What Are the Benefits of Chaga?

The benefits and uses of this medicinal mushroom

Woman drinking tea

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Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a type of mushroom that often grows on birch trees in northern Europe and Asia, Canada, and the northeastern United States. Long used in folk medicine, chaga contains a variety of substances such as polysaccharides, betulin, betulinic acid, and inotodiol, and is said to offer a number of health benefits.

The mushroom has a hard texture, so it traditionally made into a powder and brewed for a long time in hot water to make a chaga beverage (often called chaga tea or coffee). It is also available as a dietary supplement and tincture (a liquid extract).

Uses for Chaga

Chaga is purported to reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, enhance liver health, and fight viruses. In addition, some proponents claim that chaga has anti-tumor activity and can help treat and/or prevent some forms of cancer.

The Benefits of Chaga

There is currently a lack of clinical trials testing the effects of chaga. However, some preliminary research suggests that chaga mushroom components may offer certain health benefits. For instance, a number of studies on cell cultures show that extracts may possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulating properties.

Here's a look at several findings from the available research on chaga's health benefits:

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Chaga may help treat inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease), according to a 2007 study published in Biofactors.

In tests on cells obtained from 20 healthy volunteers and 20 people with inflammatory bowel disease, scientists found that treating the cells with chaga extract helped reduce oxidative stress (a destructive biological process thought to contribute to the development of inflammatory bowel disease).

Diabetes

Chaga shows promise as a treatment for diabetes, suggests a 2008 study from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. In experiments on diabetic mice, researchers found that chaga helped reduce blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol.

Cancer

A 2018 study from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology indicates that chaga may offer some anti-cancer benefits. In laboratory tests on lung cancer cells, researchers observed that chaga extract inhibited cancer cell growth. According to the study's authors, this finding supports the potential application of chaga in the treatment of lung cancer.

Side Effects

Little is known about the safety of using chaga supplements or consuming chaga tea in the long-term. However, chaga may lower blood sugar levels, increase insulin levels and increase the risk of bleeding, and there's some concern that taking it in combination with blood-thinning drugs and/or diabetes medications or supplements that do the same may produce harmful effects.

Chaga mushrooms have been reported to contain high levels of oxalate, a chemical that's found naturally in many foods (like spinach, rhubarb, and betts). According to a case report, a 72-year-old woman taking 4-5 teaspoons of chaga mushroom powder per day for six months had decreased renal function and required hemodialysis. She was diagnosed with oxalate nephropathy, a condition that causes acute kidney injury and has the potential to progress to end-stage kidney disease.

In a laboratory study, some types of chaga extracts had a greater affinity for killing cancer cells, while other extracts (particularly those containing a part of the chaga known as the sclerotium), have a greater affinity for killing normal cells.

As with other supplements, chaga hasn't been tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or taking medications.

Keep in mind that self-treating a health condition with chaga and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Where to Buy Chaga

Widely available for purchase online, supplements, tea, and coffee containing chaga is sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.

The Takeaway

The research on chaga and its potential benefits is in the earliest stages. The majority of research has been laboratory and animal research, and not enough is known about the safety concerns and potential side effects (including oxalate nephrotoxicity). Large-scale clinical trials are needed. If you're still considering using chaga, be sure to consult your health care provider before adding this mushroom to your supplement regimen.

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