How (and why) cordyceps were mistaken for steroids in the 1993 Olympic Games

Mushrooms have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries to treat various conditions like lung diseases, respiratory illness, and fatigue. The rest of the world was relatively unaware of the medicinal power of mushrooms until the 1993 Olympics, the female Chinese Olympic running team shattered records to the extent that they were accused of steroid use. 

In 1993, Chinese Olympics female running team broke records for 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meters that caused much curiosity and suspicion. They were suspected of using performance enhancing steroids, but the rumors were shot down by their coach when they failed the drug test. 


The coach revealed to the reporters that his team had been taking doses of “cordyceps” at his request after each training session*. This event brought alternative medicine to the forefront of not only immune health, but also physical health.


The medicinal mushroom cordyceps was used for its energizing properties that enhance the body’s metabolism and opened up the upper respiratory tract to enhance the athletes’ performance.


What is cordyceps sinensis?

Cordyceps sinensis is a wild, rare fungus that grows on larvae of butterflies and moths. Some strains of cordyceps grow like fungus out of the brains of insects, which forces them to relocate to trees and plants where the conditions are ideal for the fungus to grow and thrive. 


When it was discovered, it was so rare that it was only taken by Chinese royalty. Some of the strains from this fungus had been isolated and are now fermented on a large scale for commercial use. 


They are known as Cordyceps Militaris. Because of its rarity, cordyceps sinensis is one of the most expensive plants in the world whereas the lab grown options are more affordable.


How is Cordyceps beneficial for athletes?

Cordyceps are very popular among athletes as it aids in enhancing their performance and overcoming their general weakness. It also acts as a tonic for physical stamina and endurance. Cordyceps improve blood flow as well as the body’s ability to burn fat fast. 


The fungus increases the availability of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the body. ATP plays an important role in supplying oxygen to body muscles. Muscles use this oxygen to produce energy. VO2 max is defined as a measure of how fast the body delivers oxygen to muscles. Athletes or elite runners have double the VO2 max as a normal person. When the body consumes more oxygen, it also helps in combating fatigue.


What are the health benefits of cordyceps?

Other than its benefits for improving athletic performance, cordyceps offer a range of health benefits:

  • Helps anti-aging process: cordyceps are loaded with antioxidant that can slow down the aging process. The antioxidants in the body help eliminate free radicals that cause diseases and speeds up aging.
  • Manage type-2 diabetes: cordyceps contain certain sugar that mimics the action of insulin, which helps maintain sugar levels in the body.
  • Promotes healthy heart function: due to its antioxidant nature, cordyceps help in preventing heart related problems like high blood pressure and helps in maintaining low cholesterol levels
  • Anti-tumor effects: cordyceps may inhibit the growth of cancer cells and exert anti-tumor effects in lung and livers.

Taking Cordyceps Supplements

More research is needed to understand the effects of cordyceps as most of the research is done on animals. These studies show that use of cordyceps helps in regulating blood sugar levels and also possess anti-tumor properties that help in killing cancer cells.


 However, cordyceps are widely available in the form of supplements that can be taken orally or added in tea. It is also advised to consult the doctor before adding them to your routine. If you are looking to feel energized, then cordyceps are a great way to start along with a good diet and healthy lifestyle -- and of course, cordyceps are one of the 9 mushrooms in Mushroom Design’s Daily Vitamin & Mushroom blend