Is It An Animal Or A Herb?

Posted on 7 Nov 2022

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With cordyceps, it’s a bit of both! Despite its unusual background, people seeking to enhance their health and even endurance athletes have taken to this powerful fungus.


Raise your hand if you fall into one of the following categories:

  • You work hard from Mondays to Fridays, so it’s only on Saturdays and Sundays when you can squeeze in exercise into your busy schedule. As a weekend warrior, you find it hard to build up your stamina, or suffer respiratory problems when you push yourself too hard.
  • You are a wife and mother, and also an active contributor to the economy. In your other role as gatekeeper to the physical wellbeing of your family, you constantly worry about your children’s immune system and whether it can fend off infections; you also suspect that the biggest kid — your husband! — has too much cholesterol coursing through his veins.
  • You lead a sedentary life and, not surprisingly, you’re overweight. Every time you attempt to be physical, it takes a while for you to recover from fatigue. You worry that your cholesterol level is too high, and realise that you are also susceptible to common infections.

If you fit any of the above profiles, you’re probably on the lookout for something - be it lifestyle alteration, a new exercise regimen, or a nutritional supplement - to help you overcome those hurdles to good health.


In an article , Dr Moshe Lewis, head of Alternative Health and Pain Management at St Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco, California, USA, highlights the advantages of supplements for the weekend warrior. Although Dr Lewis does not mention it by name, consider the herb called cordyceps.

In 1993, a team of women distance runners from China stormed into the world championships and swept five of the six medals at stake in the 3,000m and 10,000m events. A month later, they broke — by significant margins — three world records. They were often dubbed Ma’s Army in honour of their coach, Ma Junren. Ma attributed his charges’ feats to not just a strict training regimen, but also traditional Chinese supplements such as turtle’s blood and caterpillar fungus . “Caterpillar fungus” is a common term for cordyceps.

Another person who endorses cordyceps as a nutritional supplement is Richard Roll. Although not a professional athlete, the vegetarian was listed in 2009 by Men’s Fitness magazine as one of the 25 fittest men in the world . Roll was an elite swimmer in college, but devolved into a couch potato by the time he was 40. He then decided to regain his fitness, and started training to take part in Ironman competitions. Roll admits that he couldn’t have turned his life around without the benefit of “superfoods,” one of which is cordyceps . “Chinese Olympic track and field athletes have been swearing by it for decades,” he gushes, adding that the herb is “pharmacologically anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-lipid (cholesterol-lowering),” while studies suggest that it “enhanced immune system functionality” and “improved stamina in endurance athletes.”


Cordyceps is a group of parasitic fungi that uses insect bodies as host. “There are literally thousands of different types of cordyceps fungi and, remarkably, each specialises on just one species [of insect],” reveals renowned naturalist David Attenborough on the ‘Cordyceps: Attack of the Killer Fungi’ episode of the acclaimed BBC series, Planet Earth.

The type of cordyceps that helped Ma’s Army and Richard Roll achieve their world-class level of physical fitness originates from the alpine meadows of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau , and has been used by the different peoples of that region for many years as a general tonic as well as to treat specific ailments . Ancient yak keepers noticed that their herds, after grazing on land containing yartsa gunbu, or “summer grass, winter worm” in Tibetan, possessed more vitality, strength and stamina.

What the yaks grazed on included the larvae of ghost moths (caterpillars, or “worms,” in the winter) that had been infected by a particular species of cordyceps, Ophiocordyceps sinensis (O. sinensis, the fungus, or “grass,” by summertime) . The “summer grass, winter worm” phenomenon occurs in the northern range of Nepal and Bhutan, and the northern states of India; within China, around northern Yunnan, eastern Qinghai, eastern Tibet, western Sichuan, and southwestern Gansu provinces.

When these caterpillars get infected by O. sinensis spores, they die from the inside out, no thanks to the growing fungus. The fungus will then sprout from the host’s head, grow to maturity, and release its spores, thus starting the cycle again. As they tend to stay heads-up and vertical around 15cm under the soil, the extending stalks of cordyceps emerge from the ground, and can be spotted and harvested .

So now you’re all caught up on the cordyceps’ back story. Don’t miss the concluding portion of this two-part feature, which lists some of the many benefits of this powerful fungus and discusses the sustainability issues it faces.