Mushrooms seem to be everywhere these days. You may have noticed that more and more foods, dietary supplements, drinks, and even skincare products now have varieties that were once considered exotic, like cordyceps, lion’s mane, and reishi. The chaga mushrooms benefits for health have been touted for centuries, and scientific methods can now confirm the varied positive impact this adaptogenic fungus can have on the body.
Among the most highly revered medicinal mushrooms is chaga (Inonotus obliquus (Fr.) Pilát), though as you’ll find out, it’s not an actual mushroom. It is held in high regard — much in the same way as reishi has been, for thousands of years — for very good reasons, which we will explore here.
What is Chaga?
Contrary to how it is often referred to, chaga is NOT a mushroom.
What we call chaga is the common name for a sterile conk or canker that forms after a hardwood tree (usually birch) has been infected by the parasitic fungus Inonotus obliquus (or I. obliquus).
As a parasite, I. obliquus has a one-sided relationship with its host tree. Its enzymes cause the simultaneous decay of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin (the three main biological constituents that make up the wood of trees) from the heartwood of the living host. The breakdown of the heartwood weakens the tree’s infrastructure, allowing for the first traces of what we call “chaga” to protrude from within the tree.
This dark conk consists primarily of wood lignans and mycelium (the fibres that can be thought of as the fungal root structure). Chaga can be considered a sclerotium: a compact mass of hardened fungal mycelium. However, as it is not pure mycelium, it is not a true sclerotium like what is produced by Poria (Wolfiporia extensa), Polyporus (Polyporus umbellatus) or the Tiger Milk mushroom (Lignosus rhinocerus). In fact, one paper estimated chaga to be only around 10% mycelium.1
Chaga grows very slowly on its host, and it can exceed 50 cm in diameter on old trees after many years.2
The decay of the heartwood can last for another 30 to 80 years, although chaga can be harvested after 3-5 years of growth. When the host tree or a part of it dies, the actual mushroom (fruiting body) of chaga can appear.
Geographically, I. obliquus grows on trunks of a variety of hardwood trees in cold habitats (45°N to 50°N) of North America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. While chaga grows most commonly on birch trees, other species of trees commonly infected include:2
Stages of Chaga Growth
Other Names for Chaga
At the first sight, chaga doesn’t look like much, certainly not deserving of the Japanese nickname, “diamond of the forest.” A more fitting nickname for chaga is “the clinker polypore,” as it resembles the lumpy ash formations, known as “clinker,” that are left over from burning coal.
The name chaga originates from the Russian name for the fungus, czaga. This, in turn, is derived from the word for the fungus in Komi-Permyak, the language spoken by the indigenous peoples in the Ural Mountains region. In Norwegian, chaga is called kreftjuke, which translates to “cancer polypore,” which may be a reference to either its alleged medicinal properties or its tumor-like appearance.
The species name obliquus comes from chaga’s oblique pores. The scientific name for this fungus has evolved over time. It was first identified in 1801 by Christiaan H. Persoon, who named it Boletus obliquus. Then Elias M. Fries renamed it Polyporus obliquus in 1830, followed by Lucien Quélet who called it Poria obliqua in 1888. In 1927, Hubert Bourdot and Amédée Galzin called the fungus Xanthochrous obliquus. The current name, Inonotus obliquus, was given by Czech botanist and mycologist Albert Pilát.3
A Brief History of Chaga
The first verifiable records of chaga are from 16th century Russia, though some believe that it may have been used in the 12th century when traditional healers successfully treated Tsar Vladimir Monomakh’s lip tumor with it.2
Historic Uses of Chaga
Chaga mushroom benefits have been touted by a variety of cultures. Outside of Russia, folk medicine practitioners in Poland, the Baltics, Finland, China, Korea, and Japan have used chaga extracts for a wide variety of ailments, a few of which include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Blood sugar issues
- Liver disease
- Stomach ailments
- Intestinal worms
- Skin conditions
- Breathing problems
- Blood purification
The Woodland Cree of Canada called the fungus Wesakechak omikih — i.e. Wesakechak’s scab. According to a Cree legend, Wesakechak is a mythological figure who “threw a scab, which he had mistaken for dried meat and tried to eat, against a birch tree. To this day, it remains on the tree to benefit mankind.”4 Outside of medical uses, the Cree used chaga in agriculture and animal breeding, as incense, and as tinder for starting fires.4
Chaga in Literature
Although chaga has been used in folk medicine for centuries in Europe and Asia, it was relatively unknown in the West until just a few decades ago, when Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about chaga mushroom benefits in a chapter of his 1968 novel, Le Pavillon des cancéreux (The Cancer Ward). The novel is a reflection (and documentation) of the use of chaga throughout history in Siberia.
The protagonist of the novel, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a political prisoner who learns that he has cancer. Upon his release, he is exiled and sent to a hospital where the primary treatment for his condition is high-dose radiation. Oleg tells other cancer sufferers in his ward about a practitioner in Russia who discovered that, curiously, none of the peasants in his district had cancer. These farmers were too poor to buy tea, and therefore drank infusions of chaga and inadvertently discovered its healing potential.
Interest in the therapeutic potential of chaga took off in the Soviet Union after World War II, resulting in the introduction of official standardized products in the 1950s. In 1955, the USSR Ministry of Health included it in the Soviet Pharmacopeia under the name “Befunginum.”3 Befungin is an alcohol extraction containing 50% chaga extract and has been used as preventive medicine for gastrointestinal ailments and to help alleviate the side effects of cancer treatments.5
Biochemistry of Chaga Mushroom
The chemical composition of chaga was first studied by German-born chemist and pharmacist Johann Georg Noel Dragendorff in 1864. Since then, scientific analyses have revealed a diverse array of over 200 different bioactive metabolites, including:
- Ergosterol and ergosterol peroxide
- Benzoic acid derivatives
- Polysaccharides, including beta-glucans
Of these, the polysaccharides are regarded as the most active compounds in chaga.
Chaga contains several types of triterpenes, and two of the most notable are betulinic acid and its precursor, betulin. Betulin and betulinic acid are found in the barks of the birch trees where chaga grows, and have demonstrated potent antioxidant, anti-ulcer, anti-gastritis, and immunomodulatory effects.
Like betulin and betulinic acid, inotodiol is a triterpenoid found only in chaga. Inotodiol has also shown immunomodulatory and antioxidant effects.6,7
Polysaccharides (Including Beta-Glucans)
Polysaccharides are large molecules made up of many simple sugars (monosaccharides). The most important polysaccharides found in chaga are the (1>3)(1>6)beta-D-glucans. Beta-glucans from functional mushrooms like chaga provide unique opportunities for the discovery and development of new therapeutic agents. In recent years, beta-glucans have received much attention due to their many health benefits, such as immunomodulatory, hepatoprotective, and antioxidative activities.8
Melanin is a skin pigment found in mammalian skin, hair, eyes, ears, and the nervous system. Melanin possesses a broad spectrum of activities, including protection against UV radiation and oxidants. In particular, fungal melanin has powerful antioxidant and genoprotective properties. Melanin in wood ear, a black-colored mushroom, protected 80% of mice from a lethal dose of radiation in one study.9 Chaga contains high levels of melanin, giving it powerful antioxidant properties.
The Top 9 Health Benefits of Chaga Mushroom
When studying the history and traditional uses of chaga, it seems as if the fungus was used for just about every type of ailment.
Can this so-called “king of mushrooms” live up to its name? Let’s find out!
1. Antioxidant Boost
Humans, like many other organisms, need oxygen to live. Without it, mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, would be unable to produce chemical energy (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) needed to fuel the biological processes in your body. The process by which ATP is produced is called oxidative phosphorylation.
While oxidative phosphorylation is an essential process, it also produces cell-damaging free radicals. Various factors like stress, diet and environmental exposure can result in a surplus of free radicals compared to the anti-oxidants that would combat them. This imbalance is referred to as “oxidative stress.”
Severe oxidative stress can lead to damage to components of the cell (including DNA), cell death (also known as apoptosis), and disruptions in cellular signaling. Oxidative stress is known to be involved in aging and in the development of many age-related ailments and conditions.
Chaga produces an impressive array of metabolites capable of acting as potent free radical scavengers. The metabolites in chaga can protect DNA from being damaged by oxidative stress. One study demonstrated that cells pretreated with chaga mushroom extracts before being treated with the free radical H2O2 showed 40% less DNA damage than those that weren’t pretreated.10
Chaga ORAC Value
Chaga is also considered to be very high on the ORAC scale, which is a measurement of antioxidant power and some websites have claimed Chaga is the highest of any food. However, ORAC values came under scrutiny in 2012, when the USDA removed their ORAC Food Database citing that the test did not directly correlate to health benefits (ie. higher is not necessarily better) and that the ORAC values were being misused by food and supplement ingredient suppliers to promote their products.
Another abbreviation you may have seen often while searching for antioxidants is SOD, which stands for superoxide dismutase. SODs are enzymes that form the first line of antioxidant defense against damage caused by free radicals. There is some concern that oral administration of SODs is not effective because they are degraded before they can get absorbed into the bloodstream. Still, there have been studies demonstrating the efficacy of oral SOD supplementation.11–13
Chaga is rich in trace minerals like zinc, copper, iron, and manganese, which can stimulate the production of SODs.
Chaga has been revered in folk medicine for centuries as a remedy for gastrointestinal disorders and digestive complaints.
While chaga can be used to help relieve or avoid minor gastrointestinal issues and regulate the gut microbiome, recent scientific studies support its ability to address even severe gastro-related illnesses and conditions.
Alcohol extracts of chaga showed effective antiulcer activity when given to rats at 200 mg/kg.34 In another study, mice with chemical-induced ulcerative colitis (intestinal inflammation) were fed alcohol chaga extracts at 50 and 100 mg/kg body weight. The results showed that by regulating the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chaga suppressed the chemical-induced “edema, mucosal damage, and the loss of crypts.”35
The antioxidant activity of polysaccharides in chaga was also found to improve chronic pancreatitis and regulate gut microbiota composition and diversity in mice.36,37
3. Inflammation Control
Inflammation is the immune system’s primary response to a variety of triggers, such as toxic agents and foreign pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It is also part of the body’s natural healing process — when your cells are damaged, your body releases inflammatory chemicals to help mitigate the injury and restore tissue homeostasis.
In short, controlled inflammation is your friend. But when inflammation is uncontrolled or persistent, it can do more harm than good.
Chronic inflammation is typically treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids, each of which can have side effects.
The antioxidants in chaga can help reduce inflammation without risky side effects. In an evaluation of its anti-inflammatory properties, a research team noted that chaga was either comparable or stronger than salicin, an anti-inflammatory agent found in willow bark.14 Chaga appears to modulate the release of certain cytokines involved in inflammation. It was also found to be a significant inhibitor of nitric oxide (NO), a key signaling molecule that is implicated in the development of chronic inflammation.14–16
You may have read or heard the term “adaptogen” or biological response modifiers (BRMs) in reference to certain herbs and functional mushrooms. As the name implies, BRMs are substances that can modulate the immune system’s response, by either stimulating it or suppressing it.
An adaptogen is a type of BRM that must meet three criteria:17
- It must be nonspecific (they can work all throughout the body) and must be able to assist the body in resisting a wide range of stressors
- It must be able to help maintain the body’s homeostasis
- It must not harm the normal functions of the body
Essentially, adaptogens help your body adapt to stress and restore balance. And with its rich polysaccharide content, chaga is considered a highly effective adaptogen.
Chaga as an Immune System Adaptogen
While the immune system is designed to protect the body against foreign invaders, it can also overreact to harmless substances like dust and pollen. Such a response can cause runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, itching, watery or itchy eyes, and more — all symptoms we recognize as allergies.
Allergies aren’t always harmless though. Some individuals may experience anaphylactic shock, a severe, and sometimes life-threatening allergic reaction.
As an adaptogen, chaga can help balance an overactive immune system. Initidiol, a triterpenoid unique to chaga, can act as a mast cell stabilizer and can improve allergy symptoms.18 Chaga can promote the secretion of certain cytokines to modulate allergy responses.19 One animal study also showed that chaga mushroom extracts prevented chemically-induced anaphylactic shock, demonstrating its potential as an anti-allergic functional food.20
Studies have shown that the active compounds in chaga may have selective activity against many types of malignant cells.21–33
5. Blood Sugar Regulation
Insulin is the hormone responsible for moving glucose in the bloodstream into your muscle and fat cells, where they are stored for energy production. When there is not enough insulin or when the body becomes insulin-resistant, hyperglycemia (i.e., high blood sugar) persists.
Over time, the buildup of glucose in the bloodstream can lead to serious metabolic disorders and damaged blood vessels, contributing to cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney damage, skin conditions, slow healing, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.38
Chaga and Blood Glucose Levels
Multiple animal studies show that chaga may be able to help regulate blood sugar levels.39–41 In one study, investigators found that hyperglycemic mice fed dry matter chaga extracts for 3 weeks had significant decreases in their blood glucose level as well as total cholesterol, triglyceride, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, “bad cholesterol”) levels. Most notably, the research team found that feeding chaga restored the damaged pancreatic tissue in the mice.41
A follow-up study confirmed the anti-hyperglycemic and cholesterol-regulating effects. Hyperglycemic mice treated with either 30 or 60 mg/kg body weight of chaga ethanol extract for 21 days had similar results as in the first study.42
In another animal study, polysaccharides extracted from chaga were given to rats with high glucose levels at doses of 10, 20, and 30 mg/kg for 6 weeks. At the end of the study, the rats’ blood glucose levels decreased and the damaged pancreatic beta-cells of the animals also showed some recovery after 6 weeks.39
A part of chaga’s antidiabetic effects may be attributed to the inhibition of alpha-glucosidase by its polysaccharides. Alpha-glucosidases are enzymes that break down starch. Inhibitors of these enzymes help slow down glucose absorption in the digestive organs.43 The polysaccharides in chaga were shown to have glycosidase inhibitory effects, demonstrating the potential for more research into its effects on blood glucose modulation.40
6. Muscle Fatigue
The polysaccharides in chaga mushroom continue to surprise scientists with their benefits. Chaga is an adaptogen: it has the capacity to bring balance to your entire body, including your energy levels and muscle endurance.
An animal study showed that chaga may help increase exercise endurance. Mice given chaga extracts were able to swim for a longer period of time than those not given any extracts. Scientists noted that the mice given chaga also had significantly more glycogen in their liver and muscles, the predominant storage form of glucose for energy production. Glycogen storage directly affects exercise endurance, and the results of this study suggest that chaga might slow down the utilization of glycogen.52
Chaga polysaccharides also greatly reduced blood lactate levels in the mice. Muscles produce high levels of lactate during high-intensity exercise, which contributes to fatigue. Therefore, removing lactate quickly is beneficial to prevent or delay fatigue.52
7. Viral and Bacterial Infections
Antimicrobials are agents that kill and/or inhibit the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. As a folk remedy, chaga extracts have been shown to exhibit potent antiviral activity. Scientists attribute this to the 15 to 20 years the parasitic fungus spends in the forest atmosphere, where it must develop a complex defense system against environmental stressors such as plant viruses and insect toxins.44
The antiviral activity is believed to be due to the diverse constituents found in chaga, like betulin, hispolon, hispidin, lupeol, and mycosterols.
Betulinic acid, which is unique to chaga, and chaga’s other bio-compounds are being investigated by the scientific community as potential agents to fight a variety of illness-inducing microbes. Currently, studies are investigating the impact that extracts from chaga can have on inhibiting the replication of influenza type A and B viruses; on suppressing hepatitis C virus activity on infected cells; on inhibiting the replication of the HIV-1 virus; and even on protecting cats from the cell damage caused by feline-specific viruses.44–49
The antimicrobial properties of chaga don’t stop there. Laboratory tests showed antibacterial and antifungal activities of ethanolic extracts of chaga prepared from chaga conks. Among the various bacteria tested, the species most sensitive to the antibacterial effects were Staphylococcus aureus, well known to be associated with common skin infections, and Bacillus cereus, which can cause gastrointestinal illnesses. Among fungi, Trichoderma viride was the most susceptible. Trichoderma species of fungi rarely affect humans but can cause potentially serious infections, including peritonitis.1
The I. obliquus extracts also exhibited activity against quorum sensing, the communication system used by microorganisms, such as harmful bacteria, to form biofilms that protect them from environmental attacks and from a host’s immune system.1 Given the increase in multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, nontoxic antimicrobials such as the bio-compounds found in chaga may play an important role in combating bacterial infections.
8. Skin Repair and Protection
Beta-glucans and betulinic acid in chaga may also help slow down signs of aging in your skin.
Chaga infusions have been used to address the effects of eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. After taking chaga for 2 or 3 months, a group of patients experienced complete remission of their psoriasis, and some even reported an improved state.53
Melanin also plays an important role in skin health. Melanin, like that found in chaga, is thought to protect human skin against DNA damage by absorbing UV radiation. One study found that melanin increased the sun protection factor (SPF) of gel sunscreens.54 Another found that melanin functions as a free radical scavenger, which can also help keep your skin looking younger for longer.
In South Korea, chaga sulphur soap is available with claims of anti-aging and moisturizing properties.4 A study conducted at The Korean Society of Mushroom Science also suggested that the fruiting bodies of I. obliquus has skin whitening properties.55
9. Brain Function Enhancement
Oxidative stress is a major contributor to aging and aging-related neurodegenerative conditions. Research has suggested that compounds with immunomodulatory effects, such as those found in chaga, may also enhance cognitive function.50
A team of researchers investigated if chaga had any protective effects in mice with chemically-induced cognitive dysfunction. They found that mice treated with chaga had significantly improved learning and memory compared to those that did not receive treatment.51
Chaga Safety, Dosage, and Potential Side Effects
Chaga mushroom supplements are generally well tolerated with few reported side effects. However, it is important to remember that the studies demonstrating chaga mushroom benefits were performed on cells or animals. There have been no human clinical studies to evaluate the safety of chaga. Therefore, you should consult a health practitioner prior to taking chaga if you have any medical conditions.
One safety concern stems from the fact that chaga is rich in oxalates. Some individuals may develop kidney stones from eating a diet high in oxalates,56 leading to the concern that long-term overconsumption of chaga may lead to kidney disease. In one published case, a 72-year-old Japanese woman with liver cancer consumed 4 to 5 teaspoons of chaga mushroom powder per day for 6 months (a dose far higher than any recommended by Real Mushrooms). She developed oxalate nephropathy and eventually irreversible renal failure.57 However, following the guidelines for dosage on Real Mushrooms’ chaga extract powder or chaga capsules will help to avoid this kind of over-consumption.
Individuals with bleeding disorders or those on anticoagulants (blood-thinning medications) should also exercise caution when considering chaga supplements. The polysaccharides and other anti-aggregant substances found in chaga are known to improve blood circulation. The blood-thinning properties could pose an issue when combined with anticoagulants.
Chaga can help regulate blood glucose levels, which makes it a potential antidiabetic therapeutic. However, this effect also means that people on anti-diabetic drugs should be careful when using chaga as it could cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
The appropriate dose of chaga depends on a variety of factors, including your health, age, the quality of the extract, etc. The dosage that works for one person may not work for you.
Potential Side Effects
There are no known side effects of chaga. Still, we highly recommend consulting a health practitioner before taking chaga mushroom supplements if you have any health concerns.
Not All Chaga Mushroom Supplements Are Created Equal
Chaga is a natural product, which means its properties will vary greatly depending on its growing conditions. As described in the “What is Chaga?” section, I. obliquus is restricted to very cold climates. In its natural environment, it is regularly exposed to freezing temperatures, various pathogenic microbes, and UV irradiation.45
Is Lab-Grown Chaga the Same as Wild Chaga?
The concern for overharvesting of chaga has led researchers to try growing I. obliquus in a laboratory. However, chaga grown in laboratories have so far been unsuccessful at achieving the diversity and levels of the bioactive compounds found in wild chaga. Without the birch tree involved in the growing process, betulin and other important compounds will not be present. One study noted that the immuno-stimulating effects of lab-grown chaga only reached about 50% of those of wild chaga.45
Another evaluation found that wild and cultivated chaga differ greatly in chemical composition. Wild chaga contained a great diversity of sterols, with 45.47% lanosterol 25.26% inotodiol and 10 other sterols comprising the remaining 30.17%. In comparison, the cultured chaga only contained 3 sterols, with ergosterol being the predominant sterol at 82.20%.61
It is clear that much of chaga’s therapeutic potential is a result of its years-long struggle for survival in harsh environments where it thrives. Research is ongoing to improve chaga cultivation techniques. Currently in Finland, birch trees are being inoculated with chaga in order to cultivate it directly on the host tree.
When choosing your chaga supplement, it’s important to know where the product is sourced. Because chaga grows so slowly, it can accumulate a high level of toxins from pollutants in the air. It is for this reason that Real Mushrooms only uses wild-harvested organic chaga from Siberia to ensure the highest purity extracts possible. Real Mushrooms Organic Siberian Chaga is extracted using hot water, which pulls out all of the water-soluble compounds like Beta-D-glucans.
How to Take Chaga Mushroom for Health Support
There are many ways to include chaga as a regular part of your diet. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to remember that the effects of adaptogens like chaga are cumulative. For the best experience, we recommend taking chaga consistently long-term to help your body resist stress and to support your immune system.
Chaga Powders & Capsules
If you’re always on the go, you probably don’t have time for elaborate recipes. We get it. That’s why Real Mushrooms has produced an Organic Siberian Chaga Extract in capsule format. Just 2 capsules a day provides 1000 mg of chaga sclerotia extract with over 8% of beta-D-glucans.
For coffee drinkers or for those who prefer a powder, our Organic Siberian Chaga Extract in powder format may be the perfect choice for you. To many, chaga tastes slightly bitter and earthy, making it a complementary flavor profile to your morning coffee or your evening hot chocolate.
Chaga has traditionally been consumed as tea in Finland, Russia, and other countries. Raw chaga chunks can be soaked in hot water, which acts as an extraction agent for all the nutrients from the chitinous interior of chaga.
The most accessible way to make chaga tea is by using a high-quality pure chaga extract like the Real Mushrooms Chaga Extract powder. The hot water extraction method used for our chaga products ensures a higher concentration of the beneficial bioactive compounds than the traditional method. It is also more economical — the amount of chaga powder needed to make the tea is much smaller than using actual chaga chunks.
Chaga tinctures are made by soaking chaga in alcohol — essentially, they are chaga-infused alcohol. Tinctures are a great way to make extracts at home but are not a replacement for a high quality extract powder. Tinctures are primarily alcohol while extract powders are pure mushroom.
The process of making chaga tinctures is long and takes equipment that may not be readily available. Also, as alcohol can enter the bloodstream very quickly, children and some adults may not tolerate it even at small doses.
We recommend that individuals taking medications seek the advice of a medical professional before consuming alcohol-based tinctures.
DIY Chaga Recipes
Feeling creative in the kitchen and looking for other ways to get your chaga mushroom benefits? Try some of the delicious recipes that customers and health practitioners have created using Real Mushrooms Organic Siberian Chaga Extract Powder or Capsules:
Here are the top 5 things to remember when purchasing chaga mushroom supplements:
- Look for certified organic sources because Chaga readily absorbs pollutants from its environment.
- Make sure to look for wild harvested chaga as lab grown chaga lacks many compounds found in the host tree and is not the same thing.
- Look for beta-glucan content on the label. Not all polysaccharides are beta-glucans!
- Make sure it is extracted to increase the bioavailability of active compounds.
- As with any supplement, check with a health practitioner before taking chaga extracts.
To begin experiencing the potent health benefits that chaga mushroom can bring to your life, try one of our organic chaga powders or organic chaga capsules and let us know if you find yourself falling in love with this special medicinal fungi like so many of our other customers!
*Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.
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