Chaga Mushroom growing on a birch tree

What Is Chaga Mushroom?

Chaga Mushroom growing on a birch tree

 

Mushrooms don’t get the respect they deserve.

 

They’ve typically been seen as a garnish or minor ingredient mostly used to add flavour. In the early days of vegetarianism, before the availability of highly processed meatless burgers, Portobello mushrooms stood in for beef in hamburgers.

 

However, there’s a lot more to mushrooms than meets the eye.

 

True, they’re not loaded in nutrients like vitamins and minerals BUT they do have heaps of health-promoting phytonutrients and this is where the chaga mushroom comes in.

 

Chaga mushrooms, a new one for most, have been used for centuries in Siberia and other parts of Asia as part of folk medicine (1).

 

Gaining popularity in Western societies, chaga is still largely used and promoted by so-called ‘alternative’ health camps and in functional nutrition for its potential health benefits.

 

This post examines the evidence for chaga mushroom uses, benefits and whether or not there’s any safety concerns.

What is chaga mushroom?

Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is a type of fungus sometimessupport  referred to as “King of Medicinal Mushrooms”. It also goes by other names depending on the culture such as birch canker poly pore (images below explains why!), clinker polypore, cinder conk, black mass (like a tree trunk tumour), and the sterile conk trunk rot.

 

It’s a very slow growing mushroom that primarily grows on the bark of birch trees in cold climate such as Siberia, Northern Canada, Russia, Northern Europe, Korea and Alaska.

 

As it grows, it gets it’s nutrients from its host, the birch tree and because it’s slow-growing, it has lots of time to concentrate the phytonutrients into its flesh.

 

Chaga produces a woody looking growth similar to burnt wood that grows to about 25-38 cm in size (101-5 inches). Because it looks like burnt wood or charcoal, chaga is often referred to as “tinder mushroom” – who knew?!  But the outside is deceiving. The inner core is soft and rusty yellow/brown or orange coloured.

 

As mentioned above, its not loaded in vitamins and minerals per se and the exact nutritional content is difficult to find but it is loaded with phytonutrients such as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and carbohydrates that support normal immune function (2).

 

For centuries, chaga has been used as a traditional folk medicine to:

  • calm upset stomach
  • heal ulcers
  • support detoxification
  • regulate hunger
  • treat intestinal worms
  • promote clarity of thinking
  • increase energy
  • improve endurance
  • boost the immune system

Turns out, chaga may have other roles too.

Chaga mushroom benefits

I had heard of the medicinal properties of reishi, and maitake mushrooms but not chaga.

 

It was introduced to me by a naturopathic doctor. Nothing controversial there. Mushrooms have long been known to have various compounds with potent health properties such as beta-glucan (which positively modulates the immune system) and l-ergothioneine.

 

L-ergothioneine has been shown to be a potent modulator of biological processes and properties such as being a “cytoprotectant”; a.k.a. protects cells (3, 4, 5).  Turns out, l-ergothioneine may be in the same league as the superstar molecule glutathione (the master antioxidant and detoxifier). Impressive.

 

So I figured, why not look into it and see if there’s any support behind the claims. The health benefits of chaga are numerous, many of which can be attributed to its immune-boosting ingredients and antioxidants (6).

Nutrients

Yes, like other fungi, chaga mushrooms do contain traditional nutrients such as vitamins and minerals but in rather trace amounts with the exception of vitamin D. These unassuming shrooms contain:

  • B vitamins
  • Copper
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Selenium
  • Phytonutrients & sugars
    • Polysaccharides
    • Beta-D-glucan
    • Phytosterols
    • Betulin and betulinic acid (triterpenes)
    • Superoxide dismutase

A cocktail of health-promoting compounds to say the least.

Vitamin D2

Like all mushrooms, chaga produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. In fact, mushrooms are the only non-animal life form that can help humans get this essential nutrient, at least up to a point.

 

Mushrooms produce a form of vitamin D called D2 or ergocalciferol. This is VERY different from the vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) that humans produce in their skin when exposed to sunlight or that you can get from food such as fatty fish, or the vitamin D that’s added to milk or supplements.

 

This is an important distinction. In order to be used by your body, vitamin D2 MUST be converted to D3 first. Because of this, D2 isn’t as potent as D3 and it takes a lot more D2 to get the same benefits from a smaller amount of D3 (6, 7).

 

In short, vitamin D3 is superior to D2 so mushrooms and chaga aren’t reliable sources (8, 9, 10).

 

Chaga mushroom growing on the side of a birch tree - by Doug Cook RD

Supports your immune system

Lots of different nutrients positively support your immune function.

 

Nutrients and other compounds found in food support gene expression so that your white blood cells can produce naturally occurring anti-microbial peptides (proteins). Think of these as naturally occurring antibiotics, one such group of peptides is cathlecidins (11).

 

And wouldn’t you know, vitamin D3 (as a precursor to the hormone calcitriol) stimulates the production of cathlecidins which is why having a good vitamin D3 status is a great first defense against illness (12, 13, 14).

 

But it’s not just vitamin D3, other nutrients are key too such as vitamins A, C, and E (full spectrum), and zinc to name a few.

 

Turns out there are other nuanced compounds in foods that support immunity too and that’s where mushrooms and chaga come in. One way chaga mushrooms may help with immunity is by keeping inflammation in check (15, 16).

 

Chaga helps to reduce inflammation by promoting the production of beneficial cytokines; proteins that regulate both inflammation and immunity. By giving your white blood cells a little kick in the butt, chaga supports your white blood cells to do their due diligence of fighting infections (17, 18).

Reduces cancer risk

Chaga is a rich source of beta-glucans, a sub-group of polysaccharides, which are known for their ability to modulate the immune system. The polysaccharides help your body to identify cancer cells as “foreign” for the purposes of killing them (19).

 

This is a fancy way of saying that chaga can either up-regulate or down-regulate the immune function based on what the body needs. (20, 21, 22, 23).

 

One way precancerous and cancer cells are allowed to grow out of control is because they’ve hijacked a cell’s preprogrammed death cycle called apoptosis. All of your cells have a limited number of times that they can divide before being destined to die. This prevents uncontrolled growth. Chaga’s phytonuturients inhibit this by inducing apoptosis (24, 25).

 

At least in the lab, chaga has been shown to slow the growth of lung, breast and cervical cancer cells in petri dishes (cultures). The same study also found that chaga could slow tumour growth in mice which is promising as its an effect observed in a more complex organism (26).

Squashes inflammation

Chaga’s role in reducing inflammation is via its role in regulating cytokine (specialized proteins) production. Chaga has the strongest antioxidant activity when compared against three other common medicinal mushrooms that also fight oxidation (27).  By reducing oxidation, a general driver of inflammation, inflammation in turn is reduced.

 

By reducing an overactivated immune response, chaga mushroom can limit harmful inflammation (28). One way it does this is by decreasing the expression of NF-kB, a molecule that activates an inflammatory response (29).

 

Chaga extract has also been shown to reduce the inflammatory cytokine response in animal studies which decreases the pain response (30). As a tissue and organ specific treatment, chaga also reduces inflammation in colon cells, which shows promise in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis (31).

 

Chaga Inonotus obliquus ,medicinal mushroom. Hand drawn botanical vector illustrationAntioxidant

There are heaps of lab studies showing chaga’s ability to reduce oxidation of various cells and tissue samples. Like all foods with ‘antioxidant’ compounds such as the heavily promoted green tea, pomegranate juice, blueberries, goji berries and more, chaga has many similar compounds (phenolic, polyphenols, flavonoids etc).

 

In cell studies of human white blood cells, a chaga extract reduced hydrogen peroxide-induced DNA damage [32]. Similarly, in human nerve cell studies, a compound isolated from chaga protected the nerves from the oxidative stress that’s seen in Parkinson’s disease [33].

 

In animal studies, chaga extract can protect against the effects of chronic inflammation of the pancreas [34]. Studies have also shown that the phenolic compounds found in chaga mushrooms scavenge free radicals to protect cells from oxidation [35].

Lowers blood sugar

Many plants have compounds that improve insulin sensitivity and therefore help to lower both blood sugar and A1C.

 

A 2006 study found that chaga mushrooms could lower blood sugar in rats. The rodents were genetically modified to have diabetes and to be obese. After eating chaga mushrooms for 8 weeks, their blood sugar levels were lower (36).

 

Similar results have been found in other animal studies. Chaga extract improves insulin resistance (37, 38, 39).

 

Though no research has been done on humans yet, this suggests that chaga might contribute to an alternative treatment for diabetes in the future.

May improve cognitive function & memory loss

Chaga has been investigated for a role in preserving cognitive function and slowing memory loss (40).

 

In animal models, chaga mushroom extract helps with chemical-induced cognitive dysfunction [41]. It’s also been shown to lower brain oxidative stress in the same animals indicating improved/preserved cognitive function [42].

 

Chaga extract also restored the levels of acetylcholine during oxidative stress as efficiently as the reference treatment drug tacrine [43]. Why this is intriguing is because as one of dozens and dozens of neurotransmitters, acetylcholine promotes learning and and consolidate memory [44].

Chaga mushroom. A medicinal drink and chopped into pieces Chaga

Using chaga mushrooms

Chaga mushroom is available as a supplement and in herbal teas.

Chaga mushroom tea

The most popular way to consume chaga is by drinking chaga “tea”. Taking chaga with either warm or cold water is believed to release its medicinal properties.

You can buy chaga whole or buy it pre-cut in a bag like here* or here*. Making tea is pretty straight forward:

  1. Break the whole chaga into tiny chunks or use the pre-cut version
  2. Put about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the chunks into a large pot and fill with water
  3. Simmer for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how strong you like it
  4. Strain and sweeten with your favourite sweetener

You can save the chaga bits and freeze and reuse them. I typically get two pots of tea from one, 1/4 or 1/3 cup portion of chaga.

Powders

Chaga can be bought ground into a fine powder like this brand here*, here*, or here*. Powders are typically used by make a tea like you would using match green tea with a whisk. Alternatively you can add the powder to water, juice, smoothies etc

Chaga mushroom tinctures

Alternatively, you can use a tincture such as this one*. Tinctures do use alcohol to extract the compounds which just needs to be considered.

 

Most will simply take several drops to one dropper full (depending on the concentration) under their tongue. Or, they’ll add the tincture to water/tea/smoothies/juice etc.  Proponents will take up to three servings per day when they feel a cold coming on or to help support their body when fighting a cold.

 

Chaga mushroom tincture by Giddy YoYo

*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Safety

Chaga is not a substitute for other forms of medical care, so people who have conditions such as cancer, diabetes, or high blood pressure should continue with their usual treatment. For those with a chronic health condition, chaga can be incorporated as a supplement under the direction of a doctor.

 

As with other supplements and medications, chaga carries some risks. It can also trigger side effects and may interact dangerously with some medications. Because chaga lowers blood sugar, it can be dangerous for people taking insulin and other blood sugar-lowering medications.

 

Chaga is generally well-tolerated. However, no human studies have been conducted to determine how much is safe or how long it can be consumed safely. Chaga can interfere with blood thinners. If you’re taking such a medication or have a bleeding disorder or are preparing for surgery, consult with your doctor before taking chaga (45).

 

Given its in modulating the immune system, anyone with an autoimmune diseases should seek medical advice before taking chaga. There is no research on the safety of chaga for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Therefore, the safest option is to avoid use.

Bottom line

For centuries, people have used chaga mushrooms for medicinal purposes.

 

Packed with heaps of phytonutrients, chaga mushroom is available in tea or supplement form.

 

Its extract may support your health in many ways such as reducing your risk for cancer and improving immunity, reducing chronic inflammation, and blood sugar levels.

 

Despite all this, well-designed, controlled human studies are needed to confirm these benefits before making specific recommendations, as well as, to determine its safety, side effects and optimal dosage.

 

If you’re interested in trying chaga mushroom tea or supplement but have concerns about side effects or possible interactions with medications your taking, talk to your doctor first.

 

Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Comments 2

  1. Bev with Eli
    October 31, 2019

    Hey Doug how are you I am wondering what the benefits of chaga
    is for Parkinson’s disease

    1. Doug Cook
      October 31, 2019

      I’m not sure. Don’t think there’s any research done to draw any conclusions or even suspected role.

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