Chaga is a great example of the fact that health conscious people have the power to bring a positive change to their own as well the lives of those around them by making healthy choices every day. It takes just a bit of willpower and creativity to introduce this natural immunity booster to everyday meal plan. Sticking to a healthy lifestyle does not have to be difficult. One just needs the right knowledge and has to be committed to providing the body continuously with essential nutrients.
Probably more than 1.5 million species of mushrooms can be found on planet Earth, yet just 14 000-22 000 of them are known to man. Around 700 species are used for food and 400 have medicinal properties. Medicinal mushrooms have sparked interest in scientists for decades and it seems that the past two decades have seen an increase in thorough research on the topic.
It has been found that medicinal mushrooms contain several pharmacologically active substances that continue to play an important role in treating various diseases. These are complex compounds that kill bacteria and viruses, boost immune system and fight inflammation. In addition, medicinal mushrooms have an impact on blood sugar levels as well as the central nervous system and they protect the liver.
Mushrooms have been used in folk medicine, especially in Asia, for thousands of years, but they were not equally valued in the West until some 50 years ago. Until now, several books about medicinal mushrooms have been written alongside a multitude of published articles and research studies. Various scientific articles on most common medicinal mushrooms can be found, for example, in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. It is estimated that the sales of medicinal mushrooms and medicines/supplements where they are the main ingredient amounted to 1.2 billion dollars in 1991 and to as much as 6 billion dollars in 1999.
Around 140 000 species of mushrooms are present on the planet Earth, but just 10% of them have been researched. Every health conscious person can benefit greatly from using medicinal mushroom if skilled enough to tell them apart from, for example, hallucinogenic species.
Since it has been proven that mushrooms contain a large amount of pharmacologically active substances, it is very likely that they will be a central part of medical treatment and the development of new medical molecules in the future. However, it should be kept in mind that synthetically developed molecules might not have the same beneficial properties like its natural counterparts.
Mushrooms that play a critical role on the planet Earth have been traditionally associated with myth and mysticism. Moreover, mushrooms serve an essential purpose in many cultures. Through the ages, they have been used for food, medicinal purposes, as a raw material for colour pigments, and so forth. Fungi contain a notably large amount of fibre, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, Vitamin D2, protein, yet they are low in calories.
It is important to make medicinal mushrooms available in a form that is convenient to use. One option is to consume them as an instant tea, sweetened with stevia and liquorice root to win over even the pickiest of kids.
Chaga – a powerful anti-cancer agent
The most popular medicinal mushroom in Estonia is chaga (Inonotus obliquus). There is also known “birch sponge” which belongs to a completely different species, a polyporous fungi with beige fruiting body (Piptoporus betulinus) that grows on the bark of birch trees.
Chaga has been used in Siberia and Russia to treat several (and even severe) diseases since as early as the 17th century. The earliest findings of chaga, however, date back to no less than 5600 years ago. It is said that a tsar called Vladimir Monomakh that ruled in the 12th century cured a lip cancer using chaga. The species has been also used in Asia for thousands of years.
The English name “chaga” is derived from the Russian term for mushroom. It grows on living trees as a black nebulous sponge and its light body is covered by a black scabrous crust. Both parts of the fungus are used, chopped into chunks 5–6 cm thick, and dried. The body and the crust of the mushroom contain different medicinal substances. The inner part has more polysaccharides while the outer part is richer in pigment, triterpenes, and antioxidants. Using both parts together guarantees the most beneficial effect.
One has to be skilful to dry chaga in a proper way. The drying process should take place under the sun, but it can be also done in the sauna, or the oven. It is not easy to grind chaga and thus one needs a good mill. Chaga can be boiled in chunks but that means that some of the precious raw material will be lost.
Chaga has a neutral smell and taste. In fact, it can be said that it is almost scentless. It is a potent adaptogen and tonic that people have used in large amounts for thousands of years, without any side effects. More than 1600 scientific studies have been carried out over the past 40 years (including a research by Doctor Kirsi Kahlonen conducted in Helsinki University in 1984, studying chaga`s antiviral, antifungal and anticancerous properties).
Therefore, chaga strengthens immune system and boosts body`s resistance power, and also contains a large amount of different minerals, adaptogens, betaglycans, and betulinic acid.Chaga contains a notably large amount of superoxide dismutase (SOD), which is one of the most powerful antioxidants in organism, B-group vitamins, and proteins. It increases the activity of natural killer cells by 300%, strengthens immune system, fights pathogens, and acts as an extremely potent antioxidant. Chaga`s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties have been proven. The mushroom contains a large amount of betaglycans, which are polysaccharides that stimulate immune system and help body adapt.
Its black crust is rich in several antioxidants. Studies have shown that chaga has more antioxidants than any other medicinal mushroom.
Chaga is highly appreciated as an ingredient in cosmetics industry in Japan (improving pigmentation defects). According to some sources, it also supports the regeneration of the nervous system. One of the most famous herbal gurus of our time, David Winston, considers black chaga one of the most potent anticancerous fungi.
Known and researched in Russian and Finland
In Russia, chaga is widely known and consumed. It has been officially recommended for treating duodenal and gastric ulcer and the discomfort resulting from these conditions, as well as polyps. As a result of thorough research carried out in the country, it has been claimed that chaga helps treat several other conditions (psoriasis, skin and joint disorders) and strengthens the organism.
A curious incident concerning chaga occurred in Finland. In 2010, the country`s Veterinary and Food Board Evira banned the sale of chaga, since it classified the mushroom as a novel food, which means that it is a product that has not been widely used in Finland or any other EU state before 1997 and is thus banned.
Luckily, thanks to the actions of civil society and a plenty of proof that the mushroom has been sold and consumed both in Finland and other European countries before the above-mentioned year, chaga found its way back to health food stores.
Chaga is safe to consume and can be added to different types of tea, coffee and other drinks. Chaga tea has a mild and neutral taste. Chaga essence is bitter. The longer the chaga has grown on the tree (even for a couple of decades), the stronger are its medicinal properties. Therefore, it is best to leave a young chaga as it is.
Chaga can be harvested at any time of the year but preferably in spring or autumn. Its medicinal effect is the strongest if chaga is chopped and boiled for a longer time on a low heat or brewed.
It is also safe for children to drink mild chaga tea mixed with honey. Chaga is added to animal feed to increase their weight and strengthen immune system. As it is with all other herbs and edible species, chaga should be picked in a deep forest away from dusty roads and industrial pollutants.
Chinese medicine divides medicinal plants across categories. Chaga is classified as a tonic herb. Such foods are fine (often even recommended) to consume in large amounts over a long period of time, since they create balance in the organism, without side-effects. NB! Do not use chaga together with antibiotics or intravenous glucose infusion, because their properties are antagonistic. Moreover, some people can be allergic to medicinal mushrooms.
Boil black chaga for 15 minutes up to 2 hours or steam even for several hours. When making tea, add 2 teaspoons of chaga powder to half litre of water. The powder can be mixed with other teas or even added to coffee (for example, add 1–2 teaspoons of chaga powder to coffee powder in the filter). It does not affect the taste of coffee, yet makes the drink significantly healthier.
Heat treating is important; because it helps the body absorb chaga`s beneficial substances. Chaga powder or tea can be also used in smoothies or elixirs. Chaga tea is delicious when mixed with liquorice root or honey.
Additional sources: National Library of Medicine, David Winston Homepage
Photos: Märt Kose (2015)