If you wanted to find some “Chaga” mushroom you would tromp through a forest looking for a birch tree with an unusual growth on its trunk. Although it is classified as a mushroom, Chaga doesn’t look like one. Instead of having gills, this mushroom is permeated with numerous pores. Under pressure it crumbles readily, revealing a brownish inside with cream coloured veins.
Why would anyone seek out this ugly parasite that grows from a wound on the bark of a birch tree? Probably because of stories that circulate about the mushroom being prized for ages by natives in northern Asia, Europe and America for its medicinal powers. Folklore speaks of the Chaga mushroom treating virtually every known ailment ranging from intestinal worms and heart disease to diabetes and cancer. It has been around for 4000 years, the story goes, and has been alluringly referred to as “Nature’s Silver Bullet” and “Gift from God.” Largely ignored by the western world for hundreds of years, the tale continues, Chaga is now being recognized for its energy boosting, immune system improving, stress reducing, detoxifying and anti-cancer properties. And where are these revelations about the wonders of Chaga to be found? Mostly on web sites that sell an array of Chaga pills and extracts.
The marketing of Chaga follows a popular and effective formula. An obscure natural substance that virtually nobody has heard about is touted as a non-toxic answer to our health problems. On what basis? There are the usual personal testimonials, there’s reference to historical use and to studies that have shown some sort of biological activity in some sort of laboratory study. Of course, many mushrooms contain compounds that have biological activity. That doesn’t necessarily imply desirable activity. Amanita muscaria, for example, is highly toxic and psilocybe mushrooms can cause hallucinations. But certainly some fungi have been found to contain pharmacologically useful compounds. It may even be that Chaga has such. But before swallowing the idea that swallowing Chaga pills or extracts or teas is a good thing to do, we had better look at the evidence.
Anecdotes about arthritis symptoms improving after drinking Chaga tea, or eczema resolving, or sleep improving, or blood pressure dropping do not amount to scientific evidence. So what kind of scientific evidence exists? One study that is commonly quoted reports the effect of a Chaga mushroom extract on human white blood cells exposed to the oxidizing agent hydrogen peroxide in the laboratory. The cells treated with the extract showed a 40% reduction in DNA damage. This is often described as “promising anti-cancer activity.” That’s a big stretch. The reduction in DNA damage is an interesting observation, but is essentially meaningless. Such effects can be seen with virtually any fruit or vegetable extract that contains antioxidants. It doesn’t translate to anything meaningful in terms of ingestion of any Chagas preparation.
Laboratory studies have also shown that Chaga, like any other plant material, contains an array of triterpenes, sterols, beta-glucans, flavonoids, melanins, polyphenols, saponins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fiber. In some context all of these have biological activity, and with clever writing and selective reporting they can be made to look like miraculous ingredients. For example, one bit of supporting evidence offered for the use of Chaga extracts is that during the 1917 influenza epidemic, while the white population was dropping like flies, physicians noted that the Native American population was virtually unaffected. “After close inspection, these physicians attributed the herbs that the Indians were ingesting to their heightened immunity.” First, there is no evidence that natives were specially protected, and even if they were, it cannot be concluded that it was because of any natural products they were taking, and there is certainly no evidence that they were indulging in any Chaga preparations.
The bottom line is that there is no evidence that ingesting any form of Chaga is beneficial. There are no placebo-controlled randomized trials of Chaga pills or extracts. Pills are available, but as with any such product there is no standardization, there is no way to tell what the pills really contain. As far as Chaga teas go, there are numerous recipes that undoubtedly result in different compositions of the final product. It is certainly possible that future research will show that some standardized preparation of Chaga, or a specific dose of a compound found in Chaga, has a therapeutic effect. But so far nothing like that has been shown.
I know that anytime I make such comments I am barraged with emails claiming that evidence for Chaga benefits is being suppressed by Big Pharma in order to protect its interests. I am also treated to a plethora of anecdotal accounts of pain disappearing, stomach problems resolving, waning energy being restored and skin taking on a youthful appearance.
The only truly documented evidence I’ve been able to come up with refers to the combustibility of the fungus. Chaga is sometimes justifiably referred to as a “tinder fungus.” That’s because its porous nature gives it a very large surface are and makes it very easy to light. It seems to be just the right substance with which to start a fire. A useful thing to know for people interested in wilderness survival. Unfortunately its use in disease survival is a different matter.