Can cordyceps boost sex drive?

There’s been a great deal of hubbub regarding the use of cordyceps to enhance libido for men and women. However, such rumors are generally circulated without specific advice regarding dosage, duration, or supplement type, nor without reference to why or how it works. Here, we dive deep into cordyceps to explore what they are and what we know about their influence on the sex drives of women and men.

Table of Contents

What are cordyceps?

Cordyceps refers to an entire genus of fungi which, in nature, predominantly grow from the larvae of insects. The fruiting body and mycelium of cordyceps are associated with a range of therapeutic benefits. The term cordyceps is often used interchangeably with one particular kind, Cordyceps sinensis.

Although Cordyceps often refers to the species Cordyceps sinensis, one particular kind of fungi in this family of over 400 unique species found around the world, on every continent excluding Antarctica [Sung 2007]. Cordyceps thrive only at high altitudes, over 3,800 meters above sea level. They were discovered and in use for millennia in the mountains of the Himalayan Plateau in Tibet, Nepal and neighboring Chinese provinces.

Cordyceps sinensis (since renamed Ophiocordyceps sinensis or colloquially known as caterpillar fungus) is one particular species in the cordyceps family (Ophiocordyceps). In fact, cordyceps share the same phylum, Ascomycotina, as penicillium, LSD and truffles. The term cordyceps comes from the Latin cord meaning “club” and ceps meaning “head” which describes the appearance of Cordyceps sinensis. The fruiting body (or stroma) of this fungus grows from the mummified carcasses of insect larvae, notably the caterpillar larva of Himalayan Bat Moths (Hepialis armoricanus) [Holliday 2004].

The fruiting body of Cordyceps sinensis grows from insect larval hosts in a long, tubular shape, terminating in a club-like cap. It’s often dark brown or black in color. The mycelium, or roots of the mushroom, grow within the larval body, and are often yellow or brown in color. The spores from which the mushroom grows are an infestation for the caterpillar, and by the time the fungus reaches maturity, it consumes 99% of the organism, thus mummifying its host. The fruiting body, at full maturity, weighs around 60mg. The life cycle of the fungus continues when the body releases spores which are then taken by the wind or weather, falling a few centimeters away [Holliday 2004].

The therapeutic uses of cordyceps extends well beyond Cordyceps sinensis. Many species in the cordyceps family carry medicinal properties.

Are cordyceps vegan?

Although wild-harvested cordyceps are not necessarily vegan, the majority of cordyceps on the market today are created using cultivated cordyceps, which are developed using liquid culture or fermentation. Modern day cordyceps supplements don’t use insects as a medium to grow the fungus, making the resulting supplement free of animal products and thus vegan [Holliday 2004].

Cordyceps harvested from nature would likely not be classified as vegan because they are predominantly parasitic in nature, invading host organisms and mummifying them. However, it is worth noting that some researchers believe the relationship between cordyceps and insect host is not necessarily parasitic. One symbiotic line of reasoning follows that the caterpillar experiences a boost of energy from the presence of the cordyceps (based on what we observe in other animal studies), which is a much-needed benefit in the inhospitable environment of the insects. Furthermore, it may be that cordyceps only produce the fruiting body once it becomes evident that the host is no longer viable, and thus the fungus enters reproduce-or-die mode. Generally, fruiting body formation often only occurs after some extreme stress, such as high or low temperature, flooding, or the like [Holliday 2004].

History of cordyceps and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Cordyceps are believed to have been discovered roughly 2,000 years ago in the Himalayas [Panda 2010]. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and folk medicine in the areas it was discovered have long since recognized the use of Cordyceps sinensis for a range of therapeutic benefits. However, because of the difficulties in harvesting cordyceps from the inhospitable landscapes and high altitudes of the Himalayan Plateau, they were historically rare to come by and exceedingly expensive. Its uses were exclusively among the wealthy elite of historical China, notably the Chinese Emperor’s court and nobility.

The earliest written records of cordyceps date back to 620 AD, the time of the Tang Dynasty. The work alludes to a “magical creature” whose existence changed over the course of the year, from animal to plant in the summer and then returning to animal again in the winter.

Cordyceps have many uses in TCM including the treatment of kidney, lung and heart ailments, sexual dysfunction in men and women, fatigue, cancer, pain relief, and tuberculosis, as well as milder conditions such as poor appetite or even hiccups.

In 1726, cordyceps were introduced to the West in a scientific meeting in Paris, revealing its use for the first time to the world beyond China. Its introduction to the United States dates back to the mid-1800s, when the Lloyd Brothers of Cincinatti, Ohio first marketed the mushroom. Previously excessively expensive, due to the nature of harvesting, cordyceps have now become significantly more accessible due to advancements in their cultivation. Thus, the widespread popularity which now prevails regarding cordyceps and their uses in the West [Holliday 2004].

How do cordyceps work?

Cordyceps are associated with a vast range of biological activities, however the mechanisms by which they enhance libido are not yet understood.

The mechanisms behind why cordyceps may boost libido or improve sexual health are yet unclear. Some theorize that cordyceps operate either on the sex hormone systems or act on the sexual center of the brain, the sexual organs, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis [Zhu 1998]. These theories are based on one study which found that cordyceps increased the measure of 17-ketosteroids in the urine (these are what testosterone and DHEA metabolize into). Another explanation is that cordyceps contain a factor which stimulates corticosteroid production (in animal models) [Shashidhar 2013]. Cordyceps may also help dilate blood vessels (thus alleviating erectile dysfunction) and increase testosterone [Panda 2010]. However, few studies exist validating these hypotheses in humans. Most of what we know about cordyceps regarding sexual health is generally observational, and not based on known biological mechanisms.

The most relevant compounds likely responsible for the therapeutic benefits of cordyceps are adenosine, cordycepi and cordycepic acid, as well as its polysaccharides, vitamins and trace elements [Holliday 2004].

Additionally, cordyceps are associated with a range of biological activities, which include its adaptogenic, antioxidant, anti-aging, neuroprotective, nootropic, immunomodulatory, anti-cancer and hepatoprotective roles [Shashidhar 2013]. Its range of bio-mechanisms may help explain why cordyceps are associated with a variety of therapeutic applications, particularly in traditional medicine. These benefits include its ability to fight fatigue, strengthen the kidneys, function as a hypoglycemic agent for Type 2 diabetics, a treatment for cancer, an anti-tumor agent, to enhance respiratory health, and reduce cholesterol [Panda 2010] [Holliday 2004].

How do cordyceps boost energy?

Although research dedicated to how cordyceps enhance libido are limited, existing research does illuminate some of the other therapeutic benefits of cordyceps, particularly its anti-fatigue and energy-boosting capabilities. This is attributed to its ability to increase ATP.

ATP (or adenosine tri-phosphate) is the molecule responsible for releasing energy into the cell. Generally, increasing cellular ATP corresponds to an increase in available energy for the body. An important distinction to make is actual energy increase versus perceived energy increase, as occurs when consuming stimulants like caffeine. In the case of the latter, the increase in energy is an effect of the central nervous system, and doesn’t correspond to an actual increase in energy. Research suggests that cordyceps may increase energy by boosting ATP. One in vivo study found that the ATP in the liver of mice increased more for those given 200 or 400 mg/kg daily of an aqueous extract of CordyMax (a Chinese formulation studied since the 1980s) for 7 days versus those given placebo [Dai 2001].

It’s worth noting that these ATP benefits may be most noticeable for individuals with suboptimal fitness levels, such as the elderly. This may explain why some studies evaluating the use of cordyceps for performance improvement of professional athletes find no compelling results [Parcell 2004].

Cordyceps may boost sex drive, or libido, in men and women.
Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

Cordyceps for enhancing libido

Although cordyceps have long been recognized by Traditional Chinese Medicine and folk medicine as a therapeutic treatment for low libido, Western scientific studies have not yet evaluated this. Chinese double-blind, placebo controlled studies do exist from the 1980s and 1990s but they are generally unaccessible and are thus difficult to cross-reference for accuracy.

Human studies and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Cordyceps have been used for centuries in TCM to treat male and female sexual dysfunction, including low sex drive (hypolibidinism) and impotence. However, from the perspective of Western science, there are no accessible research studies on the subject area. Several randomized double-blind Chinese studies do exist, and are frequently referenced, but the original papers themselves are inaccessible. Thus, we do not yet have any easily accessible body of scientific literature in English to guide the use of cordyceps for enhanced libido. Nonetheless, we discuss the oft referenced Chinese studies below.

[Holliday 2004] references several human clinical trails from the 1980s and 1990s which found cordyceps to be effective in treating low libido:

  1. One study found a 24-hour increase in 17-keto-steroid in urine, indicating that cordyceps may influence the subject’s personal sex drive by acting on the sexual organs [Yang 1995] [Zhu 1998]
  2. The same (double-blind, placebo-controlled) study also found that 3g/day of cordyceps for 40 days enhanced libido for elderly men and women having issues with low libido, impotence and other sexual dysfunctions. The male subjects also experienced increased sperm survival time and count [Yang 1995] [Zhu 1998]
  3. Three separate (placebo-controlled) studies totaling 756 patients with low sex drive evaluated the effects of 3g/day of Cordyceps sinensis over 40 days. 65% in the treatment group reported improvements versus 23% in the placebo group [Guo 1986]
  4. C. sinensis improved infertile sperm count by 300% [Huang 1987]

It’s worth noting these studies are not easily accessible and so the author could not look into the details of the experiment. For the interested (and wealthy) individual, willing to spend >USD$1,000 a year to gain access to the TCM patent database where these papers are likely hosted, you may visit the site here.

Folk medicine use of cordyceps

Although the Western evidence for the use of cordyceps for sexual health is minimal, there is some literature dedicated to its use in traditional communities, such as the people of the Himalayas. The traditional healers of Sikkim, an Indian state in the eastern Himalayas, have 18 different uses for cordyceps. Its use for erectile dysfunction and to enhance sexual desire are some of the most widespread uses among these people. In some areas, men and women take one piece of C. sinensis with a cup of milk to enhance sexual potency and desire. In another community, it is mixed with alcohol, left for one hour, and then drank at morning and night as an aphrodisiac [Panda 2010].

Cordyceps is associated with some benefits for fertility, although the evidence is still minimal for humans.
Photo by John Looy on Unsplash

Potential fertility benefits of cordyceps

Although we lack accessible Western medical evidence on the use of cordyceps for enhanced libido, some animal and in vitro studies indicate it may be a promising area of research for improving fertility.

One study provides evidence that Cordyceps sinensis may help improve the success rate of in vitro fertilization. Dual extracted (water and alcohol) mycelium powder was applied to the granulosa-lutein cells (GLC) of women undergoing assisted reproductive treatment. A particular granulosa-derived hormone, E2 (or 17-beta-estradiol), is vital in the development of oocytes and influences the quality of maturing oocytes. Oocytes are immature eggs, pivotal at the first stages of human reproduction. The researchers found that cordyceps increased production of E2 and concluded that cordyceps may be a promising treatment to enhance reproductive outcomes for women undergoing in vitro fertilization [Huang 2004].

Animal studies indicate that cordyceps may be beneficial for male sexual and reproductive health. In one study, it helped improve sperm production and quality for subfertile boars [Lin 2007]. Mycelium supplementation on rats resulted in increased serum testosterone and estradiol-17, as well as increased sperm count [Chang 2008]. A derivative of another kind of cordyceps (alcohol-extracted mycelium of C. militaris) enhanced sperm motility and movement in middle aged rats [Sohn 2012]. The same, C. militaris, was an effective treatment for reproductive damage in rats, and also improved sperm count and motility [Wang 2016]. It’s theorized that the amino acids, vitamins, zinc and other trace elements in cordyceps may account for increased sperm survival in rats [Zhu 1998] [Holliday 2004].

Although the animal studies are promising, it is important to note that the evidence for human application is not yet available.

How to take cordyceps

No Western scientific research has yet been conducted to guide the usage of cordyceps. Based on TCM studies and current knowledge of the biological activities of cordyceps, 3g/day over the course of 40 days of a water, alcohol or dual extract may be an effective starting point for using cordyceps to treat sexual dysfunction.

In terms of dosage, 3g/day of Cordyceps sinensis over 40 days was found effective in some studies.

Extraction appears to be important in the consumption of cordyceps, with many studies relying on dual extracts. However, it’s likely that some benefit may be derived from hot water or alcohol extract alone. For example, Cordyceps sinensis hot water extract was found effective in enhancing sexual function in animal studies [Ji 2009].

It’s generally recommended to consume cordyceps with some form of Vitamin C, to enhance the absorption of the medical compounds [Holliday 2004].

Are there side effects?

Cordyceps are generally considered to be safe, although they may be associated with some mild side effects (dry mouth, nausea, diarrhea and increased libido). No safety studies have yet been conducted on humans, although no serious adverse effects have been thus far reported in existing studies.

Cordyceps are associated with few side effects and are considered generally safe to consume, although the human toxicity isn’t yet reported. The median lethal dose has been computed for mice, although experiments on rabbits (80g/day for 30 days) found no abnormalities. Some reported side effects include dry mouth, nausea, and diarrhea, as well as increased libido [Holliday 2004].

We do not yet have any studies to know whether cordyceps are safe for children or for pregnant or lactating mothers.

It’s always important to consult a professional healthcare practitioner before making a health or lifestyle change, and this is particularly true for cordyceps. This is especially important for those with a pre-existing condition or taking other medications because cordyceps are used for a range of conditions and may interact with other conditions (diabetes, high cholesterol, etc.).

Are there heavy metals?

Heavy metals are likely not a concern for cordyceps products, particularly those cultivated using modern methods. Reliable suppliers may also provide lab reports demonstrating safe concentrations of heavy metals.

Most concerns about heavy metals in cordyceps are no longer present, due to the modern-day cultivation of cordyceps. Cordyceps are not associated with higher heavy metal content than any other medicinal mushroom. As with any mushroom supplement, its important to purchase from a reliable supplier that may provide you third-party lab tests illustrating the product’s safety.

The heavy-metal concern is likely a holdover from historical harvesting of wild cordyceps when adulterated products were rampant. When cordyceps were harvested from nature collectors would add metallic wires (and eventually lead) to increase the selling price of the product, because they were sold based on weight. Although the heavy metal concentration was a problem, it likely stemmed from this adulteration of the product and not from the mushroom itself [Holliday 2004].

What kind to buy?

Hot water, alcohol, or dual extracts of cordyceps (fruiting body and/or mycelium) may provide more therapeutic benefits than raw cordyceps, based on research and folk use.

Based on the known biological mechanisms of cordyceps and their traditional use, it’s likely that extraction may play a key role in releasing the active compounds responsible for the therapeutic benefits of cordyceps. Several studies evaluating cordyceps rely on alcohol or dual-extracted mycelium. Alcohol and dual extracts are rich in potent bio-actives like nucleosides, polysaccharides and proteins [Shashidhar 2013]. Alcohol (ethanol) extracts show strong antioxidant activity. Methanolic extracts display cytotoxic activity against center cancer cell lines. Notably, Cordyceps sinensis hot water extract was found effective in enhancing sexual function in animal studies [Ji 2009]. Hot water extracts also provide potential health benefits, such as antioxidant activity [Shashidhar 2013]. It’s worth noting that even traditional, folk uses of cordyceps involve extraction. One Himalayan community, the Bhutia, leave cordyceps overnight in a cup of locally crafted alcohol (chhaang, beer-like brew) or hot water [Panda 2010].

Alternative extraction techniques have recently been applied, such as supercritical CO2 extraction. This technique may be advantageous in extracting bioactive compounds. One study observed that alcohol extracted cordyceps fractionated using supercritical CO2 had strong scavenging ability and could effectively inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells through apoptosis [Shashidhar 2013].

So, can cordyceps boost sex drive?

Considering folklore and Traditional Chinese Medicine as sources of evidence, cordyceps may improve sexual health and boost sex drive for both men and women. It may also enhance fertility, particularly for men; the evidence suggests it may improve sperm health (motility, count, etc.). From a Western medicine perspective, there are no human studies yet evaluating the use of cordyceps for sexual health. Western studies on animal indicate it is a promising area of research for male fertility.

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