Chaga, otherwise known as Inonotus obliquus, is a medicinal mushroom that grows on birch trees in temperate climates. It's actually not completely accurate to call it a mushroom - rather, it is the sclerotia of the mushroom that grows on the birch trees. The ability of this mushroom to predigest the nutrients contained in the birch tree allows it to deliver a potent medicine that serves so many benefits for us humans.
Revered for centuries in folk medicine, there is a reason why chaga is considered the ‘King of the Mushrooms’. In this article, we are going to explore five reasons why we love chaga mushroom (there’s a lot more than 5 but just consider this the first of many odes to this potent medicine).
Chaga is a powerful antioxidant and anti-ageing herb
Chaga contains high levels of the antioxidant Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), an enzyme that catalyses the breaking apart and disarming of free radicals in the body, specifically the superoxide radical. As we know, free radicals are harmful molecules within the body that can cause damage to our cells, so introducing a herb that acts to reduce oxidative stress and essentially ‘mop up’ free radicals can prevent further damage.
The high amino acid content and anti-inflammatory action support cell repair, and skin and tissue regeneration, which can also support pain reduction with conditions such as arthritis, eczema and psoriasis. SOD is naturally occurring in human tissues, but declines with age, especially after age 30. Chaga has been studied in nearly 1000 clinical trials, and the health benefits are clear, especially in treating complex illnesses and inflammatory diseases such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and Chron’s/Ulcerative Colitis).
Chaga fortifies the immune system
We know that all medicinal mushrooms play a powerful role in immune modulation and chaga is no different. Rich in polysaccharides with a specific focus on beta-glucans, these chemical constituents assist the activation of various protective reactions that occur as a part of the body’s immunological and inflammatory cascades. Beta-glucans increase the activity of Interleukins, Interferons, Natural Killer Cells, Tumour Necrosis Factor, Macrophages, B and T lymphocytes, and Granulocytes, the infection-fighting cells that develop within the bone marrow. Beta-glucans enable the body to recognise and label potentially problematic cells, allowing the immune system to elevate its response against undesirable and rapidly growing cells. This immuno-modulatory effect is truly impressive and explains why chaga has been revered for thousands of years.
Chaga can improve the health of the skin
The health and wellness industry often speaks to the term ‘detoxification’ with a particular focus on the Liver, but just as important is the skin as a detoxification pathway. As with any detoxification organ of the body, the environmental and internal stressors of life can place too much pressure on that pathway, leading to reduced function and toxic recirculation which can sometimes lead to inflammatory conditions
Psoriasis is a great example of this; psoriasis is an immune-mediated inflammatory pathology of the skin that manifests itself as an increase in skin cell growth and turnover. Psoriasis is a T-cell-mediated pathology, this is an important factor to note when understanding the therapeutic role chaga can play in supporting the healing of this condition. The beta-glucans present in chaga allow the body to recognise and label potentially problematic cells. This allows the immune system to elevate its response against undesirable rapidly growing cells. In the case of chaga and psoriasis, this innate relationship between the human immune system and the fungal polysaccharides gives an insight into how the mushroom may benefit the condition.
Additionally, the antioxidants we spoke about earlier can also play a key role in preventing skin degeneration (hello wrinkles), discolouration and acne whilst maintaining skin elasticity and brightness.
Chaga regulates blood sugar levels
Research has shown that chaga mushroom extracts can enhance insulin sensitivity, which is crucial for maintaining balanced blood sugar levels. Improved insulin sensitivity allows cells to respond more effectively to insulin, enabling better glucose uptake from the bloodstream, which ultimately helps regulate blood sugar levels. Chaga mushroom has also been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. By inhibiting this enzyme, chaga can slow down the absorption of glucose from the digestive system into the bloodstream, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.
Chaga is an adaptogenic herb that can support the nervous system
An adaptogen is a natural substance, typically a plant or herb, that helps the body adapt to various stressors, both physical and psychological, and maintain balance or homeostasis. If you are new to the world of adaptogens and tonic herbs, check out our article ‘How To Start Working With Adaptogenic Herbs’ to get a better understanding.
Basically, adaptogens like chaga can help the body cope with physical, emotional, and environmental stressors more effectively. They act as stress regulators by modulating the body's stress hormones, such as cortisol, and promoting a balanced stress response. By reducing excessive cortisol levels, chaga can alleviate the negative effects of chronic stress on the body, including fatigue, anxiety, and immune system suppression. This in turn can have a positive impact on sleep quality, which in turn supports the entire body to regenerate and maintain equilibrium. Another medicinal mushroom we love to support sleep is reishi mushroom, check out our article ‘Why Reishi Mushroom Can Help You Sleep Better’ if getting better sleep is on the top of your list right now.
The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs by Ron Teeguarden
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: Third Edition by Giovanni Maciocia
A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs by Daniel Reid