The Chaga is King
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine to boost immunity and as a general health tonic in Russia and northern European countries, as well as northern Canada and Alaska. In fact, the Corpus Hippocraticum provides the oldest documented use of chaga in medicine: Hippocrates used infusions of this mushroom externally to cleanse wounds.
Known by other names including black mass, clinker polypore, birch canker polypore, and cinder conk, the mushroom grows mainly on the bark of living birch trees. A chaga “conk” grows to resemble a clump of burnt charcoal that is roughly 25–38 centimeters (10–15) inches in size and has an orange-coloured, soft core. In the royal family of the mushroom kingdom, Chaga is king.
Chaga is a nutritional source of familiar minerals including boron, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. It also provides a healthy dose of melanin, polyphenols, polysaccharides including beta-glucans, and triterpenoids such as inotodiol. Because of its bitter taste, though, chaga isn’t typically found on the menu. Instead, this mushroom is often steeped to make a healing tea. But chaga is good for so much more than warming you up on a cold day.
Antioxidants and inflammatory disease
Antioxidants in chaga have been linked to minimizing free radical damage and inflammation associated with accelerated aging, atherosclerosis, cancers, and diabetes. Inflammation (or neuroinflammation) is a factor in degenerative diseases of the brain and central nervous system, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Some neuroinflammation may be the result of overproduction of nitric oxide. (Although nitric oxide helps to control inflammation in normal conditions, it promotes inflammation in an inflammatory environment.) Laboratory research showed that chaga extracts inhibit nitric oxide generation and may be protective for neurodegenerative disorders.
Test tube studies also found that chaga extract reduced free radical damage in white blood cells in cells of both patients with irritable bowel disease and healthy participants in the research. The findings led researchers to conclude that chaga extract could be a valuable supplement to inhibit free radical damage in general.
The healing power of inotodiol
As researchers explore why traditional healers turned to chaga, the spotlight is turning to the triterpenes, including inotodiol. Studies show that inotodiol may provide some of chaga’s antitumour effects. For example, test tube research found that inotodiol isolated from chaga both slowed the creation of cervical cancer cells and promoted cancer cell death. Other test tube research shows this chaga triterpene puts the brake on human colon cancer cell production. Animal research has also found that inotodiol helps to improve allergy symptoms by acting on mast cells. Mast cells are the ones that release chemicals like histamine that trigger the familiar symptoms of allergy.
Other oncology observations
While the research on inotodiol is promising, ergosterol isolated from chaga inhibited the development of colorectal cancer in animal research. Betulinic acid is another natural chaga compound with potent anticancer effects. Test tube studies show that betulinic acid triggers the death of a wide variety of cancer cells while leaving non-malignant cells alone.
Findings of other laboratory studies have reported chaga’s ability to slow production of cancer cells, eradicate cancer cells or promote the programmed cell death of cancer cells. Chaga’s influence has been studied concerning cancers of the cervix, liver, lung, lymph system, mammary glands, and ovaries. Future human research on chaga will show how the mushroom might help to protect the body against the development and progression of cancer.
Globally, high blood glucose (pre-diabetes or type-2 diabetes) is the third highest risk factor for premature death after high blood pressure and cigarette smoking. In animal studies, researchers saw that chaga polysaccharides reduced blood glucose levels and restored the structure of beta cells that had been damaged by diabetes. In the same research, the polysaccharides also lowered the levels of low-density lipoprotein (the dangerous cholesterol) and enhanced levels of high-density lipoprotein (the “good” cholesterol that we want to have).
Several studies have shown that chaga not only improves insulin levels but also reduces levels of glucose and leptin in the blood., (Leptin helps regulate long-term food intake and energy expenditure. Higher levels of leptin are associated with higher body weight.) With ongoing research, chaga may prove to be an important ally in metabolic health.
Chaga for upper respiratory infections
Research suggests that chaga may be helpful for acute respiratory viral infections, also known as the common cold and other viruses.  Chaga has been widely used in traditional medicine to improve breathing as it seems to reduce inflammation in the upper part of the throat behind the nose. This mushroom also slows down the production of cytokines similar to those associated with respiratory infections. Peer-reviewed computer modeling research published in 2021 also found that chaga could be an effective natural antiviral to supplement virus medications currently in use.
When tradition meets science
It’s reassuring when scientific studies explain how a superfood like chaga does the things that traditional healers know it can do. Let chaga start working for you today.
Lisa Petty, PhD loves when tradition meets science. She is Education Manager at Optimi.
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