These anti-inflammatory, antioxidant fungi have some promising health perks. Here are the most notable benefits we know so far.
Everything is not always as it seems, and such is the case with chaga mushrooms. This type of functional mushroom—which also goes by the names “the Cinder Conk” and, more formally, Inonotus obliquus—hardly looks like a conventional mushroom at all.
While they’re full of potential medicinal properties, on which the research continues to grow, chaga isn’t your typical produce-section mushroom (which boast healthy, nutritional benefits of their own, of course). While you won’t likely find them in your local supermarket next to the portabella and white button mushrooms, you also don’t have to go foraging in the woods to get your hands on this fungus. You can order chaga mushrooms online or pick some up at a local specialty food store.
What are chaga mushrooms?
Chaga mushrooms are a rare type of mushroom highly coveted for its health-promoting powers.
"Chaga mushrooms are a type of medicinal adaptogenic mushroom that grow on birch trees in cold climates,” explains Jenna Volpe, RDN, holistic registered dietitian nutritionist in Austin, Texas. “They blend in with the wood, which makes them more difficult to spot in nature."
As an adaptogenic mushroom, chaga is believed to help restore equilibrium in the body by helping it adapt to stressors. For this reason, they’re often used in herbal teas, coffee alternatives, tinctures, and powders. Chaga users tend to treat this ingredient more like medicine than food, since these don’t make a good pizza topping.
Using chaga mushrooms for their medicinal benefits isn’t anything new. Historians have traced their use back as far as the 12th century, back to ancient Russia, Siberia, Poland, and Asia. For centuries, the medicinal properties of chaga have been harnessed to treat digestive disorders, tumors, and heart and liver disorders.
In recent years, the popularity of chaga mushrooms—and adaptogenic functional mushrooms in general—has exploded. “Due to their recent popularity and increase in demand commercially, combined with their very long and slow growth cycle, chaga mushrooms are at risk of becoming endangered and eventually extinct in the wild,” Volpe says.
If you have your heart set on trying chaga, be sure to shop sustainably sourced chaga so Earth’s inhabitants can continue reaping its benefits for years to come.
Top Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms
The research around medicinal mushrooms, including chagas, is still ongoing—but this fungus has been utilized for health and healing across the globe for centuries for a reason. Here's what we know so far about the health benefits chaga mushrooms can deliver.
Chaga mushrooms are packed with anti-inflammatory compounds.
A little inflammation is nothing to be scared of. In fact, it’s the body’s natural immune response to injury, infection, and other harmful stimuli. Without it, we couldn’t heal from bruises or broken bones, or fight off the common cold. But chronic inflammation can be a problem—it causes damage that, left unchecked, has been implicated in leading to several health concerns, from asthma to cardiovascular disease.
Chaga mushrooms have well-documented anti-inflammatory properties, Volpe says, pointing to a 2022 study published in Molecules: “Chaga mushroom extracts of water and alcohol were able to protect cells from inflammation induced by the cell wall pieces of certain types of pathogenic, pro-inflammatory microbes that often invade the digestive tracts and systemic circulation of people prone to higher levels of inflammation,” she explains.
Chaga mushrooms are a noteworthy source of antioxidants.
Berries, carrots, and spinach are all foods high in antioxidants—and so are chaga mushrooms. Antioxidants are an important part of a healthy diet because they fight off unstable free radical molecules, which wreak havoc on cells and contribute to disease.
“Chaga mushrooms are said to contain higher levels of antioxidants compared to other types of mushrooms,” Volpe notes. An earlier study found that cells pre-treated with chaga had around 40 percent less oxidative damage from free radicals, she says. In fact, some researchers consider chaga mushrooms to be one of the most powerful sources of antioxidants in the world, with early in vitro studies providing evidence enough for chaga-derived polysaccharides to be considered “one of the valuable sources of antioxidant and antitumor compounds,” notes a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports.
Chaga mushrooms show promising immunity-boosting effects.
Animal and in vitro studies (not tested in human subjects yet), show evidence of chagas’ potential to aid immune function, particularly by increasing white blood cells, per 2021 research in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. According to earlier research, chaga mushrooms increase cytokines—signaling proteins that help control inflammation, communicate with white blood cells, and help regulate your immune response.
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Chaga mushrooms may improve gut health via prebiotics.
Looking to improve your gut health? A diet rich in prebiotics and probiotics could help your gut microbiome flourish, and chaga mushrooms may be a good source of both. Since chaga has historically been used to treat digestive ailments, it comes as no surprise that these mushrooms could play a role in supporting a healthy gut.
“The polyphenols in chaga are antioxidants and prebiotics, meaning they help support the growth of healthy, beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome,” Volpe says. She adds that a 2017 mice study found that the polysaccharides (a.k.a. carbohydrate molecules) in chaga mushrooms possess prebiotic properties that improve the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut. Researchers have also found that chaga helps increase gut microbiome diversity in mice studies—this makes sense since prebiotics act as food sources for probiotics (the various microbes that make up the gut biome).
Chaga mushrooms may help lower bad cholesterol.
Nearly two in five U.S. adults have high cholesterol, the CDC estimates. Though it shows no symptoms, high cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease. A healthy diet and regular exercise can help lower cholesterol, and chaga mushrooms could play a role in a heart-healthy lifestyle. While much of the research involves animal studies, they show how chaga mushrooms can lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol levels.
“The exact mechanism of how chaga mushrooms reduce cholesterol is unknown, but it could be explained by its anti-inflammatory properties,” Volpe suggests. “High cholesterol levels are often caused by higher levels of inflammation, and the abundant anti-inflammatory constituents in chaga help to significantly reduce inflammation levels in the body.”
Chaga mushrooms indicate anti-cancer and anti-tumor effects.
“While more research is needed in-vitro and in humans, a 2021 study conducted by the Journal of Ethnopharmacology concluded that chaga mushrooms can make a wonderful complementary ally for breast cancer patients,” Volpe says. “The study found that chaga mushroom extracts suppressed tumor growth in mice and even selectively induced cancer cell death through activating beneficial pathways and simultaneously inhibiting pathways that support cancer cell growth.”
Chaga’s anti-cancer and anti-tumor potential has been studied in colon cancer and lung cancer. A 2016 study found that chaga mushrooms reduced tumors by 60 percent in mice with a type of lung cancer. Another 2019 in vitro study found noteworthy evidence of chaga mushroom extract’s ability to inhibit proliferation of lung cancer cells. Other studies suggest its anti-cancer activity may make it a useful treatment option in conjunction with chemotherapy, though more studies are ultimately needed to confirm its possible role in cancer prevention and treatment in conjunction with traditional treatments.
How to Use Chaga Mushrooms Safely
Chaga has a bitter taste, and it’s rare, so it’s not to be consumed in large quantities. Too much chaga can also have negative health effects. It could interact with some blood thinning medications, and there have been cases of chaga-induced kidney injury, since chaga is high in oxalates—excess oxalates can lead to kidney stones and potential kidney damage.
Chaga mushrooms are often extracted or pulverized into supplement form, taken as a capsule, tablet, tea, or tincture, or added in its powdered form to liquids like smoothies or mushroom coffee blends. There are many chaga-infused drinks and teas on the market if you’re looking for an alternative to your daily cup of coffee or tea. How much chaga depends on the form you’re using, but experts generally recommend consuming no more than 2,000 mg of chaga powder (2 tablespoons) per day.
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