Chaga: The King of Mushrooms
...That Isn’t Really A Mushroom
Across the Northern hemisphere, if you are really lucky, you can find charcoal-coloured lumps clinging to the sides of birch trees. Midnight black on the outside, they are dark orange on the inside. This ugly fungus is called Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) also known as “The King of Mushrooms”. You’re lucky because Chaga is quite rare—by conservative estimates, it can be found on only one out of every 4,000 birch trees—and impossible to cultivate domestically. So all of the world’s chaga is wildcrafted.
Chaga is formed from airborne spores, which attach to lesions left by broken branches or bark scars usually in white or yellow birches (live or dead trees). There they grow into a mycelium—an expanding mass of fungal cells that eventually herniates from the tree’s bark and hardens. Chaga “conks” develop slowly, but over the course of decades can become similar in size to large watermelons.
Chaga grows in deciduous forests in Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia, Alaska, Northern Europe and Iceland. Chaga is nothing new. In 1991 scientists discovered Ötzi, a 5,000-year-old iceman frozen in the European Alps. They found that Ötzi had with him, a fungi similar to chaga. It is a prominent component of Chinese, Russian and Scandinavian traditional medicine, and was used by Canada’s Indigenous people.
Noted Herbalist David Wolfe wrote “Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, brought chaga to the attention of the West in his book The Cancer Ward. He described a group of cancer patients in Siberia — political prisoners who were being irradiated with chemotherapy — who were hoping that something would come down the pipeline. And in the book, that thing was Chaga.” In 1955, the USSR Ministry of Health recognized the therapeutic interest of chaga and included it in the Soviet Pharmacopeia. Chaga has been used in China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and the Baltics for its effects on lipid metabolism and cardiac function, as well as for antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antitumor activities.
Chaga’s magical power is that it concentrates the nutritional compounds found in the host it clings to. Research identified over 200 active compounds in chaga. It is exceptionally rich in a wide variety of nutrients including B complex vitamins, potassium, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, copper, magnesium, fibre, sterols and a variety of amino acids. Foremost though are beta-glucans, polysaccharides, triterpenes, and polyphenols well as white compounds found in birch bark, Betulin (or betulinol) and betulinic acid. It is the unique combination of these nutrients working together that give Chaga its immense therapeutic prowess.
Chaga has been studied extensively and found to have numerous health benefits. The most common use for Chaga is for immune system support. The unique combination of polysaccharides and beta glucans together with its nutrient profile work together to target immune system health. Chaga works by regulating the production of cytokines: which are the immune system's chemical messengers that help cells communicate with one another. They play a vital role in stimulating white blood cells, which are the immune system's first line of defense against a range of illnesses. Chaga has been shown to have activity against several different types of viruses, including some viral types with long-term and even lethal effects.
Chaga is also the richest fungal source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are the classification of compounds that help prevent cell damage and mutation caused by free radicals or oxidants. When the body does not have sufficient antioxidants to prevent this damage, oxidative stress occurs. Oxidative stress can cause cancer and a host of other health problems and accelerates the aging process.
Physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin, and gray hair can all be attributed to oxidation. Exposure to sun, pollution, and other sources of damage create too many free radicals for the body to neutralize, which accelerates the aging process of the skin. Chaga has been shown effective in fighting oxidative stress.
Studies have found that compounds found in chaga and some other mushrooms, cause tumor cells to self-destruct. Unlike other treatments, however, chaga does not appear to harm healthy cells. Researchers are excited and are continuing to expand their research in this area.
Cholesterol & Blood Pressure
Antioxidant and fibre-rich foods, such as chaga have been shown to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called "bad" cholesterol and help normalize blood pressure. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are significant risk factors for heart disease, so Chaga mushrooms can be useful in the fight against cardiovascular disease.
Excessive Inflammation is now being linked to just about every health condition. Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response, and it isn’t always bad. When it’s under control, it’s the body’s natural defense against damaged cells, viruses, bacteria, etc. It aims to remove these harmful or foreign invaders and heal itself. Without inflammation, wounds would just fester and infections could be deadly. Once repaired, the inflammation ends. The problem arises when inflammation doesn’t stop.
Chronic inflammation keeps your body on high alert and damages tissue. What causes it? Poor diet, stress, minor food allergies, and a sedentary lifestyle are prime culprits. Chaga's role in regulating cytokine production may also help control inflammation. This points to a role for chaga in fighting autoimmune conditions and possibly some other diseases.
Lastly, Chaga has blood sugar lowering properties. An increased level of glucose in the blood following meals plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes (90% of diabetes are type 2). Chaga has been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme involved in carbohydrate digestion. Through inhibiting this enzyme, chaga acts as a hypoglycemic agent by reducing glucose absorption thereby reducing carbohydrate’s effects on blood glucose.
Traditionally chaga was used as a powder or tea. People would harvest chaga, dry it and then pulverize it into small pieces and powder. They would use the powder itself or brew chunks and powder as a tea. Today we have the ability to make more convenient and portable ways to use chaga. The easiest way to use it is to use USDA organic chaga organicap capsules. By using organicap capsules you are assured you are using the cleanest purest chaga available.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience.