If you take a walk in the woods in places like the United Kingdom, the northern states of the USA, Russia and the Nordics, you may be lucky enough to come across a chaga mushroom. This special fungus is the delight of foragers and traditional healers. Let’s explore chaga mushroom benefits for our health.April 28, 2022 5:19 pm August 31, 2021 9:58 am
What is chaga?
Chaga is a fungus which grows on the bark of trees. In particular, a hopeful forager can find it clinging to birch trees in cold climates. Its Latin name is Inonotus obliquus.
So prized is this fungus that people in some parts of the world call it ‘black gold’ or ‘diamond of the forest’.(1)
Chaga has been a traditional remedy for centuries, particularly in areas such as Sibera in Russia.(2) Scientists in the modern day are also very interested in chaga for its medicinal qualities.
How to spot chaga
If you’re an avid forager and you’re lucky enough to live in climes where chaga flourishes, you may be able to spot one for yourself.
Firstly, aim for the birch trees; this is chaga’s preferred host, although you may also spot it on elm or beech trees.
Chaga looks like a black protuberance on the bark of the tree. To the untrained eye, it looks like any other tree burl (a rather pretty whorl of unusually textured bark which the tree grows through stress or other factors). However, a closer look will swiftly reveal if you’ve uncovered some ‘black gold’ for yourself.
The outside of the mushroom has the appearance and color of brittle charcoal. However, if you cut into it, you’ll find a golden-orange interior with the texture of a piece of cork.(3)
Many people regularly go on the hunt for chaga and over-harvesting can be an issue. Similarly, if you cut into a tree burl in search of chaga, you can also damage the tree itself, leaving it open to infections.
This is not to mention the risks of going mushroom foraging if you don’t have much experience. Some mushrooms are poisonous and can do you a lot of harm if you misidentify them. Best to stick with an expert, or source your chaga in powder form from a reputable source.
Chaga in traditional medicine
Humans have been using chaga to heal and nourish ourselves for a very long time. In fact, Hippocrates included it in his ‘Corpus Hippocratium’! He would make infusions with chaga and use them to wash people’s wounds.(4)
Eastern European medicine also has a special place for chaga, where it has been used since the 12th century.
However the people of Siberia must be among chaga’s biggest and most loyal fans. They use chaga for an enormous number of applications. These include using it as an anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic medicine, for gastrointestinal problems and for diseases of the liver and heart.(4)
What the heck is a ‘sclerotium’?
If you have been researching chaga, you will doubtless have come across the term ‘sclerotium’ (or its plural, ‘sclerotia’). For those of us without a specialist knowledge of fungi, it’s useful to explain what it refers to.
When we think of a ‘normal’ mushroom, we think of the shape we normally find at the grocer’s. It has a stem, crowned by a little semi-spherical cap.
However, we’ve slightly mixed up our mushroom terminology over the years!
A fungus is made up of the following parts:
- The mycelium: these are the thready , wispy tendrils which act a bit like the fungus’s roots.
- The fruiting body: this is cap of the fungus. Technically speaking, this is the only part we can correctly call a ‘mushroom’!
- The spores: these are tiny particles present inside the fruiting body. They are released through pores or gills and allow the fungus to reproduce.
- Secondary metabolites: once they reach maturity, fungi produce these special chemical compounds. A lot of the interest in the medicinal properties of fungi centres around these.
Unlike other mushrooms, chaga doesn’t produce a cap. What you see on the tree is actually a mass of hardened mycelia, called a sclerotium. Rather than calling it a mushroom, experts refer to what you can see on the tree as a ‘conk’.
Chaga mushroom benefits
So, what does modern science have to say about chaga mushroom’s health benefits? Do they bear out the wisdom of traditional Siberian medicine?
Let’s take a look at the properties of chaga which are attracting attention from experts today.
It’s important to say that research into chaga is still a fairly young field, despite its long history of traditional use. Therefore, quite a few of the available studies have been conducted on mice rather than humans.
Chaga is a potent antioxidant
Compounds found in chaga have the ability to defend cells against damage caused by free radicals.(4)
Chaga contains both special polysaccharides and chemicals called phenols which have an antioxidant effect.
Extracts from chaga also seem to be able to slow the production of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), a type of free radical, in healthy cells. Curiously, the opposite is true in cancer cells, where the quantity of ROS seems to increase.(4)
Thanks to its powerful antioxidant effects, scientists are investigating compounds from chaga as potential treatments for neurodegenerative conditions. These include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
It may boost your immune system
A fascinating study from 2005 looked at chaga’s ability to support our immunity. In it, the authors describe how, when patients are undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, their immune systems are often depleted.
This is because the two therapies cause damage to existing immune cells. But they can also harm stem cells in the bone marrow which will eventually turn into immune cells.
Patients who have a higher level of stem cells remaining after treatment are more likely to recover quickly. Therefore it’s important to do everything possible to protect them during treatment.
The study found that chemical-treated mice who consumed chaga extract showed similar signs of bone marrow health as healthy mice. Similarly, they produced more special proteins (called cytokines) which stimulate stem cell recovery following bone marrow damage.(5)
While more research is needed, the scientists who conducted the study think that chaga could be useful as a Biological Response Modifier (in this case, an ‘immunity-protector’) for people with compromised immune systems.
In addition, chaga contains special polysaccharides called beta-glucans which are known to have a regulating effect on the immune system.(6)
"Several studies indicate that chaga may be able to fight off certain types of bacteria, as well as some parasites and perhaps even viruses."(4)
Chaga may be antimicrobial
Hippocrates may have been onto something when he used chaga extract to wash wounds.
Several studies indicate that chaga may be able to fight off certain types of bacteria, as well as some parasites and perhaps even viruses.(4)
One study found that substances from chaga were able to inhibit two strains of bacteria called Mycobacterium smegmatis and Francisella tularensis.(7)
Another literature review states that chaga compounds appear to be active against viruses such as HIV, the Herpes Simplex virus and Hepatitis C in vitro. They may also have a protective effect against Hepatitis C if applied to cells prior to infection.(4)
While the results are promising, they come from laboratory tests which were done on various non-human tissue samples. We don’t yet know if chaga would have the same effect in humans.
Cholesterol and cardiovascular health
If you are watching your heart health, you will know that high levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol can put you at risk.
Studies have found that chaga may help decrease levels of LDL cholesterol, while increasing levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.(8)(9)
This may be down to chaga’s effectiveness as an antioxidant.
Once again, the studies cited here were conducted on mice. More studies are needed to see if the same thing happens in humans.
Blood sugar regulation
Much of the scientific interest around chaga revolves around its potential use as a treatment for diabetes. While we are a long way off knowing whether chaga can effectively treat the disease, a few studies have observed some promising effects on blood sugar levels.
For example, a study performed on diabetic mice found that polysaccharides from chaga had a beneficial effect. For example, they could reduce their fasting blood sugar levels, improve their tolerance to glucose and improve their insulin resistance when compared to the control group (of other diabetic mice).
The authors concluded that chaga polysaccharides may be a ‘promising candidate’ for diabetes treatment.(9)
It may help with endurance
Another interesting study found that mice that consumed chaga polysaccharides exhibited fewer signs of fatigue.
The mice underwent a swimming test for thirty minutes. After this time, the scientists measured the levels of urea and lactate in their blood, as well as the amount of glycogen in their liver and muscles.
(Quick reminder: our bodies make urea and lactate as by-products of exercise. Meanwhile, glycogen acts as a store of glucose which is kept in the liver until needed.)
They found that the mice who had consumed chaga were able to swim for longer. They also had lower blood lactate and urea levels, and higher amounts of glycogen stored in their liver and muscles.
In short, the mice who had consumed chaga demonstrated better endurance than their peers.(10)
Of course, more research is needed to see if chaga could help humans in the same way.
Gut health & microbiome
As well as offering myriad potential healing properties, chaga can also help you build a healthy gut microbiome.
Another study in mice found that chaga polysaccharides caused changes to the bacteria living in the gut. These changes gave them a healthier microbiome profile overall.(11)
Another study revealed a similar microbiome-improving effect in mice with chronic pancreatitis.(12)
We are only at the very beginning of understanding how our gut health impacts the rest of our body. However, suffice to say that important links between gut health and digestion, mental health and overall wellbeing are already widely accepted.
Similarly, we already know that other medicinal mushrooms such as turkey tail may be able to help with gut health thanks to their prebiotic effects.
Potential rare effects on the kidneys
If you’re interested in taking chaga, it’s important to let you know that there have been a couple of cases of negative health effects.
Very rarely, chaga may have a negative effect on the kidneys. Thus far, there appear to have been two studied cases worldwide.(14)(15)
The authors of one study state that chaga may be a risk factor for chronic kidney disease due to its high quantity of oxalates.
Oxalates are natural compounds found in a range of foods including beans, coffee, nuts, oranges and chocolate. If you consume a lot of oxalates, you may develop kidney stones.(13)
Chaga is very high in oxalates, so if you take it in large quantities over a long period of time there is a small risk of issues with your kidneys.
However, it’s worth noting that in the two reported cases, both patients had been taking chaga for a long period of time or in large doses.
We always recommend taking chaga in a cycle of no more than three months. After this time, take a break to allow your body to rest. You should not take chaga for more than three cycles per year.
Who should be cautious when taking chaga?
Chaga has powerful effects on the body, so if you have a previous history of kidney issues it may be wise to avoid it.
Similarly, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive should not take chaga. This is simply because there isn’t sufficient research in these groups to confirm its safety.
People who take prescription medication should speak to their doctor prior to taking chaga, as it may interact with drugs in your system.
Should I try chaga or another mushroom?
There are a wide variety of chaga mushroom benefits, making it a great all-rounder to support your overall wellbeing.
Like all the powders in our range of medicinal mushrooms, our Organic Chaga Mushroom Powder contains beta-glucans, which help support your natural immunity.
If you’re interested in learning more about the different types of mushroom available, and their unique properties, click to download our free guide to medicinal mushrooms. It’ll tell you everything you need to know!
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