adverse Effect, Side Effects and Cautions

Latin Name: Cordyceps sinensis
Common Name: Caterpillar fungus / Cordyceps
Scientific Name: Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc.
Chinese Name: 冬蟲夏草
Pinyin Name: dong chong xia cao
Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus that parasitizes caterpillars, specifically the larva of the hepialid moth (also known as the bat moth). When the fungus parasitizes the larva, its mycelia, which is a mass of branching, threadlike hyphae, fill the entire body of the host and kills it. The entire fungus-larva combination is collected for medical use [1].
Where Does It Grow?
It is mainly grown at an altitude of 3500-4500 meters on plateau areas, such as Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet in China [1].
Nature and Flavor
It is sweet in flavor, slightly warm in nature, and mainly manifests its therapeutic actions in the lung and kidney meridians [2].
Identified Active Components / Major Chemical Constituents
Major chemical constituents in Cordyceps include nucleosides such as adenosine, adenine, hypoxanthicine nucleoside, uracil, thymine, uridine, guanidine, thymidine, 3'-deoxyadenosine (also called cordycepin); sterides such as ergosterol peroxide, cholesteryl palmitate, eogosterol; polysaccharides such as galactomannan; alkanols such as D-mannitol (also called cordycepic acid). It also contains a large quantity of crude proteins, essential amino acids, multiple trace elements and some vitamins [3].
Drug actions in TCM
Enhances kidney yang, invigorates the lung to ease breathing difficulties, stops bleeding and dissolves phlegm [2].
Traditional Use in TCM [2]
Enhancing kidney yang and replenishing essence: for the treatment of kidney weakness presenting with lumbar and knee soreness, impotence and spermatic emission, cordyceps can be used alone and prepared as a medicinal wine, or combined with herbs like epimedium, morinda root or dodder seed.

Invigorating both lung and kidney to ease breathing difficulties, stop bleeding and dissolve phlegm: for the treatment of breathing problems like asthma, cordyceps is usually used with ginseng, walnut and gecko; for the treatment of chronic cough with phlegm or blood, it is usually combined with coastal glehnia root (bei sha shen), tendrilleaf fritillary bulb (chuan bei mu) and donkey-hide gelatin.

Promoting general enhancement: due to aging or major illness, individuals may present with general weakness, anemia, sweating and sensitivity to low temperatures. Cordyceps can be used to stew with meat for enhancing overall bodily functioning or restoration.

Pharmacological Actions

1. Anti-oxidant effects
  In vitro study
  Antioxidant activities of water and alcoholic extracts of both natural and cultured Cordyceps sinesis were tested through six different antioxidant assays: inhibition ability of linoleic acid oxidation, scavenging activity of 1,1-Diphenyl-2-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH), hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical and superoxide anion and metal chelating activity. Although these samples of Cordyceps sinensis showed different antioxidant ability, both natural Cordyceps sinensis and its fermentation preparations could be used as potential natural antioxidants [5]. Another study showed that the polyphenolic and flavonoid contents in Cordyceps sinensis might be responsible for its antioxidant activities. On the basis of these results, the protective effects of Cordyceps sinensis against oxidative damage are due to its free radical scavenging abilities [6].
2. Anti-inflammatory effects
  In vitro studies
  Chloroform and n-butanol fractions of the methanol extract from Cordyceps sinensis significantly blocked the cytokine, TNF-alpha, and IL-12 secretion in LPS/IFN-γ stimulated macrophage cells through reducing inducible NO synthase expression [7].
3. Anti-tumor effects
  In vitro studies
  The anti-tumor effects of the methanol extract of Cordyceps sinensis was studied in different types of cancer cell lines: lymphocytic (Jurkat), hepatoma (HepG2), prostate (PC 3), colonic (Colon 205) and breast (MCF 7). The n-butanol fraction of the methanol extract of Cordyceps sinensis possessed anti-proliferation effects on the Jurkat, PC 3 and MCF 7 cell lines [7].

Another in vitro study evaluated the inhibiting effect of Cordyceps extract on the proliferation of colon cancer cells (HT-29 and SW480). Cordyceps extract could inhibit the proliferation of colon cancer cells through inhibiting the degradation of l-kappa B alpha in the cell and inhibiting the activation of NF-kappaB [8].

4. Anti-fatigue and anti-stress effects
  In vivo study
  The hot water fraction of cultured Cordyceps sinensis has anti-fatigue and anti-stress effects in the stimulus-induced fatigue and stress ICR mice and Sprague-Dawley rats [9].
5. Effects on respiratory system
  In vivo study
  The effects of methanolic extract of Cordyceps sinensis on bronchoalveolar lavage fluids (BALF) cell proliferation, inflammatory cytokines production and genes expression have been evaluated. The alcoholic extract dose dependently suppressed BALF cells proliferation activated by lipopolysaccharide (LPS). It also inhibited IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, IL-10 and TNF-alpha production in the activated BALF cell cultures [10].
6. Effects on lung fibrosis
  In vivo study
  The effect of Cordyceps sinensis on liver fibrosis was studied in the dimethylnitrosamine-induced liver fibrosis Sprague-Dawley rats. Cordyceps sinensis can considerably relieve liver fibrosis by promoting the degradation of collagens such as Hyproxyproline, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-2, type IV collagen and type I collagen [11].
7. Effect on lung fibrosis
  Clinical study
  A study was carried out involving 16 convalescing SARS patients (4 males and 12 females) who were given Cordyceps sinensis alone. The other 15 convalescing SARS patients who were under Western medical care serve as the controls. The average age of the patients in the Cordyceps sinensis group is 34.3 years old. Daily dose of Cordyceps sinensis was 3 grams. The treatment effects were monitored by High Resolution Computerized Tomography (HRCT) and serum soluble Interleukin-2 Receptor (sIL-2R). Patients on Cordyceps sinensis which that showed a significant improvement in pulmonary fibrosis and lowering of sIL-2R, whereas controls did not [12].
8. Immunomodulatory effects
  In vivo study
  The immunomodulatory activity of polysaccharides extracted from cultured Cordyceps sinensis was investigated in human peripheral blood. Results found that the extract was capable of inducing the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin (IL)-6, and IL-10 dose-dependently [13].

Cordyceps has an extremely low level of toxicity. Mice have been shown to tolerate up to 45g/kg of Cordyceps, which is approximately 250 times the therapeutic dosage for humans. The LD50 in mice via intraperitoneal injection is 21.7±1.3 g/kg [14].
Administration and Dosage
It can be administrated as a decoction, powder mixture or stew, 5-10g each time [2].
Adverse Effect, Side Effects and Cautions
No interaction or adverse effects are reported [4].
1. 李家實主編《中藥鑒定學》上海科學技術出版社, 2000年2月.
2. 雷載權主編《中藥學》上海科學技術出版社, 2000年6月.
3. 趙中振,蕭培根主編《當代藥用植物典》香港賽馬會中藥研究院有限公司, 2006年8月.
4. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, compiled by the editors of Prescriber's Letter & Pharmacist's Letter, 4th edition.
5. Gu YX, et al. Antioxidant activity of natural and cultural Cordyceps sp. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi; 32: 1028-1031. (2007)
6. Hui MY, et al. Comparison of protective effects between cultured Cordyceps militaris and natural Cordyceps sinensis against oxidative damage. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 54: 3132-3138. (2006)
7. Tzeng YM, et al. Evaluation of the anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferation tumoral cells activities of Antrodia camphotata, Cordyceps sinensis, and Cinnamomum osmophlpeum bark extracts. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. In press. (2007)
8. Huang H, et al. Inhibitory effects of cordyceps extract on growth of colon cancer cells. Zhong Yao Cai; 30: 310-313. (2007)
9. Suh HJ, et al. Antifatigue and antistress effect of the hot-water fraction from mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin; 26: 691-694. (2003)
10. Kuo YC, et al. Regulation of bronchoalveolar lavage fluids cell function by the immunomodulatory agents from Cordyceps sinensis. Life Science; 68: 1067-1082. (2001)
11. Li FH, et al. Effects of Cordyceps sinensis on dimethylnitrosamine-induced liver fibrosis in rats. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Xue Bao; 4: 514-517. (2006)
12. Hui PK, et al. Cordyceps sinensis improved post-SARS pulmonary fibrosis. Hua Xia Yi Yao; 3: 172-176. (2006)
13. Kuo MC, et al. Immunomodulatory effect of exo-polysaccharides from submerged cultured Cordyceps sinensis: enhancement of cytokine synthesis, CD11b expression, and phagocytosis. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology; 75:769-775. (2007)
14. Chen J, Chen T, ed. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press, 2004; 883-885.