Chaga mushroom is an unusual looking ‘shroom with no typical stem and cap. It is actually a parasitic fungus that grows on birch trees and has a lumpy, charcoal appearance. Because of its prevalence in Northern Europe and Russia, the historical evidence supporting the medicinal use of chaga begins in Russia as far back as possibly the 12th century. Chaga mushroom measures around 146,000 on the oxygen radical absorbent capacity(ORAC) scale. This places it amongst the highest sources of antioxidants in the world. It is this powerful antioxidant property along with its powerful effects on the immune system that makes chaga such an exciting mushroom with many potential health benefits. The following benefits seem to really stand out with chaga.
1. Prevent and Treat Cancer
The earliest account of possible anti-cancer effects of chaga date back to a 12th century Russian Tsar who reportedly cured lip cancer by consuming chaga tea.
Chaga mushrooms contain high amounts of inotodiol, betulin and one of its derivatives betulinic acid, which are molecules known as triterpenes. Modern research has identified these molecules as having the ability to reduce the proliferation of human lung cancer cells (1)Pubmed Central Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a Future Potential Medicinal Fungus in Oncology? A Chemical Study and a Comparison of the Cytotoxicity Against Human Lung Adenocarcinoma Cells (A549) and Human Bronchial Epithelial Cells (BEAS-2B). Chaga extracts have been shown to have antitumor and anticancer properties that make it not only useful in cancer treatment, but also effective in combination with traditional chemotherapy due to the powerful immunomodulatory and antioxidant effects. A study in 2020 showed that not only can chaga help keep cancer in remission, but its anti-inflammatory properties seem to help reduce GI tract complications that are common in chemotherapy (2)Pubmed Deciphering the antitumoral potential of the bioactive metabolites from medicinal mushroom Inonotus obliquus.
There are many studies including this one that identify the polysaccharides, triterpenes, and melanin found in chaga as having many biological effects including inhibition of tumor growth and stimulation of the immune system (3)Pubmed The pharmacological potential and possible molecular mechanisms of action of Inonotus obliquus from preclinical studies. All of the research and anecdotal evidence suggests that chaga may play an important role as a therapeutic agent in the treatment and management of cancer.
2. Prevent Viral Infections
Chaga mushroom has been studied extensively for its potential anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. As a result, researchers have found that the compounds found in chaga may have even more potential therapeutic applications such as antiviral properties. Laboratory and animal studies have confirmed that chaga can inhibit herpes simplex virusPubmed A study of the antiherpetic activity of the chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) extracts in the Vero cells infected with the herpes simplex virus, hepatitis CPubmed Antiviral activity of Inonotus obliquus fungus extract towards infection caused by hepatitis C virus in cell cultures, HIVPubmed Antiviral activity of aqueous extracts of the birch fungus Inonotus obliquus on the human immunodeficiency virus, and several varieties of feline virusesPubmed Central Identification of Inonotus obliquus polysaccharide with broad-spectrum antiviral activity against multi-feline viruses. The proven antiviral properties may even help boost human immunity to protect against viral infections such as the common cold. Chaga is an abundant source of betulinic acid, which seems to play a key role in providing these antiviral and even antibiotic properties.
In 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has lead researchers to identify chaga as a potential treatment for COVID-19 (8)Pubmed Central The Antiviral, Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Natural Medicinal Herbs and Mushrooms and SARS-CoV-2 Infection. Chaga is especially interesting as a treatment due to its combination of antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties which may help control the devastating effects of inflammation caused by COVID-19 disease.
3. Promote Healthy Skin
For at least hundreds of years, chaga has been used to treat many health conditions and even promote healthy skin and hair. There are several molecules which are found in chaga which may play a role in protecting our skin from UV damage and even the effects of aging.
Melanin is a pigment that gives our skin color and protects it from UV radiation. Not only does chaga contain high amounts of melanin, but it also contains molecules which affect the enzyme tyrosinase. Tyrosinase promotes the creation of melanin in our skin. One study has shown that substances found in chaga can both increase and decrease the activity of tyrosinase (9)Pubmed Central Inhibitory and Acceleratory Effects of Inonotus obliquus on Tyrosinase Activity and Melanin Formation in B16 Melanoma Cells. This property may give chaga the ability to auto-regulate the production of melanin, which can help enhance the skin’s response to UV and also prevent dark sun spots.
Another way chaga may promote healthy skin and reduce the appearance of aging is by its powerful antioxidant properties. Oxidative stress is believed to play a key role in the biological aging of cells(senescence) including the skin. Chaga is one of the most abundant sources of a powerful antioxidant called superoxide dismutase(SOD) and also has one of the highest ORAC scores of any natural food substance. This fact may contribute to the findings in this study showing that chaga was able to protect against premature senescence(aging) in human fibroblasts and suppress skin changes such as wrinkling in mice (10)Pubmed Inonotus obliquus protects against oxidative stress-induced apoptosis and premature senescence.
Chaga mushroom is sometimes called the “king of mushrooms.” It is indeed a powerful mushroom due to its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Like other medicinal mushrooms, chaga may be beneficial to our overall health and well being. Its most important role though may be its potential to boost our immune system and help protect us from diseases and infections. Its antioxidant superpowers may even help keep our skin looking younger a little longer!