(冬虫夏草), which means "winter insect, summer herb." According to the Materia Medica, the fungus infects the larva of moths as they hibernate in the Tibetan mountains in late autumn. As the spore infiltrate the circulatory system and nervous system, the larva is compelled to climb to a higher place. Through the winter, the fungus proliferates, killing the caterpillar and causing the outer shell to harden. As spring or early summer approaches, a stroma develops and emerges from the larva, eventually growing to be much longer than the original body. At this time the fungus and the body are harvested.
|Photo credit: TeaLeafNation|
This entire process makes dong chong xia cao a potent yang tonic, yet it is still endowed with yin nourishing properties, making it a very harmonious herb. The environment plays a significant role in this, as well. The Tibetan plateau is quite literally the top of the world; its extreme elevation and high mountain peaks make the region very yang in nature. The lack of moisture and good quality soil, however, make vegetation sparse. Other species of cordyceps in other parts of the world frequently infest plants or less robust insects. The Tibetan variety is forced to focus on the hardy Hepialidae armoricanus, which, after developing in such a harsh climate, instills the fungus with its yin nature. In Rectification of the Meaning of Materia Medica, "it responds to the [deep, hidden] yang qi generated at the arrival of winter, crawling deep into piled snow, by nature fearless of the cold... because when the yang is generated, the yin grows." Other types, which are often the species tapped for supplements and energy bars, lack this. The feng shui of area truly allows the cordyceps to grow to the best of their ability and develop the most therapeutically useful properties. Geo-sourcing, harvesting a herb specifically from its native habitat to optimize it's naturally-endowed quality and potency, is incredible important for Chinese medicinals and doubly so for dong chong xia cao. While it's difficult and often dangerous to collect cordyceps on the slopes of the Himalayas, substituting the species of spore and host or creating lab-grown fungi fundamentally changes the essence of the herb.
The functions of dong chong xia cao are twofold. It is used to augment the essence and tonify the Kidney yang, allowing it to treat weakness and pain in the low back and legs, as well as impotence and other reproductive symptoms associated with yang deficiency. In combination with qi tonics, this herbs can be used to treat debility from weakened protective qi. Its other major function is to reinforce the Kidney-Lung conduit by which clear qi is inhaled by the Lungs and grasped deeply by the Kidneys. Dong chong xia cao tonifies the Kidney yang while also nourishing the Lung yin in a uniquely harmonious way due to its composition. Most yang-strengthening medicinals are slightly damaging to the yin, yet cordyceps is very safe and beneficial to both aspects.
|Cordyceps cooking in ceramic ginseng pot|
Augmenting the Lung and Kidney in this way treats asthma and respiratory disease very efficiently. Moreover, strengthening the Lung's ability to bring in more clear qi allows for greater oxygenation of the blood. Much like the formula for athletic endurance I've discussed before strengthens and protects the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, cordyceps helps the body reach peak performance by increasing oxygen saturation levels, allowing the muscles to fire more quickly and effectively. Athletes love this, but even more exciting is seeing this herb transform asthmatics into athletes. Currently, research on cordyceps is also showing promising results in the treatment of chronic lung and kidney diseases, altitude-related illnesses, and certain types of leukemia and renal and liver cancers. I definitely encourage anyone who is interested in the modern applications and studies of cordyceps to stop by PubMed and do a quick search.
Because dong chong xia cao is so well-balanced as a yin and yang nourishing herb, many in China consume it regularly as part of a practice called "nourishing life" or yang sheng (养生). Yang sheng focuses on preventative action and healthy living to avoid the need to treat illness. That will be the subject of my next blog!