Chaga stands upon the pantheon of medicinal mushrooms alongside turkey tail, lion’s mane, reishi, and other greats. As a fungus that delivers enhanced benefits over its basic nutritional value, chaga meets the definition of a functional food. As well as providing an array of nutrients, chaga offers a cocktail of important molecules that surpass merely feeding the body and helps heal, fortify and protect the nervous system.
Technically chaga doesn’t qualify as a “mushroom.” Rather, it emerges from the side of hardwood trees as a dense black mass known as a sclerotium. This woody clump looks mediocre at first. But crack it open, and you’ll reveal a striking bronze interior — one of the key identifying factors when hunting chaga.
Despite its popularity and the high demand for this fungal species (Latin name Inonotus obliquus), it grows extremely slowly — it takes around 10 years for each sclerotium to reach a size of 10cm in diameter. This mass of mycelium might not seem like much to the untrained eye, but traditional cultures have valued chaga as a potent medicine for thousands of years, and many people in the modern era still foray through the forests in search of this black gold.
Chaga in Traditional Medicine Systems
Hippocrates penned one of the oldest accounts of the medicinal use of chaga in the Hippocratic Corpus — a collection of 60 Ancient Greek medical works. The physician detailed how he used infusions of the fungus to wash wounds.
Chaga also has a rich history in Eastern Europe. Historical reports state that Vladimir Monomakh, the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus, treated his lip cancer with chaga. The indigenous Khanty people of western Siberia also recognised the therapeutic value of the mushroom. They administered chaga in several ways, including inhalation, infusion, and as a soap to treat skin issues. Overall, the traditional systems used chaga for the following purposes:
- As an antiseptic
- To treat digestive disorders such as ulcers
- To prevent illnesses of the heart and liver
- To expel parasites
A Functional Food
Before we get into the healing potential of the fungus, let’s take a look at its impressive nutritional profile. When you drink chaga tea, you’ll receive:
- B vitamins: These nutrients help to maintain health and wellbeing by supporting energy levels, assisting hormone production, and promoting healthy brain function.
- Vitamin D: Chaga contains a form of the nutrient known as vitamin D2 which helps to raise vitamin D levels in the blood. This vital nutrient plays an important role in immune function.
- Potassium: This electrolyte plays a key role in fluid balance and nerve signalling.
- Zinc: This important mineral assists immune function, metabolism, and wound healing.
- Selenium: Supports many bodily processes, boosts cognition, and aids fertility.
Chaga Extracts Medicinal Molecules from Host Trees
Chaga’s parasitic nature means it mines nutrients and other important constituents from its host tree. The fungus contains a plethora of interesting molecules, but the triterpenes found in chaga have really come to the fore.
Triterpenes are deemed as one of the most interesting classes of natural products because of their diverse pharmacological effects. Both plants and fungi synthesise these molecules to defend themselves against pests and pathogens. These chemicals are thought to have arisen from an “evolutionary arms race” as the organisms that produced them had to continually fight off diseases that developed resistance to their chemical defenses.
Chaga produces triterpenes that aren’t found elsewhere in nature. But one of the most impressive molecules in the mushroom – betulinic acid – occurs in abundance throughout the plant kingdom. Chaga grows primarily on birch trees, and birch bark is a superb source of betulinic acid. Several cultures recognised the beneficial chemical composition of this natural material. Native Americans, for example, used birch bark in teas to treat stomach problems such as diarrhoea and dysentery.
Betulinic acid has displayed several key properties that make it a promising future therapeutic, such as:
- Anti-HIV activity
- Antibacterial activity
- Antimalarial activity
- Inhibits candida
- Pain-killing effects
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- Anti-cancer activity
Early research has also explored the relationship between betulinic acid and the endocannabinoid system – the universal regulator that keeps almost every other system in the body in check. Cannabis achieves many of its medicinal qualities by interfacing with this system. Through its betulinic acid content, chaga can also activate the receptors of this network. Although not yet confirmed, this mechanism likely underpins many of the benefits of this ancient fungus.
Chaga’s Therapeutic Potential
But we shouldn’t attribute chaga’s effects to a single molecule. The fungus contains many bioactive compounds that likely work in symphony to produce its overarching effects. Chaga extracts contain an array of potentially synergistic molecules that underpin the unique effects of the mushroom. So far, research has uncovered the following properties:
- Lowers blood sugar: Animal studies have shown chaga supplements to reduce blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance, suggesting the mushroom could help to manage diabetes.
- May prevent and fight cancer: It turns out the Grand Princes’ lip tumour anecdote might actually be grounded in fact. Chaga extracts have demonstrated anticancer action in test tube studies against various forms of the disease, including lung, breast, prostate, and liver. Chaga extracts also managed to reduce the size of tumours in mice by up to 60%.
- Boosts immunity: Chaga might help to keep your immune system in check. Extracts show very potent immune-modulating properties that may help to offset some of the damaging effects of chemotherapy. Animal studies also point to chaga’s ability to promote white blood cell production, enhance innate immunity, and offer resistance against parasites.
How to use chaga
There are several ways to use this fascinating fungus. Many people choose to break it into chunks and decoct it into a strong tea, whereas others prefer the ease of dropping tincture into drinks or directly under the tongue.
But before you use chaga, you need to make sure it’s the right decision for you. While generally considered safe, no studies have confirmed ideal dosing for humans, nor the safety of the mushroom in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
Finally, chaga may also interact with different types of medications, including blood thinners and insulin. In this case, double-check with your medical professional before you choose to experience the benefits of chaga.
Luke Sumpter is a professional health writer that specializes in cannabis, medicinal mushrooms, and human physiology. After becoming fascinated by herbal medicine, he dedicated his Bachelor of Science dissertation to the emergence of the endocannabinoid system in musculoskeletal conditions. You can connect with him@Luke_A_Sumpter.