Chaga Mushrooms Health benefits: What does the science say?

In Western cultures, mushroom supplements are fast becoming a staple wellness product. It’s no surprise as more people are becoming interested in natural, plant-based solutions to improve general health.

Chaga Mushrooms

Chaga Mushrooms. Image Courtesy of Tomas Čekanavičius

Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is just one in over 14,000 thousand mushroom varieties. However, many believe it holds therapeutic value. Some studies show that Chaga may help reduce blood sugar, slow the aging process, and even support the immune system.

In this article, we’ll investigate if commercially available Chaga mushroom capsules have any health benefits.

There are a variety of fungi surrounding us and we are routinely being exposed to them through the air, water, or food. Mushrooms are one of those macrofungi which are widely known for their biological and pharmacological properties. Mushrooms are also included in the diet and are mostly consumed as supplementary food item. Mushrooms are considered to be an excellent source of vitamins, protein, minerals, and carbohydrates. They have high fiber and low-fat content. (1) Inonotus obliquus, also called ‘Chaga mushroom’, is a parasitic fungus that grows on birches in cold climates. Khanty people used it in traditional medicine to treat various health problems. (2) The Chaga mushrooms are rich in triterpenoids, phenolic compounds, polysaccharides, and proteins. (3) Chaga mushrooms are becoming popular worldwide due to their tremendous health benefits.

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Health Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms

Anti-Cancer Activity

Cancer is known for its invading and progressive ability. Most of the available treatment options are expensive and have multiple side effects, which generated a need for novel and less toxic agents, especially from natural origin. Chaga mushrooms are now emerging as a reliable option for cancer therapy. Some components of Chaga extract have the ability to initiate cell death or can actually participate in this process, by stimulating the patients’ immune system. The antioxidative properties of Chaga Mushrooms extract can prevent the production of new cancer cells. (4) Clinical data showed that administration of Chaga mushroom for an extended period has a beneficial effect on stage III-IV cancer patients. It has been proved to be effective against tumors at all locations. In most of the patients, it led to the minimization of pain, which subsequently allowed patients to stop using narcotic medicines. (5)

Immunity Booster

The bone marrow plays an important role in building up immunity. Bone marrow contains stem cells that produce red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. Chemotherapy or radiotherapy often results in the damaging of this system, thereby causing individuals to become immunocompromised or immunosuppressed. The extracts of Chaga mushrooms are found to be an effective immune modulator. It helps the bone marrow recover by potentiation of the host immune system through the regulation of cytokines in the cytokine network. These cytokines promote stem cells recovery and the regeneration of hematopoietic stem cells which are responsible for the life-long production of all types of mature blood cells. (6)

Anti-Diabetic Activity

We know that diabetes is a metabolic disorder caused by insulin deficiency which leads to increased blood sugar levels. α-Amylase and α-glucosidase are enzymes that promote the breaking down of complex food products into glucose molecules that can be easily digested by the human body. This process leads to an increase in post-meal blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. Polysaccharides play an essential role in energy storage and structural support. Polysaccharides from the Chaga Mushrooms have been found to slow down enzyme activity and as a result, effectively reduce post-meal blood sugar levels. (7)

Hypolipidemic Activity

The polysaccharides from Chaga mushrooms initiate the synthesis of good cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein which leads to the generation of free cholesterol, which eventually gets transferred to the liver. It also promotes the metabolism of cholesterol. These polysaccharides help to break down triglycerides to glycerol and fatty acids. As a combined result the total cholesterol content in the blood gets reduced. (7)

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Anti-Oxidant Activity

One of the major causes of aging is oxidative damage to DNA. Chaga Mushrooms can either directly capture active oxygen radicals or inhibits the oxidation reaction. They also promote the production and release of antioxidant enzymes. (7) Chaga Mushrooms can significantly reduce cell death and the generation of intracellular reactive oxygen species which protects the cellular DNA from oxidative damage. As a result of such properties, Chaga mushrooms are considered a powerful antioxidant food. (8)

Anti-Inflammatory Activity

Inflammation is a protective response that is activated to combat invading pathogens as well as to reverse tissue injury, however, chronic inflammation can lead to cellular damage and could also facilitate inflammatory mediated metabolic and neurodegenerative disorders. Histamine is one of the potent inflammatory agents which gets released in response to injury or other inflammatory conditions. An animal study showed that Chaga mushrooms can reduce histamine-induced inflammation and decrease the vasodilation response. (9) The extracts suppress edema and mucosal damage at colorectal sites. (10)

Antiviral Activity

Due to their parasitic mode of life, Chaga mushrooms have a strong enzymatic system and an impenetrable defense system. They exhibit potent cytostatic and cytotoxic effects. Additionally, Chaga polysaccharides showed some broad-spectrum antiviral activity. As a result, the Chaga mushroom has a therapeutic potential to act as a natural antiviral treatment.(11,12)

The Risk Associated with Chaga Mushrooms

Just like other supplements or medicines, Chaga mushrooms also carry some risks. They can cause some serious side effects and may interact with some medicines.

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Risk of Kidney Diseases

The Chaga mushroom has a high concentration of oxalate. A regular dose of Chaga mushroom is around 3 grams and has an oxalate amount of 420 mg. On the other hand, a daily diet contains 200-300 mg of oxalate. While to prevent kidney stones, oxalate levels are recommended to be kept within the limit of 100 mg per day. Thus, taking too much Chaga mushroom powder can potentially cause oxalate-induced nephropathy. This oxalate nephropathy is one of the causes of kidney diseases. (13) There is no standardized dosage for Chaga. However, as per Health Canada guidelines, it can be used in a powder, tincture, or fluid extract form but the dosage should be kept limited to a maximum of 3.6 grams of dried mushroom per day. (14)

Risk of Bleeding

Several studies showed that Chaga extract inhibits platelet aggregation. Platelets are the blood cells that stop clots and prevent or stops bleeding. The use of Chaga mushrooms in combination with anticoagulants or antiplatelet agents could lead to bleeding. (15) An animal study showed that a small form of protein derived from Chaga mushrooms through the ethanol extraction process has platelet aggregation inhibitory property. (16) Therefore, if a person is on blood-thinning medicines or has a clotting disorder such as hemophilia or plans for surgery they should avoid or minimize the use of Chaga mushrooms.

Risk of Low Blood Sugar

Since Chaga mushrooms are effective for lowering blood sugar levels, taking them with blood sugar lowering medications or insulin, could decrease the blood sugar level dramatically which can lead to fatigue, anxiety, or confusion.

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Allergic Reaction

Because the Chaga mushroom has an immune-modulatory effect it can also trigger an allergic reaction in some individuals. (17) An allergic reaction may lead to difficulty in breathing, heart rate disturbance, and loss of consciousness.

Severe illness

Since 2014, there have been several cases of illness that were potentially associated with Chaga consumption that were reported. One person developed hepatitis along with renal failure following ingestion of Chaga and alder bark. The patient was further put on dialysis. Another person developed hepatitis following ingestion of Chaga in combination with maca powder, and ginseng. One of the distinct illnesses observed with Chaga mushrooms is bradycardic episodes. Following consumption of 3 cups of Chaga, an arthritic patient experienced a bradycardic episode, with the primary symptoms of vomiting and hypotension. Bradycardia with syncope was experienced by a person after long-term consumption of Chaga. A person can also experience an acute condition of Light-headedness immediately after Chaga consumption. (14)

Adulteration

Misidentifying the Chaga or an incorrect harvested canker could lead to some serious issues. It becomes difficult to assess metabolic effects of unspecified wild type mushrooms once it is grouped up and converted into edible items. Chaga mushroom is commonly misidentified with Daldinia Grandis, Phellinus Robinia, and Phellinus Tremulae, or corky bark disease and black knot. (14)

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Chaga mushrooms are overall safe and have the potential to offer immense health benefits. To date, there is no solid evidence to prove the effectiveness of the Chaga mushroom on humans. Most of the studies already done to evaluate the effectiveness of the Chaga mushroom were performed on animals or human cells in the laboratory, and they have shown promising results. There is a need to conduct human clinical trials to assess the true therapeutic value. With the limited safety data, one should consult a health care practitioner prior to use, especially if a person is already taking any medications or have an existing medical condition. There is no study identified to assess Chaga effectiveness in pregnant or breastfeeding women, so it should be avoided in pregnancy. On a final note, Chaga mushroom is not a medicine, it’s a supplementary product that should be used with high vigilance.

References

  1. Ribeiro B, Lopes R, Andrade PB, Seabra RM, Gonçalves RF, Baptista P, et al. Comparative study of phytochemicals and antioxidant potential of wild edible mushroom caps and stipes. Food Chem. 2008 Sep 1;110(1):47–56.
  2. Géry A, Dubreule C, André V, Rioult J-P, Bouchart V, Heutte N, et al. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a Future Potential Medicinal Fungus in Oncology? A Chemical Study and a Comparison of the Cytotoxicity Against Human Lung Adenocarcinoma Cells (A549) and Human Bronchial Epithelial Cells (BEAS-2B). Integr Cancer Ther. 2018 Feb 27;17(3):832–43.
  3. Kim J, Yang SC, Hwang AY, Cho H, Hwang KT. Composition of Triterpenoids in Inonotus obliquus and Their Anti-Proliferative Activity on Cancer Cell Lines. Molecules. 2020 Sep 6;25(18):4066.
  4. Song F-Q, Liu Y, Kong X-S, Chang W, Song G. Progress on understanding the anticancer mechanisms of medicinal mushroom: inonotus obliquus. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev APJCP. 2013;14(3):1571–8.
  5. Shikov AN, Pozharitskaya ON, Makarov VG, Wagner H, Verpoorte R, Heinrich M. Medicinal Plants of the Russian Pharmacopoeia; their history and applications. J Ethnopharmacol. 2014 Jul 3;154(3):481–536.
  6. Kim Y-R. Immunomodulatory Activity of the Water Extract from Medicinal Mushroom Inonotus obliquus. Mycobiology. 2005 Sep;33(3):158.
  7. Lu Y, Jia Y, Xue Z, Li N, Liu J, Chen H. Recent Developments in Inonotus obliquus (Chaga mushroom) Polysaccharides: Isolation, Structural Characteristics, Biological Activities, and Application. Polymers. 2021 Jan;13(9):1441.
  8. Eid JI, Das B. Molecular insights and cell cycle assessment upon exposure to Chaga ( Inonotus obliquus ) mushroom polysaccharides in zebrafish ( Danio rerio ). Sci Rep. 2020 May 4;10(1):7406.
  9. Javed S, Mitchell K, Sidsworth D, Sellers SL, Reutens-Hernandez J, Massicotte HB, et al. Inonotus obliquus attenuates histamine-induced microvascular inflammation. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2019 Aug 22 [cited 2021 Jul 16];14(8). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6706056/
  10. Mishra SK, Kang J-H, Kim D-K, Oh SH, Kim MK. Orally administered aqueous extract of Inonotus obliquus ameliorates acute inflammation in dextran sulfate sodium (DSS)-induced colitis in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Sep 28;143(2):524–32.
  11. Szychowski KA, Skóra B, Pomianek T, Gmiński J. Inonotus obliquus – from folk medicine to clinical use. J Tradit Complement Med. 2021 Jul 1;11(4):293–302.
  12. Shahzad F, Anderson D, Najafzadeh M. The Antiviral, Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Natural Medicinal Herbs and Mushrooms and SARS-CoV-2 Infection. Nutrients. 2020 Sep;12(9):2573.
  13. Lee S, Lee HY, Park Y, Ko EJ, Ban TH, Chung BH, et al. Development of End-Stage Renal Disease after Long-Term Ingestion of Chaga Mushroom: Case Report and Review of Literature. J Korean Med Sci. 2020 May 18;35(19):e122.
  14. Risk assessment of Chaga mushroom tea [Internet]. Provience Health Service Authority; 2016. Available from: http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Educational%20Materials/EH/FPS/Food/Risk_Assessment_of_Chaga_Mushroom_Tea.pdf
  15. Yen-Nien H, Deng G, Mao JJ. Practical Application of “ABOUT HERBS” website: Herbs and Dietary Supplement Use in Oncology Settings. Cancer J Sudbury Mass. 2019;25(5):357–66.
  16. Hyun KW, Jeong SC, Lee DH, Park JS, Lee JS. Isolation and characterization of a novel platelet aggregation inhibitory peptide from the medicinal mushroom, Inonotus obliquus. Peptides. 2006 Jun;27(6):1173–8.
  17. Fan L, Ding S, Ai L, Deng K. Antitumor and immunomodulatory activity of water-soluble polysaccharide from Inonotus obliquus. Carbohydr Polym. 2012 Oct 1;90(2):870–4.

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