Herb Profile: Chaga Mycelium
We are quite ecstatic to share an herb profile on one of our favorite magic mushrooms. First off, no...This is not the kind of magic mushroom that will get you high or have you “trip out.” Nonetheless, chaga is still a mushroom filled with undeniable magic (and we’re sure all the mycologists out there feel the same!). Read on to discover some of the amazing immune-boosting and detoxifying benefits this medicinal mushroom has to offer, plus some super important notes at the end to help keep these magic fungi living strong.
The magic of chaga runs deep. This medicinal mushroom has been used for centuries in Siberia and Russia and has been an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for even longer. Traditionally, one of the main documented uses for chaga was as a blood tonic and blood purifier (McCoy, 2016).
Remember the last herbal ally we just featured, burdock? Burdock root also carries some incredible purification properties through acting on the lymphatic system. Well, chaga takes this purification process a step further, ensuring that all the toxins burdock dumped into the bloodstream are fully cleared out of your system.
So when burdock shoes out all of the toxins from their hiding places throughout the body, chaga comes in to help the final purification happen...all that's left for you to do is to flush the toilet. Herbal synergy at it’s best, folks!
When we think of chaga “immunity” is the first word that comes to mind. Yes, chaga is well-marketed as a supreme immune-boosting medicinal mushroom...and we’re happy to tell you when it comes to chaga, the hype is real! There are countless studies and research panels backing up the extremely high levels of antioxidants and immune-boosting polysaccharides in chaga.
You might be wondering: when I say “extremely high levels” of antioxidants...what exactly does that mean? Well, let’s compare it to something more common...say, blueberries. We have all heard blueberries are rich in antioxidants and this fact is backed up by a lab test called the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). Wild blueberries have an ORAC value of 9,621 and regular store-bought blueberries value at 4,669. The ORAC value of wild chaga weighs in at a whopping 146,700 (Zegarac, n.d.).
That is a 137,079 point difference. Can we just take a moment of silence for how amazing chaga is right now? Ok ok, we recognize that this is only one tested value and wild plants can vary greatly in their antioxidant levels...but still. That is a pretty large threshold above the infamous antioxidant-rich blueberry. (No offense blueberries, we still love you!)
So what exactly do high levels of antioxidants mean in our cup of Rasa? Think of antioxidants as a defense mechanism for our immune system against free radicals (caused by things like chronic stress, environmental pollutants, chemicals, radiation, and cigarette smoke among others). Our body is designed to thrive on a balance where we have more antioxidants than free radicals (Lobo et al., 2010). We like to call this our “radical balance,” because it really is quite rad in our opinion.
When our radical balance becomes tipped in the opposite direction, in favor of free radicals over antioxidants, problems can ensue. When I say problems...I mean the entire range of problems, from small to LARGE. From simply catching more colds and stomach bugs to full-blown inflammatory diseases, certain cancers, neurological diseases and more (Lobo et al., 2010).
Now, these bigger problems tend to crop up after years and years of living with an off-kilter radical balance. In light of these patterns, there really is no better time than the present to get your radical balance back in order so you can start feeling more vibrant, and get your health back on track, yourself.
Chaga’s immune-boosting medicinal mushroom powers don’t stop there. Chaga has also shown powerful antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and general immune system stimulant properties too. A big reason why chaga does SO much for our immune system is due to its specific polysaccharide content. Magic medicinal mushrooms like chaga carry specific polysaccharides which directly modulate our immune system to do what it needs to do for ultimate health protection (Zegarac, n.d.).
When I say “ultimate health protection” I really mean it! The immune system is an extremely diverse network spread out all over the body with many different key players and functions. The polysaccharides in medicinal mushrooms don’t just act on one type of immune cell, but on many. This is what “broad-spectrum immune support” really means.
Martin Powell speculates that this special interaction with our immune systems have with ‘shrooms is actually a process of human evolution: “the fact that so many key categories of immune cells are hard-wired to respond to the presence of fungal polysaccharides is almost certainly a consequence of our immune system having evolved under the constant challenge of fungal pathogens, which now leads to a broad increase in cytotoxic immune response, not only against fungi, but also against other pathogens and cancer cells,” (Powell, 2010).
It sounds to us like magic mushrooms have had our back for a long time...
The “C” Word
It’s time to pull the big mysterious “C-word disease” known as cancer into the spotlight for a moment. Although there is still much mystery shrouding cancer from many angles, chaga is here to potentially shed a little light on the topic.
Chaga has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for both cancer and “consumption” (the old school term for the feeling of the body “wasting away,” typically from pulmonary tuberculosis) all over the world (Spinosa, 2006). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of the classic novel The Cancer Ward, commented on his miraculous observations of chaga from the work of an old country doctor in Russia, Dr. Sergei Maslennikov:
“He’d worked dozens of years in the same hospital...and he noticed that although more and more was being written about cancer in medical literature, there was no cancer among the peasants who came to him...so he began to investigate and he discovered a strange thing: that the peasants in his district saved money on their tea, and instead of [drinking] tea, brewed up a thing called “chaga” ... Sergei Nikitich Maslennikov had an idea. Mightn’t it be that same ‘chaga’ that had cured the Russian peasants of cancer for centuries without their even knowing it?” (Spinosa, 2006).
Although herbalists, country doctors, and intuitive peasants alike have all been utilizing chaga to fight cancer for a long time, modern science is just now starting to back it up. The majority of studies out their on the effects of chaga on cancer are performed on rats or mice (thank you poor little guys!) who are slightly different than humans...so the results are not entirely conclusive yet.
However, these research studies do suggest profound results on suppressing the progression of several different types of cancer (McCoy, 2016; Ma et al., 2013; Satoru et al., 2016; Song et al., 2013). Essentially these studies are beginning to hint at the results other traditional herbal practices have observed for ages. For all you science and fact-based folks out there, we’ll keep you posted as more studies are published confirming that chaga is taking its “immune-boosting medicinal mushroom” title to a whole new level.
Sustainability & Bioavailability
These are two BIG words that both play a big role in the life of chaga and how effective its actions are in the body. Before you skip reading this section out of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words), I encourage you to read on! This information is actually quite straight-forward and vital to think about if you plan on using chaga in your daily health routine.
As you can probably tell by now, chaga is nothing short of incredible in what it can do with and for the body. Although it has been used for millennia in TCM, only recently has word gotten out about how potent chaga really is (including the science to back it up as we mentioned above!).
Here's what Chaga mushroom looks like in Rasa Koffee 👇👇👇
So now that chaga is quite the popular mushroom...this means that sustainability issues have arisen. Wild chaga is now considered a threatened species based on the high demand for it on the market (McCoy, 2016). Before you get all worked up and go on strike from drinking Rasa, know that we have switched to ONLY use domestically-grown chaga mycelium instead of the wild-harvested fruiting body. Putting sustainability first is crucial to us and to keep the magic of chaga growing for millennia more.
The next big word on the table is bioavailability, which conveniently connects with sustainability! For any science newbies out there, bioavailability is essentially the amount of the herb that is absorbed by our body and actually has an active effect. Through ensuring high bioavailability of an herb through formulation and specific extraction methods, we are actually thinking more sustainably too: the more efficient you are with your herb use, the less of the herb you need to use and harvest. Sustainability & bioavailability are truly a dynamic duo.
You might be surprised to learn that many herbal supplements and products out there do not take this vital information into account! When you don’t use optimal extraction methods for an herb, you don’t receive the most powerful medicinal benefits within.
This is actually a common issue with chaga and many other medicinal mushrooms. Herbalists, mycologists, and scientists all agree that water extraction is key! Using a hot water extraction method—like making a mushroom tea or brewing your Rasa—is essential to concentrate all of those immune-boosting polysaccharides we are looking for in the first place and is also why Rasa requires a bit of a longer steep time than coffee beans (Powell, 2010).
The Times When Chaga Is Not So Magical…
Unfortunately, even the most magical of herb profiles has to have a few important contraindications at the end (although this is actually fortunate for you since it is better to be aware than left in the dark on these things!).
It is crucial to note with chaga that it could potentially interact with other drugs or medications that thin the blood. Using them together could create too much blood thinning, which would be detrimental for obvious bloody reasons… Since chaga can reduce blood clotting, it is advised to discontinue using it around surgery times.
In addition, be sure to consult with your professional healthcare provider first if you are taking diabetic medications of any kind. Studies suggest that chaga could also lower your blood sugar, potentially interacting with the desired effects of your diabetic medications (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center).
Although the immune-boosting superpowers of chaga are generally amazing, they may not be what you’re looking for if you have an autoimmune disease. We will dive into autoimmunity (and specific autoimmune conditions in connection with herbs in Rasa) in future posts, but for now be aware that chaga could potentially flare certain autoimmune symptoms due to its immune-boosting nature.
The Magic Lives on in You
After reading about the antioxidant-rich, immune-boosting medicinal mushroom chaga, it’s hard not to feel grateful for having access to this magic in our daily cup. Although we did not have time to cover it here, chaga also has powerful and specific antimicrobial functions, can support specific digestive disorders, and is known to carry antitumor properties (Zegarac, n.d.; Spinosa, 2006).
All things considered, when you consciously drink chaga tea, or Rasa, in a way that is sustainable for the mushroom, medicine, and the earth: the magic lives on in you too.
Thank you, chaga.
About the Author
Heather is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and Nutritionist, Medical Anthropologist, Writer, Whole-Body Wellness Coach, and Holistic Educator. Connect with her on her personal website www.heathersaba.com and Instagram (@heathersaba)
Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognition Review, 4(8), 118-126. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.70902.
Ma, L., Chen, H., Dong, P., & Lu, X. (2013). Anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities of extracts and compounds from the mushroom Inonotus obliquus. Food Chemistry, 139(1-4), 503-8. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2013.01.030.
McCoy, P. (2016). Radical Mycology. Portland, OR: Chthaeus Press.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (n.d.). Chaga mushroom. Retrieved from: https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/chaga-mushroom.
Mushroom Science. (n.d.). How to choose the best mushroom extract.
Powell, M. (2010). Medicinal mushrooms: A clinical guide. UK: Mycology Press.
Satoru, A., et al. (2016). Continuous intake of the chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) aqueous extract suppresses cancer progression and maintains body temperature in mice. Heliyon, 2(5). doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e00111.
Song, F.Q., Liu, Y., Kong, X.S., Chang, W., & Song, G. Progress on understanding the anticancer mechanisms of medicinal mushroom: Inonotus obliquus. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 14(3), 1571-8.
Spinosa, R. (2006). The chaga story. The Mycophile, 47(1). Retrieved from: https://www.namyco.org/docs/MycoJanFeb06.pdf.
Zegarac, J.P. (n.d.). Magical mushroom chaga: Functional components and biological activity. Retrieved from: https://brunswicklabs.com/blog/chaga-functional-components-and-biological-activity/.