Article written by: Molly Helfend
As an herbalist and holistic health practitioner, I have used myself as a plant and fungi medicine test dummy for years. I have sampled almost every remedy under the sun in the name of academia, to heal not only my own chronic illness, but those of my clients. Searching for the quintessential healer or answers to long standing questions about illness makes so many wonder why they can’t just take control of their own health. And then, Chaga mushroom walks into the room with a bright and beaming light. Chaga has been an ally in not only my own healing journey, but almost every client I have worked with. Its strong, bioactive and anti-inflammatory compounds are no match for almost any condition it is put against, minor or severe.
What is Chaga Mushroom?
Inonotus obliquus, or Chaga mushroom, is a parasitic, burnt charcoal-like fungus that primarily grows on trunks of birch trees in frigid cold climates in the Boreal and Arctic regions. It requires the extreme freezing of winter to thrive, as one of its most potent compounds, betulinic acid, is present in larger concentrations in these colder territories. Chaga itself is one of the most powerful adaptogenic mushrooms in existence. It has large concentrations of bioactive compounds and some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any other species on earth!
Ethnobotany and Traditional Usage
Known by the Siberians as “The Gift from God,” Chaga has been traditionally used for centuries by native people from the Scandanavian, Siberian, and Russian territories to support vibrant health. From the Khanty people of Western Siberia to the Ainu people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Kuru islands, Chaga was beloved as a true king of kings. Interestingly, Chaga comes from a word used frequently in an indigenous Russian language, чага, meaning mushroom. The Sami of Fenno-Scandinavia called Chaga “báhkkečátná” to declare it as one of the most important gifts from nature. Chaga is such an ancient medicine that it didn’t even first appear in western texts until the 16th century.
According to ethnobotanical history, Chaga was traditionally used to boost immune system health, especially for nomadic tribes and during the frigid winter months. Chaga was known to strengthen the body and prevent disease of any sort. The Khanty people would especially use Chaga to rid the liver of infection and get rid of parasitic worms. The Ainu people would perform religious ceremonies by smoking Chaga out of pipes crafted by the tribe. It would also be slow-boiled as a tonic by healers to lower inflammation.
Commonly Reported Benefits
Chaga is a true liver food, supporting liver detoxification, which in turn lowers overall swelling and treats muscular pain throughout the body. Chaga’s terpenes (Sultana, 2012), antioxidants and bioactive compounds are especially potent in healing serious inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune illnesses and other chronic diseases. This points to its ability to regulate cytokine production in the body, which may also help control inflammation.
Reduce Oxidative Stress
Because of Chaga’s high antioxidant contents, it acts to protect DNA, slow the aging process, neutralize free radicals (Ham et al, 2009) and provide skin-protection against UV-light induced damage. In fact, this mushroom has been found to have some of the largest concentrations of bioactive compounds and some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any other species on earth (Nagajyothi et al, 2014). It is especially rich with betulinic acid and contains large concentrations of melanin (Zheng, 2009), both of which react in our body by reducing oxidative stress (Park, 2004) and working as a longevity tonic.
Balance Endocrine System
One of the key sterols found in Chaga is lanosterol, which helps rebuild cell membranes and supports the endocrine system (Faass, 2012). This in turn helps to support adrenal function and restore energy metabolism (Jiang et al, 2020). The endocrine system is essential to coordinate nearly all functions of the body. In addition, Chaga helps endocrine process by increasing liver glycogen (Faass, 2012), which helps to boost energy and hormone balance, and also supplies a rich source of B vitamins to the entire body.
Enhance Immune Function
Chaga may be most well known for its ability to enhance the immune system in response to infection, especially in winter, due to its concentration of terpenes and triterpenes (Sultana, 2012). It is highly viral, bacterial, microbial, inflammatory and protozoa, while its beta glucans support healthy immune system responses. In fact, research studies have been conducted to study Chaga’s efficacy in helping to regulate the production of cytokines, as well as, enhance innate immune mechanism and disease resistance (Harikrishnan, 2012).
Numerous scientific reports have been conducted that prove Chaga’s efficacy in aiding the treatment and prevention of cancer (Yan, 2014). Specifically, its polysaccharides have been isolated from the fruiting body, which possess anti-tumor activity (Lee et al, 2014). In addition, Chaga’s betulinic acid has also been isolated and found to inhibit and prevent the growth of melanomas (Pisha et al, 1995), and additionally, as an anticancer agent against hepatomas (Ja Youn at al, 2008).
Regulate Blood Sugar
Studies have shown that consuming Chaga has a beneficial role in controlling metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. Unlike simple sugars, the beta-glucans and other polysaccharides in Chaga digest slowly, regulating the body’s intake of sugar. In fact, a 2006 study found that Chaga could lower blood sugar in rats, as after eating the mushrooms for 8 weeks, their blood sugar levels were significantly lowered (Cha et al, 2006).
Although Chaga consumption does not commonly produce adverse side effects, it is always safest to consult your healthcare practitioner or doctor before consuming any new plant and fungi medicine.
How to Consume
Chaga can be consumed in a tea, coffee, powder or extract form. If using the raw form of Chaga, my favorite way to consume it is by slow-boiling and simmering the mushroom into a dark, rich decocted tea. When finished, it's lovely to compliment the flavoring by stirring in some organic grade A maple or birch syrup. Its distinct, earthy flavor has subtle hints of nutty tang and vanilla notes, making it the quintessential pairing in smoothies, baked goods, lattes and as an alternative to coffee.