Every once in a while, an overlooked and easily missed product of nature attracts the attention of a certain amount of people and then it takes off. They realize that there was something quite unique in front of them the whole time, waiting to be discovered. Chaga, a fungus that grows across the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia is one of those products. Other cultures have been using it for centuries, so it wasn’t so much discovered, rather introduced to the wider public. It has become quite popular over the past few years and it doesn’t seem like it is going away any time soon.
With such a popular craze about chaga, there is quite a bit of misinformation relating to it. Health benefits, harvesting do’s and don’ts, lots of people have lots of ideas. What is the truth of it and what should we consider when looking into this incredible boreal fungus?
We are taking a look into this product and sorting the fact from the fiction.
Before we begin, we must mention that many of the experiments conducted with chaga are too few to be linked to 100% conclusive claims. Always consult your doctor before taking any supplements.
How to identify chaga
The first step in understanding chaga is to know exactly what it is. It is a parasitic fungus most commonly found on birch trees across the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia. Coming in all shapes and sizes, you will mostly find it as a cone with crusty ridges like a large knot on the tree. The outside, called sclerotium, has a similar colouration to charcoal and is very hard. The inside is softer and is brownish yellow.
Always harvest chaga during fall and winter, during these seasons chaga is at its peak of nutrients, and always get it from living white birch trees, if the tree dies so does the fungus and it’s not healthy to consume anymore.
Now that you know how to properly identify chaga, let us give you some tips on how to harvest it in a sustainable way that is safe for the tree, the fungus and the environment. First, the basic rule of not taking the whole fungus applies, leave at least 20% of the chaga so the sclerotium can grow back. If you find a tree with multiple instances of chaga, leave one of them completely intact to increase its chances of recovering.
Avoid smaller specimens, and you can tell if they are smaller if you put your hand on the chaga and your fingers can touch the tree. Cut carefully the external sides of the fungus without cutting into the tree to avoid leaving an area vulnerable to diseases.
From the forest to the plate
You have your wild harvested chaga with you, now what? Well there are plenty of options you can use to include it in your diet. One of the most popular ways to ingest chaga is in tea. You can powder the fungus and it makes a delicious tea to have your daily dosage of chaga. A great way to enjoy chaga is by making a chaga chai latte. Enjoy a recipe from The Pure Life to see just how to make it.
For a sweeter option, you can take your previously made chaga tea and mix it with ice cream and maple syrup to make a delicious and unique chaga maple frosty. And you can always order some of our chaga products, like our chaga herbal blend or chaga chocolate from our store.
Panacea or Placebo?
Aside from delicious drinks, one of the main reasons why chaga has earned such a popular spot in recent years is because it has a lot of powerful health benefits attributed to it. It has been used for centuries as a remedy for many ailments and now as a health supplement. Some of the proposed health benefits of chaga are:
Fighting long-term inflammation
Inflammation is an immune response to harmful stimuli on the body’s tissue. It’s main function is to eliminate the cause of the cell injury, but long-term inflammation can be related to heart disease and other problems. Chaga has been observed stimulating white cells and may boost the immune system into helping to reduce long-term inflammation while helping your body to fight infections.
Modulating the immune system
When the immune system detects a problem, it executes a set of tactics depending on the situation to best eliminate the source of the problem. Although this is generally good and it’s what protects us from harmful organisms, in some cases this can be harmful.
Chaga doesn’t only increase the strength of your immune system, it has also been observed keeping it under control when it starts to overreact. It is useful to fight this condition since the immune system is doing more harm than good. A common example would be allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Reducing “bad” cholesterol levels
Chaga has been observed reducing the levels of LDL cholesterol in two different experiments. Not only that, in one of those experiments it was attributed with an increase in HDL cholesterol ( “bad” and “good” cholesterol respectively). This can be useful to reduce the risks of suffering from heart diseases related to cholesterol levels.
Helping to control blood sugar
Studies in diabetic mice show a relation between chaga and reduced blood sugar and insulin resistance. In another experiment, the results went as far as reducing blood sugar levels by 31% in three weeks after receiving chaga supplements. This hints at the possibility of similar effects in humans and potential use to help patients with diabetes. There hasn’t been any human research available yet on this study.
Preventing and fighting cancer
Multiple studies have shown chaga effects on preventing and slowing cancer growth, including a 60% reduction in tumor size in mice with cancer. These effects have also been documented on different varieties of cancer cells like lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer. Chaga has a high antioxidant content that might be one of the reasons for its effects on cancer cells, especially the antioxidant triterpene. In previous studies, high concentrations of the antioxidant triterpene helped kill cancer cells.
What are the risks?
With all of these potential health benefits, it is easy to see why so many people are adding chaga into their diets. More scientific research is needed on some of these claims, however, it is promising to see the results that have been observed so far. Now, before trying chaga for the first time, you need to double check all the potential risks and be sure that is right for you.
One thing you probably noticed is that almost all of the studies related to the health benefits of chaga have been carried out on mice. There is a considerable lack of information regarding its behaviour and effects on humans. Even information on its nutritional benefits is hard to find. We do have the knowledge that some tribes have been using chaga to treat different illnesses for centuries, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for all situations and for everyone.
It has been suggested that chaga has a positive effect on blood sugar, but as we don’t know exactly how it interacts with humans, it can actually be harmful for people on insulin or with diabetes. The way it modulates the immune system is still unpredictable as well. Due to the lack of human tests, it has the potential for autoimmune diseases to activate the immune system in a negative way. That is why we always suggest consulting a doctor first.
If you are preparing for surgery, have a bleeding disorder, or are on any blood-thinning medication is better to consult your doctor before eating chaga, as it contains a protein that can prevent blood clotting.
The effects of chaga on pregnant and breastfeeding women hasn’t been tested adequately, so the safest choice is to avoid ingesting chaga in these cases. A simple way to ensure that you can eat or drink it safely is to always ask a healthcare provider whether it is safe for you to have chaga taking into consideration your full medical history.
Chaga is getting a lot of the attention that it rightly deserves, as it has many potential health benefits that we can’t ignore. But remember, there aren’t enough studies about its effects on humans, so don’t forget to ask a healthcare professional if it’s right for you. If you already did it and you can add it to your diet without problems, then enjoy it! But as always, keep health and sustainability in mind to keep the fungus, the environment and yourself safe.