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Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’re a fan of natural ingredients and superfoods, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of chaga mushroom in the last few years.
Dark in color and unusual in appearance, chaga mushrooms have long been used in traditional Asian and Siberian medicine. Despite this, it’s only recently that they’ve started to gain attention in the West for the potential benefits they can offer for health.
Like many other natural products, scientific research into chaga mushroom is still in the earliest stages, with relatively few large-scale studies and little research involving humans.
Despite this, researchers are beginning to uncover a range of potential benefits associated with the chaga mushroom.
Below, we’ve listed these potential health benefits and looked at the most recent science behind each of them to find out which clams are supported by proven, reputable scientific evidence and which aren’t.
We’ve also looked at some of the potential side effects, health risks and medication interactions that are associated with the use of chaga mushroom.
Chaga mushrooms, or inonotus obliquus, are a type of naturally-occurring fungus that belong to the hymenochaetaceae family.
As a parasitic fungus, chaga tends to grow on birch trees in cold habitats. Most natural growths of chaga are found in Eastern and Northern Europe, Russia, Korea and the cold Northern areas of Canada and the United States.
Chaga is famous for its extremely dark, cracked appearance, with a surface that looks similar to heavily burnt charcoal. Inside, chaga has a golden-brown, rusty color with a softer texture to the outside of the fungus.
Chaga has long been used in traditional medicine. However, it’s only over the last few decades that it has started to attract attention from researchers and natural health enthusiasts.
Most of the time, chaga mushroom is converted into a powder form and consumed as a tea. It’s also available in capsule form and as a powder-based supplement for use in smoothies, baked goods and other recipes.
Like many other natural health ingredients, chaga mushroom has been linked to a wide range of potential health benefits. According to chaga advocates, regular consumption of chaga can help with everything from maintaining optimal heart heart to reversing the signs of aging.
Although some of these health claims are supported by scientific evidence, others aren’t. Below, we’ve listed the most common health claims that are made about chaga mushroom, as well as the most recent research and study data for each one.
One of the most common claims about the chaga mushroom is that it’s rich in vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients.
For the most part, these claims are true. Chaga is extremely rich in antioxidants, many of which may have health benefits. It also contains reasonable quantities of several important B-complex vitamins and essential minerals.
In a 2005 study, researchers found that some extracts of the chaga mushroom can have strong antioxidant effects, including the ability for the polyphenolic extract of chaga to protect cells from oxidative stress.
As for vitamins and minerals, chaga mushrooms are rich in B-complex vitamins, vitamin D and several minerals, including potassium, zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium. Chaga mushrooms are also a great source of dietary fiber, which is linked to a broad range of health benefits.
One of the most common health claims about chaga mushroom is that it can help to strengthen the immune system, reducing your risk of becoming sick.
While research into chaga mushroom’s effects on the immune system is limited, there’s a small amount of scientific study data to show that chaga mushroom may help to protect against some diseases.
For example, a 2005 study found that use of chaga mushroom extract produced higher levels of chemically protective cytokines in immunosuppressed mice. The researchers concluded that the extract was a “very potent immune modulator” that shows potential as a supplement.
Another animal study found that chaga extract may modulate immune response by stimulating the secretion of Th1 and Th2 cytokines — two cytokines that play important roles in the body’s response to certain infections and diseases.
There’s also some evidence that chaga mushroom may have anti-inflammatory benefits that can prevent damage to body tissue. For example, a 2012 study found that chaga mushroom extract reduced inflammatory tissue damage in mice with drug-induced colitis.
While the findings of these studies are interesting, and certainly a point on chaga mushroom’s favor, it’s important to remember that the current research into chaga’s immune benefits tends to be limited to animal and test tube studies.
As such, while we have real evidence of these effects occurring in animals, there isn’t yet any data to show that chaga has the same beneficial effects on the human immune system.
There’s some evidence that chaga mushroom may lower low-density lipoprotein, or LDL — the type of cholesterol that’s commonly known as “bad” cholesterol and can contribute to your risk of developing heart disease.
Like much of the other scientific research on chaga mushroom, most of the studies that look at the potential cardiovascular benefits of chaga weren’t carried out on humans.
In a study of rats from 2009, researchers found that use of inonotus obliquus (chaga mushroom) for eight weeks resulted in reduced levels of LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol — three blood lipid measures that are closely linked to heart disease.
A separate study from 2008 conducted on diabetic mice found that chaga mushroom broth led to similar effects on LDL, along with an increase in high-density lipoprotein, or HDL — a “good” type of cholesterol that’s closely correlated with optimal cardiovascular health.
Again, it’s important to note that neither of these studies were conducted on humans, meaning we can’t draw any firm conclusions about chaga mushroom’s potential role in preventing heart disease quite yet.
However, the findings are interesting and signal that chaga mushroom may potentially provide benefits for cardiovascular health that could be relevant for humans.
Several studies indicate that chaga mushroom may have protective effects on cells that prevent or limit the growth of cancerous tumors.
Like other research into chaga mushroom, most studies of chaga mushroom and cancer are in the very early stages, with data primarily drawn from test tube and animal studies. Despite this, there are several interesting findings that are worthy of attention.
First, a 2009 study found that a hot water extract of chaga mushroom inhibited the proliferation of colon cancer cells.
There’s also some evidence that chaga mushroom’s antioxidant effects may protect cells from free radicals — reactive chemicals associated with DNA damage that may contribute to certain forms of cancer.
While these studies certainly show promise about chaga mushroom’s potential effects on tumor growth and cancer development, it’s important to remember that the human body isn’t the same environment as a test tube.
This means that while chaga mushroom may destroy cancer cells in a lab, there’s no guarantee that it works for humans. As such, chaga mushroom tea and other products that contain chaga mushroom should not be viewed as proven treatments for any form of cancer.
Data from animal studies indicates that chaga mushroom may help to lower blood sugar levels, potentially helping to manage diabetes.
In a 2006 study, obese rats with diabetes were given a diet that contained either fermented or non-fermented chaga mushroom powder, or a regular, non-therapeutic diet, for a total of eight weeks.
The researchers found that the rats given a diet containing fermented chaga mushroom powder had “dramatically low levels of serum glucose and leptin,” indicating that chaga mushroom may have antihyperglycemic properties.
Another study from 2008 concluded that the dry matter of culture broth of chaga mushroom may have antihyperglycemic and antioxidant effects in diabetic mice.
Like with other research into the effects of chaga mushroom, neither of these studies involved human participants. As such, while the findings are interesting, there isn’t yet enough data for any firm conclusions to be made about chaga mushroom’s benefits for people with diabetes.
Product containing chaga mushroom extract are often promoted as offering anti-aging effects, from healthier skin to a reduced risk of developing certain aging-related diseases.
Most of these claims stem from the antioxidant content of chaga mushrooms. As antioxidants are linked to reduced free radical damage, many chaga mushroom proponents claim that the antioxidant content of chaga mushroom extract gives it anti-aging properties.
There is some evidence that chaga mushroom may help in preventing cellular damage, which we’ve covered above in our section on chaga mushroom’s potential anti-cancer effects.
However, there’s no direct scientific evidence to show that drinking chaga mushroom tea, taking chaga mushroom supplements or using any other chaga mushroom products will slow down the aging process or prevent aging-related diseases from developing.
As such, it’s best to take these claims with a grain of salt for now, at least until more research is carried out to explore the relationship between chaga and the aging process.
Whether as tea or a supplement, chaga is safe for most people. However, its effects mean that you may need to be careful if you have certain health conditions or if you use a medication that could be affected by chaga.
Chaga mushroom tea and other chaga products contain a peptide that can make it more difficult for your blood to clot. If you’re prescribed blood thinners or have a blood clotting disorder, talk to your doctor before using any products that contain chaga.
Likewise, if you’re preparing for or have recently had surgery, make sure to talk to your doctor to understand the potential effects chaga could have on your recovery.
Chaga mushroom’s effects on blood sugar mean that it could lead to health risks for diabetics or people that use insulin. Because chaga may potentially strengthen the immune system, it could cause health issues for people with autoimmune diseases.
Chaga’s large amount of oxalates also mean that it may contribute to kidney problems in people with kidney disease.
If any of the above situations apply to you, it’s important to talk to your doctor before using any products that contain chaga mushroom.
Finally, no large-scale studies have been carried out on the effects of chaga for women who are pregnant. If you’re pregnant or nursing, drinking chaga mushroom tea or using any supplements that contain chaga is not recommended.
The chaga mushroom has a lengthy history as a natural medicine used throughout Asia, Russia and Northern Europe.
However, modern research into its potential health benefits is still in the early stages. While the existing studies show that chaga may have benefits for the immune system, cellular health and general wellbeing, there isn’t yet enough data to reach any firm conclusions.
For most people, chaga mushroom tea and other chaga products are safe additions to the diet that can supply helpful vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
In some cases, such as if you currently take prescription medication for diabetes, optimal heart health or any autoimmune condition, make sure you talk to your doctor before using any chaga products to check that this supplement is safe for you.
Related read: Mushrooms for Depression: Uses & How it Works
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.
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