Chugging Chaga

WellnessChagaWild chaga mushroom stimulates immune response and fights cancer

Several months ago, my father began harvesting chaga conks from around his New England home—having read up on the mushroom’s anti-cancer properties—and was soon sending me copious amounts of it in the mail. To the naked eye, chaga doesn’t look like much. It’s a bark-like substance found growing on birch trees in cooler climates, with an amber-colored interior and a burly, black-brown outer shell that looks like burnt charcoal.

Though it’s often referred to as a mushroom, chaga was recently reclassified as a member of the Hymenochaetaceae family, along with other woody botanicals that grow on the bark of decaying trees. Its relationship with birch trees is a symbiotic one: it grows on wounds, healing the tree while feeding on the nutrients and compounds of its host.

I didn’t appreciate its value immediately. Actually, I didn’t even make the tea he spoke so highly of until the day I opened my cupboard and an avalanche of chaga rained down on me. Now, I keep a regular batch steeping at all times, and offer it as a beverage option to anyone who steps into my kitchen.

Broken into quarter-sized (or smaller) chunks, chaga tea is easy to make: simply steep in hot water until the water turns a coffee-black. Boiling for a short period will give you a stronger steep, but boiling for too long will break up chaga’s rich supply of beta-glucans—naturally occurring polysaccharides known to increase immune defense by activating natural killer cell function, and helping the immune system to recognize cancer cells as “non-self.” Thus, a low 10-minute simmer is really all you need, but the longer it steeps, the better—and some sources recommend steeping it for several days.

The tea can be purchased locally at Go Ask Alice on Pacific Avenue, and its draw goes well beyond its forest-floor taste.

“[Chaga] predigests the birch’s nutrients, concentrating them in a form more readily available to humans,” says author Cass Ingram, M.D., a leading expert on the disease-fighting properties of wild medicinals. “In essence, the chaga serves as a vital chemical factory for substances of great value to our health.”

To start, wild chaga is the world’s top source of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), which neutralizes free radicals and prevents oxidative damage to cells. SOD levels in human tissue begin to decline naturally after the age of 30, making dietary sources extremely important. With an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) reading of 42,860 units per 3 ounces (anything above 500 is considered extremely powerful), chaga’s antioxidant capability exceeds even the powerful reishi mushroom by 50 times, and makes leafy greens seem like sawdust. It’s also loaded with B vitamins, minerals and sterols.

One of the most powerful constituents of chaga, though, is betulinic acid, which induces apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in cancer cells, and may have potent antitumor activity, according to a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Science, among others. Most of the scientific studies conducted on chaga since the 1950s have taken place in China, Japan, Korea, and Russia, but there have been five promising studies in North America, focusing on chaga’s ability to combat cancer and inhibit tumor growth, improve immune response and even moderate diabetes.

Ingram recommends taking chaga daily, along with wild oregano oil, which helps stimulate the absorption of chaga’s active ingredients. If you harvest it, leave some on the tree—it will grow back—and if you buy it, he says, be careful to avoid cheap synthetic imitations produced from vat-grown chaga. The best chaga comes from the wild.

PHOTO: Wild chaga, which grows on birch trees, is a powerhouse of minerals, nutrients, antioxidants, and potent anti-cancer and immune-stimulating compounds. MARIA GRUSAUSKAS

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The former managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas contributes to the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a CNPA award for environmental reporting in 2015. Her interests include photography, traveling, human consciousness, music, and gardening. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine, Los Gatos magazine and on shareable.net.

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