Were Cordyceps Banned in the Olympics?

Cordyceps mushrooms are power packed with numerous health benefits! I cannot say it enough! These mushrooms are extensively known for their energy-increasing ability in both humans and animals.

Why is Cordyceps so popular among athletes? Do Cordyceps improve athletic performance? This article will serve as a primer on Cordyceps!

Scientist holding Cordyceps

History and Use of Cordyceps in Traditional Medicine

These caterpillar-like mushrooms are mainly found in Tibet. The high-altitude regions provide the perfect conditions for the growth of these mushrooms.

Although in use for thousands of years, the description of the mushroom first appeared in 1694, in a traditional medical text Ben Cao Bei Yao. It was not until 1878 that Saccardo – an Italian scholar – named the mushroom Cordyceps sinensis.

Historically, it was mostly used by the Chinese and Tibetan people to increase energy levels and improve stamina.1

Cordyceps mushrooms consist of one of the largest genera containing approximately 600 species. These also provide tremendous health benefits.

Cordyceps was first noticed by a group of herders in the high mountains of China. The herders observed that their cattle, sheep, yak, and goats became very wild and robust upon consuming these mushrooms.

Later, these people themselves started using it daily and noticed that it benefited them in many ways. This is essentially how Cordyceps became a medicinal herb.

Cordyceps has an extensive history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. These mushrooms are proven to improve stamina, appetite, libido, and sleeping patterns. It is even used to treat fatigue, respiratory and pulmonary ailments, and sexual problems.

Cordyceps and the 1993 Olympics: Rise to Fame

Cordyceps came into the spotlight in the 1993 Olympics. The Chinese women’s Olympic running team broke numerous world records then.

After a lot of speculation and inquiry as to what helped them succeed phenomenally, it was eventually revealed by their coach that a special elixir was the secret to their unbeatable performance. This special elixirs was Cordyceps!

This made the mushroom famous instantly and scientific research began thereafter to know more about them. The Chinese women’s team was even suspected and tested for any sort of steroids or any other banned substances but none was found.2

This powerful mushroom helps athletes without tainting their reputation. In the Tianjin marathon, runners from China set a new world record by finishing the race under the 2:27 hour mark. Incredible!

They destroyed half a dozen world records that had stood for years and won three gold medals at the world track and field championships in Stuttgart.

The most phenomenal performance was put in by Wang Junxia, who set four records in six days in September 1993.3These Chinese women who established remarkable feet were trained with a strict diet of only vegetables, a special elixir, and rigorous workouts.

The elixir taken by them increased their stamina which was needed during the workout and the main ingredient of this elixir was none other than Cordyceps.

Cordyceps mushrooms

What Are Cordyceps Mushrooms?

The name ‘cordyceps’ comes from the Latin words ‘cord' and ‘ceps' meaning ‘club’ and ‘head’ respectively. This describes the appearance of the fungus Cordyceps sinensis whose fruiting body extends from the remains of the insect larvae, which is usually a caterpillar larva.

Its fruiting body originates at its base on the larval host and ends at the club-like cap. The fruiting body is dark brown to black and the root that is the larval body appears yellowish to brown in color.

It is usually taken along with other herbs or with milk or honey. Around the world, it is known by many other names like the caterpillar fungus in English, Dong Chong Xia Cao in China, Keeda Jadi in India, and Yarsa gumba in Tibet.

These mushrooms are usually found at 4500m to 5000m above sea level in the high altitude of The Himalayas. This is the reason few people even refer to it as the ‘Himalayan Viagra’.

Its Chinese name Dong Chong Xia Cao translates to ‘summer grass, winter worm’. The harvesting season of Cordyceps is usually from April to August every year.

These wonder mushrooms are commonly of two types. They are Cordyceps sinensis (Cs-4) and Cordyceps militaris.

Cordyceps sinensis is the most expensive of all cordyceps mushrooms as it is very rare and difficult to find in supplementary form. These can be purchased only in their whole form in a few Asian countries.

On the other hand, Cordyceps militaris is usually cultivated in laboratories on a large scale and are easily available in supplementary form in the market.

These mushrooms are usually 1.5 - 4 inches long and weigh about 300mg-500mg each. It is usually advised to take 1000 to 3000 milligrams a day if the person does not have any underlying health conditions.

Excessive consumption of Cordyceps may cause a few mild side effects like stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and dry mouth.

How Do Cordyceps Work?

The mushroom is mainly used for its energy-enhancing effects carried out by beta-d-glucans which improve oxygen delivery to all parts of the body. This enhances stamina and aerobic capacity.

VO2 max is a method used to access one’s fitness. It is defined as the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise and workouts.

Cordyceps contains many bioactive constituents including cordycepin, polysaccharides, ergosterol, mannitol, adenosine, nucleosides, amino acids, and antioxidants.

All these active compounds work together to influence numerous systems and processes throughout the body. These components are as follows:


Beta-D-glucans and other polysaccharides are found on both the inner and outer sides of the cells of Cordyceps and make up 3%-8% of the mushroom’s weight.


They are a unique component of Cordyceps. These molecules contain nucleic acid which has the same structure as DNA and RNA.


These are other notable nucleoside analogs.

  • Lipids includes unsaturated fatty acids and sterols.
  • Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
  • Antioxidants like carotenoids and superoxide dismutase.
  • Cordycepic acid or d-mannitol.

Benefits of Cordyceps for Athletes

Improves Uptake of Body Oxygen

Cordyceps mushrooms have been researched for a wide variety of potential benefits which show promising results.

Many of these studies found a link between Cordyceps and improved oxygen intake. This means that Cordyceps supplements may help improve respiratory function. It helps by relaxing the bronchial walls and promotes enhanced oxygen utilization efficacy.4

These mushrooms are proven to increase VO2 max which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise. This determines a person's fitness.

If the oxygen uptake in the body increases it will act as a catalyst during the workout session of athletes, giving them more strength and stamina which in turn will help them achieve their goals.5

Fatigue Resistance

Medical findings prove that supplementation with Cordyceps helps fight fatigue in people, particularly in athletes.

It reduces the production of lactic acid and other oxygen by-products that cause muscle fatigue.6 Muscle fatigue symptoms may be muscle twitching, soreness, trembling, or even localized pain.

Boosts ATP During Exercise

Studies show that Cordyceps increase available energy in muscles and other tissues by boosting ATP (adenosine triphosphate).7,8

ATP’s are free molecules present in our body that store and move energy to all parts of the body. During workouts, energy-rich ATP molecules are created which improves stamina in athletes.

These ATP molecules are produced inside mitochondria which is the powerhouse of our cells. They generate over 90% of the energy required for our daily needs.

By increasing both the mitochondria and its fuel source which is nothing but ATP, our physical capabilities can be increased. How cool is that?

Other Benefits of Cordyceps

Helps Fight Inflammation

Inflammation of any kind in the body is not good and may lead to a host of ailments. Studies show when the cells of the body are fueled with Cordyceps, the proteins that cause inflammation becomes suppressed. Due to these results, Cordyceps serves as a useful anti-inflammatory supplement!9,10

The mushroom may even treat hyperlipidemia, which is the presence of high-level lipids in the blood including cholesterol and triglycerides. Hence polysaccharides are an essential component of the mushroom to help decrease hyperlipidemia.11,12

Anti-Aging Properties

Research proves that Cordyceps may even reduce signs of aging. We can attribute these phenomena to the presence of antioxidants in them.13

Antioxidants are molecules that fight cell damage by neutralizing free radicals which can contribute to disease and aging.

Can Improve Heart Health

Cordyceps may improve heart health. They are officially approved in China for the treatment of arrhythmia. It is a condition in which the heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular.14

The presence of adenosine in Cordyceps has heart-protective effects.15 Cordyceps may decrease LDL (bad cholesterol) thereby decreasing the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries.12

Supports Type-2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition in which the body either does not produce insulin or is resistant to it. The hormone insulin is responsible for the transportation of glucose to the cells where cellular respiration (conversion of glucose into energy that cells can use) takes place.

In diabetic patients glucose cannot enter the cells and will remain in the blood, increasing the blood glucose level. An increase in the blood glucose level will lead to serious health issues. Cordyceps has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and decrease blood glucose levels.16,17

Improves Sexual Health and Performance

There is evidence to show that people of both sexes took tonics with Cordyceps as the main ingredient to enhance libido and improve sexual function. I’m looking forward to writing about this on the next blog!

This shows that Cordyceps helps the body utilize oxygen efficiently and improve blood flow to the genital area which is important for normal sexual function.

Cordyceps may help infertility, impotence, premature ejaculation, and erectile dysfunction.18,19

Anti-Tumor and Anti-Cancer Activity

Several studies reveal that Cordyceps can stop the growth of human cancer cells including lung, colon, skin, and liver cancers.20,21,22 Cordyceps contains a strain of bioactive compounds that may be used in anti-cancer treatments.

Is Cordyceps an Effective Pre-Workout Supplement?

The main aim of any pre-workout supplement is to boost blood flow and increase oxygen and nutrient transport to the muscles.

Consuming Cordyceps supplement before you hit the gym or before you go for a daily workout is all you need to do to pump up your body. This is bound to give you the required energy and stamina to perform any sort of physical task. I always take an extra Mushie ENERGY gummy or two before I go on a long run, it really helps improve my stamina!

It helps by improving the VO2 max thereby increasing the amount of oxygen utilized in the body. As discussed before, the presence of beta-d-glucans in Cordyceps helps deliver oxygen to every cell of the body.

Thus Cordyceps are proven to be an effective pre-workout supplement, especially for athletes to increase their stamina and improve their performance.

Cordyceps: Is It Legal or Illegal

Why are anti-doping authorities having a tough time deciding? The use of Cordyceps in the field of sport is still a mystery to be resolved.

Chinese medicines and supplements contain many ingredients and chemical components which make them difficult to identify and almost impossible to detect in the body. This is the reason, all anti-doping authorities are having a tough time resolving this issue.

As Cordyceps alone has been approved as herbal medicine, its cultivation and harvesting are legal but its trade is yet to be legalized in many parts of the world.

So trading is usually considered illegal but when Cordyceps is concocted with many other herbs and components it becomes difficult to classify it as legal or illegal as the identity of the other substances remains hidden.

Final Thoughts

Cordyceps when paired with a proper nutritious diet, active lifestyle, and inclusion of other medicinal herbs give drastic health benefits in the long run.

With the wide range of benefits that these super mushrooms offer to all, especially athletes, it’s in high demand!


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  2. Griffiths, James. “Journalist Says Chinese Athletes Allege State-Sponsored Doping.”CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Feb. 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/05/sport/china-athletics-state-sponsored-doping-allegations/index.html.        
  3. Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. “Doping Claims Involving Chinese Track Stars Re-Emerge, Decades Later.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/asia/china-olympics-doping-ma-junren.html.
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  11. Yin, Fan et al. “TheCordyceps militaris-Derived Polysaccharide CM1 Alleviates Atherosclerosis in LDLR(-/-)Mice by Improving Hyperlipidemia.” Frontiers in molecular biosciences vol. 8 783807. 13 Dec. 2021, doi:10.3389/fmolb.2021.783807
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  22. Lee, Seulki et al. “Anti-tumor effect of Cordyceps militaris in HCV-infected human hepatocarcinoma 7.5 cells.”Journal of microbiology (Seoul, Korea)vol. 53,7 (2015): 468-74. doi:10.1007/s12275-015-5198-x