Tag: science


Feb 2008

Cordyceps and Traditional Chinese Medicine

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…