“The Last of Us” series awakens curiosity for cordyceps while scientists flag that fungi threat may lurk
14 Mar 2023 --- The apocalypse series “The Last of Us” about cordyceps fungi turning humans into zombies has brought fungi interest to a general audience. The series has been described as being, to some extent, realistic, and with a recent study finding fungi infections might thrive in increased temperature, scientists confirm that fungi infections are a potential threat if global warming continues.
Still, it won’t turn people into zombies, experts stress. Meanwhile, cordyceps are receiving attention for their potential health benefits.
“While cordyceps are technically a parasitic fungi that grow in insect larvae, they have been dried and used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine practices because of their benefits,” Dr. Mahmud Kara, founder and CEO at KaraMD, tells NutritionInsight.
“I always say we just weren’t built for the 21st century. Between nutrient-deficient foods, our ‘always on’ stressful lifestyle, environmental toxins and more, it can be hard to live and feel well today,” he adds.
The recent study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that as global temperatures increase, heat resistance among pathogenic fungi might increase as well. The fungi cannot yet survive in the human body, so it is not a threat to human health.
However, much like the plot of the video game turned blockbuster TV series, global warming could turn the fungi’s response “into overdrive,” increasing the number of genetic changes and causing potential diseases, according to the study.
“These mobile elements are likely to contribute to adaptation in the environment and during an infection,” says Asiya Gusa, one of the study’s authors and a molecular genetics and microbiology researcher at the Duke School of Medicine, US.
“This could happen even faster because heat stress speeds up the number of mutations occurring.” Gusa comments on the popular “The Last of Us” series and says, “that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about, minus the zombie part.”
She stresses that the infections are not communicable – transmittable between humans – but that the spores are in the air we breathe, although our immune systems are now equipped to fight them.
Cordyceps in nutrition
Kara says that interest in fungi or different types of functional mushrooms for specific health benefits has been increasing overall. “Not only have we noticed several products come onto the market with functional mushroom strains, but there is also clinical research being done on the specific fungi strains and their health benefits.”
He argues that ingesting cordyceps brings antioxidant effects, insulin regulation, heart health, anti-inflammatory and enhanced exercise performance.
“Studies have shown that cordyceps increase the body’s production of adenosine triphosphate – an organic compound that provides energy and drive processes in cells – which helps deliver oxygen and energy to the muscles, especially during exercise. Because of this, cordyceps may help with improved performance and stamina,” he continues.
Furthermore, cordyceps have potent antioxidants. Kara states that research has found that cordyceps are a great source of natural antioxidants that help prevent free radical damage at the cellular level and help naturally boost energy, prevent disease and reduce inflammation.
He further points to insulin management, as some studies have found that cordyceps can help regulate blood sugar levels.
“High cholesterol is one of the leading factors when it comes to heart-related issues, and studies have found that cordyceps can help reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol and target heart health,” Kara explains.
Lastly, cordyceps may also reduce inflammation. “I always say that inflammation is the root of all evil because many of the health issues we face in the 21st century can be tied back to chronic inflammation. Research has linked cordyceps to decreased inflammatory proteins in the body,” Kara concludes.
WHO warns of fungi
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report listing health-threatening fungi, detailing that emerging evidence indicates that fungal diseases are expanding globally, accelerated by global warming, international trade and travel. Additionally, an increased amount of fungal infections was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic in hospitalized patients.
“Emerging from the shadows of the bacterial antimicrobial resistance pandemic, fungal infections are growing and are ever more resistant to treatments, becoming a public health concern worldwide,” Dr. Hanan Balkhy, assistant director-general of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) at the WHO, said previously.
The organization calls for urgent action to address the impact of antifungal resistance, expanding access to diagnostics and treatments. The report suggests strategies for policymakers, public health professionals and other stakeholders.
Dr. Haileyesus Getahun, director of AMR Global Coordination Department at the WHO, adds, “we need more data and evidence on fungal infections and antifungal resistance to inform and improve response to these priority fungal pathogens.”
“Fungal diseases are on the rise, largely because of an increase in the number of people who have weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions,” Gusa says while highlighting that simultaneously, pathogenic fungi may be adapting to warmer temperatures.
“These stress-stimulated changes may contribute to the evolution of pathogenic traits in fungi both in the environment and during infection. They may be evolving faster than we expected,” concludes Gusa.
By Beatrice Wihlander
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