06/01/2011 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cordyceps: Ancient Chinese Herb May Be Useful for Cancer Support

Cordyceps sinensis (CS), a traditional Chinese Medicine, is a fungus that has been historically used for over 2,000 years throughout China and Asia as part of treatment for a variety of conditions, including many cancers.  In modern times, the effects of Cordyceps on immune modulation and its use in concert with modern chemotherapy agents, both to enhance therapeutic benefit and to manage side effects, have been widely studied.  Cordycepin, one of the active constituents,  has been shown to possess many pharmacological activities including immunological stimulation, and anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-oxidant anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects. It may be of benefit to support cancer patients and cancer survivors.

Available evidence suggests that the efficacy of CS as a potential anti-neoplastic/anti cancer therapeutic agent is related to a role as an activator of innate immune responses.

Cordyceps, like many other medicinal mushrooms has been traditionally cooked into soups in Asia for its nutritive and tonic properties. Like other medicinal mushrooms CS is rich in polysaccharides, the primary immune modulators as well as being rich in vitamins and minerals.  It can be thought of as a medicinal food. Cordyceps is best taken as either a water extract (tea or soup) or a high quality powder can be mixed into juice or water, or even into yoghurt or applesauce.

It is important to get high quality, properly prepared and processed Cordyceps product to ensure that you will get the most benefit from this healing mushroom. As with any other product of this nature, seek the guidance of a health care professional.

The constituents in medicinal mushrooms, such as CS, have few drug interactions and can often be used safely along with conventional therapies. Always discuss the use of herbal medicines with your doctor.

What are the potential benefits of Cordyceps sinensis? Studies show the following actions and effects of the water extract of Cordyceps sinensis: (CS):
  • The polysaccharides in CS have been shown to have immune stimulating and anti tumor activity.
  • CS had been shown to inhibit the growth of several cancer cell lines.
  • CS has also been shown to protect the liver and kidneys from toxic side effects of chemotherapy.
  • CS has been shown to potentiate and enhance the activity of some chemotherapy drugs.
  • CS has been shown to promote Cell Death (induce apoptosis).   Normal cells will self destruct (undergo apoptosis) when the cell is damaged.  Cancer cells fail to do so.  Agents which cause normal cell death are used widely in chemotherapy today.  CS has been shown to induce apoptosis or normal cell death in cancer cells in many studies and suggests that CS might be a valuable adjunct therapy for cancer patients.
  • CS is a potent antioxidant, thus protecting cells from free radical damage. Free radical damage is a process in which free electrons damage our cells and our DNA.  Free radical damage is thought to be a primary factor in the aging process.  Additionally when DNA  (genetic material) in the cells is damaged, risk of cancer increases.  CS has been shown to enhance the production of Glutathione and SOD, protective, natural antioxidants produced in our cells to protect against free radical damage and oxidation.
  • CS demonstrates anti-inflammatory properties.  Inflammation is a factor common to many diseases, including cancer.  Supporting the management of inflammation modulates our immune system. In particular, CS has been shown to suppress the production of COX-2, NFkB and TNFa, inflammatory molecules present in cancer cells and many other disease processes.
  • CS has been shown to increase the production of Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK cells are primary protective cell in our natural innate immune response is active against both tumor cells and viral cells.
  • CS has also been shown to possibly inhibit metastasis and the spread of some cancers. It is metastasis, the spread of cancer cells from the primary original site of the tumor to other parts of the body that causes cancer patients to die. Inhibiting metastasis therefore could prolong life for cancer patients.
  • Some studies have shown that CS prevents metastasis by inhibiting angiogenesis, the process by which tumor cells make new blood vessels, allowing tumors to grow in size as well as allowing cancer cells to enter the blood stream and travel to other parts of the body.
  • Qualitatively, cancer patients using CS along with their chemotherapy report less fatigue, reduced pain and less weight loss during treatment.
  • CS has also demonstrated anti-viral and antibacterial properties.  Cancer patients are often at risk for infection during chemotherapy and after surgery. Researchers hypothesize that CS increases resistance to infections by modulating immune function, increasing white blood cells and Natural Killer cells and by modulating inflammation.
  • Additionally, CS has been shown to protect against bone loss and osteoporosis, a risk factor for many patients, especially breast cancer and prostate cancer patients on medications which block hormones.
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    The information and statements contained in this article or any added comments herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The contents of this article or additional comments are for informational purposes only are is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice or treatment, because of information contained in this article.

    Primary References (additional references available)

    1. Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2010 May;59(5):789-97. Epub 2009 Dec 3. Activation of innate immunity to reduce lung metastases in breast cancer. Jordan JLNowak ALee TD. Department of Pathology, Atlantic Centre for Transplantation Research, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. 2. Immunopharmacol Immunotoxicol. 2008;30(1):53-70. Immune activation by a sterile aqueous extract of Cordyceps sinensis: mechanism of action. Jordan JLSullivan AMLee TD. Department of Pathology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. 3. Polysaccharide of Cordyceps sinensis Enhances Cisplatin Cytotoxicity in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer H157 Cell Line. Ji NF, Yao LS, Li Y, He W, Yi KS, Huang M. Integr Cancer Ther. 2011 Mar 7. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 21382957 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher] RESULTS: Compared with the cells treated with cisplatin alone, cell viability was significantly decreased and the expression levels of VEGF and bFGF protein were significantly reduced in the cells treated with a combination of CS and cisplatin.  CONCLUSION: The current study indicates that the polysaccharide of CS inhibits tumor growth in NSCLC and that CS may be a potential adjuvant chemotherapeutic agent in NSCLC therapy. 4. Biotechnol Appl Biochem. 2005 Aug;42(Pt 1):9-15. Immunomodulatory and antitumour effects of an exopolysaccharide fraction from cultivated Cordyceps sinensis (Chinese caterpillar fungus) on tumour-bearing mice.Zhang WYang JChen JHou YHan X. Immunology and Reproductive Biology Laboratory, Medical School, Nanjing University, Nanjing, 210093, People's Republic of China. 5. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2008 Apr;233(4):447-55. 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