Traditional Knowledge and Modern Mycology
Given their many benefits, it’s no surprise humans have been using mushrooms for millennia. In fact, we ate mushrooms at least as early as the Magdalenian period, 12,000 to 18,000 years ago! And they weren’t just food–Otzi, also known as the “Iceman,” lived 5,300 years ago and had a mushroom fastened to a leather band that can be used as tinder. Even though it works well for this purpose, it is known as the False Tinder Fungus to distinguish it from the True Tinder Fungus, also known as chaga or inonotus obliquus. Foragers and survivalists report chaga can smolder for 4-5 hours. While the False Tinder Fungus the Iceman carried was inedible, chaga can be eaten safely and has been made into tea by Russians and other northern Europeans for at least the last five centuries.
The reason? Chaga has long been reputed for its regenerative effects, though modern science has only recently begun to examine how chaga affects the human body. Testing on lung cells demonstrated that chaga can kill cancer-derived cells without targeting normal ones. Chaga extract has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, something which can cause DNA damage. But wait, we’re not done. An array of other studies indicates potential antiviral, anti-allergic, and anti-inflammatory effects, to name a few.
We believe in following the science, so keep in mind that human gut health is complicated, and the effects shown in animal models and human cells don’t mean that chaga is a sudden cure-all. Still, the historic use of chaga and our recent scientific discoveries show great potential for health benefits. As part of our Organic Mushroom Blend, we recommend continuing the tradition of putting some of this funky fungus in your tea. Or your coffee and smoothies, if that’s what you’re into..
But if you’re ready to lace up your hiking boots and go hunting for chaga in the birch forests of the northern hemisphere, slow your roll. Unfortunately, chaga is slow-growing in the wild and overexploitation has led to concerns about damage to its population size in its natural habitat. Plus chaga often grows 20 or more feet off the ground, so you’re going to need a ladder. If only it could be grown in meticulously controlled environments and harvested in a sustainable way, then ground into a convenient powder to put into drinks along with nine other healthful fungi…
Oh wait, we did that. And the package is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. And we hold our suppliers to a strict code of conduct to ensure employees are treated with respect and paid a living wage at every step of production. On top of that, we’re a 1% For The Planet member and donate 1% of our annual sales to The Nature Conservancy. Curious to try some chaga from a brand that shares your values? Give us a try–we’re sure you’ll love it.
Under Clinical summary
Chaga mushroom is commonly found on birch trees in cold climates. It is used as a folk remedy in Russia and other northern European countries to treat various ailments and diseases including cancer. The conk that is used medicinally comprises wood from the substrate tree and mycelium of the invasive fungus (12).
Chaga demonstrated antitumor (12) (13), anti-mutagenic (9), antiviral (14), antiplatelet (2), antidiabetic (15), antioxidant (8), analgesic (3), immunomodulating (16), anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving (3) effects both in vitro and in vivo.
In animal models, chaga displayed anti-allergic (17), cognition-enhancing, and antioxidant activities (18); as well as anti-inflammatory effects against experimental colitis (19). Oral administration of polysaccharides from chaga was found to increase exercise endurance and biological measures related to fatigue (20). Chaga may also have antidiabetic effects (4) (27).
In addition, chaga extracts and its constituents exerted inhibitory and pro-apoptotic effects against colon (5) (21) (22), lung (28), and liver cancer (1) cells. Inotodiol from chaga exerted antitumor effects against cervical cancer cells (23). In some studies, chaga demonstrated selective apoptosis in tumor cells with no effects on healthy cells (1). In animal models, it inhibited melanoma cell growth (7). But no clinical trials have assessed chaga’s safety nor efficacy for disease prevention or for the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes.
Cited in MSKCC: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25576897/
Ethnopharmacological relevance: In Russian traditional medicine, an extract from the mushroom Inonotus obliquus (Fr.) Pil´at is used as an anti-tumor medicine and diuretic. It has been reported that Inonotus obliquus has therapeutic effects, such as anti-inflammatory, immuno-modulatory and hepatoprotective effects. This study was designed to investigate the chemical composition and biological properties of aqueous and ethanolic extracts of Inonotus obliquus from Finland, Russia, and Thailand. Their antioxidative, antimicrobial, and antiquorum properties were tested as well as the cytotoxicity on various tumor cell lines.
“Chaga is traditionally grated into a fine powder and used to brew a beverage resembling coffee or tea. However, caution is warranted with chronic use due to the extremely high concentrations of oxalates in chaga. Three extraction processes may be used.
- Hot water extraction is one of the most common preparations. A decoction is created by simmering pieces of the chaga in numerous quarts of water until the water is reduced and the remaining liquid contains a portion of the chaga's concentrated water-soluble compounds. Such preparations, produced in China and Japan, are exported worldwide. The ß-D-glucans may have a content of approximately 35% in a pure extract. If chaga tea is prepared at home, the chaga chunks can be reused multiple times.
- Ethanol or methanol extraction isolates the water-insoluble components, betulinic acid, betulin and the phytosterols. This extraction process is in general used as a second step after hot-water extraction, since ethanol alone will not break down chitin effectively—heat is essential.”
Oxalate nephropathy is caused by deposition of oxalate crystals that induce renal epithelial cell injury and inflammation in the kidney.1 Oxalate nephropathy can be seen in genetic causes known as primary hyperoxaluria or in clinical settings such as enteric hyperoxaluria, ethylene glycol poisoning and excessive dietary intake of oxalate or ascorbic acid.2,3
To the contrary to well-known effects, Chaga mushroom-related side effect is rarely reported. Until now only one case of Chaga mushroom-induced oxalate nephropathy was reported in Japan.1 We here report the second case worldwide and discussed Chaga mushroom-induced oxalate nephropathy as a risk factor of chronic kidney disease
Potential Health Benefits of Chaga
Chaga is believed to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a potential alternative remedy for things like arthritis and high blood pressure. It may also help lower blood sugar and even slow the progression of cancer cells.
Chaga may also help:
Ease inflammation. Researchers have found that Chaga may help regulate the body’s production of cytokines — cells that affect other cells in the body — and ease or prevent swelling associated with conditions like arthritis. Current research is promising, but further testing is needed to be sure of chaga’s effectiveness.
Prevent cancer. Multiple studies show that compounds in Chaga mushrooms may help block or slow the growth of cancer cells. Studies have been conducted on both lung cancer and colorectal cancer cells using compounds found in chaga. The research seems to indicate that chaga may help slow cancer growth and even kill existing cancer cells.
Chaga grows in birch forests in the circumboreal regions of the northern hemisphere; namely Russia, which gave us the name chaga (original: чага). It enters wounds of trees (where a branch has snapped, perhaps?) and develops a mycelium on the outside of the tree which resembles burnt charcoal. Kinda nasty. The mycelium is sterile until but causes decay for the next 10-80+ years, and as either part or all of the tree dies, it develops a fruiting body inward towards the tree.
Image below from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411020309809
Effect of beta-glucans
And while there is little research backed by any kind of human trials (in fact not even one recent study, most from the 1950s as reported by Rogers in Medicinal Mushrooms: The Human Clinical Trials), there are beneficials mixed with something ancient and magical in this fungi. Rogers reports that in vitro and in vivo studies bill chaga as “anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant” with suggestive blood sugar benefits for diabetics. Also that its “polysaccharides may stimulate the immune system or inhibit oxidative stress and DNA damage”. A significant amount of melanin is found in the dark black outer layer of the sclerotia which may help block processes in the body that lead to skin cancers.
Christopher Hobbs, in reports host water extracts of chaga have the highest antioxidant effects by far of any mushroom extract studied. These antioxidants are come from polyphenols (water soluble) and in fact the best results come from cooking chaga at extremely high heat and pressure with a pressure cooker or instant pot. We have tried this and it makes an excellent beverage.
Rogers suggests the only sustainable way to harvest is “gently prying the easily loosened part of the conk, and leaving the rest”. Years later you should see new growth. Whatever your method, ideally you should leave a healthy portion of the mushroom to continue future growth.
Many folks also recommend hunting chaga in the winter. I suspect this is so that the mushrooms are easier to locate. However, I have seen a few accounts that noted this is the optimal time during the mushroom/tree relationship for medicinal benefit. I can also tell you that chaga on dead/downed trees is no longer viable. Any beneficial that was once there is gone.
The recent medicinal interest in I. obliquus has, however, come at a cost to this organism. With over 4,000 products listed on Amazon alone, the scale of the commercial exploitation is evident. Chaga prod- ucts are almost exclusively produced from wild- harvested pre-sporulation mycelial mass. The mass harvesting of this organism, in its pre-reproductive stage rises serious concerns for the survival of the species. Where harvesting pressure has been ob- served elsewhere, such as with Cordyceps spp. there has been a significant deleterious impact on the dis- tribution and size of the population. The relatively long life-cycle of I. obliquus increases this species vulnerability.
Conservational action is now needed, and we suggest a multipronged approach of further re- search, an education programme within the harvesting areas, legislative support and a move to- wards more sustainable approaches such as cultivation and development of products based on the cul- tivated mycelium of this species rather than its wild-harvested mycelial mass. By raising awareness and international collaboration, we may be able to mitigate damage to populations of I. obliquus and interdependent species.
Chaga, in fact, has been used in Russian folk medicine since at least the 16th century. It was used to treat “consumption” and cancers, often stomach and lung cancers, and it was likewise considered useful for other common stomach and intestinal ailments such as gastritis, ulcers, colitis, as well as general pain—thus a panacea, held in high esteem in much the same way as the Reishi and Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) in the Orient. Since 1955, a refined extract of the chaga fungus (“Bifungen”) has been manufactured and sold in Russia for the treatment of stomach and intestinal diseases. I recently learned that chaga continues to be used in Russia. The Minnesota Mycological Society had a fungus exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. There was a big chunk of chaga on the table. One of the visitors was a Russian physician. She immediately recognized it and enthusiastically told us about how it is used in her country. The chaga is used as a very concen- trated alcohol tincture. The prescription: give three times daily one drop of tincture for each year of the patient’s age. That would be 62 drops for me!
There is now scientific research to support the claims of the folk medicinal uses. The most frequently cited analytic studies on chaga are those by Kirsti Kahlos, a pharmacognycist at the School of Pharmacy, University of Helsinki, Finland. Kahlos and her col- leagues found a wide variety of active triterpenes, which have antitumor properties. Of those, the most active was specified as inotodiol. They also found the compound “betulin”—actually a compound from the birch tree that has anticancer properties. The chaga fungus absorbs and concentrates the betulin (betulinic acid) from the birch and transforms it into a form that can be ingested. Other researchers have found active polysaccharides, a common occurrence in most medici- nal mushrooms such as Maitake and Shiitake. Those polysaccharides are known to stimulate the immun
Research on Chaga’s aqueous extract had a “higher effect on cancer-derived cells than on normal transformed cells” Moreover, the results highlighted a cytotoxic activity of the Chaga's aqueous extract after 48 and 72 hours of exposure with a higher effect on cancer-derived cells A549 than on normal transformed cells BEAS-2B ( P = 0.025 after 48 hours of exposure and P = 0.004 after 72 hours of exposure).
As we evolved, our bodies capitalized on the fact that fungi, microbes, insects, and other organisms have different processes to produce molecules than humans do. Thus, we developed receptors, called pattern recognition receptors, that bind specifically to nonhuman derived carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and glucans. When these pattern recognition receptors bind to mushroom produced b-glucans, they stimulate the immune system. It is this immune stimulation that is described by Guggenheim et al1 in this issue of IMCJ (page 32).