Chaga : The antioxidant powerhouse
Scientific Name: Inonotus obliquus
Common Names: Chaga mushroom
This species is actually a parasitic fungus and not a mushroom at all. A mushroom is the fruiting body of the mycelium and Chaga is the mycelium. It’s a hardened mass of mycelium which is called a sclerotium. It grows best on sides of very vibrant, living trees because it uses them as a host. It will also start to grow on dead trees although studies have shown that more nutrients are obtained when they grow on live ones. It closely resembles a clump of burnt charcoal and the interior is much softer and made up of a rusty yellow color.
History & Tradition
Its traditional use most famously lies in folk medicine as a general tonic in Russia and Siberia with known use in all of the Baltic Rim. It’s a bit of a mystery how far back the history dates and without any verifiable sources, it is difficult to know for certain. Findings date back to the 16th century and possibly earlier but like most mushrooms it has just recently been utilized in the states.
Chaga is most commonly found on paper and yellow birch trees, growing in Russia, Eastern and Northern Europe, Northern areas of the US, Alaska, and Canada. It can live on other hardwoods but primarily prefers birches. As far as the harvesting goes, it is possible to harvest all throughout the year but it’s thought best to harvest throughout the winter months. There are many independent harvesters but for commercial use, several harvesters will work together due to a more recent high demand. As the demand is going up, state foresters have said that the harvesters are making a noticeable impact on naturally occurring Chaga. The sustainable way to harvest this species and many other species of herbs and plants is to only cut out what you need, leaving the rest to regrow.
It’s known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant content, and anti-tumor properties. Like most medicinal mushrooms, it contains beta-d-glucan rich polysaccharides but it also contains betulinic acid and polyphenols which give Chaga its strong anti-oxidant properties. Its high antioxidant content is similar to that of blueberries and like wild blueberries have a much higher antioxidant content, so does wild-crafted Chaga. One of the reasons is because the mushroom fruit body absorbs butelic acid from the birch bark and then converts it into the betulinic acid, which is a triterpenoid that also has anti-inflammatory properties and more recently studied anti-cancer properties.
For its antioxidant properties, Chaga extract was evaluated in a for its potential to protect DNA in human lymphocytes against oxidative damage. It was found that cells pretreated with Chaga extract showed over a 40% reduction in DNA fragmentation compared to the control group. In another 2007 study conducted by Niigata University of Pharmacy and Applied Life Science , a hot water extract of several medicinal fungi was measured for their antioxidant activity (Reishi being one). It showed that Chaga had the strongest antioxidant activity among all of the other fungi that were examined.
In regards to its anti-tumor activity, in a 2009 study, a hot water extract of Chaga was used to inhibit the activity of the proliferation of human colon cancer cells. It was found that I. obliquus water extract inhibited cell growth in a dose-dependent manner and had a maximum inhibitory effect of 56%. The results suggested that a hot water extraction of L. obliquus would be useful as an antitumor agent via the inhibition of cancer cell growth.
At the same time, animal studies showed that hot water extracts of I. obliquus exhibited anti-inflammatory effects in experimental colitis.
An overgrowth of aggressive bacteria affects the guts microbiome which is possibly related to systemic inflammation. This is thought to be the leading agent for numerous diseases. For its anti-inflammatory effect, a 2017 study conducted by the People's Republic of China reveals that the polysaccharides of I. obliquus greatly decreased sequence numbers and operational taxonomic units due to the loss of gut microbiota, which provided space for healthy gut bacteria to colonize. This study concluded that l. obliquus polysaccharides promote healthy bacteria growth and also help to regulate the microbial composition.
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Yang Hu, et al. “Inonotus Obliquus Polysaccharide Regulates Gut Microbiota of Chronic Pancreatitis in Mice.” AMB Express, SpringerOpen, 14 Feb. 2017, amb-express.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s13568-017-0341-1.