What is chaga? Chaga is a type of mushroom, but it’s so much more than that. This highly beneficial fungus produces a woody growth—called a “conk”—that can be utilized for a number of medicinal purposes. The chaga mushroom has been used for hundreds of years to strengthen the immune system and optimize overall well-being. Here’s what you should know about how this super fungus benefits your health, plus a recipe for chaga tea.
What Is Chaga?
The chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) can be found growing on the bark of birch trees in the frigid regions of Northern Europe, Siberia, Russia, Alaska, and Northern Canada. Depending on the location, chaga may be called black mass, birch canker polypore, clinker polypore, and cinder conk.
As that last moniker hints, chaga’s conk (which is a mass of mycelium called the sclerotium that, on average, is between 10 and 15 inches in size) looks somewhat like a piece of burnt charcoal. When you split it open, however, you find a soft, orange core.
Chaga has been a part of Russian folk medicine traditions and folk remedies in other parts of Northern Europe for hundreds of years. It’s been used to treat stomach pain, parasites, tuberculosis, diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, and certain kinds of cancer.
The traditional method for accessing chaga mushroom benefits is to grate it into a fine powder and use that to brew tea. It’s now possible to purchase chaga pre-powdered as well as in capsule form. But why would you want to? Read on to find out!
5 Health Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms
Research links chaga mushrooms to several health benefits, including stimulating the immune system and lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels. We compiled a list of five chaga benefits that have been validated by scientific studies.
1. Boosts Immune System Function
A study published in Mycobiology found that chaga has great potential as an adaptogen and an immune enhancer. Based on research conducted at the School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Microbiology at Seoul National University in Korea, scientists concluded that chaga can restore immune function in chemically immunosuppressed mice.
This indicates chaga can be used to help the body fight off infections ranging from the common cold to much more serious illnesses. And it may hold special applications for immunocompromised or immunosuppressed individuals—for example, cancer patients.
Separate research published in 2011 examined the mechanism behind chaga’s immune-enhancing effects and found that it has to do with compounds called cytokines. These specialized proteins regulate the immune system. Chaga appears to modulate the release of these helpful proteins, which in turn amps up immune function.
2. Fights Inflammation
Inflammation forms an important part of your body’s response to injury, but when it goes on too long, it can lead to the development of conditions such as heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
3. Balances Blood Sugar Levels
A number of studies have found that chaga can lower blood sugar levels, making it a promising method for managing diabetes symptoms, according to a 2014 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal.
A 2017 study done with mice with induced type 2 diabetes showed that polysaccharides derived from chaga can counteract changes to body weight and fat mass, reduce fasting blood glucose levels, improve glucose tolerance, and correct insulin resistance, among other beneficial effects.
Another study done with mice found that chaga brought about an average reduction in blood sugar levels of 31% in just 3 weeks’ time!
Although large-scale studies with human participants have yet to be conducted, chaga certainly appears to be an exciting possible treatment for diabetes.
4. Reduces Cholesterol Levels
Chaga has also been shown to lower cholesterol levels, making it a valuable tool when it comes to improving and maintaining the health of your heart.
An 8-week study done with rats found that chaga mushroom extract reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels as well as total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. At the same time, it boosted antioxidant levels! The researchers concluded that it appears to be able to prevent lipid oxidation, a negative outcome of excess free radicals, thereby improving your overall heart health.
As with chaga’s effect on blood sugar, more research is needed to confirm these benefits for humans, but so far, so good!
5. May Help to Prevent and Treat Cancer
Chaga has shown impressive anti-cancer effects, both in animal trials as well as test-tube studies. Scientists believe this has to do with chaga’s high antioxidant content, including the anti-tumor antioxidant triterpenes, which can protect cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
A study done with mice found that chaga reduced tumor size by 60%, leading the authors to conclude that it could be used as “a natural remedy for cancer suppression.” Chaga has also been shown to halt the growth of cancer cells and even induce cancer cell death, according to findings published in Phytotherapy Research.
Again, researchers will need to test how these results translate to human subjects, but so far they have been highly encouraging.
How to Brew Chaga Tea
If you’re interested in getting in on chaga mushroom benefits, brewing yourself a cup of chaga mushroom tea is one of the best—and most traditional—routes to go.
While you can find powdered chaga in tea bags, many recommend buying chaga chunks. That ensures you’re using fresh, potent chaga.
You’ll want to choose the right vessel to brew your chaga tea, since it requires a long steeping time and may stain delicate porcelain teapots. High-end tea company Cup & Leaf recommends heating 1 liter of water to a temperature of between 140 °F and 160 °F, which is under boiling. Pouring truly boiling water on chaga can destroy the precious antioxidants it contains.
You’ll want all your chunks of chaga to be a consistent size, around 1” cubes. Chaga is quite tough—Cup & Leaf notes that you’ll need a hammer to break up larger chunks. The best technique for doing so is to wrap your chaga in a cloth, place it on a durable work surface, and hit it a few times until it splits into smaller pieces.
In order to allow the hot water to absorb all the compounds from the chaga, you’ll need to let it steep for at least an hour. Once the chaga tea has turned a dark mahogany color, it’s ready to consume.
Don’t toss out the chaga chunks once the tea has brewed! You can reuse them two more times after the initial batch. Then, Cup & Leaf suggests burning them as incense or grinding them to a powder and consuming that way.
Despite its dark color, chaga has a mild flavor and pairs well with a variety of spices. Try brewing a chaga mushroom chai or vanilla and maple chaga tea.
Side Effects of Chaga
While side effects from chaga consumption aren't common, they can occur, particularly for those on blood thinning medication or with a bleeding disorder, as a protein found in chaga can prevent blood clotting.
Likewise, individuals with diabetes may wish to consult with a health care provider before taking medicinal chaga as a tea or powder due to the effects on blood sugar levels.
Chaga also comes with a cautionary warning for those with an autoimmune disease, as it may overstimulate the immune system and lead to an adverse reaction. There are also no studies done on pregnant or breastfeeding women, so consult with your OB-GYN before consuming chaga when carrying or nursing.
The FDA does not monitor the manufacture or sale of chaga products, including chaga extracts and tinctures, so be sure to do your due diligence and purchase this medicinal mushroom from a reputable distributor.