Chaga — the Fugly Fungus with the Potential to Fight Cancer
by Stacy Thomas | August 13, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
If you’re walking in a birch forest and you see a huge, strange looking black mass protruding from the trunk of a tree, the last thing you would think to do is eat it. It looks like a tumor, but, ironically this fugly fungus, called a Chaga, might actually be a cure for cancer.
Along with Reishi, Lion’s mane and Cordyceps, Chaga mushrooms have a long history of use in traditional Eastern medicine, and are gaining popularity in the West due to their many potential benefits.
Okay, but can they cure cancer? Hard to say—There are as many papers attempting to debunk claims about Chaga as there are papers making claims. We’re going to try and help you decide if Chaga’s a good possible addition to your health routine.
It is always best to consult with a knowledgeable practitioner before starting new supplements. Even natural products can have side effects or contraindications.
What is Chaga mushroom?
Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) grows mostly in the northern belt of the planet, from Canada to Russia. It’s parasitic, and is mainly found on birch trees.
Usually entering through a wound in the bark, the parasitic spores infest the heartwood of the tree, and form what’s called a sclerotia that creates heart rot and decay. The mushroom then pushes itself outward, through the bark, to form a large, melanin-rich conk that protrudes outside of the tree.
Chaga can live in the tree and continue to encourage decay of its wood for up to eighty years, eventually killing its host. Once the host tree is dead, the sexual phase of the fungus begins and a fertile fruiting body grows under the bark. This produces yet more spores, designed to spread the infection to other trees.
The conk is black on the outside and looks like a chunk of coal, giving it many of its common names such as clinker polypore, cinder conk and black mass. The name Chaga originally derives from the word for fungus in Komi-Permyak—the language of the indigenous people west of the Ural Mountains in Russia.
History of Chaga use
The Komi-Permyak people were the first to use Chaga for medicinal reasons. From there it spread to the rest of Russia, China, and the Scandinavian countries, where it became known as the ‘cancer polypore’ for its reputation as a cancer cure.
Vladimir II Monomakh was the first record of Chaga’s cancer-curing qualities. He was a Russian prince who purportedly used it to cure his lip cancer in the 11th century. stomach ailments, tuberculosis and cancer.
The Soviet Union studied Chaga in the 1950s, and found it to be effective at maintaining the digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems, as well as noting that it slowed the growth of some tumours. In 1955, the Medical Academy of Science in Moscow approved Chaga for cancer treatment.
Scientific research on Chaga continues today, and more evidence continues to be accumulated, pointing towards what many cultures have known for years—this strange-looking mushroom can be an important ally in health and wellness.
How does Chaga work?
Chaga grows in the Northern Hemisphere, it spends its life keeping itself alive despite extreme weather, and attacks by aggressive predators like bacteria and other fungi. This hardy fungus can survive season after season of freezing temperatures, ice, and snow, and scorching summers. It relies on its innate resistance to UV rays during the hot months.
The phytochemicals that the Chaga produces to survive are what make this mushroom beneficial for humans.
What are the benefits?
Recent studies involving in vitro and rodent experiments show strong evidence that Chaga may be a candidate for cancer treatment. In one study, a chemical compound found in Chaga and known as Inotodiol, prevented human lung cancer cells from migrating and invading healthy cells.
In another example, Chaga extract applied to melanoma cells in mice caused cell death and important alterations to the cell cycle, which convinced the authors of the study that compounds in Chaga would play an important role in future cancer treatment.
Chaga has antioxidant and antimicrobial effects, and can reduce free radical activity and oxidative damage in humans. Oxidative damage has wide-ranging effects, from disease, to depression, to aging, therefore it follows that consumption of Chaga and other antioxidant rich foods can be beneficial for our general health.
How do you take Chaga?
In order for Chaga to be consumed, it must be processed first.
Chaga can be taken in capsule form, or extract, but its most popular and arguably pleasant mode of consumption is tea. Chaga tea can be steeped or infused, and is now served in cafes around the world as a latté type drink. You would think with Chaga’s bizarre appearance it would taste much like it looks (burned charcoal anyone?), but in fact it has an earthy, even sweet, taste with a hint of vanilla.
Chaga tea is prepared from raw, dried chunks of the outer conk, harvested straight from live birch trees. Not all conks are the same—for optimal nutritive value, Chaga should be harvested from younger trees, not from the ground or from dead trees. Only the bright orange middle and outer section of the conk should be used as the lighter and more brittle parts that grow close to the tree have less nutritional value.
The tea is made by simply steeping raw pieces in distilled or purified water. Never steep Chaga in boiling water as that will kill most of the active ingredients.
If you have access to raw Chaga chunks, you can make a Chaga infusion by following these steps:
- Steep the pieces in lukewarm water for several hours until the pieces are soft, strain. Keep the softened chunks, and reserve the water.
- Grind up the soaked pieces, and warm the steeped water to around 50 degrees, and pour it back over the ground-up pieces.
- Let it steep for two days and strain again.
Store in a cool, dry place, and use for up to four days, warming it up or drinking it cold.
If you’d prefer to keep it simple, you can make a Chaga brew as you would regular tea:
- Heat up some water in a pot (90 degrees is as high as you want to go)
- Add your pieces (about one cup per litre)
- Simmer for 15 minutes and drink.
Is Chaga being over-harvested?
With all the attention and marketing that Chaga is receiving in the media, natural stores all over the world have been trying to snap it up to satisfy market demand, including Canadian stores.
This has caused some scientists and experts to theorise that reproduction rates of Chaga will fall, as the sexual stage of this mushroom is a small window of only a few days, and Chaga only grows on small stands of birch and other trees. As the fungus is harvested, it’s difficult to replenish.
The parasitic role of Chaga and other tree rot fungi often leads to the misconception that they’re not necessary to the ecosystem. In actual fact, these mushrooms contribute to the regeneration of forests by breaking down the wood of old trees.
Chagas are important to the forests they live in, but they’re also very promising to human health. If you’re thinking about checking out Chaga, consult an herbalist or naturopath and find out what it can do for you—and how you can most ethically consume it.
Which Doctor’s extensive network of professional herbalists would love to hear from you. Check them out today and reach out to start your own natural health journey.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.