On a snowy September day in 1991, on the Austrian–Italian border in a mountain range known as the Ötztal Alps, a group of hikers stumbled across a man encased in ice. He was so well-preserved, they thought that he was a mountaineer who had died recently. In fact, the now-famous man, nicknamed Otzi, lived approximately 5,300 years ago. With him, Otzi carried two mushrooms—one was highly flammable and likely used for tinder to start a fire, and the other was a medicinal birch polypore known as chaga.
Around the same time Otzi died, locals in the Siberian mountain range wore armor made of hardened leather enforced by animal bones and insulated fur. They trudged through the snowy birch forests, hunting wild game before returning to camp in the sub-zero temperatures. Sometimes, growing out of the birch, they would slice off a fungus that resembled a chunk of black charcoal with an orange tissue interior, which they would boil in insulated clay pots and drink in the sub-zero temperatures.
The name chaga (pronounced "cha-ga") originates from the Russian word czaga, which means mushroom. The Norwegian word for chaga translates more specifically to "cancer polypore.” The fungus was popularized in 1968 when Russian Nobel Prize laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the medicinal use of Chaga in his novel, ‘Cancer Ward.’ In the chapter titled, ‘The Cancer in the Birch Tree’ Solzhenitsyn wrote about a political prisoner named Oleg Kostoglotov, who had developed cancer. He was prescribed a high-dose of radiation, however, one doctor wrote to Oleg, informing him of a peasant’s cure known as chaga. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “He [Oleg] 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.”
Today, we know that when your body doesn’t produce enough antioxidants it contributes to oxidative stress which can lead to cancer. One study found that triterpenes, the compounds found in chaga, cause tumor cells to self-destruct. Unlike other cancer treatments, however, chaga doesn’t harm healthy cells, thus showing promise as a targeted cancer-fighter and supplement to chemotherapy. Researchers found that chaga slows the growth of lung, breast, and cervical cancer cells in a petri dish. The fungus triggers immune effector cells called lymphocytes and macrophages which increase production of cytokines. Cytokines are the messengers of the immune system and rally white blood cells to fight infection. In one study, mice with cancer were given chaga supplements, resulting in a 60% reduction in tumor size.
One term you should know is free radicals, (no, not the Che Guevara type). Free radicals can damage cells. As we get older and wiser, the speed at which our cells can repair oxidative damage slows down. Consequently, this damage begins accumulating and the skin starts showing pigmentation spots which can make us look like weathered old pirates. By increasing the number of antioxidants, the oxidative stress goes down.
Another study found that Chaga lowers blood sugar in rats. Scientists took rats that had been genetically modified to be obese (they can do that?) and after consuming chaga for 8 weeks, their blood sugar levels were lower.
Next time you sip some MUD\WTR, consider the fact that chaga is delivering your body the same health benefits that it was delivering to our boy Otzi more than five thousand years ago. Chaga was here long before we arrived on this planet, and it will be here long after we’re gone. Respect.
End note: Chaga also contains a protein that can prevent blood clotting. Therefore, if you are on blood-thinning medications, have a bleeding disorder, or are preparing for surgery, consult with your doctor before taking chaga.