In the late 1990′s Chaga was virtually unknown as a dietary supplement, with the exception of Russia and a few countries in SE-Asia (mainly Korea, China and Japan).
Daniel Vitalis, a successful ‘health-guru’
Now, we’ve entered the 21st century and Chaga is one of the hypes of the day, a hype fuelled both online and offline by health-gurus like David Wolfe, Daniel Vitalis and Cass Ingram.
‘King of Herbs‘ it is called, and if you have to believe all the health claims made on the internet, Chaga is the cure for almost everything. Of course, this is grossly exaggerated.
Large numbers tend to impress people, so Chaga promotion is always dressed up with a lot of large numbers, ranging from its age (‘Over 4600 years ago…’), its active ingredients (‘Over 215 phyto-nutrients, massive amounts of zinc…’), the number of scientific publications so far (‘Over 1400 (also: ‘1600’) studies…’), its anti-oxidant score (‘Tufts University research: 36,557 SOD!!’), its scarcity (‘only one in 10,000 trees bears Chaga…’), etc…
A lot of these numbers are the result of copy/paste writing with unverifiable sources and, as soon became apparent to us while doing research, are actually most of the time the result of ‘creative writing’. This misinformation is then often copied by another website, and then another one, and so on. A good example, in a nutshell, how new ‘facts’ can be created.
While doing the research for this monograph we went back to the basis: well-known peer-reviewed research and verifiable facts. Understanding both Russian and Chinese and having a background in library science has been a great help, because several publications are hard to find and only available in those languages, and quite a few ‘facts’ stem from mis-interpreting the data given in those publications.
Definition of Chaga
What we call ‘Chaga’ is the dense black mass (25-40 cm large) that can be seen on the outside of trees (almost exclusively birches) infected with the fungus Inonotus obliquus. It is not a fruiting body (meant for spreading spores, the final stage in the life of many mushrooms) but a dense sterile mass of mycelia, with decayed bits of birch tissue incorporated. When chopped from the tree the interior has a rusty yellow-brown color, somewhat granular in appearance, and is often mottled with whitish or cream-colored veins. The hard, deeply cracked black outside of the Chaga is called the sclerotium.
Typically, well-developed Chaga sclerotia are found on trees over 40 years of age, but the infection starts earlier. The period from initial infection to tree death varies with the number of infection sites and tree resistance, but is typically around 20 years. After about 3-5 years the Chaga can be harvested. After harvesting, chaga can regrow to harvestable size again in three to ten years, and this can be repeated until the tree dies. Chopping off the Chaga does not stop the infection.
Many websites promoting and selling Chaga start their introduction with a variation on ‘as early as 4600 years ago…‘. We have not been able to find a source for this. Not much writing was going on at that time (Egypt, Mesopotamia), but it definitely did not take place in the areas where Chaga is found, close to the polar circle. It is very well possible Chaga was known and used during ancient times, but there are no records of it.
The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing is the oldest written text on medicinal herbs
Chaga (Chinese names are Hua Jie Kong Jun or Bai Hua Rong) is also not mentioned in the oldest existing text on medicinal herbs, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, (written ± 200 BC) despite many websites who say otherwise. We looked it up, to verify. ‘King of Herbs’ is in fact a 21st century marketing statement, not a 2200 year old slogan from the Chinese. (And Chaga is of course not a herb, but a fungus.)
The legendary 5300 year-old Ötzi the Iceman, whose frozen remains were found in 1991, also fueled some stories, because among Otzi’s possessions were two types of tree mushrooms.
Ötzi was carrying these birch fungus fragments around his neck, but no Chaga
One of these (the birch fungus – Piptoporus betulinus) is known to have antibacterial properties, and might have been used for medical purposes. The other was a type of tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), included with what appeared to be a complex fire-starting kit. But again… no Chaga.
The first verifiable mentions of Chaga are actually from the 16th century and stem from Russia.
Chaga (in combinations with other herbs) was used for the treatment of gastric and duodenal ulcers and gastritis.
‘Chaga tea’ was used for the treatment of an upset stomach and intestinal pains. Such a decoction was (and still is) especially popular among hunters and foresters, since this drink alleviates hunger, removes tiredness, refreshes, and increases work capacity. Chaga tea is also used as a means of improving the general tone.
Patients were (and still are) frequently recommended to use chaga extracts when it was necessary to reduce the arterial or venous blood pressure. Chaga infusions were (and still are) also used for the treatment of periodontitis, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. Inhalations of chaga with other herbs are until today being used to reduce inflammations in the nasopharynx and to facilitate breathing.
Chaga was also used in agriculture, in particular in animal breeding: adding chaga to the ration of pigs stimulates the growth of piglets and accelerates the weight gain of fatteners. Chaga has also been used as a plant growth stimulator, like fertilizer.
An example of the first users are the Khanty (formerly called the Ostyak), one of the peoples inhabiting West Siberia. Due to fatalism caused by their animist-shamanist world outlook, their folk medicine was developed poorly, though. Illnesses arising without evident external reasons were thought to have been caused by supernatural beings and doctors were regarded incapable of curing such diseases. Nevertheless, they did use some fungi to support their health, one of which was Chaga. (The name ‘Chaga’ is actually derived from the Khanty language.)
Khanty men, Vakh river, 1898
Chaga was and is still used by the Khanty for general well-being, internal cleaning (we would call it ‘detoxing’) and curing and preventing disease in general, but in particular for liver problems, heart problems, tuberculosis and to get rid of parasitic worms. It was prepared as a tea. (method of preparation: cut up dried Chaga, put it into boiling water, boil for several minutes.) Three cm3 were used for 2.5 l of tea, and the tea was drunk until the ailment was cured.
The Khanty also used Chaga to make ‘soap water‘. To make ‘soap water‘ the fungus was first put into the fire. When it turned red (like smoldering charcoal) it was put into a bucket of hot water and then stirred until it broke into small pieces. The black water thus obtained has a strong cleaning and disinfecting ability.
This ‘soap water‘ was used to wash the genitals of women during menstruation and after birth; sometimes new-born babies were also washed. One Khanty compared it to the effect of a KMnO4 solution (potassium permanganate; a disinfectant used in Russia to wash new-borns the first three months after their birth) and stated that women who washed themselves with such water, never took ill. In older times it had been used instead of soap to wash the hands, feet and sometimes also the whole body. Chaga was also burned and the smoke was inhaled; its purpose was ritual cleaning.
Ainu people, 1902
The Ainu people, an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaido, the Kuri islands and Sahkhalin used to drink Chaga tea to treat stomach pain and inflammations. Another use was filling a pipe with powdered Chaga, lit and smoke it during religious ceremonies. The leader of the ceremony inhaled the smoke and then passed the pipe to his neighbor. The pipe continued circulating until all the participants had smoked it. This ritual was described as ‘consuming the smoke‘. Although the medicinal effects of the smoke are unknown (and probably nonexistent), this tradition shows that Chaga was highly regarded.
Several native tribes (the Woodland Cree, the Gitksan, the Wet’suwet’en and the Tenaina, e.g.) in North-America/Canada knew and used the Chaga fungus. Each tribe had several names for the fungus. It is obvious none of these people called it ‘Chaga’ or ‘Tsi-aga’ as some internet sites proclaim – they are not Khanty!
A camp site of the Woodland Cree, 1871
The Woodland Cree e.g. called it ‘Pos kan’ or ‘Wisakechak omik h‘, and this name was derived from the following legend: “Wisakechak (a mythological figure) threw a scab (= ‘Omik h’), which he had mistaken for dried meat and tried to eat, against a birch tree where it has stayed to this day to benefit mankind.”
The Cree used the soft yellow-brown inside of Chaga as tinder or touchwood for the building of campfires. One fire-starting method commonly used by the Cree was the striking of steel against a piece of flint to make sparks. The sparks ignited a piece of dry ‘Pos kan‘ which catches easily and remains smoldering, then the ‘Pos kan‘ ignites thin pieces of birch bark and small dry twigs in turn. In Russia this method was also used, and even today survivalists are hunting Chaga for this reason. Have a look at this website, e.g. with an extensive explanation.
Chaga’s chemical composition was studied for the first time in Russia’s St. Petersburg (1864), by J.G.N. Dragendorff (1836-1898). Nothing useful was reported. At the beginning of the 20th century some Russian researchers (Yakimov, Shivrina, and others) carried out a more thorough analysis of Chaga and compared its chemical composition with other polypore fungi. This can be considered as the actual beginning of research on Chaga.
A very rare sight, Chaga’s fruiting body on a dead yellow birch.
It is a thin greyish ‘crust’ – see left picture; the right picture is a close up – composed of countless tubes filled with spores (pictures by Vladimir Gubenko)
These researchers reported that Chaga’s composition is very different from other polypore tree mushrooms. This seems to indicate Chaga is highly special, but a reason for that difference might be the fact (at least in part) that they were comparing fruiting bodies (product of the reproductive stage of a mushrooms’ life) to the sterile lump of mycelia/sclerotia that we call Chaga.
Chaga’s fruiting body has never been investigated well, if at all, because it is rarely seen and when it finally appears (sometimes 3 to 4 years after the host tree is dead) it does not last long – bugs and aggressive molds destroy it quickly. So these researchers might have been comparing apples and pears, so to speak. Even nowadays many researchers are mixing up the fruiting body and the sterile Chaga lump when introducing their projects. This leads to confusion.
After WWII Chaga research really took off in Russia, fueled by the reputation Chaga had built in folk medicine during the past centuries. This resulted in an official entry in the USSR State Pharmacopeia.
Several standardised products were prepared at the Leningrad Botanical Institute, the most note-worthy being Befungin and Binczaga (introduced in the 50′s). Befungin (a mixture of Chaga extract and cobalt salts) was (and is) used mainly as a prophylactic, to treat ulcers and gastritis, as a treatment during the early stages of cancer and to battle the side effects of standard anti-cancer treatments.
The Chromogenic Complex in Chaga
What is striking is that Russian Chaga production is based on a different concept then the rest of the world ‘s using, maybe because of the Soviet-Union‘s isolated position during the past decades. In Russia the State Pharmacopeia (entry 63,38) gives strict directions for the valuation and production of Chaga and its derivatives (extracts, tinctures, ointments, etc). The starting point is always the so-called ‘Chromogenic Complex‘ (should be at least 10% to be acceptable as a Chaga product), a vague concept with no definition of its chemical composition, based on gravimetric measurement. The ‘Chromogenic Complex’ is also not unique for Chaga; several Russian patents describe how to determine this in other mushrooms and herbs. It is mainly used for identification purposes.
The Chromogenic Complex-concept stems from the 50′s and can be considered outdated, in particular because we now know a lot more about the bioactive ingredients of Chaga and pharmaceutical techniques have progressed significantly since then. In the late 50s spectroscopic analysis was developed . It gives much more detailed results then the old gravimetric assays. Some sources state that the Chromogenic Complex is most likely mainly composed of polyphenols and melanin, but this is still a subject of discussion.
Russian producers, however, are still by federal law required to use the ‘Chromogenic complex‘ as the quality standard of their Chaga product, otherwise they will not be allowed to sell and export their products. It seems nobody is interested in updating the Chaga entry in the Russian State Pharmacopeia. This requirement also means that Russian Chaga products are limited to hot water extracts (being the base of the Chromogenic Complex). Hot water extracts contain very little (if any) bioavailable terpenes (like sterols and betulinic acid) and other non-water solubles. This is a severe limitation, because these components often have significant therapeutic potency. Also, the existing synergy between the different constituents will be destroyed.
Chaga extraction room, Limonnik factory, Russia.
Research taking place outside of Russia has been focusing on elements such as polyphenols, polysaccharides (in particular beta-glucans), and terpenes (like betulinic acid and sterols), and the presence of these components became the global scientific standard for judging the therapeutic qualities of Chaga and its derivatives.
We were able to compare Chaga extracts from the three largest exporting Russian producers; Art of Life Ltd, Baikal Herbs Ltd and Limonnik Ltd. The Certificates of Analysis (COA) of their Chaga extracts all show a high percentage of ‘Chromogenic Complex‘. Further analysis shows that the percentage of (1>3)(1>6) beta-D-Glucans is very low (< 2%) and betulinic acid is absent, but the levels of polyphenols and the antioxidant potency are high.
Despite the effort of many researchers the precise composition of this Chromogenic complex is still unclear, so products solely based on this are outdated, pharmaceutically speaking.
PubMed, the worlds largest database of scientific publications returns ZERO results if you enter “chromogenic complex chaga” (or something similar) as a search term. There is no noteworthy research using the chromogenic complex in Chaga as a starting point, not even in the most important Russian scientific papers (which are also indexed in PubMed).
In the opening paragraph of this Russian journal – (Translated from Khimiko-Farmatsevticheskii Zhurnal, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 35 – 37, March, 2010) the ‘chromogenic complex’ is described as ‘a vague concept with no definition of its chemical composition’ and products and protocols based on that are described as ‘severely out of date’ and ‘not respond(ing) to current requirements’.
This particular article was in the core a plea from a few Russian Chaga producers to update the Russian standards. This would make Russian Chaga products more comparable to other Chaga products. Much higher quality and more diverse products could be developed and exported. Until now, nothing has changed, though.
Chaga and its bioactive ingredients
We will not go into the wee details of the bio-technological composition of Chaga, because it is highly technical. The bioactives that are responsible for the main therapeutic effects of Chaga and that are used as standards for the production of many Chaga products we will explain below, using simple terminology.
NB – We could not find a source for the often seen marketing-claim “Chaga contains 215 phyto-nutrients” which might have been helpful. Nobody could tell us what these 215 phyto-nutrients were – it’s most likely just another marketing blurb.
Raw Chaga’s composition is described as follows (being a natural product the percentages can vary, of course):
- Water 13.2%
- Proteins 2.40%
- Lipids 2.40%
- Ash 10.1%
- Carbohydrates 71.9 % (lignin 32.6%; beta-glucans 12.0%)
- Ergosterol 35.3 mg %
- K 2.98%
- Na 0.02%
- Ca 0.06%
- The total energy is 159.4 kcal/100 g
*Mn percentage was not specified, but estimated to be ± 110 ppm.
‘Humic acids‘ have also been mentioned as being Chaga constituents, but this is completely wrong: humic acids are a by-product of decaying organic material (such as compost), and are found in soil and e.g. peat. They’re not found in living fungi or herbs.
Extracts will have a different composition, depending on the extraction method.
In biochemistry carbohydrates are synonymous with saccharides (sugars) – of which there are 4 groups. One of these groups are the polysaccharides. These are large macromolecules. There are two types, storage polysaccharides (like starch) and structural polysaccharides (like cellulose and chitin).
The cell-walls of green plants are made from cellulose; fungi/mushrooms (like Chaga) are mainly build from chitin, the hardest all-natural material on earth. Locked in the chitin cell-walls are the bioactives that make Chaga such a powerful medicinal mushroom. An extraction process is needed to make them bioavailable (humans cannot digest chitin very well, in general).
The most important components found in those cell-walls are probably the (1>3)(1>6)Beta-D-Glucans. Medicinal mushroom derived Beta-Glucans are notable for their ability to modulate the immune system. How exactly they achieve this is not yet 100% clear.
It has been compared to a key-and-lock system, where the beta-glucans are the keys (the name “(1>3)(1>6) Beta-D-Glucans” covers a large variety of shapes, just like “keys” covers a large variety of keys) and the receptors of our immune system are the locks. When there is a match the receptor is triggered and one of our immune functions becomes active, producing e.g. NK cells, macrophages or lymphocytes.
A well developed Chaga conk, bursting from the bark of its host
Beta-Glucans can also normalize an overactive immune system (the cause of allergies and many auto-immune diseases; e.g. lupus and psoriasis) – this can be compared to locking down receptors that are open for no reason, only re-opening them when needed. This two-way effect is called ‘modulating‘ and it is exceptionally powerful from a therapeutic point of view.
After all, our immune system is the core of our health in the broadest sense. It is under siege all the time; stress is a major immune killer (think: physical, mental, chemical – side effects of medication!- and environmental stress), age is another one (after 35 our immune system gets sloppy and after 50 it’s simply declining, causing a lot of ‘old-age’ diseases to appear). Apart from that beta-glucans also have a positive effect on the normalization of cholesterol levels and blood sugar, according to research. Indirect, this means it can also have a positive effect on high blood pressure and general cardiovascular health. So, the support one can get from taking a medicinal mushroom extract daily is significant; you help the body to maintain a healthy balance. This balance is what is known as ‘homeostasis‘.
As said, exactly how the beta-glucans manage to do that is still not a 100% clear, but scientific research proved the immune modulating effect many times, in vivo (animal tests), in vitro (laboratory tests) and in clinical trials (with sometimes hundreds of human participants). All medicinal mushrooms contain these beta-glucans. In Chaga the percentage is not particularly high, though – the medicinal mushroom with the highest level is the Agaricus blazei (up to 35-40% beta-glucans in a quality extract, twice the amount found in a Chaga extract). Do not make the mistake to mix up polysaccharides and beta-glucans; although all beta-glucans are polysaccharides, not all polysaccharides are beta-glucans!
The lipid (non-water soluble) fraction also contains potent therapeutic components, some of which are unique to Chaga.
Chinese extraction facility
Phyto-sterols are powerful therapeutic ingredients; of the phyto-sterols present in Chaga 45% is lanosterol, 25% inotodiol and the remaining 30% consists of ergosterol, fecosterol and several others. In vivo and in vitro research showed a direct anti-cancer effect of both lanosterol and inotodiol. Lanosterol also has an anti-viral effect.
Betulin and betulinic acid are two components unique to the Chaga fungus – it derives them from the birches on which it grows. Betulin and betulinic acid are powerful therapeutic agents (triterpenes) that are currently being researched for their anti-viral action (i.p. anti-HIV) and their anti-cancer action (in both cases animal tests showed great potential). They also have cholesterol-lowering effects; a recent report found them to be able to break down cholesterol in the bloodstream, instead of just preventing its absorption (the more common approach). A major problem of these two components is their poor bioavailability, though.
Although several internet sources state that Chaga contains both betulin and betulinic acid in a digestible form we have not been able to find any base for this claim. Chaga does not contain a high percentage of these components; ± 3% is about the maximum achievable (in an extract). Several websites nevertheless do claim high percentages (we’ve come across claims up to 5 %) in their Chaga products, but without exception they cannot show a Certificate of Analysis backing this up, nor does the ‘supplement facts’ label on their product list betulinic acid. It is against the law to provide unverifiable or false information on the supplement facts label.
Chaga will have different properties, depending on where it has been harvested, just like oranges from California have different properties than oranges from Sri Lanka. So far, Chaga that grew under extreme environmental conditions was found to have the highest therapeutic potency. Although Russian scientists were the first to research Chaga, almost all of the more recent research is done in SE-Asia, using samples from areas such as N-Korea, the Changbai mountains (China) and Hokkaido (Japan).
Sometimes research is using cultivated Chaga, but it is obvious that the outcome of this research should be strictly separated from the results achieved with wild-harvested Chaga. Cultivated Chaga can and will have a different composition and therapeutic properties, depending on the conditions under which it was grown (different types of substrate, environmental conditions, etc.). Wild Chaga takes three to five years before it can be harvested; it is clear its qualities will not be matched by a cultivated petri-dish product that is only several weeks old.
Cultivated Chaga in a petri dish
And another, very important point to keep in mind is this (it was already touched upon): many of Chaga’s therapeutically interesting metabolites appear to develop only as a side effect of the harsh environment which it tends to favor and the on-going struggle with the trees defense systems. Cultivated Chaga is not involved in a struggle for survival, and therefore will not develop these secondary metabolites. Cultivation techniques must be improved significantly and should be standardized before they can produce reliable Chaga of a consistent quality with therapeutic properties.
Some Chaga producers are currently already selling cultivated Chaga, using the therapeutic properties of wild-harvested Chaga to market it to their customers. This is misleading, to say the least. Read ‘The Future of Chaga‘ (below) for additional details.
The biological processes that make our body function are fuelled by oxidative processes, such as digesting our food and breathing. As the word ‘oxidative’ already implies, it does involve oxygen. Uncontrolled oxidation can be the onset of many diseases, such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis, and of course the degenerative processes associated with ageing. Apart from that, a side effect of oxidation is the production of so-called ‘free radicals’, which can cause cellular damage. Our body has its own built-in antioxidant defense systems to deal with these threats, as part of our immune system. When this is unbalanced or starts declining because of factors such as stress and ageing, deterioration of physiological functions may occur, resulting in diseases and accelerated aging.
Close up of Chaga sclerotium – the hard black outside is the main source of antioxidant elements.
Some foods contain powerful antioxidants, like fresh fruits, honey, tea and olives. The bioactives responsible for this antioxidant action are in particular polyphenols and natural phenols. In Chaga these are mainly found in the black outside of the fungus, the sclerotium. This sclerotium contains massive amounts of the natural black pigment known as melanin, which has a high antioxidant potential.
The antioxidant potency of a food or supplement can be expressed in an ORAC-score – the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. The ORAC scale (developed by the USDA) is combining the ORAC power of both the water-solubles (ORAC-hydro) and the non-water solubles (ORAC-lipo) in order to compare different common foods on their anti-oxidant potential. Chaga can have a very high ORAC-score, depending on where it has been harvested, under which conditions it did grow and how it has been processed. It is wrong to state ‘Chaga has a very high ORAC rating’ just like that – we’ve seen ORAC values ranging from ± 5200 (Chaga International) up to ± 146,000 (Oriveda Chaga extract) units per 100 grams. Since Chaga is a natural product, its properties can and will be different from one batch to another. Apart from that, unprocessed, non-extracted Chaga has almost no direct anti-oxidant power since it is indigestible for most humans, like all other mushrooms.
SOD is another abbreviation one sees often; it refers to a group of enzymes called SuperOxide Dismutases. These enzymes are present in human cells and also play an important role in protecting our body against the destructive effects of uncontrolled oxidation and free radicals. The levels of these SOD decrease with aging.
SOD are also present in Chaga, where they play an essential role in cell survival, in particular during host invasion. When it is infected with an aggressive pathogenic fungus like Chaga the birch tree is using its own defense mechanisms to fight its attacker. Chaga is using SOD as part of its continuos struggle to survive and to expand, ultimately resulting in the host tree’s death, after which the fungus can finally develop its fruiting body, spread its spores and will also die. (The health gurus that proclaim that Chaga is either a part of the tree’s immune system (Cass Ingram) or has a symbiotic relation with the tree (David Wolfe) could not be more wrong).
SOD potency can be expressed as S-ORAC, although the S-ORAC assay (developed by Brunswick Labs, MA) is not limited to only SOD activity when it is analyzing the ability of the product to neutralize superoxide anion (free radicals that can cause DNA and cell damage). SOD is only one of the anti-oxidants in Chaga.
A very important point that is always left out by supplement sellers: taking SOD orally is useless, unless it is taken in a timed-release capsule or linked with gliadin (a component of gluten) as a carrier, forming Glisodin®. When taken orally (as a supplement or as part of a natural substance) SOD is destroyed by our stomach acid before it can reach the small intestines, where it has to be absorbed in order to be benificial.
However, Chaga contains significant amounts of Zinc, Copper, Iron and Manganese, all of which stimulate the production of SOD in our own body, so it is still very worthwhile to take a Chaga extract. Look for these minerals on the Supplement Facts label to be sure you get what you’re after.
Many Chaga producers are using ORAC values and SOD values when marketing their Chaga products. The values given should be indicative of Chaga’s ability to neutralize oxidative stress, to fix and prevent DNA damage caused by free radicals, to provide geno-protective qualities and to protect against the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (like in sunlight) and gamma radiation. In laymen’s terms antioxidant power can be compared to ‘anti-rust and polishing for the body and its inner organs‘.
It was not difficult to find out that the ORAC and SOD levels quoted online are in almost all cases made up or were copy/pasted from some unverifiable source and have no relation to the specific product being advertised. Almost none of the Chaga producers ever spent money on researching their product’s properties. It is important to realize that most sellers are indeed, just that – sales people, eager to make a sale. They might have a script with answers to common questions, but lack a real understanding.
A basic hot water extract (freeze dried) and a full spectrum dual extract (spray dried). The dual extract’s particle size is much smaller but the total volume is larger. This means better absorption and solubility, which improves bioavailability and therefore therapeutic effect.
The Tufts University is said to have tested Chaga for its anti-oxidant power, comparing it against other foods. This seems unlikely: Tufts is one of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Centers and investigating everyday food and its properties. Chaga is not an everyday food, it is not even considered an edible mushroom.
Apart from this, we were unable to find a source for these online statements and the accompanying SOD value, so we’ve contacted the Tufts University and found out they’ve indeed never tested Chaga, only other foods as part of their USDA support function. The figures mentioned are inventions and completely false.
A SOD level of 36,557 (36,557 what ? Units per gram, per 100 grams, per liter ?) is also seen often – but again, no indication were this stems from. We are quite sure this is also a completely false figure. It again proves most online Chaga sellers are not well-informed and merely eager to market and sell their products, using everything at hand that might help them in the process.
Despite all this, Chaga is indeed a very powerful antioxidant; in particular extracts that are a combination of hot water and ethanol extraction were found to have very high levels of antioxidant power.
Is Siberian Chaga the best Chaga ?
When Chaga became ‘hot’ in the slipstream of the recent superfood hype, the term ‘Siberian Chaga’ added an exotic, not to say romantic/authentic touch to the product.
Chaga develops best in very cold regions and it appears that the more harsh the climate and the swings in temperature, the better the therapeutic quality of the Chaga. However, these conditions are not only found in Siberia, but also in e.g. Finland, the Chinese Changbai region, N-Korea and parts of the N-American continent. Harsh climate + birch forest = high Chaga potential!
In fact, when selecting a Chaga supplement the same rules apply as when selecting a mushroom supplement in general: just check the supplement facts label, or, even better, the Certificate of Analysis used as the base for that label. This label is FDA-supervised and exaggerations or false claims are not allowed.
Chaga’s main bioactives are, according to science, beta-glucans, betulin / betulinic acid and polyphenols. Look for these on the supplement facts label and you can objectively judge the product. Based on this we can state that Siberian Chaga does not per se have better therapeutic properties or a higher amount of bioactives. What is more important is how the product has been processed and extracted.
The products therapeutic potency is a combi of using the proper raw material and optimal processing. In the end, only the levels of acknowledged bioactives matter because these bioactives determine the therapeutic effects, according to scientific research. A good quality extract guarantees the percentages of one or more bioactive compounds on its supplement facts label. This also makes it easy to compare different products against each other.
Chaga: Fukushima and radioactive contamination
Mushrooms are notorious for absorbing and accumulating heavy metals and radionuclides. This is something to keep in mind when collecting wild mushrooms, in particular in urban areas and close to highways. Chaga is a very slow growing fungus, which can accumulate significant amounts of heavy metals over the years from its natural environment. Testing wild-harvested Chaga before use is therefore essential.
Since the Fukushima disaster (March 11th, 2011) some American supplement sellers spread the rumor that Siberian and Chinese Chaga could no longer be trusted; it’s ‘soaked with radioactivity‘. In Germany the Chernobyl disaster (1987) is still considered a valid reason to avoid Siberian Chaga in particular.
How realistic are these statements ?
First, the Chernobyl blast. It took place over 25 years ago. Trees that were infected with Chaga at that time died about 5 to 10 years ago, keeping in mind that “the period from initial infection to tree death varies with the number of infection sites and tree resistance, but is typically around 20 years“. It is highly unlikely contaminated Chaga from that time is in circulation. Another fact to keep in mind is the general rule to test exported Chaga for radionuclides like Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 in Russia.
Second, the Fukushima disaster. The American and Canadian supplement sellers that are spreading the rumors about Fukushima contamination are basing this on the concept that China and Siberia are ‘close’ to Japan. This is not relevant, though, as the picture below shows clearly. This picture shows the ground deposition of radioactive Caesium-137, less than one month after the Fukushima disaster took place. It speaks for itself: the Asian continent has almost no contamination with the exception of Russia’s Far East (and Japan of course), but the N-American continent is a different story.
The reason for this is that the major jet streams on Earth are westerly winds (flowing west to east). Radioactive fallout is carried away from the Asian continent by these jet streams towards the American continent, at a speed of > 100 miles/hour (160 km/hour).
- Summarising, collecting and consuming wild Japanese, Canadian or American Chaga (or other mushrooms) is probably not a good idea in the affected areas, unless it has been tested for radio-active contamination. Chinese and Siberian Chaga is perfectly safe, though.
Chaga: Summary of actions
Properly extracted Chaga can have a wide range of therapeutic effects. These effects depend on the level of extraction (Chaga tea being the most basic/lowest level), the quality of the raw material and the dosage. For optimal results and the highest therapeutic potential choosing a well documented professional extract is the best. See our objective guideline for more details about how to choose a mushroom supplement.A 2015 study performed at Bastyr University clearly showed the differences in therapeutic potential between extracted and non-extracted mushroom products. See the picture.
Specific immune-related effects of 39 mushroom products compared. The black bars show the effects of the extracted and the white bars the effects of the non-extracted products.
- Balances the immune system, optimises the natural resistance against diseases and infections
Chaga is a natural BRM (Biological Response Modifier). It not only stimulates the body’s immune function when necessary, but can also slow it down when it’s overactive. In short, it will normalize the immune function, what classifies Chaga as an adaptogenic. The beta-glucans appear to be mainly responsible for that property, but many researchers believe it is actually the synergy between several, if not all constituents that is responsible for the full range of this adaptogenic action. Because of this property Chaga can be used to neutralize the side effects of pharmaceuticals, to compensate the age-related decline of our immune function, to neutralize genetic immune-disorders (like many auto-immune diseases) and, in general, to help us to deal with all the stresses of modern life. Stress (mental, physical, chemical, environmental – the change of seasons, urban life, pollution, etc..- ) has an enormous negative impact on our resistance.
- Anti-inflammatory, anti-viral
These properties are linked to the immune supporting properties, of course. Apart from that, the antioxidants in Chaga can have a positive effect on inflammations. Betulinic acid (a unique component of Chaga) is currently being researched for its anti-HIV properties.
- Anti-ulcer, anti-gastritis properties
In folk medicine Chaga was used often to treat gastritis and related gastrointestinal problems. Again, the immune support of Chaga plays an important role here, both in treating and prevention of these problems, but betulinic acid and the phytosterols present in Chaga also play a role. Most ulcers are caused by bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori. A well functioning immune system will be able to deal with this pathogen.
- Anti-cancer adjuvant – decreases the side effects of chemo-therapy and other aggressive medication
Chaga has proven to be very effective in supporting standard cancer treatments such as chemo-therapy and radiation. It can compensate the devastating effect these treatments can have on the immune system (causing side effects like nausea, insomnia, poor appetite, fatigue, etc. – these side effects are often the result of a compromized immune function.) It helps preventing metastasis (cancer cells traveling through the bloodstream should be neutralized by the immune system before they can cause harm). Chaga can significantly contribute to the quality of life during and after treatment this way.
Furthermore, research suggests that Chaga itself might have a anti-cancer potential, in particular during the early stages of cancer. The betulinic acid and some of the phytosterols present showed the ability to kill cancer cells directly. How this works exactly is the subject of several theories. So, Chaga has both an indirect (by stimulating the immune system to battle cancer-cells) and potentially a direct (by causing apoptosis [=programmed cell death]) effect during cancer treatments. Anti-tumor activity was only found in extracts prepared by lengthy heating or decocting, infusions prepared by steeping the raw material where not active against the tested tumors.
- Anti-oxidant properties, revitalizing, anti-aging
A high quality extract should include the sclerotium ( the black outside layer ) of the Chaga. This is important, because this sclerotium contains a massive amount of a specific fungi-melanin, giving good extracts a very high level of anti-oxidants and turning Chaga into powerful anti-aging tool. Research showed DNA-regenerating and re-vitalizing properties. The whole body will benefit from this; you will look better (skin and hair) and your organs will function better.
Antioxidant power can be expressed in an ORAC-value (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity).
- Normalizes cholesterol levels, beneficial for the cardiovascular system, supports a healthy bloodpressure
Research showed betulinic acid (a compound unique to Chaga) to be able to break down ‘bad’ cholesterol in the bloodstream. Besides that the ß-glucans, part of the polysaccharides in Chaga also have a proven positive effect on cholesterol levels. By normalizing those levels Chaga contributes to lowering high blood pressure and promotes a healthy cardio-vascular system: less plaque, stronger arteries.
- No side effects and no contra indications
One of the many benefits of using a full-spectrum Chaga extract is that it has no side effects at all. Chaga is merely stimulating the body to heal itself. There is no potential disturbance of the body’s chemical and hormonal balance. This makes medicinal mushrooms like Chaga the ideal supplement for everybody.The only contra-indication are immune suppressing medicines (e.g. cyclosporin containing products, used after a transplant). Never use medicinal mushroom extracts together with this type of medication – the immune modulating effect might neutralize its workings.
The future of Chaga
Commercial Chaga harvesting has a long history in Russia although, until a decade ago, it was mostly marketed within the country. Wild-harvested Chaga is currently in great demand because of the internet-driven hype. Unfortunately, it needs several years to develop before it becomes therapeutically useful, so some say that in the future natural resources might not be able to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
According to Russian sources 1 – 20% of birches show signs of infection, depending on the location. Researcher David Pilz came to the conclusion that the Chaga resource in Russia is so immense, that even under the most pessimistic estimates it will likely never be biologically threatened. However, it is very well possible that it soon will be no longer economically viable to go deeper and deeper into the forest to collect Chaga for large scale export. Wild-harvested Siberian Chaga will become too expensive.
For many medicinal fungi cultivation is much more cost-effective than collecting them in the wild. This would definitely be applicable to Chaga, which, as said before, takes quite some effort to collect. However, cultivated Chaga will not have the therapeutic power of wild-harvested Chaga.
Chaga is different from other medicinal wood-rot fungi because, as said before, the Chaga conk and the constituents it contains have developed as a result of the battle between the fungus and the defense mechanisms of the host birch tree.
Research showed a significant difference in composition between extracts based on wild-harvested Chaga and those based on cultivated Chaga. Sterol composition and phenolic compounds were completely different. The therapeutic effect of these compounds was also much lower (± 50%) or even absent, when compared with wild-harvested Chaga. It is generally believed that polyphenols like melanins are secondary metabolites and not required for growth or development of the fungus, but merely aiding the fungus in dealing successfully with factors in its natural harsh habitat. Cultivated Chaga therefore contains almost none of these therapeutically interesting elements. Active ingredients like betulin and betulinic acid are also missing.
Attempts at cultivation using dead birches failed; this conﬁrms the claim that Chaga develops exclusively on live trees. There are some reports that cultivation using living trees was successful, but even then, Chaga needs at least 3-5 years before it can be harvested for the first time. It will still be relatively expensive.
Cultivation techniques must be improved significantly and standardized before they can produce reliable high-quality Chaga with similar therapeutic properties as the wild-harvested version. Much more research is needed in this area.
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