Chaga: King of Medicinal Mushrooms
I’ve talked about the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms in the past and I must admit I’m becoming a pretty big fan. These superfoods are catching on the US (just check the shelf at any health food store). One of my favorites is chaga mushrooms, and despite the short name, the list of health benefits they contain goes on forever!
Here’s why I got brave enough to try them:
What Is a Chaga Mushroom?
Chaga mushrooms are also known as the “gift from God,” “king of herbs,” and “king of medicinal mushrooms.” They grow primarily on birch trees in cooler climates like Russia, Northern Europe, and the Northern US and Canada. Russia, Siberia, and other parts of Asia have used medicinal mushrooms for centuries.
The chaga mushroom looks like burnt charcoal or a lump of lava on the outside. On the inside, these mushrooms have a rusty color that you can see when you break it into pieces.
Many ancient cultures used chaga mushrooms to:
- calm upset stomach and ulcers
- detox the body
- regulate hunger
- promote clarity of thinking
- increase productivity
- improve endurance
- boost the immune system
What’s more, modern science is confirming these benefits. As interest grows it’s now easier than ever to find chaga in the form of supplements, powders, and elixirs… not to mention my preferred way to take it, coffee!
6 Health Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms
Chaga has gained much popularity of late because of its many uses in various ailments and for general health. In addition, recent research supports these ancient uses, solidifying its “royal” status. Here are some of its most studied benefits:
1. It’s a Superfood!
Chaga is a powerhouse of important nutrients. Look at this impressive list:
- vitamin B2
- vitamin D
If that’s not enough, chaga also contains polysaccharides (mostly beta-glucans) which help balance immune system response and can help fight cancer (more on that below).
As we age, our bodies need more antioxidants to protect our DNA from damage. Chaga is one easy way to get more in your diet. Last but not least, these mushrooms have the highest amount of antioxidants per gram of any plant. This is important since free radicals and oxidative stress in the body can cause health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
2. Regulates Immune Function
Chaga is well known as an herb that supports the immune system. But how does it work?
The polysaccharides in chaga mushrooms are “biological response modulators.” That means they are able to boost or suppress the immune system, whichever the organism needs. This is particularly helpful in those who have autoimmune disease, since stimulating the immune system when it’s already overreacting may cause more issues. Research published in Mycobiology also found that consuming chaga increases production of immune cells such as T-cells in animal studies.
Further, a 2005 review (including human studies) found that chaga mushrooms are a potent immune booster without negative side effects. It also confirmed chaga can reduce inflammation, improve immune cell production, and enhance overall immune function.
3. Reduces Cancer Incidence
Chaga mushrooms can even have anti-cancer properties, thanks to its phytosterols and the polysaccharide beta-glucan, which affect cancer cells in the following ways:
- improve macrophages (a form of white blood cell) and natural killer cell function
- stop formation of tumors by protecting against potent genotoxic carcinogens
- stimulate the immune system to fight cancer naturally
- may stop tumors from forming blood cells
The effect that chaga has on tumors is profound. One 2016 study found that tumors shrank by 60 percent when using chaga extract on mice. In metastatic mice (mice with tumors that moved from their original location to other locations in the body), tumors shrank by 25 percent.
4. Acts as an Antiviral
One role of the immune system is to fight against viruses. Improving the immune system can improve the body’s ability to fight these viruses.
- A 2015 study found chaga to be an effective antiviral against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Another study concluded it was able to reduce infection of the hepatitis C virus by 100 times (in only 10 minutes!)
- Additional research found that chaga can fight herpes infections as well
With these studies, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think chaga could be a good general antiviral treatment. More research is needed to know for sure, but it’s a promising possibility.
5. Improves Metabolic Health
As chaga mushrooms grow, they absorb a compound called betulin from the birch tree. This is helpful because betulin is indigestible when it comes from the birch tree directly. The mushroom converts it to a digestible form.
Research shows that betulin lowers cholesterol, helps prevent obesity, and improves insulin sensitivity in mice. In fact, researchers discovered that betulin was as effective or more effective than cholesterol-lowering drugs.
In addition, the antioxidant properties discussed earlier can have a positive effect on heart health, including supporting a healthy blood pressure.
6. Increases Strength and Endurance
Chaga may improve endurance and strength. Russians have been using it for centuries to boost strength and endurance (especially during the cold months). But there’s not much concrete evidence as to why it might help with strength and endurance. A 2015 animal study in the Journal of Chinese Medicine did find mice given chaga were able to swim longer. The theory is that the mushroom improved glycogen (stored energy) levels and reduced lactic acid (a by-product of strenuous exercise).
How to Use Chaga Mushrooms
So, with all these great benefits, how do you get this unusual mushroom in your diet?
The most common way to take chaga is in a tea or tincture. While you can use whole chaga or even chaga powder to make these yourself at home, there are a number of more convenient ways to get it in your diet:
(P.S. If you’re afraid of a mushroom-y taste, don’t be… I promise you won’t even know it’s there!)
You can also make your own chaga tea or tincture at home using whole chaga chunks. The advantage with this approach is you can use use the mushroom pieces again and again to make more batches of tea, and even freeze them for the most potency between uses. The tea will just be a little weaker with each use. Check out this tutorial for step-by-step instructions.
Chaga Precautions & Potential Side Effects
While it’s been used for centuries safely and effectively, there are some side effects and precautions to consider:
- It may interact with medications and may reduce blood clotting (not good for surgery!)
- It may lower blood sugar (good for some, not good for others)
- Chaga may not be great for those with autoimmune disease because it boosts the immune system. However, as noted earlier, it is an immune modulator so would lower an immune response in this case.
As always, discuss with your doctor whether taking chaga mushrooms is right for you (especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have any underlying health issues).
Final Thoughts & Other Mushrooms to Try
Research on the benefits of chaga mushrooms is still relatively new, but what we know so far is already very promising. I think it’s always interesting to see when modern science upholds ancient wisdom, and this seems to be a good case!
Here are some other superfood mushrooms to try (maybe in your coffee!):
- Lion’s Mane – Good for memory and mental focus
- Reishi – Science shows it boosts immunity and it may even help you live longer!
- Cordyceps – Claims include anti-aging and improved physical endurance
I’ll be writing more about all of these soon!
Have you tried chaga or other medicinal mushrooms? What did you use it for and how did it work for you?
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