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Chaga: Hype or age old remedy?

Better known as ‘black gold,’ this fungi seems to pop up everywhere in infusions, teas, powders, elixirs, health shops, and yoga shalas. One of its health claims: it contains the highest value ever recorded on the ORAC scale (scale for antioxidant levels), made me curious. What do ancient wisdom and modern science have to say about it? [Side note: Later I would realise that my whole Sunday afternoon was spent reading article after article and that I could’ve handed in a PHD proposal afterwards. ;)]

Folk medicine and Chaga

In folk medicine, Chaga (latin name Inonotus obliquus) tinctures were among the most popular preparations in Northern and Middle Russia. The tinctures were used as a remedy for prevention and treatment of gastric disorders and even as an anti-cancer treatment. According to legends, the Russian duke Vladimir Monomach was cured from cancer in his digestive tract. In East Europe it was also used to treat ulcers and tuberculosis of the bones.(1)

Modern medicine and Chaga

Recently, modern medicine has confirmed curative actions that were known in ancient times. Studies have revealed antiviral, cytotoxic, immunomudulatory, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Chaga has even found its way to allopathic medicine. In Japan, some of the protein-bound polysaccharides from polypores (Chaga is a polypore mushroom) are on the market as anticancer drugs (Shashkina, 2006). Also in Russia, Poland and belarus, medicinal preparations are more frequently made with Chaga.

10 health benefits of Chaga

A recap of the 10 health benefits in the studies I found:

- Antiviral

- Cytotoxin

- Immunomodulatory

- Adaptogen

- Antidiabetic

- Anti-inflammatory

- Antioxidant

- An anti-cancer agent (in specific cases)

- Boosts physical stamina

- Good source of B-vitamins, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium (2)

Any side effects or critical articles?

Yes. Chaga is high in oxalates, which may prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. Its cellular walls are tough which makes it difficult to digest. This means no nutrient absorption can take place. In Ayurvedic terms, the creation of Ama or indigested food can happen. However the downside of modern studies is that many of them are in-vitro (basically tested in tubes) and/or are done with laboratory extracts. In Ayurveda and TCM, we believe that nature creates organisms in a meticulous way. All compounds are there for a reason, none are superfluous, and all of them are necessary to contribute to your health.

Ayurveda's perspective on Chaga

What does Ayurveda write about it? The ancient texts / scriptures, Indian Veda's, don’t specifically analyse the Chaga mushroom. The earliest written text are from Siberia. However based on observation of the fungus, we can draw the conclusion that Chaga comprises the following guna’s: heavy (Guru), dense (Sandra), hard (Kathina), dry (Ruksha). Its rasa is sweet (Madhura), but I can not draw any conclusion towards its Virya and Vipaka. Most probably it is hard to digest for Vata and Kapha types (which modern science confirms for all people). For these types it is even more important to use it in formulas with ginger or deepana spices.

Threatening of Chaga species

After some research, what can we conclude? In the first place, and this is something you should consider for all herbs, do you really need it (many things can be solved with diet) and what is your therapeutic goal? Carefully consider your health needs and conditions and perhaps consult with a practitioner. Over-harvesting is a big issue nowadays with many herbs/plants going mainstream, and the Chaga species is likewise threatened. (3) Finally, if you choose to take it, you need to be able to digest it. There are different ways to consume it. For acute issues (inflammations), a tincture is more appropriate since the alcohol makes the herb fast acting. A decoction is more suitable for long term ailments.

How to make a decoction of Chaga mushrooms?

- 1,5 liter of water

- add 4 grams (1-1,5 tablespoon) of Chaga chunks

- add a few slices of ginger to improve digestion

- boil the water and mushrooms down to half the amount of water for at least four hours. It is preferable to boil Chaga for 24 or 48 hours for a more full extraction of its medicinal properties and its healing properties.

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