Have you heard about medicinal or functional mushrooms lately? We’re guessing you have if you’re reading this. But why? We’re can’t say why they’re so popular right now (as opposed to, say, 50 years ago), but we’re glad they are finally getting attention. First, a little background, ancient Egyptians and Chinese cultures have used medicinal mushrooms for centuries to promote general health and longevity. However, using mushrooms for medicinal purposes is a relatively new concept to Western cultures. Even though using mushrooms for health may be relatively new for some, their popularity is growing worldwide. In fact, Inkstone suggests mushrooms are the hottest growing health and wellness trend for 2021. And mushroom supplements are one of the supplements everyone will be taking next year. Chaga mushrooms are one of the most popular medicinal mushroom and adaptogenic products on the market. Let’s break down some of the notable chaga mushroom benefits.
Mushroom supplements come in all different types of medicinal mushrooms. And they you can consume them in almost any way you’d like. They can come in the form of tea, powders to add to drinks or in pills. Common medicinal mushrooms for supplements include reishi, lion’s mane and chaga. And as they have increased in popularity, they are available to more consumers. You can now find almost all these supplements at most health and wellness stores, or online.
It’s not technically a mushroom, but let’s just call it a mushroom, OK?
To add a little more complexity to the Chaga mushroom story, they aren’t technically mushrooms. They are actually something called sclerotia, which is an outgrowth from a fungus that grows on birch trees. But that’s not really the easiest thing to refer to. So everyone has essentially agreed to call them “medicinal mushrooms” instead of “fungus from birch tree bark” because…well, that’s kind of obvious, right? Plus they kind of look like mushrooms and they provide a lot of the same benefits.
What makes the Chaga mushroom special? Here’s a little overview. The Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is called the “King of Mushrooms” because it’s associated with a ton of health benefits. These benefits include boosting immune health, benefiting heart health and a source of antioxidants with cancer fighting properties to name a few.
Are mushroom supplements all hype or is there any validity to mushroom health claims? Let’s take a deep dive into the chaga mushroom benefits to see what the science says.
1. Immune Health
Chaga mushrooms are usually promoted as an immune building supplement, and there is some research to suggest this may be true. Studies have shown chaga extracts can increase lymphocyte cells and increase macrophage activation. Lymphocytes are immune cells that produce antibodies to fight harmful viruses or bacteria, and macrophages help detect and also destroy harmful pathogens in the body. Sounds pretty good. But we need more research to fully understand chaga’s capabilities.
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2. There are Potential (But Inconclusive) Cancer Fighting Properties
Like other mushrooms, chaga provides a good source of antioxidants which is one reason why chaga may provide cancer fighting properties. Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by free radicals and carcinogens. We always want to be careful when claiming anything can help fight cancer. So we will only refer to the limited studies that are currently out there. And with any supplement, we can’t say anything if certain at this stage.
Numerous studies have shown chaga mushroom to have anti-tumor effects. Extracts of chaga mushroom have shown potential to fight hepatoma, leukemia, colon, and cervical carcinomas. Unlike chemo cancer treatments, one study found chaga mushroom extracts demonstrated a target toxicity against several lines of cancer cells without damaging normal cells.
These studies show promising results of chaga mushrooms actually fighting cancer cells. But keep in mind these studies were performed in a lab setting using liquid extracts. We have no real-world clinical studies to date. Could chaga mushroom target cancer cells the same way in the human body? Possibly. But we need more research in humans before we can say anything definitive. Regardless, chaga mushrooms are a source of antioxidants, and a diet high in antioxidants can have numerous positive health benefits in the body. And we recommend everyone keep an eye out for more studies involving humans. The more we know, the better.
3. Chaga Mushrooms Benefit Liver and Gut Health
All mushrooms, including chaga, are a source of prebiotics which act as fuel to encourage the growth of helpful probiotics in the gut. A 2017 review suggests prebiotics can regulate the human gut bacteria (microbiota) and potentially help lower risk of several disease conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
There are a lot of factors that go into the balance of bacteria and overall gut health. The gut microbiota can impact liver health and risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A 2020 review suggests mushrooms as a prebiotic source can modulate gut microbiota that can lower risk for liver disease.
4. Aiding in Blood Sugar Regulation
Research studies with mice have shown carbohydrates from chaga mushrooms may have a positive impact on blood sugar regulation. These components of chaga mushrooms reduced glucose, triglycerides and cholesterol levels in mice blood.
Components of chaga mushrooms have also been shown to stimulate the growth of pancreatic cells. The pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar. Therefore, the potential of chaga mushrooms stimulating growth of pancreatic cells could be therapeutic for treating diabetes.
We need more research in humans. But it seems there is some potential health benefit of aiding in blood sugar regulation and stimulating new growth of pancreatic cells.
5. They Can Help Fight Fatigue
Do you feel tired more often than not? (And honestly, who doesn’t?) Could taking chaga mushrooms increase stamina and help you fight fatigue? Like other adaptogen supplements, chaga mushrooms are marketed to help counter stress and improve stamina. But marketing isn’t always reality. While human studies showing this specific benefit with chaga are lacking, there are mice studies showing chaga mushrooms may indeed help fight fatigue.
A 2015 study divided mice into four groups: three with varying chaga mushroom compounds and one placebo group. Researchers put mice in swimming tests and measured variables from muscles, the brain and blood. They concluded the chaga mushroom components had a significant impact to help mice increase swim time, increase glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in muscles and lower blood lactate levels. They therefore concluded chaga mushrooms compounds may be fatigue fighting. But we need more research in humans.
Chaga Mushroom Benefits – In Conclusion
Chaga mushrooms have been a treatment and prevention for many ailments for centuries. And many people attest to their purported health benefits. Recently, mushroom supplements have exploded in popularity worldwide, and so have health claims associated with medicinal mushrooms.
Most research with chaga mushrooms have been in cell cultures or with animals. These research studies have shown promising results that chaga mushrooms can positively impact health. Chaga mushrooms are a good source of antioxidants. They have also shown potential to fight carcinogens, positively support immune function, help with blood sugar regulation and fight fatigue.
So chaga mushrooms sound great, right? Well, the potential is there. But we need multiple clinical trials before we can say anything definitively. And we always recommend consulting your doctor or physician before add chaga supplements to your diet.
Another thing to consider is that chaga mushroom supplements can vary in dosage and quality. If you are going to add a chaga mushroom supplement make sure to do your research. Read the labels. Look at all the ingredients. You always want your chaga extracts to be from the fruitiing bodies of the mushroom. Not the mycelium. The fruiting bodies are the parts of the mushrooms that are above ground. Those are the traditional mushroom caps. This is where the majority of the medicinal and functional mushroom benefits are. The mycelium is the root system, which has fewer beneficial components and adaptogens.
Some companies grind up the mycelium and call it “medicinal mushrooms.” This is a cheaper process. And while this is technically correct, it’s a little misleading. If you think you’re buying medicinal mushrooms, but only getting the mycelium, it won’t be as effective.
Holly Klamer MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian and freelance nutrition and writer. She attended Colorado State University where she received her MS and RD certifications. She specializes in sports nutrition, culinary nutrition, disease management/prevention, and disordered eating. She enjoys traveling, trying new foods, running, and spending time outside.