Benefits, Risks, and Tips of Brewing Chaga Mushroom
Chaga mushrooms are experiencing a serious revival thanks to trendy mushroom coffees and teas.
While you might mistake it for a giant rotten potato instead of your typical toad stool, people have been using chaga mushrooms for centuries for their health benefits.
Let’s dive into the benefits – and potential complications – of adding this mushroom to the menu.
Chaga mushroom (aka Inonotus obliquus) are native to the cooler climates of China, Korea, Russia, Japan and the Baltic States. To get your hands on one of these mushrooms, you’ll need to live near birch trees – which is the only tree this filthy mushroom grows on.
Mushrooms look like a 10 to 15 inch burnt clump with a soft orange core and were traditionally grated and steeped like tea.
Today, chaga is still used in many lines of alternative medicine. You will find the fungus in tea, powdered coffee blends, and other powdered or capsule supplements.
Chaga fans will tell you that these mushrooms are prized for their medicinal properties (and can even make a delicious cup of tea). But here’s what the science has to say about the potential health benefits of chaga.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find reliable information on the nutrition of chaga mushrooms. But like the others mushrooms, these organisms are believed to provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as:
2. Antiviral activity
Chaga mushrooms may possess anti-virus fungal superpowers.
A 2011 study discovered that chaga had antiviral effects on kidney cells infected with hepatitis C in pigs. Basically, they found out that the chaga may have even stopped the production of viral particles, meaning hepatitis C couldn’t replicate as efficiently.
In a 2017 study, the researchers evaluated a shipment of therapeutic mushrooms, including chaga. They noted that in studies on cats, chaga had antiviral effects against viral illnesses like herpes, flu, and stomach infections.
Another 2011 study found that chaga extract altered immune responses in mice.
Obviously, you’re not a cat or a mouse, so we need more research to show how chaga’s antiviral benefits help humans. Still, the evidence for chaga’s antiviral abilities looks promising.
3. Anti-inflammatory effects
Chaga mushrooms can also help strengthen your immune system and reduce symptoms of inflammation caused by immune responses.
A 2020 review shows that chaga decreases the release of inflammatory cytokines. Basically, cytokines help signal your immune system to fight off foreign pathogens. But too much of a good thing can lead to inflammation.
The same review also found that chaga can reduce the release of nitric oxide (NO) and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), two substances that play an important role in inflammatory processes in your body.
Scientists noted in a animal study 2019 that chaga extract may also reduce inflammation associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But, we need more human studies before we can recommend the use of chaga to help with IBD.
4. Anti-tumor potential
Animal studies also show promising results for chaga fungi. A 2016 study found that feeding mice with chaga mushroom extract reduced tumors by 60 percent and the number of metastases – tumors that had spread from the original site – by 25 percent.
In an old 2009 study on cancer cells, the researchers found that chaga compounds cause cancer cells to self-destruct. And chaga doesn’t seem harm healthy cellsunlike cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
But it’s important to note that human studies on chaga fungi and cancer are lacking. And these fungi do not replace traditional cancer treatments.
5. Lower cholesterol
Chaga mushrooms have tons of antioxidants hidden in their crisp, dusty exterior that might just lower low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – the “bad” one.
Research is limited, but a 2009 study in rats, the antioxidants in chaga helped lower LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol (TC), and triglycerides (TG).
Since high cholesterol remains a significant risk factor for heart disease, chaga mushrooms may help with heart health, but we need more human studies to prove it.
6. More graceful aging process
Before you stocked up on retinol cream, did you think your new skin care secret could be a fungus? Chaga mushrooms can help provide relief to your skin throughout the aging process thanks to its antioxidants.
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals in your body which increase oxidative stress and cause typical signs of aging, such as wrinkles and sagging skin. Because antioxidants help protect your cells and tissues from damage, chaga fungi can help slow these signs of aging. Key word: power.
For now, it’s only theoretical that your chaga friend can help these signs of aging and stress. There hasn’t been any research specifically looking at chaga and anti-aging effects.
7. Lower blood sugar
Could mushrooms help your sugar problems? We still need more human research, but lab results show that chaga fungi can help people manage symptoms of diabetes.
In a laboratory study 2014, chaga had more powerful alpha-glucosidase inhibitor activities compared to acarbose (a medicine used to treat type 2 diabetes). In non-medical parlance, this means that the chaga helped prevent the small intestine from absorbing carbohydrates.
In addition, a older study from 2006 found that obese, diabetic rats had lower blood sugar levels after 8 weeks of consuming chaga mushrooms.
But while chaga can relieve symptoms of diabetes in the lab, it can affect how diabetes medications work in the real world. Since we are not sure how chaga affects people with IRL diabetes, be sure to consult your doctor before using chaga. Not all mushrooms are magic for your body!
While all of these potential benefits set you up for foraging in the woods, remember that many of these effects have not been fully proven in humans.
And like any substance you put into your body, chaga can cause side effects. In addition, this medicinal mushroom can influence how other drugs work. Be careful if you decide to use chaga and discuss it with your doctor first, especially if you are taking other medications.
Here are some potential complications of chaga mushrooms.
Use with diabetes medications
Chaga can increase the effects insulin or medicines that help lower blood sugar levels, such as alpha-glucosidase inhibitors (acarbose and miglitol). This can be a big problem.
The combination of chaga and these medicines may increase the hypoglycaemic effects and increase the risk of hypoglycaemia (i.e. hypoglycaemia).
Be sure to check with your doctor first, or avoid chaga altogether, if you are managing diabetes with these medications.
Chaga mushrooms are high in oxalate, which can potentially damage the kidneys if you overdo it.
In a report 2020, a man who used chaga for 5 years experienced nausea and vomiting. A trip to the emergency room later diagnosed her with end-stage kidney disease.
Another individual took 5 teaspoons of chaga daily as a cancer treatment and developed kidney problems. Doctors diagnosed him with kidney failure, possibly due to chaga fungi.
These complications require even more research beyond the anecdotal events reported. But it is better not to overdo it and not risk kidney problems.
Use with anticoagulant drugs
Some evidence suggests that chaga fungi may prevent blood from clotting, which means they may increase the effects of anticoagulants (aka blood thinners).
If you are taking these medications (including warfarin, heparin, and aspirin), it’s best to avoid chaga or talk to your doctor first so you don’t risk potentially dangerous complications.
If you’ve seen your doctor and got the A-OK to add chaga to your daily routine, you can purchase chaga tea or capsules. But if you’re in the mood for adventure, you can find your own ugly mushroom and cook it yourself, as long as you live near birch trees.
Hot tip: You will probably have a hard time finding these mushrooms in the wild, but try checking trees in winter. (And of course, make sure you know what you’re doing before picking and eating wild mushrooms.)
Here’s how to prepare it once you’ve got your hands on a chaga:
- Wash it and let it air dry in a cool, dark place. It will take a few days.
- Once dry, you can powder it. Remember to keep the chaga in a sealed container.
- Making tea is easy, just add 1-2 teaspoons of chaga powder to your cup and fill with boiling water.
- Let it steep for about 5 minutes, then strain the ground chaga.
- Optional: to taste with sugar, honey or milk.
If you can’t find your own chaga in the wild, many retailers sell it online or in stores. You can also find it in capsule form if you don’t like sipping chaga tea.
Chaga mushrooms offer a bunch of potential health benefits – from nutrition to antiviral activity and anti-inflammatory powers. It can even help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Still, there is a lack of medical evidence that chaga is a panacea. Chaga mushroom products are also classified as supplements, so they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way that drugs are. Basically, the manufacturer has to make sure that a supplement is safe and the FDA cannot confirm that it is safe or effective.
Before committing to chaga, you should also consider other potential risks and consult your doctor. Chaga can affect the kidneys, change the way your blood clots, and interact with other medicines.