Written by Dr. Parveen Kumar   

The caterpillar fungus, with the botanical name Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is a fungus that parasitizes and lives in the larvae of ghost moths, kills the larvae and mummifies them and produces a fruiting body from the corpse of the larva which is valued as a herbal remedy. It parasitizes moth caterpillars. In the fall, the fungal mycelia infect the caterpillar, and then kills it by early summer of the following year, releasing spores from the fruiting body. In the west, it is known as medicinal mushroom. It is a black, blade-shaped fungus found primarily in the high altitudes of the Tibetan plateau. The wild form of caterpiller fungus is rare and expensive; therefore a strain isolated from the wild form is cultivated and is more commonly used. Until 2007 it was known as Cordyceps but in 2007 it was renamed to caterpiller fungus .


The caterpillar fungus is found in the Tibetan Plateau, common in Bhutan and Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand Himalayas.

The Western world was largely unaware of caterpiller fungus prior to 1993. The fungus dramatically caught the world's eye due to the performance of three female Chinese athletes. These athletes broke five world records for 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meter dashes at the National Games in Beijing, China. The number of new world records set at a single track event attracted much attention and suspicion. Coach reported that the runners were taking caterpiller fungus and turtle blood at his request.
The caterpiller fungus mushrooms have a long history as medicinal fungi, with the earliest clear record as an Tibetan medical text authored by Zukhar Nyamnji Dorje in 15th Century who well explained tonic properties, particularly the aphrodisiac effect of this drug.
The folk healers of Sikkim use caterpiller fungus to cure 21 ailments including cancer, asthma, TB, diabetes, cough and cold, erectile dysfunction in males BPH, hepatitis, etc. Its effects on renal and hepatic function and immunomodulatory-related antitumor activities are most promising and deserve further attention.
The medicinal mushroom is highly prized by practitioners of Tibetan medicine, Chinese medicine and traditional folk medicines, used as an aphrodisiac and as a treatment for various disorders like respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disorders, fatigue and cancer.
Some polysaccharide components and cordycepin, which have some anticancer activity in preliminary animal studies has been used to protect the bone marrow and digestive systems of mice from whole body irradiation. Chemical compound isolated from caterpillar fungus may protect the liver from damage. Caterpillar fungus may have an anti-depressant effect. Researchers have noted that a polysaccharide isolated from caterpillar fungus has a hypoglycemic effect and may be beneficial for people with insulin resistance. There is also evidence of the energizing effect of the fungus, as it has been shown to increase endurance through heightened ATP production in rats.
It has been documented that the medicinal fungus also has Anti-inflammatory properties
Other classes of constituents found in wild caterpiller fungus include the following: proteins, peptides. Essential amino acids, and polyamines; saccharides and sugar derivatives; sterols; fatty acids and other organic acids; vitamins (including B 1 , B 2 , B 12 , E, and K); and inorganic elements. Cordycepin and other adenosine derivatives, ergosterol, mannitol, cordyheptapeptide A, and several other unique compounds have been identified.
10 Important uses of caterpiller fungus :
Caterpiller fungus is widely used as an aphrodisiac in addition to its various other health benefits.
1. Aging (senescence): Caterpiller fungus is used in the elderly people to improve weakness, impotence, and fatigue associated with aging. It also causes increase in red blood cell. Other antioxidant effects, radical scavenging activity, responsible for the antiaging effects, as well as effects on the adrenergic and dopamine systems.
2. Cancer: The extracts of caterpiller fungus enhances cytokine activity thereby reducing tumor cell proliferation and enhancing survival times, thus suggesting a valuable role in the treatment of cancer.
Clinical studies report improvement of symptoms, increased tolerance of radiation and chemotherapy and reduction in tumor size.
3. Cardiovascular Disorders: Caterpiller fungus has a long history of traditional medicinal use in heart disease. vasodilatory action has been reported in anesthetized dogs, and hypotensive and vaso-relaxant effects have been demonstrated in rats. Reduced heart rate and restoration from arrhythmias have also been shown in animals. In rabbits and in human platelets in vitro. Aqueous extracts of caterpiller fungus have shown positive effect on hyperlipidemia.
4. Diabetes: It has long been used by Chinese and Tibetan medicine practitioners for the treatment of Diabetes. The polysaccharide extracts, decreases blood glucose levels by improving glucose metabolism and enhancing insulin sensitivity.
5. Hepatic function: Hepatoprotective effects of caterpiller fungus extracts have been demonstrated in animal models. Clinical studies conducted on patients with active hepatitis and post-hepatic cirrhosis reported improvements in liver function tests.
6. Physical performance: Tests in animals, has shown increased time to exhaustion. Studies in elderly volunteers revealed increased energy levels and oxygen-carrying capacity following 6 weeks of caterpiller fungus treatment.
7. Renal function: Clinical studies among elderly patients with long-term renal failure suggest improved renal function as demonstrated by increase in creatinine clearance, decreases in blood urea nitrogen and serum creatinine. When caterpiller fungus was coadministered with antibiotics that are harmful for the kidneys. In transplant recipients the incidence of nephrotoxicity was lower among caterpiller fungus-treated patients.
8. Respiratory effects: Aqueous extracts of caterpiller fungus have a stimulatory effect on ion transport in human airway epithelial cells, possibly because of cordycepin and adenosine. Animal studies suggest the observed effects on respiration, supporting the traditional use of caterpiller fungus in Tibet and Nepal to offset altitude sickness. It has been found useful in asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and bronchitis.
9. Sexual dysfunction: Experiments in castrated rats showed a mild effect on sexual function. Decreases in erection and mount latency were demonstrated. It has shown good effect on steroidogenesis and testosterone. In clinical studies in elderly populations, improved sexual drive and virility were reported.
10. Other effects: Inhibition of osteoclast differentiation in mice has been described. Stimulation of erythropoiesis, as well as antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial activity.
Lecturer, Deptt. of Panchkarma,
Dayanand Ayurvedic College, Jalandhar-8 (Pb)
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