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Chaga: The Healing Potential of ‘Medicinal Mushrooms

Dorothy Gracious

Before we delve into the proposed benefits and antioxidant capabilities of Chaga mushrooms, it would be beneficial for us to first understand the ‘ORAC’ system and how this can help us get a broad picture of the antioxidant powers of Chaga when compared to other plant foods and supplements. 

The ‘ORAC’ is essentially a rating scale used to gauge the antioxidant capacities of different foods – there is not a direct correlation between the rating and the benefit, but those with a higher rating are proposed to be more nutritious, more therapeutic, and potentially more helpful in treating a variety of ailments.

ORAC stands for ‘Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity,’ meaning these foods are believed to be more effective at neutralizing free radicals and reducing oxidative stress in the body. As we already know, inflammation and oxidative stress are the primary root cause of chronic conditions and disease. 

Chaga contains one of the highest levels of ORAC, a whooping 146,700 per 100g – this is when stacked against thousands of different foods, spices, supplements, and extracts. The only supplements that come in with a higher rating on the scale are spices like cloves and oregano (when counted at the same 100 grams) along with astaxanthin, dragon’s blood, and Triphala. 

To put this into more perspective, you would have to eat several thousand pounds of blueberries to reach the same ORAC rating of ~100g of dried Chaga powder.

Chaga also ranks three times higher than acai, which is often considered to be the most antioxidant-rich food you could consume. 

Let us get back to the healing powers of medicinal mushrooms. 

One clarification that should be added is that Chaga is not exactly a mushroom, but is referred to as such, and will be referred to as a mushroom throughout this article for ease of reference. Chaga is essentially a parasite that leeches nutrients from the birch trees it often grows on. This fungus needs the host tree to survive, and this is why Chaga is not harvested from dead trees. 

The primary component in medicinal mushrooms that is responsible for many of the numerous therapeutic benefits associated with them is called polysaccharides. Mushrooms, in general, contain many different forms of polysaccharides, but beta-glucans are among the most studied. So, what are polysaccharides exactly?

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They are naturally present in abundance in plants and animals. They play a vital role in the body in energy production, immune health, detoxification, and cell structure. And…they are simply a form of carbohydrates. Polysaccharides are considered “complex carbohydrates” and take longer for your body to break down. Beta-glucans, contained in mushrooms, is believed to be among the most powerful. 

These polysaccharides exert anti-diabetic properties, anti-carcinogenic properties, antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory properties, and immunomodulating properties (immune boosting). As polysaccharides are ‘complex’ carbohydrates and also take longer to break down, they can contribute to gut health by providing pre-biotic fiber that promotes healthy gut flora. 

An important component of Chaga mushrooms

Another important component of Chaga mushrooms is a little antioxidant enzyme named “superoxide dismutase,” often sold as a supplement named “SOD.” 

Superoxide dismutase, or SOD, helps prevent oxidative damage and damage to tissue and cells in the body. The name makes a lot more sense once we understand what exactly this antioxidant enzyme does

SOD protects toxic oxygen metabolization by-products by converting ‘superoxide’—which promotes the free radical formation and DNA damage – into oxygen and hydrogen peroxide. Hence the ‘dismutase,’ stands for dismutation of this superoxide compound. This prevents cellular damage induced by oxidative stress. 

SOD is used as a pharmaceutical independently of Chaga to address metabolic and physical conditions resulting from oxidative stress. What better way to get SOD than through a natural source like a mushroom?

Thus far, SOD has shown therapeutic potential in addressing cancer prevention, inflammatory conditions like arthritis, cardiovascular injury, aging, cognitive impairment, neurodegenerative diseases, and diabetes. 

All benefits linked with Chaga mushroom.

These are not the only healing compounds found in medicinal mushrooms like Chaga, though.

Given their ability to strengthen and stimulate the immune system, act as adaptogens to regulate stress and anxiety, reduce fatigue and restore energy levels, improve concentration, memory, and brain health, regulate mood and hormonal imbalances, and nourish the gut…it makes perfect sense that Chaga mushrooms are rich in all kinds of beneficial compounds that can exert potent effects on the body and mind. 

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Used for centuries in various cultures across North America and Europe as everything from a tumor remedy to the digestive tonic, Chaga – and medicinal mushrooms by extension – have only recently started to regain the popularity they deserve in the general health-conscious public. Over the last few years, more interest has built-in discovering the therapeutic potentials of mushrooms, one of nature’s richest sources of antioxidants. 

Chaga contains an array of polysaccharides, sterols, prebiotics, antioxidant enzymes (like SOD), amino acids, polyphenols, digestive enzymes, flavonoids, bioactive peptides, triterpenoids, and many more active compounds. 

The reported benefits of Chaga are too long and lengthy to list in entirety in a short little article but go digging for the scoop on Chaga’s benefits and you will find no shortage of research and studies on a variety of different ailments, immune conditions, hormonal health, and anti-carcinogenic properties. 

Skin Benefits

Melanin, a compound found in Chaga can help improve skin appearance and help you to retain a youthful glow. Melanin is protective and can also help protect against cellular damage while improving the health of hair, skin, and nails. 

Sterols and flavonoids found in Chaga can help lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels and can promote a healthy blood sugar response in those with diabetes. Chaga also seems to lower total cholesterol levels and triglycerides associated with increased cardiovascular risk. 

Betulinic acid is naturally found in birch tree bark and becomes a product of Chaga itself because of their host organism. Betulinic acid has demonstrated anti-tumor and anti-cancer activity. They may even induce cell death (apoptosis) of cancer cells where chemotherapy may not be effective alone. This was demonstrated in mouse models, cancer cell lines, and tumor tissue samples. It also seems preventative in the growth and proliferation of cancer cells. This same compound has anti-ulcer and anti-malarial effects. 

 Polysaccharides in Chaga are noted as improving gut health and intestinal function. In addition to the potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities, these polysaccharides seem to promote the healing of the gut wall (leaky gut being a root cause of many diseases and disorders) and promote ‘good’ gut bacteria diversity in the microbiota.

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Antioxidants in Chaga can help control inflammation and support a functioning and healthy immune response. Chaga appears to modulate cytokine release and can act as an immune modulator, helping to balance even an over-active immune system or immune response in what is often called a ‘cytokine storm.’ 

Triterpenoids and flavonoids found in Chaga can function as mast cell (white blood cell) stabilizers – similar to allergy medication you would get at a drug store or pharmacy, but derived from a natural store without the unpleasant side effect. This can help prevent a severe overactive immune response while helping the body regulate stressors. 

At the same time, the variety of sterols, phenols, and antioxidants have shown enhanced effectiveness in protecting against pathogens, disease, and infection. 

Chaga has a high safety profile and is recognized as generally safe by the FDA. However, those with any medical conditions, blood clotting disorders, or on blood thinning medication should consult a doctor prior to use, as Chaga can cause enhanced bleeding when used with anticoagulants. 

Don’t let the unpleasant-looking exterior of Chaga that quite closely resembles burnt charcoal fool you! There are endless reasons why Chaga is so esteemed and has been used traditionally as functional medicine and therapeutic remedy for centuries. For many centuries, people native to North America, Asia (Siberia), and Europe have known about and consumed Chaga for a variety of ailments.

Now that Chaga is widely available from high-quality sources like Siberia and Northern Canada delivered right to you from around the world, it gives you all the more reason to discover the health benefits of this rich, earthy mushroom for yourself! Tincture, powder, formulated to be mixed into coffee or tea, or as a capsule – Chaga comes in every possible form to accommodate.

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