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 mushroom benefits for health have been touted for centuries, and scientific methods can now confirm the varied positive impacts this adaptogenic fungus can have on the body.
Among the most highly revered medicinal mushrooms is chaga (Inonotus obliquus (Fr.) Pilát), and we will explore all the reasons why in this article.
Although people will generally refer to it as “chaga mushroom,” chaga is NOT actually 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 fungal mycelium (the fungal root structure).
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. Many of these can support human health, including:
Of these, the polysaccharides are the most active compounds in chaga.
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 (2).
Melanin is a skin pigment in mammalian skin, hair, eyes, ears, and the nervous system. It possesses a broad spectrum of activities, including protection against UV radiation and oxidants.
In particular, fungal melanin has powerful antioxidant and DNA-protective properties studied in vitro and in vivo animal studies. Melanin in wood ear, a black-colored mushroom, protected 80% of mice from a lethal dose of radiation in one study (3). Chaga contains high levels of melanin, giving it potential for the impacts of radiation-induced damages in these demographics.
Chaga contains several types of triterpenes, the most important being inotodiol, a triterpenoid found only in chaga. Inotodiol has also shown immunomodulatory and antioxidant effects (5,6).
Chaga and its unique triterpenes like inotodiol have anti-viral properties shown in animal and cell studies (48,49).
Two other notable triterpenes—betulinic acid and its precursor, betulin—are found in birch bark, which is where chaga gets these compounds. Betulin and betulinic acid have demonstrated antioxidant, anti-ulcer, anti-gastritis, and immunomodulatory effects.
Betulinic acid may help decrease atypical cell growth and is theorized to work by supporting the mitochondria (the parts in each of our cells that help with energy production)(46).
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!
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. A process called oxidative phosphorylation produces ATP.
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 inappropriate apoptosis), and disruptions in cellular signaling. Oxidative stress can lead to premature aging and 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 mushroom benefits DNA health by protecting it from oxidative stress damage. One study demonstrated that human blood 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 (7).
Chaga is very high on the ORAC scale, which is a measurement of antioxidant power. In fact, some websites claim that 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 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 (8-10).
Chaga is a source of trace minerals like zinc, copper, iron, and manganese, which can stimulate the production of SODs.
Chaga has been revered in folk medicine for centuries to encourage gastrointestinal health and digestive comfort. Modern research confirms that chaga mushroom benefits include gastroprotective properties. It demonstrated the capacity to help regulate the gut microbiota in certain studies.
Alcohol extracts of chaga helped protect the integrity of the stomach wall when given to rats at 200 mg/kg (11). In another study, mice were fed alcohol chaga extracts at 50 and 100 mg/kg body weight. The results showed that by regulating the release of cytokines, chaga supported the health of the colonic mucosa” (12).
The antioxidant activity of polysaccharides in chaga supported pancreatic health and regulated gut microbiota composition and diversity in mice studies (13,14).
Chaga supplementation in patients with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) showed decreased damage to human lymphocytes (47).
Inflammation is the immune system’s primary response to a variety of triggers, such as toxic agents and foreign invaders. It is also part of the body’s natural healing process. Your body releases inflammatory chemicals to help mitigate cell damage and to restore tissue homeostasis.
In short, healthy inflammation response is your friend. Interrupted or prolonged inflammation cascades can create body damage and disease.
The antioxidant range in the chaga mushroom benefits the body by supporting a healthy inflammation response. Chaga appears to modulate the release of certain cytokines involved in inflammation (15). It also appears to be an inhibitor of nitric oxide (NO) and COX-2 in rats, which may explain its ability to alleviate temporary discomfort (15,16).
You may have read or heard the term “adaptogen” or biological response modifier (BRM) 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 turning it up or down.
An adaptogen is a type of BRM that must meet three criteria (17):
Essentially, adaptogens help your body adapt to stress and restore balance. Chaga is considered a highly popular adaptogen.
While the immune system is designed to protect the body against foreign invaders, it can create discharge symptoms. Such a response can affect the eyes, sinuses, and lungs, usually showing up as mucus, pain, or inflammation.
Allergies aren’t always harmless though. Some individuals may experience anaphylactic shock, a severe, and sometimes a life-threatening allergic reaction.
As an adaptogen, chaga mushroom benefits overactive immune systems in certain demographics by helping to balance it. Inotodiol, a triterpenoid unique to chaga mentioned above, acts as a mast cell stabilizer and can support eye and nasal comfort in mouse models (18). Chaga can promote the secretion of certain cytokines to modulate immune responses in mice (19). A new animal study also showed that chaga mushroom extracts prevented chemically-induced immune system overreactions, demonstrating its potential as a useful functional food (20).
Studies have shown that the active compounds in chaga may have selective activity against many types of malignant cells, specifically in relation to inhibition of p38 kinase and ERK1/2 pathways (21-22,62).
Insulin is the hormone responsible for moving glucose in the bloodstream into your muscle and fat cells to be stored for energy production.
Healthy blood sugar levels are linked to heart, blood vessel, nerve, kidney, skin, and brain health (23).
Multiple animal studies suggest that chaga may be able to support balanced blood sugar levels (24-26). In one study, investigators found that mice fed dry matter chaga extract for 3 weeks were better able to maintain healthy blood glucose levels as well as total cholesterol, triglyceride, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, “bad cholesterol”) levels.
Triglyceride and cholesterol imbalances are almost always tied to metabolic health in relation to insulin sensitivity and glucose management. Most notably, the research team found that feeding chaga supported healthy pancreatic tissue in the mice (the pancreas is the organ that secretes insulin) (26).
A follow-up study confirmed these effects on blood sugar and cholesterol. 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 (27).
In another animal study, rats were administered either polysaccharides extracted from chaga (at doses of 10, 20, and 30 mg/kg) or saline (which acted as a placebo) for 6 weeks. At the end of the study, the rats given chaga were better able to maintain blood glucose levels within healthy limits than the rats given saline, and their pancreatic beta-cells were also healthier (24).
The chaga mushroom benefits for balancing blood sugar may be attributed to the inhibition of an enzyme (alpha-glucosidase) that breaks down starch by its polysaccharides. Blocking this enzyme helps slow down glucose absorption in the digestive organs (28).
Research performed in vitro showed the polysaccharides in chaga inhibit this enzyme, demonstrating chaga warrants more research into its effects on blood glucose modulation (25). More clinical data from human studies is needed to advance our understanding of chaga’s relationship with blood sugar.
The polysaccharides in chaga mushroom continue to surprise scientists with their benefits. Chaga is an adaptogen: it has the capacity to support allostasis in the entire body, potentially including your energy levels and muscle endurance, as shown in animal studies.
An animal study showed that chaga may help increase exercise endurance. Mice that were given chaga extracts for 14 days (at 0, 100, 200 and 300 mg/kg) were able to swim for a longer period of time than those given distilled water. Scientists noted that the mice given chaga also had significantly more glycogen — the predominant storage form of glucose for energy production — in their liver and muscles. Glycogen storage directly affects exercise endurance, and the results of this study suggest that chaga might help increase the time before glycogen is depleted (29).
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 (29).
For more information on how chaga and other healthy mushrooms can help support exercise endurance, read our article, Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout & Post-Workout Mushroom Supplements.
As a folk remedy, chaga extracts are one of the fungi that can be used to enhance immune system function.
Chaga’s other bio-compounds are being investigated by the scientific community as potential agents to protect the body against a variety of foreign invaders (30–35).
Beta-glucans and betulinic acid in chaga may help slow down signs of aging in your skin.
Chaga infusions can help comfort irritated skin and reduce redness and dryness. A case study of 50 people found that after taking chaga for 9 to 12 weeks, individuals experienced improved skin health, as demonstrated by increased skin comfort, smoothness, and moisturization (36).
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 in vitro study found that melanin increased the sun protection factor (SPF) of gel sunscreens (37). Another found that melanin functions as a free radical scavenger, which can also help keep your skin looking younger for longer (38).
Learn more about the chaga mushroom benefits for skin health by reading our article, Mushroom Benefits for Skin: 5 Ways Fungi Foster Dermal Health.
Oxidative stress is a major contributor to mild memory problems associated with aging.
A team of researchers investigated if chaga had any protective effects in mice with chemically-induced cognitive decline. They found that mice given chaga for 7 days had significantly improved learning and memory compared to those that did not receive the fungus (39).
The appropriate dose of chaga depends on a variety of factors, including your health, age, the quality of the extract, goals etc. The dosage that works for one person may not work for you.
The typical dosage is 250 to 500 mg of an 8:1 extract 2 to 3 times a day (4). One animal study used 6 mg/kg of chaga extract per day (the equivalent of 408 mg for a 150-pound person) (40).
That being said, we highly recommend that you start with small doses of chaga and increase slowly over time to the recommended dose.
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 randomized human clinical studies to evaluate the safety of chaga. However, There is strong historical evidence of use in traditional medicine. Therefore, you should consult a health practitioner prior to taking chaga if you have any medical conditions.
Individuals with bleeding disorders or those on anticoagulants (blood-thinning medications) should exercise caution when considering chaga supplements. The polysaccharides and other substances found in chaga are known to affect blood circulation. This could pose an issue when combined with anticoagulants, depending on the chaga dose.
Chaga may affect blood glucose levels. Therefore, monitor your blood sugar levels when supplementing with it.
One safety concern stems from the fact that chaga contains oxalates. Some individuals may develop kidney stones from eating a diet high in oxalates (41).
In one published case, a 72-year-old Japanese woman consumed 4 to 5 teaspoons of chaga mushroom powder per day for 6 months (a dose far higher than any recommended by Real Mushrooms). It is also unclear what source her chaga powder was from, whether it was contaminated, and if it was an extract. She developed oxalate nephropathy and eventually irreversible renal failure (42).
Research suggests that chaga contains anywhere from 2-12% of oxalates depending on the source. Oxalate testing curtesy of Nammex has shown chaga to contain around 2-3% oxalate content (20-30mg with a 1 gram serving). Within the classification of oxalates there are two forms: soluble and insoluble. Chaga has both forms. Soluble oxalates are absorbed into the blood and need processing by the kidneys. Insoluble oxalates are bound to minerals and don’t get absorbed or processed by the kidneys (43). Oxalates are higher in a number of common foods such as chocolate, grains, nuts and certain greens (rhubarb, chard, beet tops).
Mushrooms grown with high heavy metal substrates may form calcium oxalates at a higher rate, which is of more concern for kidney stone formers (44). Real Mushrooms chaga is wild harvested and is tested for heavy metals along with other rigorous quality control measures.
Those with previous kidney stones, those with a strong antibiotic history, low hydration or calcium status should speak with a professional before using chaga.
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.
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 (31).
The concern for overharvesting of chaga has led researchers to try growing I. obliquus in a laboratory. However, attempts to grown chaga 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 (31).
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% (45).
It is clear that many of the chaga mushroom benefits for health are 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.
There are many ways to take advantage of the chaga mushroom benefits for health, simply by taking it in supplement form. It’s important to remember that the effects of adaptogens like chaga are cumulative. For the best experience, we recommend taking chaga consistently to help your body resist occasional stress and to support your immune system.
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 provide 1,000 mg of chaga extract with over 8% 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.
If you live in a Northern part of the world where chaga grows naturally, you have the opportunity to harvest this fungi to make homemade chaga tea.
For our chaga tea recipe, read our article, How to Make Chaga Tea and 9 Other Chaga Food & Drink Recipes.
Here are the top 4 things to remember when purchasing a supplement to get the most chaga mushroom benefits for your dollar:
To begin experiencing the potent chaga mushroom benefits for your health, 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 information or products mentioned in this article are provided as information resources only, and are not to be used or relied on to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information does not create any patient-doctor relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. The information is intended for health care professionals only. 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.