Chaga Mushroom (Inonotus Obliquus)

Chaga Mushroom (Inonotus Obliquus)

Chaga mushroom (inonotus obliquus) is a fungus belonging to the family Hymenochaetaceae. It is parasitic on birch and other trees. The sterile conk of the mushroom has an irregular shape and resembles burnt charcoal. This conk is not the fruiting body of the mushroom, but a sclerotium (mass of mycelium), which is mostly black due to the high quantities of melanin present.

The name “chaga” comes from the Russian name of the fungus, which in turn is purportedly derived from the word for the fungus in Komi-Permyak, the language of the indigenous peoples in the Kama River Basin, west of the Ural Mountains. Chaga is also known by other names. These include black mass, clinker polypore, birch canker polypore, cinder conk, and the sterile conk trunk rot (of birch).

Generally found growing on birch, chaga also grows on alder, beech, and poplar. However, in tree species other than birch, the chaga mushroom often appears as buried stem canker, instead of the charcoal-like mass you’ll find on birch trees. It grows in cold climates, such as Northern Europe, Siberia, Russia, Korea, Northern Canada, and Alaska.

When cultivating this fungus on simulated mediums, the result is differences in the production of metabolites. Cultivated chaga has a reduced number of phytosterols (compounds that may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease risk), particularly lanosterol.

For centuries, people in Russian and other Northern European countries have used chaga as a traditional medicine. Mainly, it’s as a way to boost immunity and overall health. But its use as a medicinal supplement or addition to one’s diet has spread all over the world, with some research finding that chaga does, indeed, have some medicinal properties. Still, reliable information on the benefits of chaga mushrooms for humans is lacking.

In this comprehensive guide, we will be exploring the many aspects of this fascinating mushroom, including:

  • Chaga mushroom benefits
  • Chaga mushroom side effects
  • How to grow chaga mushroom
  • Recipes
  • Making chaga mushroom tea/coffee
  • Chaga mushroom powder

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Chaga Mushroom Benefits

Though research into the effects of chaga on the body is ongoing, some scientific studies do indicate that chaga extract may provide a number of health benefits. However, it’s important to note that most of these studies are on mice or they’re test-tube studies. This means that the results may not necessarily occur when a person consumes a chaga extract.

Chaga Can Boost Your Immune System And Fight Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural response of your immune system, helping to protect you against disease. However, long-term inflammation is linked to physical health conditions like:

  • Heart disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Certain cancers
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

Evidence also indicates that chronic inflammation plays a role in psychiatric conditions. These include anxiety, unipolar and bipolar depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Animal and test-tube studies suggest that chaga extract may positively impact the immune system by reducing long-term inflammation and fighting harmful bacteria and viruses. By promoting the formation of beneficial cytokines (specialized proteins that help regulate the immune system), chaga stimulates white blood cells. These latter cells are essential for fighting off infections — from minor colds to serious illnesses.

In addition, other animal and test-tube studies demonstrate that chaga can prevent the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. These are associated with increased disease risk.

For instance, in a study in mice, chaga extract reduced inflammation and gut damage by inhibiting these types of cytokines.

Anti-Cancer Properties

Several animal and test-tube studies have demonstrated that chaga mushroom extract can prevent and slow cancer growth.

In a study in mice with cancer, chaga supplements were able to cause a 60 percent reduction in tumor size. In a test-tube study, chaga mushroom extract prevented the growth of cancer in human liver cells, while other research has found similar results when applied to cancer cells of the lung, stomach, breast, prostate, and colon.

It is a common belief that the cancer-fighting effects of chaga are partly due to the mushroom’s high concentration of antioxidants. These help protect cells from damage by free radicals. In particular, chaga contains the antioxidant triterpene. Test-tube studies have shown that very concentrated triterpene can kill cancer cells.

Nevertheless, keep in mind that we need human studies in order to make any strong conclusions about chaga’s anticancer potential. So if you see claims about chaga’s ability to treat cancer, take them with a grain of salt, and don’t rely on chaga mushroom extract for dealing with any form of cancer instead of recommended cancer treatment.

However, it is possible that taking a chaga mushroom extract alongside standard cancer treatment may offer additional benefits.

Reductions In Blood Sugar Levels

Multiple animal studies have found that chaga can lower blood sugar levels, which means it may help manage diabetes.

One study in obese, diabetic mice observed that chaga extract reduced blood sugar levels and insulin resistance compared to mice who did not receive the supplement. The authors of this study conclude that “IOPS [Inonotus obliquus polysaccharides] might be a promising functional food or drug candidate for diabetes treatment.”

In another study in diabetic mice, chaga supplements led to a 31 percent decrease in blood sugar levels over the course of three weeks. Researchers have seen similar results in other studies.

But since human research is unavailable, it is unclear whether chaga mushroom extract could help manage diabetes in humans. So it’s best not to rely on chaga as your sole way of managing diabetes.

Lowering Cholesterol (And Heart Disease Risk)

Many in the medical community believe that high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol is linked to heart disease. However, more recent data finds this link is not as strong as previously thought.

Nevertheless, research that has questioned the connection suffers from some limitations.

Since multiple studies have found that elevated LDL is a risk factor for heart disease, reducing these levels through small dietary changes could be a factor in protecting your heart health. Consuming chaga mushroom may be one simple way to achieve this effect.

In an eight-week study in rats with high cholesterol, chaga extract was able to reduce LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides while increasing antioxidant levels.

Similar research has produced the same results while finding that — in addition to reducing LDL cholesterol — chaga increases “good” HDL cholesterol. The latter is known as the “good” type because it helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your bloodstream.

Researchers believe that the antioxidants present in chaga are what cause its effects on cholesterol. But again, more research in humans is necessary to better understand the impact of this fungus on people’s cholesterol.

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Chaga Mushroom Side Effects And Risks

It is unlikely that you would experience any side effects after consuming chaga. However, if you have a general mushroom allergy, then you should obviously avoid chaga.

In rare cases, an individual might also have an allergy to only chaga (this can sometimes occur when it comes to specific mushrosoms). An allergic reaction may result in trouble breathing, changes in heart rate, and loss of consciousness. If any of these occur, consider them medical emergencies.

Chaga mushroom extract is generally well-tolerated. However, no human studies have actually been carried out to determine its safety or appropriate dosage.

Some people should be careful about using chaga mushroom, as it can interfere with some common medications, causing potentially harmful effects. For instance, people with diabetes or who are taking insulin or another blood-sugar-lowering medication may want to be careful about taking chaga, given its effects on blood sugar levels.

Chaga mushroom also contains a peptide that can prevent blood clotting. A study in mice found that chaga inhibited platelet aggregation, which is a measure of how well blood cells clump together — an essential process for clotting.

Of course, research in humans is still necessary, but animal research suggests that chaga extract may interfere with anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs. If you are on any blood-thinning medications, have a bleeding disorder, or are preparing for surgery, make sure you consult with your doctor before taking chaga.

Though several studies show that chaga mushroom may help reduce inflammation, it may also cause your immune system to become more active. This means that people with autoimmune diseases should seek professional medical advice before taking chaga.

Unfortunately, there is no research on the safety of chaga for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

You should bear in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor chaga mushroom and its extracts. This means you should only buy products and supplements from reputable sources.

To reduce the risks of using chaga mushrooms, you should consider:

  • Continuing to take any prescription medications. Chaga should not act as a substitute for traditional medication.
  • Informing a doctor about all medications you are taking. As with other foods, chaga mushroom may alter the effectiveness of various medications.
  • Documenting any side effects from chaga use. If you notice any side effects, you should stop taking chaga. If the adverse effects are severe, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Avoiding other herbal supplements while taking chaga (unless a doctor advises you otherwise).

How To Grow Chaga Mushroom

Inoculating a tree at home with chaga is very difficult. Since the external part of chaga that you harvest isn’t the fruit body, it won’t contain any spores that you can simply use to start growing more chaga mushrooms.

In nature, chaga spores can contaminate birch trees with open wounds. If you live in an area that already has trees with chaga, then your best chance of getting chaga mushrooms to grow on a particular tree is to cut into it and create a wound. Then you just have to hope that some chaga spores blow past and colonize the tree.

However, this strategy entails a few problems.

Firstly, a tree infected with chaga will eventually die. The mushroom continues to grow until it completely blocks the circulation of sap within a tree, killing it in the process. When the tree dies, so will the mushrooms, which means you won’t be able to use them.

Secondly, chaga can take many years to get established in the first place. Even if you create a wound in a tree and expose it to chaga spores, you will have to wait years before you even know if your experiment was successful or not. It can take 5-10 years for chaga to start showing up on the tree.

At the beginning of this guide, it was mentioned that chaga mushroom can be cultivated using simulated mediums (such as potato dextrose agar). Nevertheless, this was done in a lab setting. We also highlighted that this results in a loss of beneficial compounds. So growing chaga at home is simply not worth the effort. It’s not really a practical or realistic endeavor.

You should be aware that cultivating chaga at home is challenging for several reasons:

  • Since chaga grows on birch trees, you would need to plant birch trees on your property, which would be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Chaga mushrooms like to grow in cold climates. If you try to grow chaga in a warm climate, the nutritional content will be spoiled.
  • Chaga needs to be free from pollutants in order to be safe to consume. Like many fungi, chaga readily absorbs pollutants from the air. So, if you live in the city, the chaga you grow will contain a greater percentage of these pollutants compared to wild chaga.

For all of the above reasons, it’s better to either harvest chaga in the wild yourself or purchase harvested wild chaga from a vendor. This is because chaga absorbs a beneficial compound known as betulin from the bark of white birch trees, and this ends up as part of the mushroom’s beneficial compounds that we consume. This may explain why cultivated chaga mushrooms don’t have the same benefits as their wild variety.

If deciding to harvest chaga in the wild, ensure that you do so responsibly. Don’t remove whole chaga mushrooms from trees. As well as preventing the chaga from regrowing, this risks infecting the tree and killing it due to the new hole in its bark.

Instead, when cutting off chaga mushrooms from a tree using a sharp knife or axe, make sure you leave a portion of the chaga mushrooms intact. This will allow the chaga to regrow, giving you a constant supply of these mushrooms.

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Chaga Mushroom Recipes

Like most conk or shelf mushrooms that grow on trees, chaga mushrooms are simply way too tough and woody to use in normal recipes. So we don’t recommend adding them to any meals; you won’t be able to consume the mushrooms, and they could ruin whatever you prepare them with.

Fortunately, though, you can add chaga mushroom powder to smoothies, yogurt, juice, porridge, and cereal. You can also make chaga mushroom tea and chaga mushroom coffee.

How To Make Chaga Mushroom Tea/Coffee

One of the most popular ways to consume chaga is in the form of tea or coffee.

Traditionally, you dry out your chaga and then grind it into a fine powder. After grinding it, then use the powder to create a warm drink similar to tea or coffee.

You can also make chaga mushroom tea from whole chunks of the mushroom. Finally, adding other functional mushrooms to your chaga tea or coffee — like lion’s mane, oyster, or reishi — is a possibility as well. Doing so will provide additional health benefits. If you don’t want to make your own multi-mushroom tea or coffee, there are many vendors that sell mushroom blends.

Making Chaga Mushroom Tea

To extract all of the beneficial compounds from chaga, you should let it simmer in hot water for 10-15 minutes. It’s best to do this on a stovetop instead of simply pouring boiling water from a kettle over the chaga mushroom. This is because hot water from a kettle is unlikely to stay hot for long enough in order to extract all the compounds you want from the mushroom.

Instead, bring a pot with four cups (or one liter) of water to a simmer. After this, all you need to do is add your chaga (either a powder or small chunks) and wait.

Some people like to brew large batches of chaga mushroom tea at a time. If you want to do this, you should simmer a large pot of water for 2-3 hours. This will ensure that you’re extracting all of the medicinal properties from the mushroom. Once you’ve finished simmering the tea, simply strain out the chaga chunks from it.

We recommend consuming chaga mushroom tea immediately and while it’s still hot. You can also sweeten your chaga tea with sugar or maple syrup. Refrigerating leftover tea is good for up to seven days. You can then either reheat it or use it to make a cold drink.

While chaga mixes well with coffee (see below), this mushroom can also serve as a standalone coffee substitute in the form of chaga mushroom tea. The main reason for this is the mushroom’s ability to provide a slow release of energy throughout the day, rather than spiking and crashing in the way caffeine does.

There are other reasons you might want to substitute coffee for chaga as well. Since chaga contains no caffeine, it could help to improve your sleep quality and keep your circadian rhythm in check.

Making Chaga Mushroom Coffee

Making chaga mushroom coffee is incredibly easy. All you need to do is brew your coffee as you normally would, then mix one teaspoon of chaga powder into it.

This is the easiest way to make chaga mushroom coffee, but you can also boil whole chunks of chaga in a pan of water, then use that water to brew your coffee.

When the summer months come around, you can create an iced chaga mushroom coffee using a cup of cold-brewed chaga coffee and a quarter cup of non-dairy milk.

Chaga Mushroom Powder

Using chaga mushroom powder can be a quick and easy way to consume this mushroom. As we have already seen, you can use chaga mushroom powder to make tea and coffee. You can either make the powder yourself by grinding up dried chaga mushrooms, or simply purchase the powder from a reputable vendor. Just make sure that the powder is organic and free from any contaminants.

However, be aware that chaga mushroom powder can come in two different forms:

  • Powder produced from the whole chaga mushroom. Prepared either yourself or by a vendor, this involves harvesting chaga mushrooms found in the wild (such as in Northern Europe), drying them, and grinding both the interior and exterior parts of the mushroom into a fine powder.
  • Chaga mushroom extract powder. This is a more concentrated form of chaga mushroom, so it contains a much higher amount of polysaccharides in the same dosage as whole chaga mushroom powder. To produce these extracts, use a hot water extraction method. Extracts can come in different varieties of strengths.

The upside of chaga mushroom extract powder is that you don’t need to consume as much in order to enjoy the health benefits. But if purchasing an extract, be aware of what its strength is, so that you take the correct dose. If you take too little, you might not get the benefits you’re looking for. On the flip side, taking large doses may cause some side effects, such as stomach upset.

While it is possible to do an extraction yourself, you may feel it’s not worth the time and effort. There are plenty of quality vendors that sell sustainable, nutrient-rich, and safe-to-use chaga mushroom extract powder. Our partner, FreshCap, creates a number of different chaga products – use code ‘HEALINGMAPS’ for a discount.

Another option is using a chaga mushroom extract tincture, which is another concentrated form of the mushroom, which uses an alcohol extraction method. You can also make your own tincture by using this extraction method.

Using a tincture can be an easier way to enjoy the medicinal benefits of this mushroom. Simply take it under the tongue or add to any liquid. This saves you from the effort of needing to make tea or coffee. All you need is an eye dropper, allowing you to take the correct dosage.

Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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