November 10, 2012

Chaga: The Mushroom of Many Surprises

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a polypore mushroom that is widespread throughout boreal forests, particularly those here in North Eastern North America. You usually find it sticking out of white and yellow birch trees. In fact, it is a parasite that starts growing under the bark of its host and eventually bursts out.

Chaga has been consumed in Russia for centuries, and the traditional recipe is very easy to follow: boil chaga chunks in water and drink as a tea. Its fame first spread beyond Russia's borders with the publication of the semi-autobiographical novel Cancer Ward in which author Alexander Soljenitsyne has his main character drink chaga tea every day while undergoing cancer treatment, just like he did himself.

Decoctions of chaga have also traditionally been consumed by various North American First Nations tribes. In particular, the Flying Dust Nation has a recipe that is almost identical to that of siberian tribes, an interesting indication of prehistorical migrations across the Bering Strait.

In mycotherpy1, chaga is used as a immune fortifier and anti-inflammatory, especially concerning illnesses of the gastro-intestinal tract. Studies have demonstrated that chaga has inhibitory effects on certain cancers, like those of the breast, liver, stomach and Hodgkin's lymphoma. Its antioxidizing properties are exceptional, and are a result of the presence of polyphenols, most notably the melanin that is found in its black crust.

Over the past couple of years, this mushroom has been the focus of a large number of clinical studies2. These studies have identified many different molecules with beneficial effects, but each with different effective dossages and compositions. For example, beneficial polysaccharides are easily dissolved in boiling water while the equally beneficial triterpenes and polyphenols are less so. Because of this, some authors reccomend preparing a boiled extract as well as alcohol tinctures.

A global market for this surprising fungus is mushrooming. In fact, in Siberia, a very profitable industry is emerging and is based on chaga's medicinal reknown. But is this commercialization justified? All we know is that is it impossible to verify all of the eneficial effects that have been attributed to chaga. Here at the boutique, I have met people who take chaga to treat a variety of ailments: cancers of all sorts, inflammation, gout, ulcers, conjuctivitis, eczema, etc.

The American magazine FUNGI (available for consultation here at the boutique) featured chaga in a recent issue. In it, Ron Spinosa summarized some of the concrete facts about chaga's powers. Ron founded the annual Minnesota Mycological Chaga Foray in 2005, and drinks chaga tea almost every day. He says that his intestinal problems have stopped and that he rarely catches the flu. He writes, is it really chaga, or is it a placebo effect? He goes on to conclude: well, I believe in this placebo. I can attest to this conclusion, after I replaced my anti-hypertension pills with a daily cup of chaga tea. And so far, so good: the results have been convincing. In any case, I'll discuss it further with my doctor during my next checkup. 

 

 

[1] Rogers, R. The Fungal Pharmacy: Medicinal Mushrooms of Western Canada” , 2006, Prairie Deva Press Canada

[2] Biological and Pharmacological Activity of Higher fungi: 20-Year Retrospective Analysis, Poucheret, P., Fons, F., Rapior, S., Cryptogamie, Mycologie, 2006, 27 (4): 311-333

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