Chaga mushrooms are called the ‘king of mushrooms’, while the better known reishi mushroom gets the title of ‘queen of mushrooms’. Chaga mushrooms are marketed as having a wide range of medicinal benefits including anti-inflammatory, cancer treatment and prevention, hepatoprotective and immuno-modulation effects.
Given the fact that Chaga mushroom extract sells for as much as $130/oz, this mushroom would have to be scientifically proven to do all the above (and do my ironing) for me to treat it as royalty.
Table of Contents
- What Is Chaga Mushroom?
- Is There Any Research?
- Does Chaga Mushroom Prevent or Treat Cancer?
- Does It Have Anti-Viral Properties Can it Cure Herpes?
- Does It Reduce Inflammation?
- Does It “Aid the GI Tract”?
- Does It Improve Physical Endurance?
- Does it Help The Immune System? Anti-Oxidant?
- Will Chaga Mushrooms Help With Hair Loss?
- Will They Help Weight Loss?
- Is Chaga Mushroom Safe?
What Is Chaga Mushroom?
Medicinal mushrooms and fungi are thought to possess approximately 130 medicinal functions including antitumor, immunomodulating, antioxidant, radical scavenging, cardiovascular, anti-hypercholesterolemic, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-parasitic, antifungal, detoxification, hepatoprotective, and antidiabetic effects.
The Inonotus obliqus mushroom, also known as Chaga mushroom in Russia and Kabanoanatake in Japan, belongs to the Hymenochaetaceae family of Basidiomycetes.
Essentially, it is a black parasitic white rot fungus that preferably inhabits the living trunks of mature birch trees (Betula app). It grows best in cold climates between 45 and 50 degrees north e.g. North America, Siberia, Finland, Japan and north east China.
It has become increasingly difficult to source Chaga mushrooms. Hence the high price tag. The mushroom is found in as few as 1 in 20,000 birch trees and takes 10- 15 years of parasitism to mature. This has led to the development of commercial techniques for the artificial cultivation of the mushroom (submerged fermentation technology). These attempts to obtain a high yield of Chaga mushrooms affects not just the yield but also the type of constituents obtained. Hardly a surprise when we try to outsmart nature.
There are two main parts of the Chaga mushroom:
- the fruiting body (brown part) which is found mainly inside
- the sclerotium (black part) which is found mainly outside
The conk (3 – 35cm) that is used medicinally comprises wood from the birch tree and the mycelium from the invasive fungus (1). The Chaga mushroom survives seasonal environmental stresses including freezing temperatures, UV irradiation and the invasion of pathogens and as such has evolved with complex integrated defences. It is these exact integrated defences that are believed to confer the mushroom with adaptogenic health benefits. Adaptogens are compounds that increase the body’s ability to resist stress and adapt to environmental change.
The mushroom was used by the Persian physician, Avicenna, back in 980 AD. It has been used since the sixteenth century in folk medicine in Russia and Siberia and was formally adopted by the Russian Sate Pharmacopoeia in 1989.
The Chaga mushroom was popularized in the western world by Nobel Prize winning author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who introduced it in his 1968 semi-autobiographical novel The Cancer Ward (2).
There are now over 3000 Chaga mushroom products for sale on Amazon including tea, coffee, powder, capsules and mushroom chunks.
The mushroom contains oxalates, betulinic acid, superoxide dismutase, polyphenols, lanosterol, terpenoids (inotodiol), polysaccharides and beta glucans.
Commercially available Chaga mushroom products contain (per 100g):
- Energy 167 kcal
- Protein 0
- Lipid 0
- Carbohydrate 33g
- Vit C 8333 mg (3).
There are two things that Chaga mushrooms are not:
- Chaga mushrooms have nothing to do with Chaga’s Disease which is a tropical disease caused by trypanosomes.
- Chaga mushrooms are not the psychedelic kind of mushrooms (not those kind of mushrooms).
Is There Any Research?
There are 170 published studies on Chaga mushrooms in the scientific literature. There are no human clinical trials on this product.
To put this into context, psilocybin (the psychedelic kind of mushroom) can claim over 800 studies including over 50 clinical trials.
Does Chaga Mushroom Prevent or Treat Cancer?
There are a total of 54 papers looking at Chaga mushrooms for cancer treatment or prevention. The knowledge base on Chaga mushrooms in cancer can be summarized as following.
Laboratory models also suggest that Chaga mushrooms may exert an anti-cancer effect via four possible mechanisms:
anti oxidation to prevent the development of cancer in the first place
arresting the growth of tumor cells
killing tumor cells directly and
activating the immune system to kill tumor cells (7).
The anti-cancer activity of Chaga mushrooms are largely attributed to triterpenoid compounds in the mushroom (8)
There is no human clinical proof that Chaga mushrooms can prevent or treat cancer at this time.
Does It Have Anti-Viral Properties Can it Cure Herpes?
There are three studies looking at the antiviral effects of Chaga mushrooms in herpes simplex infections.
The first study from Russia showed that Chaga mushroom extract protected a cell culture from the cytoxic effects of herpes simplex virus infection (8)
A second cell culture study showed that Chaga mushroom extract helped to prevent herpes simplex entry into cells by acting on viral glycopeptides and preventing cell membrane fusion (9).
The third study used aqeous extracts of Chaga mushrooms in mice who had been infected with herpes simplex virus and showed a survival benefit. Of note, Lentinufa erodes and Pleurotos ostreatus mushrooms showed superior antiviral activity to Chaga mushroom in this study (10).
There are laboratory and animal data supporting an anti-herpes role for Chaga mushrooms. However this has not been validated in humans. It also has to said that the Chaga mushroom was not the ‘King’ as it was trumped by other mushrooms. Finally, (just to be pedantic) herpes virus infection cannot be ‘cured’ as it remains latent in the body – this is why people get recurrent cold sores.
Does It Reduce Inflammation?
There are two studies relevant to inflammation.
The first study was conducted in mice and showed that Chaga mushrooms inhibited anaphylactic shock and IgE production in mice treated with a pro-allergenic compound 48/80 (11). The authors concluded that Chaga mushroom extract may have a role as an anti-allergic functional food.
In the second study, Chaga mushrooms reduced acute paw edema and pain which had been induced by carrageenin in rats. The anti-inflammatory and anti-nociceptive properties of Chaga mushrooms were due to the inhibition of nitrous oxide expression (via the down-regulation of NF-kappaB binding activity) (12).
There are pre-clinical but no clinical studies supporting the role of Chaga mushrooms as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Does It “Aid the GI Tract”?
Again, no human clinical data on the GI tract, but there are three pre-clinical studies of interest.
The first study used dextran sulfate to induce intestinal inflammation in 5 week old mice (13). The mice were randomized either to no intervention or Chaga mushroom extract at doses of 50mg/kg body weight or 100mg/kg body weight. Histological studies showed that Chaga mushrooms suppressed edema, reduced mucosal damage and lowered levels of nitrous oxide suggesting that Chaga mushroom exerted an anti-inflammatory effect in these mice. The anti-inflammatory effects noted were due to a reduction in levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, nitrous oxide, and interleukin (IL)-1beta.
The second study was conducted in mice who were given diethyldithiocarbamate to induce chronic pancreatitis (14). Administration of Chaga mushroom extract helped reduce pancreatitis related weight loss and pancreatic cell loss in these mice.
A follow up study by the same research groups showed that Chaga mushroom also regulated the gut microbiota in mice with chronic pancreatitis (15).
Mice data shows some benefits of Chaga mushroom in colitis and pancreatitis but to date, there are no human studies.
Does It Improve Physical Endurance?
As mentioned above, Chaga mushrooms are believed to have adaptogenic properties which would include improved physical endurance.
A study in 64 male mice evaluated the effect of sterile water (control) versus Chaga mushroom extract at doses of 100mg/kg/day, 200 mg/kg/day or 300 mg/kg/day on physical fatigue (16). The mice were ‘forced’ to swim. Chaga mushroom extended swimming time and decreased blood lactic acid. Polysaccharides in Chaga mushrooms increased glycogen content of liver and muscle and also reduced blood lactic acid and serum urea nitrogen levels. This was taken as circumstantial evidence that Chaga mushroom may be an anti-fatigue agent.
You definitely want to try out Chaga mushrooms if your pet mouse enters the winter Olympics, but that is all we can say for now.
Does it Help The Immune System? Anti-Oxidant?
As mentioned above, Chaga mushrooms may exert an anti-cancer effect via modulation of the immune system.
Polysaccharides isolated from the fruiting body of Inonotus obliquus were found to have an immunomodulating effects on macrophage white blood cells (17).
Chaga mushrooms were found to have antioxidant properties in vitro which were superior compared to other medicinal mushrooms such as Agarics blazei, Mycelia Ganaderme lucidum and Phellinus linteus) (18). Further analysis suggested that the fruiting body of Chaga mushroom has superior antioxidant content as compared to the sclerotium
There is pre-clinical but no clinical data to support an immune modulating effect of Chaga mushrooms. Chaga mushrooms are the ‘King’ when it comes to anti-oxidants as compared to other mushrooms but this is entirely limited to laboratory studies.
Will Chaga Mushrooms Help With Hair Loss?
There are no laboratory, animal or human studies on Chaga mushrooms for hair loss.
There is nothing at all to connect Chaga mushrooms to hair loss.
Will They Help Weight Loss?
There is a single study looking at weight loss with Chaga mushrooms.
This study from China looked at the effect of Chaga mushroom on rats fed a high fat diet over a period of 12 weeks. The study showed that the administration of Chaga mushrooms controlled body weight, reduced body lipid accumulation and blood levels of free fatty acids, triglycerides and total cholesterol in the serum, liver, and adipose tissue (19).
There is no convincing data to support the fact that Chaga mushroom helps with weight loss.
There are no studies looking at Chaga mushrooms in migraine.
There is not even circumstantial evidence to connect Chaga mushrooms to migraine headaches or any theory type of headache.
Is Chaga Mushroom Safe?
Chaga mushroom is a source of oxalate which poses a risk for renal stones. There is a case report of renal stones in a Japanese lady who was taking Chaga mushroom for liver cancer (20).
These mushrooms can inhibit platelet function which increases the risk of of bleeding in people who are taking coumadin, warfarin or any of the newer oral anticoagulants (21)
Chaga mushrooms can also cause low blood sugar in patients receiving treatment for diabetes (22)
Available information on Chaga mushrooms is limited to animal studies (at best). This raises the question of the nature of the correlation between animal and human studies. Are animal models predictive for humans? A comprehensive review of the subject was published by researchers from Wichita State University in 2009 (23).
The review reports that the predictive power of animal studies is only 10% for drug behaviour in humans. We could reasonably expect a similar poor correlation for functional foods. The authors explain that it is not surprising that animals fail to act as ‘causal analogical models’ given ten key differences between humans and animals (genes, gene regulation, gene expression, mutations. proteins, protein-protein interactions, genetic networks, organismal organization, environmental exposure and evolutionary history’.
The authors concluded by saying that ‘when one empirically analyzes animal models using scientific tools they fall far short of being able to predict human responses’.
The current scientific literature does not justify spending large sums of money on Chaga mushrooms. (There are far less expensive sources of vitamin C available). Neither does it deserve any royal titles. In fact, in the absence of human clinical data, this mushroom should not even have a knighthood.
- Glamoclija J, Ciric A, Nikolic M, et al. Chemical characterization and biological activity of Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a medicinal “mushroom”. J Ethnopharmacol. Mar 13 2015;162:323-332.
- Kang JH, Jang JE, Mishra SK, Lee HJ, Nho CW, Shin D, Jin M, Kim MK, Choi C, Oh SH. Ergosterol peroxide from Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) exhibits anti-cancer activity by down-regulation of the β-catenin pathway in colorectal cancer. J Ethnopharmacol. 2015 Sep 15;173:303-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2015.07.030. Epub 2015 Jul 22.
- Zhong XH, Wang LB, Sun DZ. Effects of inotodiol extracts from inonotus obliquus on proliferation cycle and apoptotic gene of human lung adenocarcinoma cell line A549. Chin J Integr Med. 2011 Mar;17(3):218-23. doi: 10.1007/s11655-011-0670-x. Epub 2011 Feb 27.
- Zhao LW, Zhong XH, Yang SY, et al. Inotodiol inhabits proliferation and induces apoptosis through modulating expression of cyclinE, p27, bcl-2, and bax in human cervical cancer HeLa cells. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2014;15(7):3195-3199.
- Song FQ, Liu Y, Kong XS, Chang W, Song G. Progress on understanding the anticancer mechanisms of medicinal mushroom: inonotus obliquus. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2013;14(3):1571-8. Review.
- Nikitina SA, Khabibrakhmanova VR, Sysoeva MA [Composition and biological activity of triterpenes and steroids from Inonotus obliquus (chaga)]. Biomed Khim. 2016 May;62(4):369-75. doi: 10.18097/PBMC20166204369. Review. Russian.
- Polkovnikova MV, Nosik NN, Garaev TM, Kondrashina NG, Finogenova MP, Shibnev VA. A study of the antiherpetic activity of the chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) extracts in the Vero cells infected with the herpes simplex virus]. Vopr Virusol. 2014 Mar-Apr;59(2):45-8. Russian.
- Pan HH, Yu XT, Li T, Wu HL, Jiao CW, Cai MH, Li XM, Xie YZ, Wang Y, Peng T. Aqueous extract from a Chaga medicinal mushroom, Inonotus obliquus (higher Basidiomycetes), prevents herpes simplex virus entry through inhibition of viral-induced membrane fusion. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013;15(1):29-38.
- Razumov IA, Kazachinskaia EI, Puchkova LI, Kosogorova TA, Gorbunova IA, Loktev VB, Tepliakova TV. [Protective activity of aqueous extracts from higher mushrooms against Herpes simplex virus type-2 on albino mice model]. Antibiot Khimioter. 2013;58(9-10):8-12. Russian.
- Yoon TJ, Lee SJ, Kim EY, et al. Inhibitory effect of chaga mushroom extract on compound 48/80-induced anaphylactic shock and IgE production in mice. Int Immunopharmacol. Apr 2013;15(4):666-670.
- Park YM, Won JH, Kim YH, et al. In vivo and in vitro anti-inflammatory and anti-nociceptive effects of the methanol extract of Inonotus obliquus. J Ethnopharmacol. Oct 3 2005;101(1-3):120-128.
- Mishra SK, Kang JH, Kim DK, Oh SH, Kim MK. Orally administered aqueous extract of Inonotus obliquus ameliorates acute inflammation in dextran sulfate sodium (DSS)-induced colitis in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Sep 28;143(2):524-32. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.07.008. Epub 2012 Jul 20.
- Hu Y, Sheng Y, Yu M, Li K, Ren G, Xu X, Qu J. Antioxidant activity of Inonotus obliquus polysaccharide and its amelioration for chronic pancreatitis in mice. Int J Biol Macromol. 2016 Jun;87:348-56. doi: 10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2016.03.006. Epub 2016 Mar 5.
- Hu Y, Teng C, Yu S, Wang X, Liang J, Bai X, Dong L, Song T, Yu M, Qu J. Inonotus obliquus polysaccharide regulates gut microbiota of chronic pancreatitis in mice. AMB Express. 2017 Dec;7(1):39. doi: 10.1186/s13568-017-0341-1. Epub 2017 Feb 14.
- Yue Z, Xiuhong Z, Shuyan Y, Zhonghua Z. Effect of Inonotus Obliquus Polysaccharides on physical fatigue in mice. J Tradit Chin Med. 2015 Aug;35(4):468-72.
- Kim YR.Immunomodulatory Activity of the Water Extract from Medicinal Mushroom Inonotus obliquus. Mycobiology. 2005 Sep;33(3):158-62. doi: 10.4489/MYCO.2005.33.3.158. Epub 2005 Sep 30.
- Nakajima Y, Sato Y, Konishi T. Antioxidant small phenolic ingredients in Inonotus obliquus (persoon) Pilat (Chaga). Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo). 2007 Aug;55(8):1222-6.
- Wu T, Shu Q, Yang K, Xie X, Wang X, Wang Y, Guo A, Yuan N, Zhao B, Chi B, Wu Q, Fu Z. Ameliorating effects of Inonotus obliquus on high fat diet-induced obese rats. Acta Biochim Biophys Sin (Shanghai). 2015 Sep;47(9):755-7. doi: 10.1093/abbs/gmv073. Epub 2015 Aug 4. No abstract available
- Kikuchi Y, Seta K, Ogawa Y, Takayama T, Nagata M, Taguchi T, Yahata K. Chaga mushroom-induced oxalate nephropathy. Clin Nephrol. 2014 Jun;81(6):440-4. doi: 10.5414/CN107655
- Hyun KW, Jeong SC, Lee DH, Park JS, Lee JS. Isolation and characterization of a novel platelet aggregation inhibitory peptide from the medicinal mushroom, Inonotus obliquus. Peptides. Jun 2006;27(6):1173-1178.
- Ying YM, Zhang LY, Zhang X, et al. Terpenoids with alpha-glucosidase inhibitory activity from the submerged culture of Inonotus obliquus. Phytochemistry. Dec 2014;108:171-176
- Shanks N, Greek R, Greek J. Are animal models predictive for humans? Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2009 Jan 15;4:2. doi: 10.1186/1747-5341-4-2. Review