This article is excerpted from the book Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms by David Wolfe.
Hail to the King! An introduction to chaga
Chaga is a remarkable medicinal mushroom that grows in living trees. It grows most abundantly in nearly all species of birch found in the circumpolar temperate forests of Earth’s northern hemisphere. As a food-herb and nutriment, chaga is a premier herbal adaptogen (a metabolic regulator that increases an organism’s ability to adapt to environmental factors and resist stress), cancer fighter, immune-system modulator, anti-tumour agent, gastrointestinal (digestive) tonifier, longevity tonic, and a genoprotective (DNA-shielding) agent.
A mainstay of traditional Siberian shamanism and healing, chaga has long been considered “king of the mushrooms.” It continues to be highly regarded in Siberia (where chaga is used as a nutritional medicine and tonic) as an external treatment for the skin—in tea and wetted-poultice form, as an inhaled medicine (chagasmoke), and as a fire starter (kindling). Chaga is recognized across Asia and is now rapidly gaining renown in Europe and North America.
Chaga is impressive in appearance and effect. You can tell people about its power and character, yet few can truly understand it until they experience it: the foamy, yellow-orange, dense chaga core; the scorched outer ridges; and the nutritionally rich, hardened layering found on the inner mushroom in between.
In essence, chaga makes wood edible for humans. And what kind of wood? Primarily, it is the powerful medicinal wood of birch trees, chaga’s preferred host. The rich tonics in birch bark are improved, concentrated, and delivered in an edible form by this superherb.
Chaga is part of the order of mushrooms known as Hymenochaetales, the members of which can affect dead wood and living trees. Like the highly acclaimed medicinal Polyporales (reishi, Ganoderma spp., Fomitopsis spp., Grifola frondosa, Trametes versicolor, etc.), some of the Hymenochaetales (notably chaga and Phellinus spp.) are considered to be members of a group of “medicinal mushrooms” because they have compounds that positively influence the immune system, joints and nervous system of mammals, including humans.
Medicinal mushrooms have super tonic and adaptogenic properties that allow you to consistently (even multiple times daily) ingest their nutrient-medicines that strengthen immunity; help fight allergies, asthma, and cancer; improve core vitality; and confer many other valuable gifts. For example, the fabled queen of the medicinal mushrooms, reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), helps support a healthy immune system, heart, lungs, and kidneys; lowers elevated blood pressure; and assists with rejuvenating brain and connective tissue—all while fighting allergies. The medicinal mushroom cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) fights fatigue, improves endurance, and increases both lung capacity and primordial life-force energy—what the Taoists call jing (which is a different energy from energy-flow chi, also spelled qi).
The king of the medicinal mushrooms, however, is chaga (Inonotus obliquus). This royal moniker comes down to us from traditional Siberian shamans, who crowned chaga the most powerful member of the mycelium kingdom. Chaga constitutes perhaps the greatest storehouse of medicinal healing properties of any single mushroom—or any herb, for that matter.
Chaga’s unique healing powers
Chaga is composed of a dense configuration of antioxidant pigments, distinguishing it from other medicinal mushrooms. Like other superherbs, such as Astragalus membranaceus and Gynostemma pentaphyllum, chaga helps to reduce the workload of the immune system as a whole. Nearly every type of superherb has a different content of saponins and polysaccharides, with each combination helping to boost the activity of our immune cells in different ways—polysaccharide beta glucans molecules match up with a specific type of cell in the immune system, each promoting a different immune response.
Various substances found in chaga possess powerful anti-cancer and anti-tumour properties. Many of chaga’s anti-cancer properties are now being attributed to beta glucans and melanin, as well as to its other vitality- and longevity-inducing medicinal properties. Beta glucans are scientifically recognized as one of the richest, most important forms of healing polysaccharides. Their discovery in the mycelium (netted, brainlike fungal structure) and in the fruiting bodies of medicinal mushrooms has provided insight on the chemistry of how medicinal mushrooms work to heal the human body.
The efficacy of beta glucans is only one of the mechanisms by which chaga acts to resist cancer. In addition to the beta glucans’ polysaccharide superpowers, chaga has notably high levels of the DNA-protective antioxidant known as melanin, which fights radiation by activating the pineal gland. Chaga’s phytonutrients have an ability to inhibit nuclear factor kappa B—a compound known to cause healthy cells to mutate or self-destruct. The anti-cancer medicinal compounds betulin, betulinic acid, lupeol, and related triterpenes are also found in chaga. Anecdotal evidence from Russia associates the consistent intake of chaga with resistance to all cancers, all of which make chaga an excellent adjunctive superherb to support any cancer-fighting protocol.
The myriad benefits of this alkaline, medicinal tree mushroom can be gained in various forms: drying wild chaga to make teas; eating it fresh, or eating it dried; and make special alcohol and alchemical extracts from it. As this book reveals, there are many ways to bathe in its hidden powers!
Basically, there are benefits to every type of chaga product. We see this reflected across chaga literature and research worldwide. In a Russian atlas of medicinal plants, chaga is recommended as a tea, extract, or nastoika (tincture) for malignancies. Dried wild chaga powder, simply eaten as food, appears to have healing effects on the digestive tract. In MycoMedicinals, An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms, fungal pioneer Paul Stamets summarizes the many unique uses for medicinal mushrooms in all possible forms (hot-water extraction, methanol, ethanol, and freeze-dried mycelium powder, etc.), all validated by scientific literature.
The available information indicates that not only the tea, extract, and alcohol tincture of wild chaga have unique and valuable healing properties, but also that commercially available chaga mycelium powder (grown on a grain medium, not harvested in the wild) has great healing properties as well.
Chaga tea and chaga mycelium are safe and important health-food products for all ages (1 to 101+ years of age) and all stages of life, including pregnancy. Barring rare tree-mushroom allergies, pregnant women can take chaga tea and chaga mycelium daily during their entire pregnancy.
To date, no side effects or toxicity of chaga have been reported.
Luckily for all of us, chaga has already been classified by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “food.” Chaga has been granted GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe) from the World Health Organization. It’s legal for distribution in the European Union and is classified as a medicinal mushroom by the World Trade Organization.
From Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms by David Wolfe, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2012 by David Wolfe. Reprinted by permission of publisher.