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Cordyceps (dong chong)

What is cordyceps? What is it used for?

Cordyceps is one of the most unique substances found in herbal medicine. It's actually a form of fungus which grows naturally on the backs of caterpillars found only in China, Nepal and Tibet. Synthetic versions of cordyceps have been manufactured in the West without the use of caterpillars.

Cordyceps has played a variety of roles in traditional Chinese medicine, where it has been used for approximately 1,500 years. Cordyceps fungus has been described as a very effective herb for treating circulatory, respiratory and immune problems, as well as sexual dysfunction. It was also classified as a general health tonic because of its capability to improve energy, stamina, appetite, endurance, and sleeping patterns. In tradition Chinese medicine cordyceps is used for the kidney and lungs meridians.

Exactly how cordyceps works is something of a mystery. Compounds found in cordyceps are classified as HDPs, or host defense potentiators. These compounds include: hemicellulose, polysaccharides, nucleosides, triterpeniods, complex starches and other molecules. Combinations of these compounds are now believed to stimulate the human immune system, and may aid in neuron transmission, metabolism, hormonal balance, and nutrient and oxygen transport.

How much cordyceps should I take?

The exact amount of cordyceps to be taken is not known; however, most practitioners recommend taking 2-3 grams daily with meals. It will take approximately one to two months before patients will see the benefits of cordyceps.

What forms of cordyceps are available?

Many specialty stores and Asian markets sell wild cordyceps fungus complete with a caterpillar; however, wild cordyceps is quite expensive. Some natural health food stores sell synthetic versions of cordyceps as capsules.

What can happen if I take too much cordyceps? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

The supplement form of cordyceps appears to be safe; at present, there are no known side-effects or drug interactions associated with the fungus. However, some risks of lead poisoning have been reported in conjunction with wild cordyceps. As always, make sure to consult with a qualified health care provider before taking cordyceps or any other herbal remedy or dietary supplement.


  • Chang HM, But PPH (eds.) Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Materia Medica, vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA: World Scientific, 1986. pp. 410-413.
  • Jones K. Cordyceps: Tonic Food of Ancient China. Seattle, WA: Sylvan Press, Inc., 1997.
  • Kuo YC, Tsai WJ, Shiao MS, et al. Cordyceps sinensis as an immunomodulatory agent. American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1996;24:111-125.
  • Wu TN, Yang KC, Wang CM, et al. Lead poisoning caused by contaminated cordyceps, a Chinese herbal medicine: two case reports. The Science of the Total Environment 1996;182:193-195.
  • Xiao Y, Huang XZ, Chen G, et al. Increased aerobic capacity in healthy elderly human adults given a fermentation product of cordyceps Cs-4. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1999;31(Suppl.):S174 (abstract).
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