Imagine you're walking through a forest when suddenly you spot something strange on a tree trunk. On closer inspection, it looks as if someone stuck a giant burnt charcoal to the tree.
It is not in fact a charred sugary treat. What you’re looking at is actually a fungus. Specifically, it’s a Chaga mushroom.
What is Chaga Mushroom?
Chaga, also known as ‘Inonotus Obliquus’, is a medicinal mushroom that is known for its burnt exterior.
This species mainly grows in the northern hemisphere. It prefers to grow in colder climates within temperate forests. These fungi aren’t afraid of snow!
Why the Name?
The word ‘Chaga’ comes from the Russian word for it, чага. In turn, чага is derived from the Komi-Permyak word for fungus. Komi-Permyak is the language of the indigenous people of the Karma River Basin in the western part of Russia.
Other names for this species include the following:
- King of Herbs
- Clinker polypore
- Cinder conk
- Black mass
- Birch canker polypore
- Sterile conk trunk rot of birch
You can probably see why this mushroom earned those names.
The Life of Chaga
Chaga mushrooms are parasitic fungi. Their main host is birch trees, but they’re not opposed to leeching off of a few other tree species as well.
The spores of this mushroom enter through wounds in a tree, such as branch stubs. From there, it causes the centre of the branches and trunk to decay. The name of this decay is white heart rot.
Over time, the mycelium (root system) forms as a charcoal lump on the outside of the tree. An abundance of melanin on the surface causes the black exterior.
On the inside, you’ll find a bright orange interior. Don’t judge a book by its cover, you could say.
Did you know that Chaga can live off a tree for anywhere from ten to over eighty years? Those are some old fungi!
The tree host remains alive throughout most of the mushroom’s lifespan. These fungi only start reproducing when either part or the whole tree dies.
Unlike other mushrooms, the fruiting body of Chaga is rarely seen. Instead of growing out into the open air, the fruiting body actually grows underneath the bark.
History of Chaga
Using Chaga mushrooms as traditional medicine goes back to ancient times. It was most commonly used as either medicine or tea within Russia and Eastern Europe.
In history, there have been quite a few mentions of Chaga. For example, there were suggestions in ancient texts that the Romans imported birch fungus from Europe.
One prominent mention is during the 11th century. Grand Duke Vladamir Monomakh attributed his recovery from lip cancer to this fungus.
In general folk medicine, Chaga treated stomach disease, liver or heart problems, cancer, and Hodgkin's disease. As well, it was used for blood purification and pain relief.
There has been a lot of recent scientific interest in Chaga mushroom benefits. Specifically, researchers want to test the medicinal claims of folk medicine. These include its antimicrobial, antiviral, and antitumor properties.
Chaga is well known for immune support in traditional medicine, but is there any backing to that claim?
In a 2005 study, scientists tested Chaga water extract on bone marrow cells from chemically immunosuppressed mice. The results showed that the extract helps heal the damage to the bone marrow system caused by chemotherapy. This means that this fungus is a strong immunomodulator that shows promise (supplemental or main treatment) for immunocompromised individuals with similar conditions.
Another study in 2011 investigated the immunomodulating effects of Chaga in mice and found that it regulates antigen-specific antibody production.
A year later in 2012, a study looked at the effects of orally administered Chaga water extract on mice with inflammation in the colon (experimental colitis). They found that this mushroom has an anti-inflammatory effect that suppresses the messengers signalling for an inflammatory response.
According to some research, Chaga has some properties that might help lower blood sugar levels.
A 2014 study looked at Chaga polysaccharides' effect on diabetic rats. The researchers found that this fungus has a therapeutic effect on diabetes. This effect is the result of antioxidant and hypolipidemic properties as well as protecting the pancreas against diabetes-induced injuries.
A similar study in 2017 also studied the effect of the polysaccharides but in diabetic mice with high-fat diets. The results concluded that it could be a potential functional food or drug candidate for treating diabetes. This conclusion comes from the effects of the orally administered Chaga, including restoring body/fat mass weight, lowering blood sugar levels, and improving glucose tolerance.
As of right now, Chaga has only been tested on animals. So while it shows promise for animals, its effect on diabetes in humans will need to be studied further.
Another common claim for Chaga is that it can cure cancer.
Two different studies studied the effects of Chaga on human colon cancer cells. The 2009 study used hot water extract while the 2015 study used ethanol extract. Both studies concluded that the fungus has antitumor properties that inhibit cancer cell growth.
Another study in 2016 looked at mice with Lewis lung carcinoma growth and spontaneous metastasis. For three weeks scientists administered 6 mg/kg a day of Chaga water extract. The results showed that the extract caused significant tumour suppression by promoting energy metabolism.
Chaga Mushroom Benefits
Out of all Chaga’s traditional uses, the immune support that it can provide is the most useful for everyday life. Whether your immune system is overactive or underactive, Chaga mushroom can help you regulate it. Just supplement your diet with it and you can get the daily immune support you need to thrive.
Chaga mushrooms have other potential benefits like the ones mentioned in the ‘Scientific Research’ section, but they need more studying to confirm their effectiveness.
If you’re interested in supplementing your diet with Chaga, here’s what you need to know.
Chaga supplements mainly come in powder form. These are great for mixing into food or drinks and adding an earthy flavour to them.
Side Effects of Chaga
There are no known side effects of Chaga so it is generally safe to consume. It’s best to consult your doctor first if you have any pre-existing health conditions or medications.
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