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The Healing Powers of the Chaga Mushroom

by Justin Wexler

The medicinal chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is a fungal parasite that grows primarily on birch tree species. Chaga bears little resemblance to other mushrooms. The visible part of the mushroom bursts out of tree trunks as a large, slow growing and woody conk. The exterior of this conk is black due to the presence of melanin. Chaga conks resemble large lumps of charcoal with corky, reddish-brown interiors. They happen to be sterile; the fruiting bodies of the mushroom – which provide the spores that seed new chaga mushrooms – are white, and found immediately under the bark of the host tree. Interestingly, chaga mushrooms fruit only after the infected tree (or tree part) has died.

Chaga grows in forests throughout the northern hemisphere. The dried conks have been used for millennia for starting and keeping fires, as they transform into long-lasting hot coals. But chaga also has a particularly rich history as a source of medicine, especially in Siberia. There, the chaga mushroom is brewed into a potent, dark-colored tea that is used to treat cancer and other ailments. This reputation has led to nearly five decades of research on chaga’s potentially miraculous healing properties. Fairly early on, research revealed that the medicinal qualities of chaga derive almost entirely from polysaccharides.

Polysaccharides are long chains of bonded carbohydrate molecules (i.e., complex carbohydrates). They play a crucial role in the living world. In the plant and fungi kingdoms, polysaccharides provide both structure and storage. Some polysaccharides, such as starch and glycogen, store energy. In contrast, cellulose and chitin, structural polysaccharides, provide the physical structure of a plant or mushroom. When a plant or mushroom is consumed by another living organism, starch polysaccharides are an easy source of energy. On the other hand, the structural cellulose polysaccharides only provide energy to those organisms that can break them down. Human digestive systems can not break down cellulose, so it instead acts as a crucial dietary fiber.

But polysaccharides provide more than just physical structure and energy. Some exhibit significant biological activity, and have a profound effect upon the human body. This makes many polysaccharides extremely important for the treatment of diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and hepatitis. Many of the best known medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi and turkey tail, have medicinal properties that largely derive from the many polysaccharides that they contain. The chaga mushroom, which comes from the same group of woody medicinal mushrooms as reishi and turkey tail (known as polypores), is made up of a particularly diverse assemblage of polysaccharides.

The vast majority of studies on chaga have been either in vivo, using mice and other animals, or in vitro, using human cells. In many of these studies, individual polysaccharides were isolated from the mushroom and used for testing. Dozens of papers have revealed that polysaccharides are what is primarily responsible for chaga’s potent immunomodulating and anti-tumor effects: in fact, study after study has shown strong evidence for the chaga mushroom’s ability to alter the immune systems of living organisms, including fish, cats, mice, rats, and humans.

There has been no serious clinical research using humans as test subjects. However, the sheer number of studies demonstrating the significant impact of chaga on other species and on human cells means that, more likely than not, it has similar effects if consumed by living humans. The ability of these polysaccharides to improve the immune response makes them particularly valuable for enhancing the immune system when a patient is undergoing chemotherapy. And these immune-potentiating properties have an incredible side effect: they shrink and inhibit the growth of tumors.

Dozens of studies have shown that chaga mushroom extracts can inhibit the growth of tumors from breast, colon, liver, skin, gastric, and colorectal cancers, as well as from lung and colon carcinomas and from leukemia. Extracts of the mushroom are thus invaluable for cancer patients, simultaneously enhancing compromised immune systems and shrinking cancerous growths. Other research has revealed that extracts from chaga can work as anti-fatigue agents and that they have potent anti-allergenic properties.

Each year, more papers are published that demonstrate how invaluable chaga is as a source of medicine. We can only hope that more research will be conducted using human test subjects. For now, the anecdotes of many patients attest to the healing power of this strange fungus. Unfortunately, the chaga mushroom is rarely found in the wild. There is a serious risk of overharvest, and we don’t know what the future holds in store. At the very least, we can continue to harness its medicine as long as we carefully source chaga from sustainably-harvested populations.

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