author: Dr. Kevin Curran

published: 7-25-2016

What are Chaga mushrooms?

Chaga mushrooms are a type of fungus that grows on hardwood trees in cold, northern forests. For reasons we’ll discuss below, this particular mushroom is densely packed with biologically active chemicals. Scientific reports (1) now demonstrate the capacity of Chaga mushrooms to boost our immune system cells, act as an antioxidant and possibly assist with certain cancers.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Chaga mushrooms as a health supplement. However, its health benefits are nothing new, indigenous Siberians have been using Chaga for thousands of years.

In this article, we summarize the history of Chaga usage and explore the biological basis for the health benefits of Chaga mushrooms.

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Chaga, or its scientific name: Inonotus obliquus, lives predominantly in the cold Taiga forests. You can find this lumpy, charcoal-colored mushroom growing along the northern latitudes of Russia, Scandinavia, Korea, Japan, U.S. and Canada.*

But don’t look on the ground for Chaga, because this mushroom grows along the sides of birch trees (see photo) and a few other deciduous hardwoods. When trees lose branches or suffer damage from storms, the Chaga mushroom will grow over the wound to serve as a protective scar. At this point, the dark hyphal mass of Chaga, known as a sclerotia, intertwines with the tree to form a unique fungal/tree interaction. The birch tree can continue living for many years while mounds of Chaga fungus adorn its trunk. This odd, mutualistic relationship allows Chaga collectors to harvest these mushrooms repeatedly from the same birch tree trunk. When Chaga is harvested, the mushroom has the appearance of a burly, flattened mound of charcoal.

Sidenote: A Hawaiian Chaga specialist has shown me photos of Chaga growing on an Australian Casuarina tree in Hawaii. So, this fungus seems to have a flexible latitudinal range.

chaga mushroom

photo by: Tomas Čekanavičius

Chaga mushroom growing on a birch tree in Lithuania.

Cultural history of the Chaga

Russians and Scandinavians have known about Chaga’s health benefits for quite a long time. In fact, the word ‘Chaga‘ is derived from ‘чага‘, which is the old Russian word for mushroom. This hard to pronounce Russian word, ‘чага‘ stems from Komi-Permyak, which is the language of the indigenous people living near the Ural Mountains. These Native Russians, as well as the Siberian Khanty people (see photo) were supposedly the first people to enjoy the health benefits of the Chaga mushroom.

benefits of chaga

Khanty people along the Ob river. This indigenous group from Siberia used Chaga mushrooms in the 16th century.

Later on, in the 12th century, Tsar Valdimir Monomakh, also known as the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus, was widely known as a Chaga enthusiast. Apparently, this ancient Russian leader used these mushrooms to cure his lip cancer (2).

During the 16-17th century, the healing powers of Chaga became more formally recognized in medicinal texts. The mushroom appears multiple times in the traditional folk medicine books of Russia and northern Europe. These ancient texts describe the use of Chaga to treat cancer, gastritis, ulcers, and tuberculosis (Kim, 2007, Saar, 1991)

More recently, in the 1950s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famed Russian author and Nobel laureate, became fascinated with Chaga benefits while performing research for one of his books. His novel, Cancer Ward, references the healing properties of Chaga mushrooms.

He could not imagine any greater joy than to go away into the woods for months on end, to break off this chaga, crumble it, boil it up on a campfire, drink it and get well like an animal.

~Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)

what is chaga good for

Tsar Vladimir Monomakh rests after boar hunting in a northern birch forest.

Well, Chaga is no longer a folk medicine known only to the Russians. Since Alexander Solzhenitsyn published Cancer Ward, more than 1,600 scientific research papers have investigated the health benefits associated with Chaga (2).

What began as a biological oddity in the northern forests has now become a widely respected super-food for health conscious folks all across the globe.

At this point in the article, you might be wondering about the flavor of Chaga.

Well, fortunately, Chaga tastes much better than it looks. When broken up and mixed in a tea, the mushroom has a pleasant, earthy taste with hints of vanilla.

Most people enjoy the Chaga flavor – but if its too earthy for you, add some honey.

In the next section I’ll walk you through the biological basis for the benefits of Chaga mushrooms.



The biology behind the health benefits of Chaga mushrooms

I often get asked the following question:

Why would a chemical produced in a mushroom have a beneficial effect on the human body?

This is a valid question.

 

In theory, a mushroom should only invest energy into building internal machinery (chemicals) that will enhance its own chance of survival.

Mushrooms don’t care about human health and survival. Mushrooms care about mushroom survival. So…why would mushrooms build chemicals that help humans?

Well, the thing is, humans actually have a lot in common with mushrooms. There’s quite a bit of overlap in their struggle for survival and our struggle for survival.

For example, both mushrooms and mammals need to constantly defend themselves against bacteria infections. One way a mushroom will defend against bacteria is by producing chemicals that kill bacteria.

Then, when we eat that mushroom, their bacteria-killing chemicals move into our body.

This helps us out.

The chemical – that was produced by a mushroom – is now fending off bacterial infections in our human body.

This is the exact reason why humans take penicillin when we get sick.

Penicillin is a chemical that is naturally produced in a mushroom called Penicillium chrysogenum. This mushroom produces penicillin to defend itself against bacteria. When we eat this chemical, it does the same job in our body.

Since its popularization in the 1940s, penicillin has helped save an estimated 200 million human lives from bacteria infection.

In summary…

Yes, humans can enhance their health by eating mushrooms.

Okay, now let’s think specifically about Chaga mushrooms…

Chaga do not have an easy life. Their struggle for survival is especially intense.

They grow in extremely cold forests where they’re exposed to freezing temperatures, snow and ice. Their summers are very hot, which means they experience lots of UV radiation. Most importantly, they are constantly in competition with lots of tiny and dangerous creatures (bacteria, worms, fungus, ext.)

To defend against all of these environmental threats, the Chaga mushroom packs itself full with biologically active chemicals. These chemicals allow the Chaga to compete with other microbial creatures and survive harsh winters.

Here are a few of the chemicals produced by Chaga that are also biologically active in humans.

  • Melanin
  • Antioxidant enzymes
  • Triterpenoids
  • Ergosterols
  • Sesquiterpenes
  • Betulinic acid
  • Polysaccharides
  • Phytosterols
benefits of chaga extract

Chunks of Chaga mushroom ready for tea preparation

Multiple laboratory and animal studies have demonstrated the ability of these biologically active Chaga chemicals to exert a beneficial effect on mammalian physiology (1).

Published reports document the ability of Chaga mushrooms to:

  • kill cancer cells (Glamočlija, 2015; Ning, 2014; Lee 2009; Kang, 2015)
  • reduce damaging inflammation (Mishra, 2012)
  • boost the immune system (Ko, 2011; Park, 2005
  • relieve pain (Park, 2005)
  • increase stamina/reduce fatigue (Yue, 2015)
  • act as an antioxidant (Najafzadeh, 2007; Giridharan 2011)

It should be noted that none of the reports above were performed on human patients. These in vitro and animal studies are intriguing, however, clinical studies are needed to confirm their findings.

Below, we will explore a few of the chaga health benefits that have been explored by scientists.

Chaga benefits the human immune system

Both laboratory and animal model experiments demonstrate that Chaga mushrooms can activate the human immune system (1).

In 2011, a group of Korean scientists published a report documenting the changes in activity of human immune cells after exposure to Chaga extract (Ko, 2011). Specifically, they saw significant changes in Th1 and Th2 cytokine secretion levels from immune cells in the spleen of a mouse. Cytokines are the chemical messengers of our immune system. This shift in cytokines then altered the production of antigen-specific antibody producing cells. The production of antibodies is a key component to a fully functional immune system.

A 2015 paper further reveals the ability of Chaga mushrooms to defend against infectious bacteria (Glamočlijaa, 2015). In order for bacteria to grow and become toxic inside a human body, the bacteria need to effectively communicate with each other. This bacteria to bacteria communication is called quorum sensing (Zhang, 2004). Chemicals in Chaga mushrooms can disrupt this communication. This disruption is called anti-quorum sensing. These scientists found that Chaga extracts showed definite anti-quorum sensing activity against a common and dangerous bacteria named Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The data suggest that by disrupting bacteria’s ability to communicate with each other, Chaga mushrooms can help us defend against bacterial infection.

Chaga tea benefits: antioxidants protect against oxidative damage.

First some back background on oxidative damage.

Free radicals can cause oxidative damage. A free radical is any molecule that has an unpaired electron in its outer shell. These free radicals bounce around the cells in our body and can cause damage to other molecules, such as our DNA (Hekimi, 2011). 

The free radical theory of aging claims that humans become old because their cells accumulate free radical damage over time (Fontana, 2010).

An antioxidant is a chemical that can reduce or prevent oxidative damage.

Multiple reports demonstrate that treatment with Chaga mushrooms delivers antioxidant activity (Park, 2004; Najafzadeh, 2007). One interesting report describes how an alcohol extract of Chaga significantly reduced oxidative damage within the lymphocytes of human patients suffering from Irritable Bowell Disease (IBD). IBD is partially caused by oxidative stress from free radicals. In theory, if one were to increase antioxidant levels in their body, this would reduce the detrimental effects of IBD. These scientists isolated lymphocte cells from IBD patients and treat the cells with Chaga mushroom extract. They found that Chaga mushrooms increased protection against the oxidative damage to the DNA of these lymphocytes (Najafzadeh, 2007). This paper strongly suggests that chemicals in Chaga have potent antioxidant capabilities.

Factors to consider when using Chaga mushrooms

What is the best way to ingest Chaga?

Making your own Chaga mushroom tea is certainly the most fun and, when done correctly, its the most effective method. However, be warned, it takes a good amount of effort to do this right. If you’re not feeling adventurous, you can find some quality Chaga tea packets and Chaga tinctures online. I detail my recommendations for prepared tea packets and tinctures at the end of this article.

If you do decide to make your own Chaga tea, then keep reading. I’ll share with you my thoughts on how to best perform this task.

First of all, you need to order some raw chunks of Chaga. I encourage you to find a supplier that harvests their Chaga chunks in a sustainable way. Its worth spending some time reading about a company’s harvesting techniques to make sure your supplier isn’t out damaging fragile forests.

I buy my Chaga from a company called Zen Mushrooms. These folks source their Chaga from sustainable harvesters in Maine and northeast Canada. My photo on the right was taken with Chaga I received from them.

chaga tea benefits

Preparing your own Chaga tea

We recommend a water-based extraction. Water-based extraction is a fancy way to say ‘make tea’. Most of the beneficial chemicals in Chaga will be released into this tea – but not all of them. To release all of the beneficial compounds, you will need to perform an alcohol extraction after making tea.

Here is a summary of how to make Chaga mushroom tea:

When you order raw chaga, it will arrive as chunks of thick mushroom mycelium.

  • Break up your Chaga chunks into smaller pieces with a screwdriver and small hammer. Some people grind this material up further with a coffee grinder.
  • Combine the Chaga with water. As far as volume is concerned, Allen Muskat suggests a reasonable water volume is about 1-2 times the amount you would use when making coffee. So, aim for about a 1/2 cup of Chaga for 2 quarts of water.
  • Place the tea into a large pot or crock-pot and heat it up. You don’t want to bring the water to a boil. Water temperatures over 180°F can destroy some of the beneficial Chaga chemicals. The crock-pot is nice because it tells you the water temperature as it is heating up. Aim for 150°F. 150°F will extract the good stuff without breaking down their chemical structures.
  • Allow the Chaga tea to simmer for 8 hours. This long simmer helps break down the tough matrix of chitin and polysaccharide molecules found in mushrooms. Once these tough molecules are broken down, they further release the biologically active chemicals locked within their matrix.
  • Filter out the residual Chaga material after your simmer is finished.
  • Store the tea and drink at your leisure.
chaga tea

I measure out a 1/2 cup of Chaga chunks then combine with water in a bowl with quart measuring units.

Preparing your own Chaga tincture

If you want to be thorough, you can follow up this tea preparation with an alcohol based extraction. An alcohol based extraction is referred to as a ‘tincture’.

Some chemicals will not be released from the Chaga into the water-based Chaga tea. However, these chemicals will be released into an alcohol extraction. The reason for this has to with differences in chemical polarity. Without getting any deeper into extraction chemistry, suffice to say that an alcohol tincture will capture many of the biologically active chemicals that were not released into the tea. Here’s how I perform my alcohol-based Chaga extract.

  • Collect the residual Chaga material from the emptied tea pot and move this into a glass jar. I use mason jars because of their tight fitting lids.
  • Top off the jar with alcohol. You can use vodka or gin (40% alcohol). Sidenote: extraction of certain compounds require 100% alcohol for this step.
  • Seal up this jar and allow this material to soak for a long time, up to 6 months. Keep the jars out of the sunlight. Sunlight can break down certain chemicals.
  • Filter out the Chaga material. This alcohol tincture should remain potent for 1-2 years.
chaga mushroom tea

I use Russian vodka and mason jars for my alcohol-based Chaga extractions.

Chaga dosage

Chaga is a nutraceutical food, so there isn’t a strict dosage. However that said, many sources recommend 1 gram/day to serve as a general ‘health maintenance’ dosage. For reference, 1 gram of Chaga is about 1 teaspoon. If you are actively fighting an infection, try 1-2 grams/day for the duration of your infection.

Important disclaimer: When discussing dosage, it should be noted that no clinical trials have been performed to assess the safety of Chaga. As my disclaimer says at the bottom of the page, this website only serves as a general reference. The FDA has not reviewed the health claims associated with Chaga mushrooms.

That said, as far as I know, there is only 1 case of a health problem related to using Chaga mushrooms. A 72 year-old Japanese woman ingested 4-5 grams of Chaga powder every day for 6 months. This high dosage sustained for a long period of time eventually gave her liver cancer (Kikuchi, 2014).

Chaga side effects: herb-drug interactions

If you use blood thinning medications, such as warfarin, take caution when using Chaga. One report shows that Chaga can inhibit platelet formation (Hyun, 2006). This effect could have a compounding effect if chaga is combined with blood thinning drugs.

If you use diabetes medication, take caution when using Chaga. An in vitro report suggests Chaga may lower blood sugar levels (Ying, 2014). This could have a compounding effect if combined with diabetes medication.

Chaga bio-availability

There is some debate on the bio-availability of Chaga nutrients in the human body. In summary, many of the biologically active chemicals in Chaga require a thorough extraction process to release these chemicals. The water/alcohol extraction method I describe above should do a very good job of releasing chemicals. For a more thorough extraction process, you can add heat to the alcohol step.

Once extracted, you may also be concerned that your body isn’t absorbing the full suite of Chaga chemicals. In this case, try adding some black pepper to your Chaga tea. Pepper helps stimulate the absorption of many compounds into the human body.

Here’s the Chaga I use for my tea.

Our favorite Chaga supplements. . .

Chaga extract tincture from Host Defense

Many people prefer to take their Chaga in a liquid, tincture form. This 2 ounce bottle contains about 60 servings. You can add a few drops to a smoothie or into your morning coffee.

As mentioned above, alcohol is an excellent solvent for extracting bio-active compounds from the Chaga. The alcohol concentration of this tincture is about 35%. The amount of alcohol that goes into your body from a few drops of this tincture won’t be noticeable, however if you’re a recovering alcoholic then perhaps even a few drops could be problematic. In that case, stick to the tea.

Host Defense has an excellent reputation within the mushroom community. This company was founded by Paul Staments and his wife, C. Dusty Yao. Paul Staments is a well-known expert in mushroom taxonomy and cultivation. When I was in college, I was a huge fan of Paul’s books on the cultivation of medicinal mushrooms.

The Host Defense company is situated in the temperate rain-forest region of Olympia, Washington – this is an ideal environment for mushroom growth. The company is a certified organic food producer and processor. Each batch of Chaga is checked for purity.

Chaga Tea by Four Sigma

Brewing your own tea from raw chunks of Chaga is time consuming. It also takes some practice to do correctly. If you simply want to drink Chaga tea and you don’t want to negotiate a 4-8 hour simmer on your stove-top, then order Chaga tea packets.

Four Sigma Chaga tea is a high quality option. Each tea packet contains 1.5 grams of wild-crafted Siberian Chaga extract. This company is very thorough in their extraction process. They extract in both hot water and alcohol and standardize the final extraction to contain 30% polysaccharide and 2% triterpene content. This results in good bio-availability in the final spray-dried extract powder.

The Four Sigma company was founded in 2012 in Scandinavia by a collection of Nordic mushroom fanatics. The company has expanded quickly and is now located in 25 countries with their business headquarters in the U.S.

Their Chaga tea was first brought to my attention by a Tim Ferris podcast. In general, Tim is an intelligent and methodical guy. He mentioned this was his preference for Chaga – so I ordered some and I’m now a big fan.

Shroom Tech Immune Support capsules from Onnit

Chaga mushrooms are one of the mushrooms included in Shroom Tech capsules. These capsules are made by a company called Onnit, and they have quickly become a personal favorite of the EthnoHerbalist.

Shroom Tech contains a blend of medicinal mushrooms, including potent extract from reishi, maitake, cordyceps and chaga mushrooms. Part of the immune system effect of these mushrooms relates to the beta glucan content. Beta glucans are the biologically active polysaccharides that form the walls around individual cells in fungus species. Reports demonstrate that beta-glucans increase host immune defense by ramping up our innate immune system (macrophage activity, complement system and natural killer cell function). To round out the immune strengthening profile, these capsules also contain turmeric, astralagus, lemon peel, oregano leaf and ginger.

Onnit is a relatively new fitness and supplement company that has earned a lot of love and respect in the past 5 years. They’re based in Austin, Texas and have focused their company around the cause of optimizing human performance. Interestingly, Joe Rogan – of the Joe Rogan podcast – is a partner in this company. So, if you ever listen to Joe, then you’ve probably heard him talk about Onnit.

Thanks for stopping by and reading this article…

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Finding some shade in the Sonoran desert with my dog, Glacier.

References

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  2. http://www.foursigmatic.com/chaga-an-arctic-treasure
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  6. Hekimi, Siegfried, Jérôme Lapointe, and Yang Wen. “Taking a “good” look at free radicals in the aging process.” Trends in cell biology 21.10 (2011): 569-576.
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  8. Kang JH, Jang JE, Mishra SK, et al. Ergosterol peroxide from Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) exhibits anti-cancer activity by down-regulation of the beta-catenin pathway in colorectal cancer. J Ethnopharmacol. Sep 15 2015;173:303-312.
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  14. Najafzadeh M, Reynolds PD, Baumgartner A, Jerwood D, Anderson D. Chaga mushroom extract inhibits oxidative DNA damage in lymphocytes of patients with inflammatory bowel disease.Biofactors. 2007;31(3-4):191-200.
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  16. Park YM, Won JH, Kim YH, et al. In vivo and in vitro anti-inflammatory and anti-nociceptive effects of the methanol extract of Chaga tea benefits Inonotus obliquus. J Ethnopharmacol. Oct 3 2005;101(1-3):120-128.
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