The Diamond of the Forest. King of the Medicinal Mushrooms. A Gift from God. Chaga mushroom. Inonotus obliquus is a wild medicinal mushroom that goes by many names. It is native to the Northern Hemisphere, where its circumpolar distribution is particularly abundant in boreal deciduous forests, of which birch (Betula spp.) forests are its primary habitat.
The Health Benefits of Chaga:
Chaga is truly one of the world's most powerful food-medicines, having one of the highest levels of antioxidants found in nature, and boasting a myriad of nutritional and medicinal properties.
For those wanting to increase their intake of antioxidants and supercharge their health, chaga is the number one choice. This medicinal mushroom supports vitality, wellness, and longevity.
Chaga is a fungus that is famous for its abilities to modulate the immune system, fight free radicals, battle infections, alleviate inflammation, improve digestion, balance blood sugar, lower bad cholesterol, support heart health, maintain healthy hormones, calm the nervous system, and beautify the hair, skin, and nails, among many other health benefits.
This polypore mushroom is known to be therapeutic for cancer, candida, asthma, allergies, IBD (ulcerative colitis and Chron's disease), and a variety of other conditions.
Chaga is safe to use for all ages and all stages of life (1 - 100+ years). It has no known side effects and is safe for pregnant women, which may drink chaga tea daily during their entire pregnancy. This exludes people with rare tree mushroom allergies. Chaga has been granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status from the World Health Organization.¹
The Nutritional and Medicinal Content of Chaga:
The Nature and Harvesting of Chaga:
Chaga for consumption should be sustainably harvested from living birch trees. It appears in the form of sclerotium, which is a hardened mass of mycelium, in contrast to most other species of mushrooms, where the fruiting bodies are what we harvest for food and medicine.
Fruiting bodies of chaga are considered by some to be "The Holy Grail" of mycology, as they are an elusive and evanescent phenomenon that occurs only within a certain time frame after the mushroom and its host tree dies. If you discover the fruiting bodies of chaga, do not disturb them, as these will perform the sporulation, resulting in the proliferation of the fungus, which is of paramount importance to its preservation.
The various theories on the nature and life cycle of chaga are conflicting in the scientific community. Some scientists state that chaga is parasitic to their host trees, whereas a more holistic view sees it as a symbiotic relationship, where the chaga provides protection to its host at places where the tree is damaged. The symbiosis of the relationship between chaga and its host trees have been observed for extended periods of time and can last for decades.
Always harvest chaga sustainably by leaving some of the sclerotium in the tree, so that the chaga can regenerate and grow back. Harvesting chaga in summer can often be done by hand. In winter, when the mushroom is frozen, a hatchet or Sami knife is required to break it loose from its host tree. When using tools, be mindful and make sure you are not damaging the host tree in any way, especially the bark around the area of where the chaga comes out of the stem. Chaga is relatively rare and it's always wonderful when you find it on your hikes and foraging adventures.
The Processing and Storage of Chaga:
You may use the chaga that you harvest fresh or dry it for storage. The optimal way of drying chaga is sun-drying. To optimize the conversion of ergosterol (provitamin D2) into ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), which is beneficial nutritionally speaking, sun-cure the chaga in the sun for 48 hours (put it out at sunrise and take it in at sunset). After this, you may finish the drying inside, or keep drying the chaga in the sun during the day, and taking it in during the night.
If in the Arctic during the polar nights of winter, or the wheather conditions are not in your favor, dry the chaga inside in a dehydrator at 48° C. (ca. 118° F.) or close to your fireplace. It is important to properly dry the chaga to avoid mold growth.
Next, you can break the chaga up into chunks in a large mortar and pestle, or wrap the chaga in a towel and break it apart with a hammer. Finally, store the chaga chunks in air-tight glass containers in a cool, dark, and dry place.
The Extraction of Chaga:
Chaga's nutrients and medicines requires extraction in order to be harnessed for their health benefits. The technique and medium of extraction determines the fraction of nutrients and medicines that are extracted.
The History of the Use of Chaga:
Chaga has been a staple of ancestral Arctic cultures and native Nordic peoples for centuries. It has been used for millennia by the indigenous across Northern Eurasia and was also part of the tribal apothecaries of the natives in North America.
This medicinal mushroom was featured in the first known book on herbalism, Shennong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica), a Chinese classic on herbal medicine, dating back to around 200 CE. According to TCM and Daiost herbalism, chaga nourishes jing (primordial energy) and shen (spiritual energy), two of the three treasures including Qi (daily energy).
In addition to becoming a central component of folk medicine, chaga was first used as kindling and coal extension, allowing nomadic peoples to travel with fire. Discovered in the Austrian-Italian Alps in 1991, "Ötzi the Iceman", a man living around 5 000+ years ago, was found carrying chaga in his belt. Researchers believe that he and his people used it as a portable form of kindling and a medicine to heal wounds and treat infections.
In the 12th century, Tsar Vladimir Monomah was said to be treated for lip cancer with chaga. In 1955, chaga was approved for public use against cancer by the Medical Academy of Science in Moscow, Russia.
The modern Western world was mostly unaware of chaga before it was introduced by the Russian literature Nobel Laureate, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Cancer Ward, published initially in 1968 and in English in 1969.
One of the most well-known Western scientific studies on the use of chaga for health began in 1984 and was conducted by Dr. Kirsti Kahlos and her team at the School of Pharmacology, University of Helsinki, Finland. This results of this research demonstrated the antitumor, anticancer, antiviral, and antifungal properties that chaga possesses.² In Finland, chaga was used as a coffee substitute during World War II, due to food rationing.
Chaga has been scientifically studied over the years both in vitro and in vivo, yet the latter is lacking in the form of clinical trials on humans, to substantiate scientific knowledge about this medicinal wonder mushroom, which our ancestors already had wisdom about. As stated in an article written by Jasenka Piljac Zegarac, PhD, on Brunswick Laboratories' website: "...a thorough investigation in the clinical setting, via clinical studies/trials specially designed for nutraceutical functions, is necessary to confirm any beneficial in vivo effects. Due to the continuing interest in this species’ biological properties, future studies will likely shed new light on the effectiveness of chaga in specific disease models and medical conditions".³
1. Wolfe, D., 2012, Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California
2. Kahlos, K., Langas, L., and Hiltunen R., 1987, "Antitumor activity of some compounds and fractions from an n-hexane extract of Inonotus obliquus in vitro", Acta Pharm Fenica 96: 33-40.
3. Piljac Zegarac, J., PhD, 2015, "Magical Mushroom Chaga: Functional Components and Biological Activity", <https://brunswicklabs.com/blog/chaga-functional-components-and-biological-activity/>.