For hundreds of years, the Chaga mushroom has been used to treat a wide variety of diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer. The fungus strengthens the immune system, has an anti-inflammatory effect, and is even a promising remedy for Covid-19. Read everything about the background of Chaga, about its areas of application and possible uses.
Chaga: the healing mushroom from the cold north
The Chaga or also called Schillerporling (Inonotus obliquus) is a black-brown mushroom that grows on various tree species such as alder, beech, or maple, but is particularly common on birch trees.
The fungus is native to cold climates: in North America and Asia, but also in Northern and Eastern Europe. It is therefore also known as the “Pearl of the North”. Occasionally it can also be spotted in Germany, but not to the extent that is the case in more northerly countries. Outside of Eastern Europe, the Chaga was not noticed at all for a long time and has only been the focus of attention there for a few years due to its special effects.
A remedy that has been tried and tested for centuries
The crooked Schillerporling has been used in folk medicine since ancient times. Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, used infusions of this mushroom to wash wounds.
In Siberia, the mushroom has been used since the 12th century against parasites, tuberculosis, inflammation, and, due to its positive effects, gastrointestinal problems. The mushroom was also recommended for heart and liver diseases, diabetes, and cancer. Allegedly, the Grand Duke of Kyiv Vladimir Monomakh was cured of lip cancer with the Chaga at this time.
The fungus was most commonly used in the form of infusions, inhalations, aqueous extracts, or antiseptic soaps. In the mid-20th century, Chaga infusions were even used as a substitute for tea in Siberia. Chaga extracts were also used in Asia, Russia, and the Baltic countries due to their extensive positive effects.
How to recognize the Chaga from trees
The Chaga begins its growth inside surviving trees (usually birches). After a few years, the tree bark breaks open, and a hard and misshapen growth forms that are black and brittle on the outside and brown and crumbly on the inside. Seeing these growths, also called sclerotia, makes one think of a cancerous growth on the tree rather than a fungus.
These growths can grow on the tree for up to 80 years and can reach a diameter of over 50 cm in old trees. The tree eventually dies. Only then does the fungus, i.e. its fruiting body, grow out of the rotten trunk. After a year, the fruiting body is mature, releases its spores, and now decomposes itself.
The Chaga is harvested and used in the form of sclerotia. But mycelium also contains many health-promoting substances. This can now be grown very well together with the fruiting body. So far, however, the sclerotia cannot be grown under artificial conditions and therefore come exclusively from the wild collections. When harvesting the fungus, it is important that it is only sawn off living or freshly cut birch trees, otherwise, the content of the active ingredients will be greatly reduced.
The properties and healing effects of medicinal mushrooms
Recent studies have confirmed many of the beneficial properties of Chaga that have made the mushroom so popular in folk medicine. However, these only refer to results from in vitro studies (test tubes) and from in vivo studies on animals. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of meaningful evidence of the effects on humans.
The beneficial properties of Chaga are the following:
- lipid-lowering (reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease)
- antiparasitic (acts against parasites)
- immunomodulatory (regulates the immune system)
- neuroprotective (protects the nerves)
- antiallergic (counters to allergies)
- helps against fatigue
- has a very positive effect on the intestinal flora
The active ingredients
Chaga contains over 200 active biological substances. The extensive positive effects of Chaga mentioned above are mainly due to four main components. These include polysaccharides, polyphenols, triterpenes, and melanin.
The polysaccharides (especially the beta-1,3- and beta-1,6-D-glucans), which are the most researched, for this reason, have the greatest range of effects. They play a significant role in the anti-cancer, anti-hyperglycaemic, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of Chaga, among others.
Melanin is responsible for the black color of the fungus. Like the polyphenols and triterpenes contained in Chaga, it has an antioxidant effect and can therefore counteract inflammatory processes and aging.
Another substance that occurs specifically in Chaga is betulin, a precursor of betulinic acid. Betulin is named after the birch tree (Betula), in whose white cork the substance occurs in large quantities. The Chaga absorbs the substance over the course of its life and is therefore only found in mushrooms that have been able to grow on the birch for a few years. It is believed that betulin plays a significant role in the anti-cancer effects of Chaga.
Inotodiol is also a substance that occurs specifically in Chaga and has anti-inflammatory and histamine-inhibiting effects.
The Chaga mushroom for a healthy immune system
The immune system is essential to our health as it protects our body from bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, cancer cells, toxins, and other foreign substances. The immune system includes various organs as well as white blood cells, which are also called leukocytes.
Studies have shown that the polysaccharides from Chaga increased the proliferation of lymphocytes (a type of leukocyte) in mice. The Chaga also increased the secretion of cytokines, which act as messengers in the immune system. They are used for communication between the various immune cells, which in this way coordinate their joint fight against pathogens.
The Chaga in allergies and autoimmune diseases
It could also be shown that the polysaccharides from the Chaga have a positive influence on the balance between the T-lymphocytes TH1 and TH2. This balance plays an important role in a healthy immune system.
Thus, TH1 cells promote inflammation while TH2 cells inhibit inflammation. An imbalance can lead to the development of chronic diseases such as allergies or autoimmune diseases. Chaga could therefore be integrated into the naturopathic therapy concept for these diseases, especially since it also has a very positive effect on the intestinal flora, the condition of which is of central importance in allergies and autoimmune diseases.
In addition, there is the histamine-inhibiting effect of the Chaga mushroom, which can also help to improve allergies. In a study on mice, an interesting observation was made that the inotodiol in Chaga suppressed the function of mast cells, which release histamine upon exposure to an allergen.
Possible relief from histamine intolerance
The histamine-inhibiting effect of the Chaga mushroom could also be helpful for people with histamine intolerance. According to testimonials from those affected, drinking Chaga tea every day can mean that after about 6-8 months almost all foods containing histamine can be eaten again without any problems.
Help with skin diseases
Chaga is traditionally used for skin diseases such as acne or neurodermatitis as well as athlete’s foot or age spots. It has been observed that eczema and psoriasis as well as problems with wound healing could also be improved with the Chaga.
Due to the antioxidants contained in the mushroom and the wide range of its ingredients, it also has a cleansing, protective and rejuvenating effect on the skin. The Chaga is therefore already part of many cosmetic products. A healthy intestinal flora, which Chaga contributes to, is also essential for healthy and beautiful skin.
Chaga for psoriasis
In a 1973 study, taking a Chaga extract was found to be effective for psoriasis. The 50 subjects consumed a teaspoon of Chaga extract previously dissolved in a glass of boiling water three times a day 20 to 30 minutes before meals.
The participants were divided into three groups: 24 of the subjects took the extract for three to six months; 18 subjects took it for a year and 8 took it for more than two years. After three months the Chaga started to help and after nine to twelve months its effect was greatest.
According to the researchers, by taking the Chaga extract, 38 of the subjects were completely cured, 8 showed improvements, and 4 had no effect from the Chaga.
First, the rashes on the upper body subsided, then those on the scalp, upper limbs, hips, and lower legs. All subjects tolerated the intake of the Chaga extract without any problems.
However, the disadvantages of this study are that it was not a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. So there was no control group, although one can almost rule out that a placebo effect could have cured so many people with a disease that was considered incurable.
Protection against inflammation
Chronic inflammation is an important cause of a number of diseases, including numerous types of cancer, atherosclerosis, autoimmune diseases, and even obesity. These diseases involve an imbalance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines.
Both animal and cellular studies show that Chaga may decrease the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Although these are initially important when a pathogen penetrates, since they attract the appropriate immune cells to the site of infection, they should not get out of hand so that the inflammation subsides again after the pathogen has been successfully combated. Otherwise, there is a risk of chronic inflammation. Remedies like Chaga can reduce the risk of chronic inflammation.
For example, studies on rats given Chaga extract for seven days showed that it protected them from inflammation. In addition, it has been shown that the extract also has an analgesic effect.
A promising cure for cancer
There have been a number of cell studies on the anti-tumor activity of Chaga extracts, including cells from the digestive system, lungs, liver, and mammary glands.
Studies in mice showed that tumors developed more slowly or were even inhibited by the administration of Chaga extract. In addition, a reduction in the number of metastases was observed.
Researchers have not yet agreed on the mechanism of action of Chaga’s antitumor effects. Some hold that the mushroom stimulates the immune system appropriately, while others hold that its antioxidant ability prevents cancer cells from forming.
It is currently believed that the high levels of polysaccharides in Chaga are responsible for its anti-cancer potential. Despite the limited number of animal studies and the lack of human studies on the effects of Chaga on cancer, the results of previous studies are promising.
Other types of mushrooms also show an anti-cancer effect, such as Reishi, which is already officially used in Japan in accompanying cancer therapy. Read more about its extensive effects in our article Reishi – the mushroom of eternal life.
Chaga as a potential therapeutic for COVID-19
It has already been proven many times that some types of fungi have both an antiviral and anti-inflammatory effect. Both effects play an important role in COVID-19.
A 2020 article that looked specifically at herbs and mushrooms as alternative treatments for COVID-19 emphasized the promising effects of Chaga. As far back as traditional medicine, Chaga has been widely used in Asia and some parts of Europe to make breathing easier, as the mushroom helps reduce inflammation in the nasopharynx.
Antiviral effects have been demonstrated in both animal and cell studies. These were observed with herpes viruses and influenza viruses, among others. The Chaga could inhibit RNA and DNA viruses, suppressing infectivity and preventing viruses from entering cells.
Especially with COVID-19, the anti-inflammatory effect of Chaga is important to reduce the risk of the dreaded cytokine storm. Excessive immune reactions that lead to severe courses are referred to as cytokine storms.