Chaga mushrooms are having a serious revival thanks to trendy mushroom coffees and teas.
Though you might mistake it for a giant rotten potato instead of your typical toad stool, folks have used chaga mushrooms for centuries thanks to its health benefits.
Let’s dive into the benefits — and potential complications — of adding this fungi to the menu.
What are the benefits of chaga mushrooms?
There’s a few reasons why you might want to give chaga a try. Studies show chaga mushrooms may offer benefits that could:
- add essential nutrients
- support antiviral activity
- provide an anti-inflammatory effect
- contain anti-tumor potential
- lower cholesterol
- reduce skin aging process
- lower blood sugar
Chaga mushrooms (aka Inonotus obliquus) are native to colder climates in China, Korea, Russia, Japan, and the Baltics. To get your hands on one of these mushrooms, you’ll need to live near birch trees — which is the only tree on which this grubby shroom grows.
The fungi looks like a 10- to 15-inch burnt clump with a soft orange core and was traditionally grated down and brewed as a tea.
Today chaga is still used in many alternative medicine lineups. You’ll find the shroom in tea, powdered coffee mixes, and other powder or capsule supplements.
Chaga fans will tell you these mushrooms are prized for their medicinal properties (and can even make a tasty cup of tea). But here’s what science has to say about chaga’s potential health benefits.
We’ll be honest, it’s hard to find reliable info on chaga mushroom nutrition. But like other mushrooms, these organisms are believed to offer vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients like:
2. Antiviral activity
Chaga mushrooms may possess virus-fighting fungal superpowers.
A 2011 study found chaga had antiviral effects on hepatitis C-infected kidney cells in pigs. Basically they found chaga may have even stopped viral particle production, meaning hep C couldn’t replicate as efficiently.
In a 2017 study, researchers evaluated a boatload of therapeutic mushrooms, including chaga. They noted that in studies of cats, chaga had antiviral effects against viral diseases like herpes, flu, and stomach infections.
Another 2011 study found chaga extract altered immune responses in mice.
Obviously you’re not a cat or mouse, so we need more research to show how chaga’s antiviral benefits helps humans. Still, evidence of chaga’s antiviral capabilities looks promising.
3. Anti-inflammatory effects
Chaga mushrooms may also help boost your immune system and reduce symptoms of inflammation brought on by immune responses.
A 2020 review shows that chaga decreases the release of inflammatory cytokines. Basically cytokines help signal your immune system to fight foreign pathogens. But too much of a good thing can lead to inflammation.
The same review also found chaga may reduce the release of nitric oxide (NO) and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) — two substances that play an important role in your body’s inflammatory processes.
Scientists noted in a 2019 animal study that chaga extract may also reduce the inflammation associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But, we need more human studies before we can recommend using chaga to help with IBD.
4. Anti-tumor potential
Cancer is the leading cause of death globally, and the search for effective treatments is ongoing. That includes chaga mushrooms since some research suggests the shroom may have anti-tumor effects.
Animal studies also show promising results for chaga mushrooms. One 2016 study found feeding mice chaga mushroom extract reduced tumors by 60 percent and the number of metastases — tumors that have spread from the original site — by 25 percent.
In an older 2009 study on cancer cells, researchers found that compounds from chaga caused cancer cells to self-destruct. And chaga doesn’t seem to harm healthy cells, unlike cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
But it’s important to note studies in humans on chaga mushrooms and cancer are lacking. And, these fungi aren’t a replacement for traditional cancer treatments.
5. Lowering cholesterol
Chaga mushrooms have tons of antioxidants concealed in their crusty, dusty exterior that might just reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the “bad” one.
Research is limited, but a 2009 study in rats found the antioxidants in chaga helped lower LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol (TC), and triglycerides (TG).
Since high cholesterol remains a significant risk factor for heart disease, chaga mushrooms may help heart health, but we need more human studies to prove this.
6. More graceful aging process
Before you stock up on retinol cream, have you considered you new skin care secret could be fungus? Chaga mushrooms may help ease your skin along the aging process thanks to its antioxidants.
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals in your body that ramp up oxidative stress and cause those typical signs of aging, like wrinkles and sagging skin. Because antioxidants help protect your cells and tissues from damage, chaga mushrooms might help slow these signs of aging. Key word: might.
For now it’s only theoretical that your friend chaga can help these signs of aging and stress. There’s been no research specifically looking at chaga and anti-aging effects.
7. Lowering blood sugar
Could mushrooms help your sugar probs? We still need more human research, but lab results show chaga mushrooms may be able to help people manage symptoms of diabetes.
In a 2014 lab study, chaga had more potent alpha-glucosidase inhibitory activities compared to acarbose (a medication used to treat type 2 diabetes). In nonmedical speak, that means chaga helped restrain the small intestine from absorbing carbohydrates.
Additionally, an older 2006 study found obese, diabetic rats had lower blood sugar after 8 weeks of eating chaga mushrooms.
But while chaga may help diabetes symptoms in the lab, they may alter how diabetes medications work in the real world. Since we don’t know for sure how chaga effects peeps with diabetes IRL, make sure you consult your doctor before using chaga. Not every mushroom works magic for your body!
If all these potential benefits have you prepping to forage in the woods, remember that many of these effects haven’t been totally proven in humans.
And as with any substance you’re introducing into your body, chaga has the potential to cause side effects. Plus, this medicinal fungus may influence the way other medications work. Be careful if you decide to use chaga and have a chat with your doctor first, especially if you’re taking any other medication.
Here are a few potential complications from chaga mushrooms.
Use with diabetes medications
Chaga may increase the effects of insulin or meds that help lower blood sugar levels, like alpha-glucosidase inhibitors (acarbose and miglitol). This can be a big problem.
Combining chaga and these medications may increase the blood sugar-lowering effects and increase your risk of hypoglycemia (aka low blood sugar).
Make sure you check with your doc first, or skip the chaga altogether, if you’re managing diabetes with these medications.
Chaga mushroom’s have a high oxalate content, which can potentially damage kidneys if you overdo it.
In a 2020 report, a man using chaga for 5 years experienced nausea and vomiting. A trip to the ER later diagnosed him with end-stage renal disease.
Another individual took 5 teaspoons of chaga daily as a cancer treatment and she developed renal issues. Doctors diagnosed her with renal failure, likely due to the chaga mushrooms.
These complications still require more research beyond reported anecdotal events. But it’s best to not don’t overdo it and risk kidney issues.
Use with anticoagulant drugs
Some evidence suggests that chaga mushrooms can prevent blood clotting, meaning they may enhance the effects of blood thinners (aka anticoagulants).
If you’re taking these medications (including warfarin, heparin, and aspirin) it’s best to avoid chaga or talk with your doctor first so you don’t risk potentially dangerous complications.
If you’ve checked with your doctor and get the A-OK to add chaga to your daily routine, you can buy chaga tea or capsules. But if you’re in the adventurous mood, you can forage for your own ugly fungus and brew it yourself — providing you live near some birch trees.
Hot tip: You’ll probably have a tough time finding these shrooms in the wild, but try checking the trees in winter. (And obviously made sure you know what you’re doing before picking and eating wild mushrooms.)
Here’s how to brew it once you’ve got your hands on a chaga:
- Wash it and allow it to air dry in a cool, dark spot. It’ll take a few days.
- Once it’s dried, you can grind it up into a powder. Don’t forget to store chaga in a sealed container.
- Making tea is easy, simply add 1 to 2 teaspoons of chaga powder to your cup, and fill with boiling water.
- Allow it to steep for around 5 minutes, then strain out the ground chaga.
- Optional: enjoy with sugar, honey, or milk.
If you can’t forage for your own chaga out in the wilderness, there are plenty of retailers that sell it online or in-store. You can also find it in capsule form if sipping chaga tea isn’t your thing.
Chaga mushrooms offer a bunch of potential health benefits — from nutrition to antiviral activity and anti-inflammatory powers. It may even help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Still, there’s lacking medical evidence that chaga is a cure-all. Chaga mushroom products are also classified as supplements, so they aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way as medications. Basically the manufacturer has to ensure a supplement is safe and the FDA can’t confirm it’s safe or effective.
Before you commit to chaga, you should also consider other potential risks and check with your doctor. Chaga may affect the kidneys, change how your blood clots, and interact with other medications.