Chaga mushroom Inonotus obliquus, commonly known as kabanoanatake in Japan and chaga (tchaga), in Russia, is one of the most popular and highly sought after medicinal mushrooms in the world.
Hailed as the “King of medicinal mushrooms”, wild Chaga mushroom is one of the most potent antioxidants on the planet. Its “king” status comes from its ability to strengthen, nourish and protect many facets of our health and wellbeing:
The extraordinary health benefits of Chaga mushrooms has been shown both within scientific research and traditionally from its rich history in folk medicine.
A cup of Chaga tea or a dose of Chaga extract is packed with antioxidants and energy boosting benefits similar to coffee, without the caffeine.
This article examines what is Chaga, its history, uses, health benefits of Chaga mushroom extract and its potential side effects.
Since 16th century Russia, Chaga mushrooms have been a colloquial remedy of folk medicine, assisting the communities living in the cold and harsh Siberian climate to adapt and survive. (1,2)
Although Siberia is synonymous with Chaga mushroom, it’s been recorded that Chaga mushrooms were used by the Persian physician Avicenna back in 980AD. (2)
Before the establishment of towns, cities and public health planning (hospitals, GP’s etc.), folk medicine was the traditional delivery of medicine for centuries and Chaga mushroom was used throughout Siberian folk medicine for generations.
The ancient wisdom contained in folk medicines and natural medicine systems - before the emergence of science, research, trials and microscopes - reconnects us to our role in nature and working with the plants and their energies to heal.
I always find it so interesting how these groups of ancient communities and cultures knew exactly how to utilise the plants and fungi around them to ensure long term health and wellbeing.
Then in a more modern day context, as science develops and research of these plants and fungi is conducted, the studies show via their unique compounds, that these healing plants and fungi have the same application and usage for how it was traditionally used.
Chaga mushroom began its way into Western mainstream during the 1960s when Nobel Prize-winning author – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, included Chaga mushroom in his semi autobiographical novel titled, The Cancer Ward. (2, 3)
Since the 1960s, there has been mass interest in cancer prevention and treatment development which is around the same time medicinal mushrooms began their revival. The active compounds of Chaga mushrooms have been extracted and researched since the middle of the 20th century. (4)
Chaga mushroom Inonotus obliquus grows almost exclusively on birch trees in high latitude regions of the world–Western Siberia, Canada, North America, Finland, Poland, China (Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces) and Hokkaido in Japan. (1)
These different regions of the world all have their own historical application and usage of Chaga mushroom.
The mushroom life cycle of Chaga is fascinating.
Depending on who you ask, Chaga mushroom is either a parasitic fungus or a beneficial symbiont with its host tree. Lab-grown Chaga mushrooms cannot produce the important compounds derived from living on birch trees such as betulin, betulinic acid.
These triterpenoid compounds provides Chaga mushrooms with its rich bitter flavour plus many other benefits.
Birch itself is a very medicinal tree.
Growing on birch trees provides Chaga mushrooms with its high levels of immune system modulating properties – beta-glucans, betulin and betulinic acid. It’s this symbiotic relationship between birch trees and Chaga mushroom that gives Chaga it’s King of the medicinal mushrooms status.
Since 16th Century Russia, the benefits of Chaga mushrooms have been traditionally used as Chaga tea to treat gastrointestinal cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Chaga mushrooms were also traditionally been used as an internal cleansing agent, with its usage revolving around the gastrointestinal tract – re-estabilising balance and harmony in those with ailments. (1)
Chaga is commonly referred to as a mushroom when in actual fact, it is a highly prized sclerotium or woody canker made up of predominately wood fibre, not mycelium.
Since Chaga grows on birch trees, many of the valuable medicinal compounds in birch such as betulin and betulinic acid are concentrated in the sclerotium.
Chaga does produce a fruiting body, however, this is rarely seen by mushroom hunters. The only time Chaga will produce a fruiting body is when its host tree dies. When the fruiting bodies appear it’s often at the base or trunk of its host tree.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Chaga mushroom Inonotus obliquus is referred to as the “gift of god.” Asian herbalists believe Chaga preserves youthfulness, excellent health and promotes longevity. Given its incredible protective qualities and high degree of safety, Chaga is considered a "superior herb."
In Taoism, Chaga mushrooms are considered a Qi tonic but it does nourish all the Three Treasures in tonic herbalism–Jing, Qi and Shen.
Jing is our primal essence and life-force energy. We’re born with our own prenatal Jing, our battery pack and blueprint of sorts, for our constitution. As we grow and develop, through our diet and lifestyle choices we either nurture and protect, or leak Jing.
The Taoist goal for long term health is to preserve and protect Jing and prevent any kind of energy leakage that ultimately damages quality of life. Chaga extract can help support Jing energy and promote optimal health and longevity.
In Western terms, we understand Jing energy to be connected with the kidneys and adrenal health–weaving into our understanding of adrenal burnout, the impact of stress and waning energy levels.
Qi, or Chi, is our day to day energy levels formed by the food, air and water we consume. Our daily vitality and an abundance of Qi energy spills over and helps restores Jing.
If our Qi is depleted regularly, the body must tap into its precious reserves of Jing which overtime can lead to fatigue, burnout, chronic disease and degeneration.
Shen is the third treasure and is translated to our spirit. Shen represents our light, our aura and overall mood and level of happiness.
When our foundational Jing energy is robust, our Shen is strong and clear, and we will radiate beautiful light and energy in the world.
In Taoism, these three treasures–Jing, Qi and Shen–form the foundational of a long healthy life. Chaga mushroom is a powerful three treasure tonic that nourishes and strengthens all three.
Like other medicinal mushrooms such as Reishi and Cordyceps, Chaga mushroom is a powerful biological response modifier (BRM) that alters the biology of cells, increases energy, enhances endurance and stamina, and promotes greater vitality in our lives.
Chaga mushroom is a nutrient powerhouse packed with a wide range of vitamins, minerals and amino acids– including glutamic acid–which works as an an excitatory neurotransmitter that helps retain memory and boost cognition. (1)
Chaga mushrooms are rich in potassium, calcium, silicon, iron, magnesium, copper, germanium and zinc. The wide array of minerals in Chaga mushroom is required for proper cell functioning, skin health, cardiovascular health and immune system function. (1)
Zinc is particularly abundant in Chaga mushrooms. Zinc is a key mineral for immune system function, sex hormone functioning, skin function and is an important co-factor for cellular replication, wound healing, and foetal development.
Zinc is involved in both our innate and adaptive immune system which helps modulate the function of numerous immune cells and pathways.
Zinc regulates the function of macrophages and dendritic cells, enabling the identification and “eating” of pathogenic bacteria and viral infected cells.
Zinc is used by the Thymus gland to mature T-cells as well as improve the effectiveness and function of MHC antigen presenting complexes. This means that Zinc enables infected and invaded cells to alert circulating T-cells that something’s wrong in the system and in turn, mounts an immune response to destroy the viral infected cell. (7)
Chaga mushrooms are also high in germanium content. Germanium is a naturally occurring trace element present in all living plant and animals.
Germanium has been shown to be an immune enhancer and an anti-viral, upregulating the function of Natural Killer Cells, macrophrages and interferons – cellular messengers that upgrade an immune and inflammatory response. Germanium is also beneficial in decreasing inflammation, reducing free radical oxygen species and pulling heavy metals from the body. (8)
As a medicinal mushroom and top adaptogen, Chaga extract works non-specifically to decrease the effects of stress on the body, modulate the immune system and deliver protective antioxidants to the body.
Specifically, Chaga mushroom is a rich source of polysaccharides, specifically beta-glucans and proteoglycans that are quintessential nutrient for the immune system. These compounds stimulate and activate the immune system and enhance the body’s ability to produce natural killer (NK) cells.
At the cellular level, polysaccharides in Chaga mushroom powder including xylogalactoglucan induces apoptosis – programmed cell death–of specific cells and oxidative molecules that have mutated into cancer cells or are infected with viruses and damaged DNA. (7)
Chaga mushroom helps the immune system upregulate the activity of T-helper cells. T-cells help search out and destroy mutated, damaged cells.
This is one aspect of how Chaga mushrooms elicit its potential anti-cancer, anti-ageing and immune-protective actions.
Chaga mushroom contains triterpenoids that elicit anti-cancer effects. These compounds work alongside the immune-modulating polysaccharides to decrease the evolution of cancer genes and mutations which also help to induce their death once present (9).
Chaga extract contains ergosterol and ergosterol peroxide – steroid compounds – that elicit anti inflammatory and antitumor effects. Studies show these compounds in Chaga extract may be toxic to cultured prostate and breast carcinomas. (10)
As a side note, it’s important to acknowledge that cancer genes and cells naturally occur in humans and start to evolve from late childhood.
Understanding this and knowing that humans naturally have cancer genes within us, and that genetic, epigenetic/environmental and lifestyle factors influence their expression. This provides a deeper understanding of the role we play in assisting our bodies and immune system in locating and killing cells with the expressed genes.
Disclaimer: Do not under any circumstances replace Chaga mushroom (or any other supplement) for conventional cancer therapies. Consult with your doctor for professional medical advice before using Chaga extract alongside any cancer treatments to avoid any unexpected contraindications.
The polysaccharides in Chaga mushrooms also strengthen the immune system through its prebiotic action on the gut microbiome.
Polysaccharides act as probiotics to feed beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species. These healthy bacteria create cellular food for the cells and help decrease and balance the presence of other not-so-friendly bacteria such as Clostridium and Staphylococcus. (3)
Chaga mushrooms play a big role in modulating the microbiome which may help support digestive conditions such as leaky gut and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Overall, Chaga extract helps downgrade the systemic levels of gut inflammation – a key driver for digestive issues and gastrointestinal autoimmune disease states.
Several animal studies show Chaga extract may lower blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetic mice. (11, 12)
This study showed a significant decrease in blood glucose levels in alloxan‐induced diabetic mice. It significantly decreased the total cholesterol level in serum, increased glutathione peroxidase activity and improved the growth physiological characteristics.
In addition, Chaga extract decreased the levels of triglyceride and malondialdehyde and increased the high‐density lipoprotein (HDL) good cholesterol level in serum and the hepatic glycogen level in liver of diabetic mice. (13)
Chaga contains highly bioactive triterpenoid compounds– betulinic acid, betulin, ergosterol, lanosterol, inotodiol, trametonolic acid – which studies show help lower blood sugar glucose, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and increase the good HDL cholesterol. (13)
These specific triterpenoid compounds give Chaga mushroom Inonotus obliquus its unique therapeutic qualities within the world of plants and adaptogens.
Since there is no clinical evidence (human studies) available, it’s unclear whether Chaga extract can help manage diabetes in humans or confirm its effects on cholesterol. More research needs to be conducted. (14)
Chaga mushroom is a very potent antioxidant. Its ORAC value measures around 146,700 making it one of the highest antioxidant foods on the planet. (15)
Chaga mushrooms ORAC value is roughly three times higher than acai berries, another well-known antioxidant rich superfood.
The ORAC value (Oxygen Radical Absorbancy Capacity) determines how effective and ‘strong’ an antioxidant food is by measuring its in vitro antioxidant capacity.
The high ORAC and antioxidant capacity of Chaga mushrooms is due to its polyphenol and melanin content.
Polyphenols are present in all foods. These compounds are responsible for their antioxidant properties. Chaga mushrooms contain many polyphenols including inonoblins, protocatechic acid and gallic acid that provide many health benefits–immune system support, skin health, anti-cancer actions.
One of the most fascinating connections between humans and food is understanding how antioxidant compounds work.
Like humans, plants don’t want to be eaten. Plants want to survive and reproduce too so they have developed compounds that act as protective defence mechanisms. When we ingest these protective compounds, they create a sort of “low grade” alert in the body that causes our liver and body to release our master antioxidants; Glutathione and Superoxide Dismutase (SOD).
Chaga mushroom is very high in SOD, the master antioxidant. SOD scavenges Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS’s)–molecules in the body that are pro-oxidant and when in excess, damage cellular functioning, which then, accumulates on a tissue, organ and systemic level respectively.
We naturally produce ROS’ as part of cellular energy production and when we consume antioxidant rich foods like Chaga mushroom powder, we create SOD to help balance this see-saw of damage and protection and decrease inflammation, pain, disease, ageing and slow down degeneration. (2)
Essentially, super antioxidants like Chaga mushrooms act as superheroes and donate themselves to oxidative species, cancelling it out completely, leaving us with a more neutral playing ground for excellent health.
Chaga mushrooms contain unique compounds and nutrients that studies show can greatly improve the health of the skin.
Chaga mushrooms contains a wide range of immunologically active polysaccharides, long-chain healthy sugars such as beta-glucans, that boost the defences of the skin and help moisturise and hydrate the skin naturally.
Chaga mushroom is loaded with protective antioxidant enzymes like SOD (superoxide dismutase) and melanin that help fight free radicals scavengers that destroy skin health and protect the skin from the sun.
Chaga skin benefits can effectively reduce dark sun spots on the skin due to exposure to harmful UV radiation and restore DNA damage.
Stressors of any kind–physical, mental or environmental–ravage skin health and accelerate ageing. The antioxidant compounds in Chaga extract help eliminate oxidative stress, slow down ageing and help prevent the onset of wrinkles, discolouration and acne.
Several studies show that Chaga extract can help improve autoimmune skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Psoriasis is a inflammatory disease and since Chaga is highly anti inflammatory, it works to reduce the symptoms of psoriasis.
A Russian study with 50 psoriasis patients reported a 76% cure rate with a further improvement in 16% of cases. The study reported that it typically took 9-12 weeks to see improvement of symptoms.
For me, one of the coolest facts about Chaga mushrooms is its ability to act as an internal sunscreen of sorts. Chaga mushroom is the richest source of melanin of any food ever discovered.
Melanin exists within our skin and is the pigment responsible for determining our skin colour. The more melanin, the darker our skin tone is.
Melanin is important for protecting skin cells and DNA damage from the sun. Melanin is difficult to supplement but with Chaga mushroom it’s easy. Remember, the more melanin we can consume, the more protection we have from the sun’s UV rays.
Melanin also protects and bolsters our immune system which is important in times when our skin is damaged from sunburn, the body is weakened and more vulnerable to external pathogens as the skin is our first line of defence.
When we consume Chaga extract it works to protect our genes and the skin’s DNA from UV damage. Further, this prevents accelerated skin ageing and supports the immune system. (16)
Chaga mushrooms also contains ergosterol, a precursor to vitamin D2, which the body converts into active Vitamin D3.
Vitamin D is more of a hormone than a fat-soluble vitamin. Vitamin D is important for down regulating systemic inflammation, improves bone mineral density and is a natural anti-depressant which is linked to reducing all cause mortality.
The pineal gland is a small pea-size (pine cone shaped, hence its name) endocrine gland located in the deep centre of the brain.
Also known as the “third eye”, the pineal gland is responsible for the production of melatonin in the body and the regulation of reproductive hormones.
Very little is actually known about the pineal gland, of all the endocrine glands, it was the last to be discovered. However, its mystery and connection to light has fascinated many researchers and philosophers including French mathematician René Descartes. He regarded the pineal gland as the “principal seat of the soul” and the area where “all thoughts are formed.”
The pineal gland secretes a single hormone–melatonin–the “go to sleep now” hormone that regulates circadian rhythm and promotes a good night’s sleep.
Melanin converts to melatonin in the body and since Chaga mushrooms are the highest food source of melanin, when we consume Chaga mushroom powder, it supports the production of melatonin and activates the pineal gland.
As we age, the pineal gland often becomes calcified due to a build up of fluoride, calcium and phosphorus deposits.
When more melanin concentrated in the pineal gland, this prevents calcification, thereby, awakening ourselves to Source energy, deepens our intuition, awareness and oneness with the universe.
Related: Chaga Brain Health Benefits
The benefits of Chaga mushroom are broad and profound. Chaga extract may help and support:
Chaga mushrooms have truly earned the title “King of the Mushrooms” through its potent ability to protect the body in many ways.
From improving detoxification and liver health, lowering inflammation and pain, balancing blood glucose and cholesterol levels, strengthening the immune system or increasing energy, endurance and stamina, Chaga mushroom does it all.
Unfortunately, not all Chaga mushroom products are created equal.
Most functional mushroom products on the market today are cheap and ineffective mycelium grown on grain. Tests have shown that mycelium grown on grain products have far less of the valuable compounds–beta-glucans, triterpenes and more–than the mushroom fruiting bodies. Furthermore, the mushrooms cannot produce the same components when grown on grain in a lab as in their natural environment.
This couldn’t be more true when it comes to sourcing Chaga mushroom.
Lab grown Chaga mushroom cannot develop into a sclerotium because it is grown on grain, not birch. Therefore, it cannot contain the important medicinal compounds and metabolites that come from the birch trees such as betulin, betulinic acid and more.
The most potent source of Chaga mushroom is wild harvested from Siberia, Russia. It’s postulated that wild Chaga mushrooms that grow closest to the northern lights are more potent and better in quality.
Ideally, when choosing to buy a Chaga extract product, select a quality Chaga supplement that has been extracted with hot water and alcohol. This is known as a dual extract.
A Chaga extract product that has undergone the dual extraction process provides all the available nutraceutical compounds from the Chaga mushrooms. The hot water extracts the immune modulating compounds (polysaccharides, beta-glucans, polyphenols etc.) while the alcohol extracts the adaptogenic and anti-cancer nutrients (triterpenoids, sterols etc.).
Always choose certified organic Chaga mushroom powder where possible.
A particularly interesting and important factor when choosing which Chaga mushroom product you use is its source and geographical location.
As mentioned, Chaga mushrooms typically grow in very harsh and challenging climates. Dr Karl Maret, a biomedical engineer and energy medicine specialist believes Chaga mushrooms that possess the most potent health benefits has been harvested in the high northern areas of the globe.
The reason for this, it seems, there is a direct correlation between the northern lights (corona borealis) and the quality of the Chaga mushroom that grows in the northern regions above latitudes of 45.
This is due to the fact that the solar winds that enter the earths atmosphere in the north are at their most potent and thus create a measured increase in the subtle energy we ascribe as Qi. This particular x-factor seems to exist in its most potent form where these strange lights form over the arctic skies.
This is where the best quality Chaga grows.
Trees, plants and animals are constantly being energised by solar winds and the energy from the sun.
Unlike plants who manufacture their food energy from the sun (solar energy), mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll, they grow faster at night and are said to gain their caloric requirements and Qi, from lunar energy.
Under the corona borealis (northern lights), the birch trees interact with the sun and solar wind energy to create Chaga mushrooms rich in vitality and Qi energy.
For a long time, Chaga mushrooms sourced from Siberia, Russia have been considered to be the highest quality in terms of nutritional profile and potency.
Lab analysis has proven vast differences in nutritional profiles and quality between sun powered arctic Chaga mushrooms compared to lab grown (under artificial light) and Chaga mushrooms growing in more Southern latitudes below 45.
If you’re using a Chaga mushroom powder, either a concentrated Chaga extract or raw ground Chaga mushroom powder product, simply mix or blend the recommended dose, generally 1-3 grams, in warm liquid such as your favourite tea, chai or morning hot chocolate.
True wild Chaga mushroom powder has a naturally bitter taste with hints of vanilla flavour.
Traditionally, Chaga tea is made by simmering the raw Chaga conks (chunks) at a low temperature for at least 1-hour or up to 6-8 hours. The temperature should not exceed 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) to preserve the valuable nutrition. Simmering on low heat will protect the destruction of the sterols, enzymes and proteins.
Once finished cooking, strain and drink your Chaga tea at any temperature you like. Reuse the same Chaga chunks multiple times until the liquid stops producing a dark rich coffee-like brown colour.
Chaga tea is an excellent caffeine free alternative to coffee. Enjoy the same energising effects of coffee without the crash.
If you’re new to Chaga mushroom, we always recommend to start slow.
Begin by having one cup per day in the morning and see how your body reacts. Chaga tea is generally very safe to consume in this way and one cup per day or more is considered a safe starting recommendation for adults in good health.
When your body feels ready, you can increase your dosage to three cups per day or more. Always listen to your body.
If you know you are sensitive to herbs or for young children and adults over the age of 60, you may want to start with less. Start with a small amount and see how your body reacts. Then when you feel comfortable, increase your dosage according to your daily needs.
Chaga mushroom is generally considered very safe and well-tolerated by many. However, due to the lack of clinical research (human studies), Chaga is not listed or monitored as a medicine by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America or the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia.
Many animal, cell and chemical studies have been conducted but the lack of human studies points to the fact that there is little interest in testing most likely because pharmaceutical companies cannot patent Chaga mushroom as a medicine.
However, Chaga mushrooms are still available as a health supplement and food.
You should always consult your doctor for medical advice about any potential health risks or side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions, including if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The side effects of Chaga mushroom listed below are not definite so as always, consult with your doctor for professional medical advice before supplementing with any Chaga mushroom product.
Since Chaga mushroom may stop platelet aggregation, it should not be taken in combination with blood-thinning medications such as aspirin and warfarin to prevent the risk of bleeding. (17)
Chaga extract may also help lower blood sugar levels. Its combination with diabetes medicines such as insulin and other blood-lowering medications may cause blood glucose levels to fall even further. (14)
In one reported case, a 72 year-old Japanese female with liver cancer was consuming high doses of Chaga mushroom powder (4-5 teaspoons per day) over 6 months for liver cancer. Due to Chaga’s high oxalate content, this caused oxalate nephropathy, a condition where excess oxalate can cause kidney failure. (18)
Even though there is little clinical evidence (human studies) to support the use of Chaga mushroom in any of the above conditions, it’s worth considering that the existing animal and cell research be investigated further and may support many of the purported health benefits traditionally used.
In summary, Chaga mushroom, the King of medicinal mushrooms is one of the most comprehensive and beneficial antioxidants on the planet.
Chaga mushroom benefits work to improve cardiovascular health, enhance the immune system, support skin health, improve gut health and decrease systemic inflammation and cell degradation.
As Dr Karl Maret describes, Chaga’s mission on this planet is to help humanity, to restore balance and bring back radiant health and vitality for all of us. Try Chaga mushroom powder today and let it do its work for you.
Eliza is a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level.
Her relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.