We all can admit that idea of mushroom-infected zombies from The Last of Us has sent a shiver down the spine and perhaps even reduced a mushroom risotto craving. But we are true lovers of all nature’s creations (especially the Kingdom of Fungi) and we decided to put aside our fears about the potential apocalypse and figure out why mushrooms became a culprit.
In the video game and TV series The Last of Us, the so-called zombie mushrooms are based on the real-world fungi known as Cordyceps. Cordyceps are a group of parasitic fungi that infect and grow on insects and other arthropods. The fungus typically enters the host in the form of spores, which then germinate and grow into mycelium, a network of thread-like structures that can penetrate the host's tissues. The fungus then produces fruiting bodies, which release new spores and continue the cycle of infection.
While Cordyceps appear dangerous and deathly in the latest HBO hit, they have been praised and used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine as a natural remedy for many maladies. Cordyceps is deemed to be an adaptogen - a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stressful environments and promote overall wellness. Studies revealed that these beautiful mushrooms possess a wide range of health benefits, including mediating metabolism and supporting immune system function. In traditional Chinese medicine practices, Cordyceps is used to tonify the kidney and lung meridians, strengthen the body and improve overall vitality. It is also used to treat a variety of health conditions, including fatigue, asthma, and kidney disease.
Research has shown that Cordyceps mushrooms contain a variety of bioactive compounds that may be responsible for their popularity. These include polysaccharides, which are complex carbohydrates that have been shown to enhance immune system function and reduce inflammation, and cordycepin, which has been shown to have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
One of the most well-known health benefits of Cordyceps mushrooms is their ability to improve athletic performance. In a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers found that athletes who took Cordyceps supplements had improved endurance and oxygen uptake compared to a placebo group. Another study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that Cordyceps supplements improved exercise performance and reduced fatigue in elderly participants.
Cordyceps mushrooms have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. In a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found that Cordyceps extract reduced inflammation in rats with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Despite the proven health benefits, Cordyceps has also been the subject of controversy due to their role in the zombie ant phenomenon. Some species of Cordyceps infect ants and other insects, causing them to become zombie ants that behave strangely and eventually die, releasing spores that infect other ants. This phenomenon has been widely documented in nature and has even been the subject of a BBC documentary.
However, it's important to note that the Cordyceps mushrooms used in traditional Chinese medicine and in dietary supplements are not the same as the strains that infect insects. While there is some concern that consuming Cordyceps supplements could lead to infection, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that Cordyceps supplements were safe and well-tolerated in humans.
See? No reason to be scared! While Cordyceps may seem sinister in The Last of Us, they are actually a valuable source of natural bio-actives that offer a wide range of health benefits. However, if you are willing to introduce medicinal mushrooms into your diet, it is recommended to consult a specialist and always remember the importance of a balanced and nutrient-rich diet.
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- Hughes D, Evans S. Fungal warfare: Cordyceps and the zombie-ant phenomenon. BBC Earth. Published May 5, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150505-the-fungus-that-turns-ants-into-zombies
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