I admit that’s a bit of a clickbait title. But given the soaring popularity of the HBO show, The Last Of Us, which explores an apocalyptic future where cordyceps mushrooms infect humans, coupled with the fact that we looove using cordyceps in our adaptogenic blends over here at Rasa (have you tried our new Classic & Café Rasa?), this turned out to be the type of question many of you are asking!
So… are cordyceps zombie juice or ancient medicine? Well, both.
The show is based on a strain of cordyceps, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that is indeed a "zombie fungus", taking over and controlling the behavior of ants (some must-see non-fiction). Where the show takes an unrealistic leap is with human infection — even with warming temperatures, this would never happen without a million years of fungal evolution because mammals are more complex organisms than insects.
The cordyceps mushroom that has been revered in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, takes up residence in caterpillars instead of ants, and is found primarily in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India. When the fungus has completely consumed the caterpillar, a stalk (aka fruiting body) will emerge from the caterpillar and this entire structure will be harvested for use in food or medicine.
As you can imagine, finding cordyceps in the grassy foothills of the Himalayas is no easy feat, and this unique and fascinating mushroom was once a specialty for the Chinese emperor alone! Nowadays, wild cordyceps is so immensely expensive at $20,000+ a pound that overharvesting is rampant and humans are threating the survival of cordyceps, not the other way around! Herb companies now use cordyceps cultivated on enriched sawdust substrates. This cordyceps, Cordyceps militaris, has similar levels of the important constituents like cordycepin, but thankfully does not participate in animal cruelty.
Traditionally the cordyceps mushroom has been used in Asia as a reproductive tonic and for a wide variety of issues including fatigue and lung complaints. One of the key active compounds in cordyceps, cordycepin, may have the ability to support respiratory function, increase exercise performance, and boost the immune system. We use cordyceps in Rasa because it is a primary adaptogen for improving energy, stamina, and vitality.
The only thing about cordyceps that should have you running for the exit is not vast numbers of zombies coming towards you, but the vast number of low-quality mushroom products currently on the market! Many of these companies use un-extracted mycelium that is about as effective as trying to sleep after watching the latest episode of the show. At Rasa, we use only cordyceps fruiting body, not mycelium, and we use a potent extract that has quantifiable levels of beta-glucans and cordycepin. To read more about how to buy quality mushroom products, see our write-up here, and try out our (zombie-free) mushroom products such as Magnificent Mushrooms, Classic Rasa, and Café Rasa!
Image compliments of Nammex