Cordyceps and Traditional Chinese Medicine

24 Feb 2008

I was watching a BBC documentary on jungles with my wife yesterday, and we learned about a fascinating parasitic fungus called Cordyceps. Here’s the clip we saw:

Just in case you’re too lazy or unable to watch the amazing YouTube video, the fungus spreads through the insect and compels it to go somewhere high up to attach itself and die. Then the fungus sprouts from the corpse and spreads its spores upon the insect populations below. Badass! (Watch the clip.)

After doing a little research, I discovered that the genus Cordyceps includes one kind called Cordyceps sinensis (AKA caterpillar fungus), which is actually used in traditional Chinese medicine!

Here’s what one source says:

> In 1993 Chinese women distance runners won six of nine medals at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meter races. They were suspected of steroid use and were tested. The results were negative.

> According to their coach, Ma Junren, they had been running 25 miles a day and had been using cordyceps mushrooms.

And another:

> Cordyceps Sinensis, a plant of the ergot family, is a traditional and precious dried Chinese medicinal herb belonging to the fungus category. It was highly recommended by ancient medical practitioners as the most effective cure for all illness. Owing to the herb’s high efficacy and potency in curing various diseases, it is well-known as an important nourishing tonic. However, as the sourcing and gathering of the herb is rare and difficult, so its supply often falls short of demand.

This one even mentions Shanghai:

> In a huge herb market about 850 miles west of Shanghai, I point to a pile of what look like dried worms, with a puzzled expression on my face. “Tochukaso,” says the herb dealer. I nod, recognizing the Chinese word for Cordyceps sinensis, one of the most prized agents in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the wild, cordyceps is a parasitic fungus which grows on caterpillars on the high Tibetan plateau. But cordyceps is now also cultivated on wood and grains. Heralded in Chinese herbal texts for over 700 years, cordyceps is now trumpeted by science as well.

I’m quite a skeptic when it comes to TCM, and trying to pass off Japanese as Chinese doesn’t make the above source any more credible. However, the Chinese name for Cordyceps sinensis is actually really interesting. From the wikipedia entry:

> In Tibetan it is known as Yartsa Gunbu [Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu], source of Nepali: यार्सागुम्बा, Yarshagumba, Yarchagumba. It is also known as “keera jhar” in India. Its name in Chinese “dong chong xia cao” (冬虫夏草) means “winter worm, summer grass” (meaning “worm in the winter, (turns to) plant in the summer”). The Chinese name is a literal translation of the original Tibetan name, which was first recorded in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje….

Here are some pictures via Flickr of 冬虫夏草 as it may look in a TCM store (click through the second one for more info):

I was just very amused to find this crazy fungus reminiscent of Giger’s Alien, only to learn that the Chinese have been using it as medicine for hundreds of years. Yeah, I guess it fits…

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Not only is it medicine, it’s food! Imagine my disbelief when checking the English menus for the Sanya Hilton and looking it up…I mentioned to the manager that he should probably include some sort of explanation instead of just a straight translation since most Westerners won’t have an idea what cordyceps means, but my suggestion was not followed. I guess it probably doesn’t get ordered much by Westerners!

  2. I live in Taiwan, and have been buying 冬蟲夏草 for the last several years. All of the traditional medicine shops and clinics on every street here sell it in it’s natural original form, but I buy it in powder form, in large tea-bag-like packets for steeping in hot water or for
    cooking in soups.

    There seems to be overwhelming general agreement here that it is good for whatever ails you –and if you are NOT sick, then it enhances your general vitality (and virility, I’m told). All of the 7-11s stock tiny one-dose bottles of Codyceps-based Chinese medicinal potions.

    Many people here tell me that they think it tastes bad, but I think it tastes OK. A little like sassafrass tea –with a slightly cinnomon-like flavor.

    But what I still am not sure of, is whether or not I am actually ingesting the corpses of the dead insects. Some people tell me yes, some say no.

  3. The X-Files had a similar fungus in one episode.

  4. So, have there been any double-blind studies done on the effectiveness of this “herb”? Or is this just superstition by people who should know better?

    • fedupwitharrogance Says: September 13, 2011 at 10:34 pm

      Is over a 1000 yrs. enough study for you? Let’s see, how many double blind studies have been done on all the drugs they offer on the market and we end up being the guinea pigs anyway. The supposed studies don’t reveal the truth about the substance, because the people doing the studies can manipulate it any way they choose. I could go on here, but I’ll stop. You must be in the western medical arena. That is a typical, arrogant, narrow minded statement.

  5. Each year when the season for collecting the fungus arrives, young village men from all over Qinghai travel to the areas of the plateau where the fungus is found, hoping make some money. Although in reality, it’s the merchants who make the biggest bucks, buying it from those people and then selling it to TCM shops in the cities.

    I’ve known about this commodity ever since working in Qinghai, but I really have to thank you, John, for revealing what “winter worm, summer grass” actually is! Few of the people who collect it, sell it, or ingest it actually know, they just stick to the story that it’s a worm in winter that becomes a plant in spring. My guess was always that it was simply a fungus which happened to have evolved to look like a caterpillar — after all, there are many examples of immitation in nature. So I am rather surprised (and a little disgusted) to discover the truth.

  6. Its available in all the TCM shops in Hangzhou, and worth a mint! We bought some for my mother in law at New Year and was around 1,200 kuai for a fairly small bag of powder…my mother in law swears by it, although we wonder if it might not be cheaper to fly to Qinghai and pick it ourselves!

  7. Hi John… Wow about the fungus but more wow on how you found reference on it. You can access Wikipidia from here in Shanghai!!??

    I always cant get through the great firewall of China how do you use Wikipedia here?

  8. Now that you know about it, you will see it everywhere.
    Also, the Maoist rebels in Nepal use the trade in yarchagumba as one of their sources of revenue.

  9. I always see this on signs on street corners that offer to buy old alcohol bottles and cigarette packages. Very interesting. Thanks for doing the research!

  10. I don’t suppose anyone has identified the active ingredient or can describe exactly its effects on the body, positive or otherwise. This is the great flaw in TCM, much to the chagrin of practitioners, who resort to the default argument that it’s not necessary to prove anything that has been known to work for centuries.

  11. When friends and I took a trip to Qinghai (Yushu 玉树), there was an ongoing mystery about this that we had to piece together. First, they almost didn’t let us buy bus tickets, and we misunderstood the explanation, hearing 虫 and thinking there was some kind of quarantine or problems with bugs. Then on the bus the great majority of the passengers were migrants who had been organized by a man in a baseball cap to go digging for these bugs, or so we thought. It became apparent they were not allowed to be doing this when near the very end of the 17-hour ride, they were all kicked off of the bus at a police checkpoint. We were absolutely in the middle of nowhere, and curious what would happen to them. About a day later we happened to see all of them again on a public bus to the outskirts of the city, and found out they had taken taxis the rest of the way. As far as we understood only locals were allowed to harvest the Cordyceps (I’ve never heard the English name until now), which is lucrative business. Now I’m always curious about it when I see signs for it.

  12. There is nothing more annoying than people dissing TCM, who have never read a single book about TCM.

    I’m not going to illustrate the fundamentals of TCM theory here. There’s no point, when people cannot let go of their own perspectives to understand someone else’s perspective. Besides, even modern science no longer holds the biochemical understanding of living things as ultimately valid. (For instance, the body is known to perform transmutations continuously.)

    But several times in my life, when I was very ill, modern medicine proved entirely unable to help me. Instead, it made me worse. Only the patient application of TCM brought me to complete recovery.

    As for Dongchong Xiacao – it is a common ingredient of Chinese cuisine. Since I can remember, I have drunken soup with dongchong xiacao.

  13. “There is nothing more annoying than people dissing TCM, who have never read a single book about TCM.”

    Will reading a book identify the active ingredients, their side effects, and the sites of action within the body? If such a book exists, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.

  14. There is a researcher from, I believe, the University of Colorado who has done a fair amount of research on dongchongxiacao, as well as on other types of fungi. His website on the worm fungus is here: danielwinkler.com

    Also, if you look at various online scientific sites like ScienceDirect, you will see that a number of studies have been published on the composition of the fungus and on its bioactive ingredients. I haven’t read the studies, so I have no idea whether or not they are of high quality, but they are available for those who are interested.

  15. Interesting post and comments.

    never posted before, but have been reading on and off for around 1.5 years now. 😉

    i would like to add something on the TCM pro/TCM con discussion. The issue is very complex though and I have had to somewhat simplify things here. Sorry for the long post, but i think necessary when discussing culture.

    if we keep self-referencing everything to our own models of thought, where does that lead us if not back to the start? i’m no expert on TCM or science, but i think that a big part of the problem of actually understanding and studying the subject in the west lies in the approach. if we break down everything into specific itemised research on single isolated topics, say individual active ingredients, i think we are missing the point since TCM doesn’t work that way: it is based on an holistic approach – i’m not too happy to use the term because of its “cultural associations” in the west, but it’s efficient in making the point – meaning it views things and systems as integrated and cooperative. For me what you say makes sense in terms of building long term knowledge (?) about the TCM system (I repeat system), but I feel that focusing that way sort of leads us astray. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, usually TCM doesn’t use individual ingredients (and relevant active ingredients) but combinations whose sum are the actual vector for changing the condition of the person’s problem.

    i think hundreds or thousands of years of tradition and practice do make a strong case. Something that has such a long practical and empirically (not scientifically I acknowledge) tested/proven history for me deserves to be believable. Personally I think it is not enough to know that so and so active ingredient causes so and so reaction in my body, in fact I don’t know whether it’s sufficient to have such knowledge if we cannot avoid damage owing to the side effects caused by a specific molecule or active ingredient – effects which in many cases are even worse than the actual “cure” in western medicine.

    If one thing TCM phyto-pharmacology or however you call it in English seems rather effective and what’s more interesting it is quite “wise” in knowing to avoiding or limiting to the minimum undesired and harmful side-effects that are quite a problem in western medicine.

    I don’t know whether it makes sense to “measure” TCM in the same way we measure western medicine: you cannot expect healing changes in the body to take place in half an hour (I call this “the aspirin effect”). The instant reactions we are used to from western med. in the vast majority of cases, from what I gather, only deal with or mask the symptoms of a given problem. TCM moves to alter the cause. This takes much longer.
    This is not a unilateral praise of TCM. I recognise western med is very effective when it comes to dealing with let’s call it emergency medicine or issues like a headache or whatever (which if you think about it is exactly what using chemicals or performing surgery is about – obtaining almost instantaneous reactions to counter the problem), while on the other hand for long term and chronic situations I don’t know if it actually helps all that much – patients usually end up medicalised for life with their given “cure” or “therapy” (i.e. they chew on some pills for life – health is an industry in the end 😉 ).

    Finally from my own personal experience – as a patient, am not a professional – I have witnessed that whenever i have resorted to TCM or traditional eastern health/medical SYSTEMS (not solely the acupuncture or the massages or the herbal teas for example but a combination of techniques in a system – again “holistic” is keyword here) I have found results (which take time and dedication) to be very interesting and even to have baffled western doctors. In some cases where western med had already condemned me to being dependent for life on a given therapy (read: pills 4 life with no cure in sight, but only to ease the symptom) I have been able to totally eliminate the same problem thanks to the eastern approach. Of course I’d have to be more specific to avoid being demagogic, but it is just to make a general point here.

  16. “… TCM doesn’t work that way: it is based on an holistic approach…”

    I’m aware of that, and I agree that ‘western’ medicine too often provides nothing more than alleviated symptoms. However, I feel that the catchall defences of TCM being ‘complex’ and ‘taking time’ are used to avoid the scientific imperative of understanding how a mechanism works. If TCM is effective, more research is required to understand exactly how and why it works in order to bring its benefits to a wider, less sceptical, population.

    Further, such understanding might help to remove the plethora of quacks and abusers of TCM practices who are only out to make a quick buck at the expense of people suffering from genuine illnesses – patients who desperately want to hear that “we can cure you” offer a ready-made market for the shark in a lab coat.

    There is no doubt that TCM has a lot to offer the world of medicine, but more transparency and explanation is needed before those remedies offering real therapeutic effects can be separated from folklore peddled by bandits.

    One final point. I think it’s entirely reasonable for a medical practitioner to be asked by a patient how a particular course of treatment will work; and that the doctor should be able to answer that question.

  17. @ Tim O – I use http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ to access Wikipedia in China. It also has medical, legal, financial, computing dictionaries, etc.

    @ John – I’ve seen Cordyceps in those packages in the supermarkets that people buy to give to their friends/relatives/colleagues during Spring Festival. Thanks for the explanation.

    @ all – I’m rather agnostic on TCM. There are departments in Chinese universities trying to train young doctors to become more thorough and scientific in their analysis and practice of TCM, but I would still like to see better explanation of how it works. Most locals cannot explain why any particular TCM works. The ‘just because’ argument is all too common in China for all topics – if your elders say so, it must be true. We used leeches to bleed the illness out of people for hundreds of years because of our ‘wise’ men started using the scientific method.

    That said, thanks to Marie for trying to point us in the right direction on links to studies. We shouldn’t dis TCM until we learn more, but when we’re told things like ‘if you eat liver, it’s good for your liver’ in China it’s easy to become skeptical. There’s a lot of knowledge out there on TCM and the rest of the world is just beginning to discover it.

    By the way, John, you’ve been here 7.5 years now, have you ever tried Cordyceps? Or any Traditional Chinese Medicine?

  18. And btw,

    In 1993, Wang Junxia set two records that have stood for more than 14 years, in the 3000 and 10,000. Both marks were set during the Chinese National Games in Beijing, where Wang slashed 42 seconds off the 10,000-meter record with a time of 29:31.78. No athlete, Chinese or otherwise, has come anywhere near those times since then. And there was never any commensurate improvement from Chinese male athletes.

    Coach Ma has since been discredited as along with many of his athletes for doping. Cordyceps had nothing to do with this level of performance, or with the banning of Ma’s swimmers prior to the Sydney Olympics.

  19. I have to agree with Stuart that the current TCM environment, in China itself at least, is too conducive to quackery. The licensing of medical doctors and the stringent criteria for registering drugs in developed countries are aimed at protecting consumers, and even if one argues that this system would have to be adapted in some way if it were applied to TCM, the goal of safe-guarding the health and rights of consumers should be the same.

  20. @ stuart: i totally agree about being cautious in trying to avoid quackery. but as i said, if we focus on individual mechanisms (such is the scientific method) we must accept that we cannot arrive to any conclusions regarding the TCM system before a very very long time and thus to prove or unprove anything. i must add here that the simple fact of potentially having such an objective in mind -proving or unproving- bothers me a bit: it could even imply actually having an “agenda”.

    as for the “patients who desperately want to hear that “we can cure you”” – i think it is also part of the problem, especially in the west: we are brought to believe that science and medicine have a solution/cure for everything, so i think we must also take into account the induced attitude of the “ill”. of course anyone who is really suffering will believe anything out of desperation. so this applies in both scenarios: TCM as well as science/western med. – even in those cases when science doesn’t have any answers. This is a complex issue though.

    @ all: of course i recognise the importance of a scientific approach, i have debated above and in my previous post my view on this. the leech example is a classic, but I’m not sure I understood what you meant with it here. we must be honest, though, and recognise that even modern science makes mistakes. (our western) science/med is great – and it sure saves lives in many cases, but it can and has been and continues to make mistakes AND be abused. it is based on an ongoing process that is open to reviewing its own findings, and therefore when the occasion occurs it also reviews its own mistakes, and there have been a few. its intrinsic with the system: we advance on the basis of previous experience, knowledge and mistakes. also it’s one thing to consider science/med in its purer form (in a context of intellectually honest research) and it is another when science/med is in a business or even worse – political – context.

    In fact @ todd: I agree with the notion of safeguarding health, registering drugs etc. It’s essential. but what should we say about the cases of drugs approved – by the stringent criteria – for the “market” (what a terrible word considering we are talking about peoples well being and health) which have subsequently been hastily withdrawn/recalled owing to various undesired effects (even very serious situations) that were overlooked or dangerously underestimated during approval?

    Of course i’m not saying that TCM doesn’t have its flaws or hasn’t/doesn’t make mistakes, i’m sure it has/does – it too evolved out of trial and error so somewhere along the line someone must/must have screwed up. but given the timescale of its trials and errors i think we must be fair in recognising that there must be a sound foundation to it.
    as for “understanding how it works”, again i refer to my previous post and here above.

    my point is only that i think it is important to be fair in discussing or judging things that are simply very different and possibly not understandable in the same way using the same perspective/model. i think we cannot take for granted that the way we think can be applied so easily to everything, especially in cases such as TCM that is based on totally different cultural, philosophical etc. premises.

    solution? i don’t know.

    my worry is only that our respective cultures be extremely honest and constructive in trying to “understand” each other.

  21. i was given this to eat at a friends house in nanping once, it was in a bowl of hot water .At the time i had no idea what it was but my wife was telling me that it was very expensive and i must honour her aunt by eating all of it . I do not remember that taste but for the expense of it…maybe i should !

  22. Greg Pasden Says: February 28, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I wonder if coating them in chocolate would make them more appealing. My first thoughts are “Yuck!”, but then I think that I might try some. Heck, I eat mushrooms and they’re a fungus that grow on cow manure. So I guess eating these seems much cleaner. On my next visit I hope I can find a shop that is a little closer to the Shanghai Hilton.

  23. Great video you found. I was surprised when i first heard about summer grass winter worm….
    also, great to see all these comments.

    I’ve met people who have been to get these in the mountain. It was in Sichuan (Minshan area)…

  24. lihairen Says: March 1, 2008 at 6:41 am

    wow…
    nice to see nepali words in your site(Nepali: यार्सागुम्बा).i am from nepal, presently at shandong province. it is also found in mountainous area of nepal.since it is an endangered species in nepal,colleting,buying and selling of yarshagumba is illegal there.it is very nice medicine and it is mainly used for impotence.

  25. Abstract Says: March 6, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Like all disciplines, TCM has an inherent, self-consistent system of explanation. This system of explanation allows the testing of new TCM-based explanations against old TCM-based explanations, etc.

    All the above talk about needing more “scientific” investigations basically means we should neglect TCM explanations for the explanations of modern medicine.

    If we do that, then there is no point of studying TCM at all, because TCM is not based on the properties of specific herbs, but on its self-consistent systems of physiology, etiology, etc.

    Anyway, modern science is not the last word on knowledge. There are diverse ways of knowing, and modern science is only one of them.

    I could expand the above into pages. But I won’t, since if someone is genuinely interested in providing good healthcare, then he would find a TCM book himself (such as The Web with no Weaver).

    But in any case, in the long run, TCM can only flourish. (International trends tend to esteem TCM more and more.)

    Of course, there is also an economic analysis of this. There is also a political analysis. I won’t go into those either.

    But I’ll leave you this question. Why has TCM flourished even under the most severe anti-TCM regulations in every country in the last century?

    Before some smartass says placebo effects – think carefully. Most people in the West are sceptical of TCM. Instead, they have great faith in modern medical technologies. If any system can work placebo effect, it should be modern medicine.

    Very often, people arrive at TCM clinics as sceptics. They are there only at the behest of some nosy relative. After one or two treatments, they feel much better, or are even cured. Why does that happen? (If it is placebo effect, why didn’t modern medicine effect placebo effect in the first place?)

  26. In Southern China many people have cordyceps mushrooms in many homes and it is expensive and treated as very effective medicine for many different diseases. My ex girlfriend had this at home. 🙂

  27. Jerome Cole Says: November 28, 2008 at 7:26 am

    People who push TCM drive me nuts. There is no evidence supporting the efficacy of TCM. Every time TCM is subjected to rigorous scientific study it fails. The fact that is has been used for centuries is entirely irrelevant. Western people used bloodletting and leeches for centuries and that id not exactly work very well for us.

  28. Freaky! I’ve actually heard about this before in Jay Chou’s “本草纲目,” but I’d never really done any research on it.

    @Jerome Cole: True, but science has proven some of traditional Chinese medicine to be effective and some of these folk cures are being used in modern cures. It’s not all simply made up randomly. There seems to be some truth to it, though a lot of it is somewhat dubious. Of course, I wouldn’t push it on anyone myself, and I don’t know if I’d be willing to try it, but I have a classmate who works as a vet using TCM.

  29. yap, I know Tibetan Yartso Gunbub since I was a baby in Tibe.

    it was an important tonic for the athletes – improving physical performance.

    Yartsa Goenbub populations which were traditionally harvested from the alpine grasslands of the Himalayan Plateau. Most collecting was from Tibet.

    The discovery of Yartsa Goenbub is lost in the mists of time. But it is thought that some yak herders noticed that when their yaks fed in particular areas of grassland where the Yartsa Goenbub occurred, their yaks recovered more quickly from the rigor of the harsh winter. The yak herders possibly started collecting it and eating this themselves, finding that it gave them a boost when walking in the mountains.

    The Cordyceps is a rare species of plant widely used both in clinical medicine and as a household remedy. It is also considered potent at strengthening lung and kidneys, increasing energy and vitality, stopping hemorrhage, decreasing phlegm, and as an overall tonic. The Cordyceps sinesis, a combination of insect and plant remains inactive in winter and comes out in summer

  30. bobby vin Says: May 25, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    paul stamets has the best cordyceps.

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