Cordyceps – An Adaptogenic Mushroom for Your Dog or Cat’s Adrenal Glands

Find out how an adaptogenic mushroom called cordyceps may help your dog or cat’s adrenal glands deal more effectively with stress.

Handling stress is an important function of your dog or cat’s adrenal glands. These small, paired glands on each side of her body, just above the kidneys, are responsible for producing the “fight-or-flight” hormones, mainly adrenaline, when the body perceives an existential threat. They also produce stress hormones, mainly corticosteroids, when the body experiences stressors. In this article, we’ll look at the role of the adrenal glands, their relationship to other important glands in the body, and how an adaptogenic mushroom called cordyceps may help your dog or cat’s adrenals deal better with stress.

THE HPA AXIS

The adrenal glands work closely with the pituitary gland. The relationship between these “endocrine” organs is responsible for a variety of crucial hormonal functions, such as the regulation of mineral concentrations in the blood, and the production of stress hormones and fight-or-flight hormones. These glands also work closely with the hypothalamus gland, which like the pituitary gland, is located at the base of the brain.

We call the interactive relationship between all these glands the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis). That’s a mouthful, but it describes a system that keeps our dogs and cats (and ourselves) going.

THE SYMPATHOADRENAL SYSTEM

Another system that involves the adrenal gland is the SAS or Sympathoadrenal System. This is the fight-or-flight system that kicked in when our ancestors were being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. In today’s context, this same system would come into play if, for example, there was an active shooter in your neighbourhood. In your dog or cat, meanwhile, the SAS would be activated if she was being threatened by a larger predator.

ADAPTOGENS AND ADRENAL STRESS

Adaptogens are plants or mushrooms that help the adrenal glands deal better with stress. They were first described in 1946 by medical doctor and pharmacologist, Dr. Nicolai V. Lazarev, who was researching herbal compounds for reversing the effects of acute or chronic stress. In 1968, pharmacologist Dr. Israel Brekhman provided us with the first definition for adaptogens:

  • They are non-toxic to the recipient in normal doses.
  • They produce a non-specific state of resistance to stress.
  • They have a normalizing and balancing influence.

In 1999, A.G. Panossian, PhD, and colleagues expanded the meaning of adaptogens thanks to research that showed adaptogens work by regulating the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA) and the Sympathoadrenal System (SAS).

CORDYCEPS — AN ADAPTOGENIC MUSHROOM

A number of herbs are considered true adaptogens, such as Asian ginseng, rhodiola, eleuthero, ashwagandha, licorice root, American ginseng, and maca root. Among medicinal mushrooms, cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris) stands out as an adaptogen.1

Cordyceps has traditionally been used for energy, endurance, anti-aging, counteracting stress, and sexual performance. Clinical studies have demonstrated its ability to improve athletic performance. Other studies have measured its ability to protect the kidneys from toxic damage caused by drugs and to support patients with chronic kidney disease.2

As an adaptogen, cordyceps contains components that act on the endocrine system, adrenal glands, and sex glands. It increases endogenous corticosteroids but uses a different pathway than the HPA axis. This is where cordyceps gets its designation as an adaptogen for modulating adrenal stress. It also can modulate estrogens by converting potentially toxic estrogens to the healthier 17-b-estradiol, and can stimulate the production of testosterone. For this reason, cordyceps was traditionally considered both an aphrodisiac and a fertility aid.3

Cordyceps is known to offer many additional benefits, such as:

  • Supporting healthy kidney function
  • Managing stress
  • Supporting healthy energy management
  • Promoting fertility
  • Increasing anabolic metabolism through its modulation of healthy testosterone levels.

STRESSORS THAT AFFECT YOUR ANIMAL’S ADRENALS

  • Environmental stressors include things like excessive heat or cold.
  • Emotional stressors include crowding or predation, excessive levels of physical labor or work, or physical trauma such as being hit by a car or getting into a fight with another dog or cat.

DISEASES INVOLVING THE ADRENAL AND PITUITARY GLANDS

The relationship between the pituitary and the adrenal glands is very important to vital functions that govern the life and death of your dog or cat. The pituitary gland produces special stimulating hormones that signal the adrenal glands to start producing their essential hormones in a healthy way. As small as they are, these little endocrine organs pack a powerful punch, so when something goes wrong with them, major problems can result.

When the adrenal glands are overstimulated by the pituitary, or when they develop a benign tumor that causes an over-production of corticosteroids, we call this Cushing’s disease. This over-production of the body’s own steroids by the adrenal glands, stimulated by the pituitary gland, creates the same problems we commonly see when commercially available pharmaceutical steroids like prednisone are overused, with symptoms as follows:

  • Hair thinning or complete loss
  • Dark discoloration
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Corrugated appearance of skin
  • Hyperglycemia
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Substantially increased appetite

Currently, cordyceps is under investigation for its ability to improve horses diagnosed with equine Cushing’s disease. Studies detailing the benefits of this adaptogenic mushroom for Cushing’s in dogs (and for chronic kidney disease in cats as well) are badly needed.

When the adrenal glands are under-functioning (known as Addison’s Disease), the body doesn’t produce enough of its own steroid hormones to maintain health. This can occur with damage to the gland’s tissues from autoimmune disease (most common cause), as well as infections secondary to certain drugs that are toxic to the adrenal glands. Other causes include cancer, or excessive inflammation. Due to the pituitary gland’s effects on the stimulating function of the adrenal gland, problems that impact the pituitary gland, such as head trauma, brain cancer, or excessive use of steroid drugs, can also cause Addison’s disease.

The adrenal glands’ role in regulating the balance of essential electrolytes, sodium and potassium, also becomes disturbed, resulting in serious life-threatening symptoms. Weakness, lethargy, anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, cardiac arrythmias, excessively slow heart rate, and bloody stools, are among the symptoms that can occur from the body’s lack of control over electrolytes due to Addison’s disease

Cordyceps is just one example of the many medicinal mushrooms that can boost your dog or cat’s health and well-being. Its ability to support the adrenal glands means it may help your animal companion’s body cope more efficiently with any stressors she encounters.


References

1Winston D. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. (2007) Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT. 05767. ISBN: 978-1-62055-958-1

2Hobbs C. Christopher Hobbs’s Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide. Cordyceps: pp 89-95 (2020) Storey Publishing; North Adams, MA 01247.

3Jedrejko KJ, Lazur J, Muszynska B. Cordyceps militaris: An Overview of Its Chemical Constituents in Relation to Biological Activity. (2021) Foods; 10,2634.


Dr. Robert J. Silver is a 1982 graduate of Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He has pioneered the use of diet, herbs and nutraceuticals in his small animal integrative practice in Boulder, Colorado for the past 25 years. He writes and speaks both domestically and internationally to veterinary audiences on the value of blending holistic modalities with conventional medicine, and is a consultant to the pet food industry. He is also the Chief Medical Officer of Real Mushrooms for Pets.

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