What we know about the effects of Cordyceps
What we know about the effects of Cordyceps
Traditional Chinese medicine makes use of many types of plants. One of the most famous of these “tonic herbs” is cordyceps mushrooms, which have been reported to have a wide variety of pharmacological actions that can enhance health, wellness, and performance.
The potential of cordyceps to aid athletic performance came to the attention of the Western world in 1993, when Chinese female runners set world records in the 1500 m, 3000 m, and 10,000 m events at the track and field world championships, and “their coach attributed their success to a diet containing Cordyceps” (Chen et al., 2010).
Since then, placebo-controlled studies have demonstrated that consistent, daily use of adequate doses of cordyceps over 3 or more weeks can produce improved endurance performance, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first a little background.
The name of the mushrooms comes from Latin words “cord” (club) and “ceps” (head) describing their appearance. There are more than 400 types of cordyceps mushrooms, with Cordyceps sinesis and Cordyceps militaris being the most studied in the modern era.
Both of these types of cordyceps contain the active ingredient cordycepin. Cordyceps extracts of many sorts are available commercially, but few if any provide standardized amounts of the mushroom’s unique primary active ingredient, cordycepin. By contrast, Twisted Spoke CBD’s new Daily Cordyceps provides dose-controlled capsules of 200mg of cordycepin.
Cordyceps are reputed to have a remarkably wide range of positive health effects related to enhancing cellular energy. These include the ability to reduce inflammation and oxidation, better regulate insulin, reduce cholesterol, enhance testosterone, and support immune function. All of these can add up to improved athletic performance, but the areas that have been of most interest are the apparent effects of cordycepin on the body’s ability to use oxygen and metabolize lactic acid.
VO2 and oxygen use
For endurance athletes, the ability to process oxygen is critical. Many factors can affect how much oxygen a person can deliver to muscle and use, but the basic measurement of milliliters of oxygen used per kilogram of body weight -- known as VO2 max – is the gold standard for determining aerobic performance potential. Several double-blind placebo-controlled studies have shown that when used regularly in sufficient doses cordyceps can produce significant improvements in VO2 max in relatively short periods of time.
One study with 28 participants found that those using cordyceps showed an increase in VO2 of 4.8ml/kg/min after 3 weeks, as well as an improvement in ventilatory threshold (VT), which correlates with maximal endurance performance. The study also found improvement in Time to Exhaustion, with an increase of 28 seconds after 1 week of cordyceps, increasing to 70 seconds after 3 weeks (Hirsch et al., 2018).
Another study with 23 young adults found that 4 weeks of cordyceps supplementation produced a significant increase in time to fatigue as well as peak VO2. The effect on VO2 was most pronounced in participants who were less trained, but the more trained group showed a 4.5% increase in peak power (Dudgeon et al., 2018)
A 6-week study of 30 highly trained male athletes showed improved heartrate recovery following maximal effort, reduced heart rate and improved oxygen pulse during prolonged submaximal exercise, and reduced lactic acid and respiratory exchange ratio (RER), which measures the muscle’s oxidative capacity to generate energy (Zhu et al., 2002).
Similarly, a study with elderly participants found a VO2 increase of 6% (Yi et al., 2004), and studies with animals have also shown significant increases in endurance exercise capability after cordyceps supplementation.
Lactate threshold and lactate clearance
When your muscles breakdown carbohydrates in exercise, they produce lactic acid, which almost immediately becomes lactate. When you are up against your aerobic threshold or exceed it, you produce more lactate than you can metabolize. So anything that improves your ability to process lactate, or raises the threshold at which you have too much to process, will also contribute to improved endurance performance. Cordyceps appear to achieve both.
As mentioned above, the 6-week study of highly trained athletes found a reduced level of lactic acid (Zhu et al., 2002). That’s consistent with the findings of a reduction in blood lactate during the economy phase of exercise in the 4-week study (Dudgeon et al., 2018), improved lactate clearance in the 3-week study (Hirsch et al., 2018), and results in a study of older adults that showed a 10.5% increase in lactate threshold -- as well as a 8.5% increase in ventilatory threshold, which reflects reduced levels of anaerobic energy production and lactate accumulation (Chen et al., 2010).
Cordyceps appear to have a positive effect on your body’s ability to store and use fuel. Animal studies have shown an increase in liver and muscle glycogen with cordyceps supplementation, and there is also an effect on insulin sensitivity that reduces blood glucose.
Cordyceps also supports adrenal and kidney function, acting as a “tonic” that reduces fatigue and appears to have positive effects on heart health, including reduced arrhythmia. Heart and vascular health may also be enhanced by the ability of cordyceps to improve both triglyceride and LDL cholesterol.
Its antioxidative effects may protect mitochondria, the cellular engines that produce energy, and its anti-inflammatory and other properties may be helpful for fighting arthritis, particularly at the knees.
Both the clinical studies described here and the hundreds of years of use in traditional Chinese medicine have shown cordyceps to have negligible side effects, making it safe to use. And even though cordyceps supplementation has what appears to be pronounced ergogenic benefits, its use is not currently restricted by either the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or its US counterpart, the U.S. Anti-doping Agency (USADA).
More study of cordycepin is needed to fully determine the most effective protocol for its use and what can reasonably be expected. But as with most all substances and training practices, effects can be expected to vary between individuals based on their physiology, training status, and other factors.
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