It’s called caterpillar fungus, but it’s better known throughout Asia by the Tibetan term, yartsa gunbu, which means summer grass, winter worm.
The fungi (Cordyceps Sinensis) makes its living by getting inside a host insect and ultimately killing and consuming it. In this case, the insect that’s invaded is the caterpillar of the ghost moth. This caterpillar will bury itself down a couple inches into the soil. Meanwhile it doesn’t know it, but this fungus is digesting it from within and then in the spring this tissue erupts out the head. This mummified caterpillar is the most expensive fungi in the world, and only Live Lean Today.com sells it in the US.
So what makes it so costly? It’s also known as the Viagra of the Himalayas. It is a aphrodisiac, and a status symbol.Yartsa gunbu was mentioned as far back as a 15th century Tibetan medicine. Used only by those who can afford it in Chinese Medicine and importe to the US by Live Lean Today llc. For ailing Chinese consumers and nomadic Tibetan harvesters, the parasite called cordyceps means hope and big money. Chinese markets sell the “golden worm,” or “Tibetan mushroom” which is used cure many things from cancer to asthma to erectile dysfunction It can cost up to $50,000 per pound. Patients, following traditional medicinal practices, brew the fungal infected caterpillar in tea or chew it raw.
Now the traditional Chinese medicine is getting scientific backing. A new study published in the journal RNA finds that cordycepin, a chemical derived from the caterpillar fungus, has anti-inflammatory properties.Inflammation is normally a beneficial response to a wound or infection, but in diseases like asthma it happens too fast and to too high of an extent. When cordycepin is present, it inhibits that response strongly. It does so in a way not previously seen: at the mRNA stage, where it inhibits polyadenylation. That means it stops swelling at the genetic cellular level—a novel anti-inflammatory approach that could lead to new drugs for cancer, asthma, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular-disease patients who don’t respond well to current medications.
From Worm to Pill
But such new drugs may be a long way off. The science of parasitic fungi is still in its early stages, and no medicine currently available utilizes cordycepin as an anti-inflammatory. Today 96 percent of the world’s caterpillar-fungus harvest comes from the high Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan range. Fungi from this region belong to the subspecies Ophiocordyceps sinensis, known locally as yartsa gunbu (“summer grass, winter worm”). While highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine, these fungi have relatively low levels of cordycepin. What’s more, they grow only at elevations of 10,000 to 16,500 feet (3,000 to 5,000 meters) and cannot be farmed. All of which makes yartsa gunbu costly for Chinese consumers: A single fungal-infected caterpillar can fetch $30.
Luckily for researchers, and for potential consumers, another rare species of caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps militaris, is capable of being farmed and even cultivated to yield much higher levels of cordycepin. This has helped bring the price down, but that’s not likely to discourage Tibetan harvesters, many of whom make a year’s salary in just weeks by finding and selling yartsa gunbu. Scientific proof of cordycepin’s efficacy will only increase demand for the fungus. With cultivation we have a level of quality control that’s missing in the wild. There is definitely some truth somewhere in certain herbal medicinal traditions, if you look hard enough. But ancient healers probably wouldn’t notice a 10 percent mortality rate resulting from herbal remedies. In the scientific world, that’s completely unacceptable. herbal apothecary I went into there were four big glass jars of the stuff selling for between $500 and $1,300 an ounce,” Hansen says.
As soon as they see that yartsa gunba is sprouting in these high, high alpine fields, the whole village just empties out and everybody climbs up into the mountains and spends pretty much six weeks crawling around looking for the tips of yartsa gunbu.A good harvest can triple a Nepali’s yearly income and transform communities. Hansen points to the village of Nar as an example. Here in the U.S. yartsa gunba hasn’t really caught on. It could be that it is just too expensive. No U.S. pharmaceutical companies that have extensively researched yartsa gunbu.
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