Inonotus obliquus, better known as the chaga mushroom, is a parasitic fungus commonly found on birch trees. Don’t expect chaga to look like your typical mushroom; this fungus is irregularly shaped and has been compared to burnt charcoal in appearance. The reason for the inky, black hue? Chaga is packed with melanin. While the funny-looking fungus may cause trees in the forest to rot from the inside, it is currently used for human consumption and has even been used for medicinal purposes in certain countries.
Chaga mushrooms have been used as a medicine in Siberia and parts of Asia for centuries. It is claimed that chaga helps to boost immunity and improve overall health. Even though they aren’t the prettiest mushroom, chaga is beginning to gain more popularity in the Western hemisphere for its potential health benefits. However, it should be noted that this unique mushroom may contain a few unwanted risks. Read on to learn more about the uses, benefits, and potential side effects associated with the chaga mushroom.
What Is a Chaga Mushroom?
As mentioned, chaga mushrooms are a fungus that grows on the bark of trees, usually birch, in colder climates. Chaga can naturally be found in countries throughout Northern Europe, Alaska, Northern Canada, Korea, Russia, and Siberia. It is possible that you have heard of chaga mushrooms being referred to as black mass, clinker polypore, cinder conk, birch canker polypore, and sterile conk trunk rot – we agree, none of these names make much sense.
Chaga creates a woody growth, or conk (ah, that’s where the funny name comes from), roughly 25-38 centimeters in size – about 10-15 inches. The outside of the chaga may look dark and rough, but if you were to cut a chaga mushroom open, you might be surprised. On the inside of a chaga mushroom, you would find a soft core with an orange color.
For hundreds of years, chaga has been used as a traditional medicine throughout some of the countries in which it is naturally found. Traditionally it was ground into a finely grated powder and brewed as an herbal tea to boost immunity and improve overall health. In today’s world, it is not only available as a tea, but it can also be consumed as a powder or oral supplement. Some claim that it can be used to treat diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease.
The most beneficial way to use chaga for its health benefits is by taking it with either warm or cold water. It is believed that this is the way to release its medicinal properties. Chaga mushrooms are low in calories, incredibly high in fiber, and full of antioxidants! However, it is important to keep in mind that reliable information regarding the chaga mushroom’s nutritional value is exceptionally limited.
Possible Health Benefits
There are many possible health benefits linked to chaga extract, and this likely can be attributed to its nutrient-dense nature. Chaga mushrooms contain an incredible and wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including:
- Vitamin D
- B-Complex Vitamins
- Amino Acids
It is likely that these nutrients are what provide the many health benefits linked to chaga mushrooms. They include:
Chaga May Boost Your Immunity and Help Fight Inflammation
Inflammation is not inherently bad; it is a natural response created by your immune system to help protect you against disease. However, prolonged inflammation can be linked to medical conditions such as heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Many different studies have shown that chaga extra can have positive effects on the immune system by reducing long-term inflammation and fighting off damaging viruses and bacteria.
Chaga stimulates white blood cells, which help your immune system by promoting the formation of beneficial cytokines, which are special proteins that regulate the immune system. As a result, chaga mushrooms can help fight infections – everything from minor colds to grave illnesses.
Chaga May Help Prevent Cancer
Several animal and test-tube studies have demonstrated that chaga mushrooms can prevent and delay the growth of cancer cells. In a study with mice that had cancer, chaga supplements had reduced the mice’s tumors by 60%. Similarly, in a test-tube study, chaga extract prohibited the growth of cancer in human liver cells. Comparable results were seen in cancer cells from the lungs, breasts, prostate, and colon.
There is a theory that chaga’s defense against cancer is partially due to its massive amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants can help to protect human cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Particularly, chaga extract contains the powerful antioxidant, triterpene. Triterpenes have a wide range of pharmacological effects and support important biological activity, such as anti-inflammatory support, live protection, anti-tumor, and immune regulation.
Because of the support from the triterpenes, studies have shown that a very concentrated amount may assist in killing cancer cells. While these studies are promising, it is important to keep in mind that human studies are required to make any strongly supported conclusions about chaga’s role in preventing and fighting off cancer.
Chaga Has Been Shown to Contribute to Lower Blood Sugar
Many animal studies have shown a link between chaga and lower levels of blood sugar. Which is why it is currently being considered and studied for its beneficial qualities and ability to help manage diabetes. Results from a study in obese mice with diabetes showed that chaga extract significantly reduced blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. In another study, diabetic mice given chaga extract were shown to have a 31% decrease in blood sugar levels over the course of three weeks.
Chaga’s unique compound of nutrients seems to make it a potent regulator of blood sugar and insulin levels within the blood. Though no studies or research have yet been done on humans, the results from both mice studies show great promise. As of now, it seems like there is a good chance that chaga extract may soon be an alternative to traditional treatments.
Chaga Can Help Lower Cholesterol
It is possible that chaga extract may also benefit cholesterol levels, which, as you know, can lower your risk of heart disease. In an eight-week study in rats with high cholesterol, it was shown that chaga extract successfully reduced LDL cholesterol, which was linked to negative health effects, total cholesterol, and triglycerides while increasing antioxidant levels.
Other similar studies demonstrated the same results and showed that not only does chaga lower LDL cholesterol in rats, but it increases HDL cholesterol, which is considered to be the “good” kind. Researchers theorize that the plentiful antioxidants found within chaga are responsible for its beneficial health effects on cholesterol. Much like its link to lower blood sugar, human trials must be conducted to clearly understand the effect chaga has on cholesterol in the human body.
Chaga Has Been Shown to Slow the Appearance of the Aging Process
Physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin, and gray hair, are caused, in part, by oxidative stress. Sun exposure, pollution, and other sources of damage can create many free radicals that are too hard for the body to neutralize. This results in an accelerated aging process. By supporting the body with extra antioxidants, you can, in theory, slow the aging process and reverse the visible signs. Though no research has been conducted, its effectiveness in fighting off other forms of oxidative stress suggests that chaga could also successfully fight the effects of again.
Side Effects of Chaga
Chaga is usually well-received by the body. With that being stated, it should be noted that no human studies have been done to determine its safety and appropriate dosage. As always, you should consult your physician before beginning the use of any form of chaga extract as it can interact with a few common medications. This can have potentially harmful effects. For example, chaga can be potentially risky for those on insulin or people with diabetes because of its effect on blood sugar.
Additionally, chaga contains a protein that has the potential to prevent blood from clotting. This means that if you take blood thinners, are prepping for surgery, or have a bleeding disorder, chaga can disrupt your blood ability to properly function.
Even though some research shows that chaga extract may help reduce inflammation and support the immune system, it can cause the immune system to become overactive. This means that people with autoimmune disorders should seek the advice of their doctor before starting any kind of chaga treatment.
Also, it is important to note, there is no research on the effects of chaga on pregnant or breastfeeding women; therefore, it is always best to avoid use if you fall into one of these two groups.
So, how safe is this mysterious, funny-looking mushroom? For most people, it is a great source of nutrients and antioxidants that has shown to have incredible health benefits. As with any new supplement that you may be adding to your diet, be sure to check with your doctor for any possible complications or drug interactions.