Standing under the protruding, irregularly-shaped black mass, it’s hard to imagine anyone would make a fuss about this fungus.
I mean, look at it. Certainly there are mushrooms that could seemingly outperform chaga in a beauty contest. There’s hardly a debate about that.
It’s not a prized edible fungus, either. Chaga is essentially a hardened mass of mycelia and much too tough to chew (though I have been known to nibble on the interior amadou from time to time).
So why is it that photographs of chaga (or growths that people want to look like chaga) inundate most mushroom identification forums with the accompanying million dollar question, “Is this chaga?” Why is it that every nutraceutical company seems to market a chaga-containing supplement?
And why is it that chaga is so near and dear to my heart, routinely forming the foundation of my personal medicinal protocol?
Simple, really. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) truly is a great medicine – not because the latest health magazine said so, but because it passes two important criteria when evaluating credibility: 1) Chaga retains historical use as a medicine, and 2) Chaga has been well researched, demonstrating diverse pharmacological activity in numerous scientific studies. Yet, as it turns out, the same holds true for many other wild species – including mushrooms, plants, and yes… even animals.
But never mind that last sentence…
The word has gotten out. Chaga is apparently the medicinal superstar of the fungal kingdom. This prestigious prize, however, is awarded at a cost.
Supplement companies are capitalizing on its value, requiring a continuous supply of the fungus for sales. Mushroom hunters are seeking out the wild conks, and in some cases poor harvesting techniques are utilized, causing more harm than is needed.
Chaga, without a doubt, performs an essential role in its ecosystem, and any unnecessary disturbance to this balance could potentially produce disastrous long-term consequences. Paul Stamets has discussed this issue in depth while suggesting a shift toward the use of cultivated chaga mycelium as a solution (1).
For some of us, sustainability is a concern. Yet for others, access to wild chaga is the issue. Many of us do not live in a habitat that hosts this fungus.
What are we to do in these particular instances?
You see, as remarkable as this organism is, it’s not the only one that can do what it does. Many other species impart similar benefits to the human body when ingested, and in some cases, these species contain the same exact chemicals and compounds that are responsible for chaga’s effects. Sometimes (gasp), other species medicinally outperform our beloved chaga (I know, I know… in the words of Metallica, “Sad But True”).
What does all of this mean?
Well, it just so happens we can essentially receive the benefits of the chaga mushroom … without consuming chaga.
Now, before we proceed, I’ll provide this little disclaimer: Yes, I am aware that an organism cannot be reduced down to its chemical components. I have written about this in the past. We cannot simply create the whole of anything from its myriad parts. Nature doesn’t work like that. Chaga constitutes much more than every compound ever isolated from it, and to suggest we can fully substitute this fungus with another species – while receiving all of its exact benefits – is silly. This article is meant to provide options on how we can receive similar health benefits using a variety of plant and fungal medicines in the event we do not have access to chaga, and ultimately in an effort to protect and preserve the niche that chaga occupies in the wild.
Sound good? Great! Let’s proceed…
Have you spoken to anyone lately about the medicinal actions of chaga? Mm hm. And did they happen to mention the word “triterpenes?” Mm hm. Thought so. Speak to anyone about the medicinal actions of chaga, and this is a term you’ll most likely hear. Triterpenes. What the heck are those?
The simple answer (chemists, bear with me) is that triterpenes are naturally occurring compounds that provide a wide spectrum of biological activity. They’re extremely common in nature. Why should we care? Well, triterpenes happen to be quite medicinal.
Chaga is notoriously hailed for two of its medicinal compounds: betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid (2, 3). Betulin is a triterpene, while betulinic acid is a derivative of a triterpene, known as a triterpenoid. These molecules are concentrated in the outer black portion of the fungus and can be extracted most effectively for human consumption with non-polar solvents (i.e. alcohol).
Betulinic acid has demonstrated anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-HIV, anti-malaria, and antioxidant effects in numerous studies (4). Its precursor, betulin, has been shown to possess anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties (5).
Both compounds, however, are not unique to the chaga fungus. In fact, we can find betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid, quite easily in nature.
As chaga is essentially a parasite to its host tree (most commonly a birch tree, genus Betula) it’s not hard to imagine that many of its compounds will be derived from the birch tree. This is what we see with betulin and betulinic acid. Both compounds are created in the outer bark of birch trees, with betulin found in much higher concentrations than betulinic acid (6). An additional compound found in the chaga fungus with origins in the outer bark of birch trees is lupeol. Lupeol, another triterpene (gotta love them), has been shown to possess anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties (7).
Because the birch tree naturally contains many of the medicinal compounds found in chaga, we can utilize this knowledge by using birch bark for medicine, sparing the chaga fungus itself. All 3 of these compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol – are most effectively extracted via non-polar solvents, such as alcohol, due to their chemical structures. Vinegar (i.e. acetic acid) may also be an effective solvent (8).
Of course, ruthlessly hacking away at birch trees to obtain their bark is no sustainable solution. Wounded and barkless birch trees, though still harboring plenty of chaga, is not the image I’m envisioning. All foraging practices would benefit from responsible and conscientious harvesting methods – for example, extracting birch bark from recently felled trees or branches to use as medicine (live trees may harbor more medicine, though recently felled trees will still be effective to a degree).
In addition to its bark, the birch tree also concentrates betulin in its sap (9). Though not as high in sugar as maple trees, birch trees can successfully be tapped to yield drinkable sap, which can eventually be turned into syrup.
Useful alternatives to chaga may include other species that utilize birch as their host tree. Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is a fungus that generally grows on dead birch trees and logs. A fairly common mushroom, it contains many of the same medicinal compounds as chaga, notably the triterpenes. For example, birch polypore possesses betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol, and while its content of betulin is much lower than that of chaga, it contains a significantly greater concentration of lupeol in certain extracts (10).
Betulin and its derivatives can additionally be found in other species. Alder trees (genus Alnus) contain all 3 aforementioned compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol (11). Not surprisingly, Native Americans used alder tree bark to treat various conditions, such as headaches, rheumatic pains, colds, congestion, and anemia (12).
Betulinic acid is generally found in low concentrations in nature. However, the rare exception is buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) – a bog plant native to the United States that contains a high concentration of this compound. Betulinic acid can also be found in self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and rosemary (14, 15).
And to throw out just a few more examples before we wrap up this section, several additional medicinal mushrooms have been reported to contain pharmacologically active triterpenes. The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is one example among many. Not only does reishi contain several triterpenes, it has been reported to contain 3 times the total amount of triterpenes as chaga (16).
To summarize: Triterpenes are responsible for many of chaga’s medicinal effects, though other fungi – notably the reishi mushroom – contain greater numbers of these compounds. Additionally, if you are specifically seeking betulin or betulinic acid, other plant parts and species can be used. Examples include birch bark, birch sap, birch polypore, alder bark, buckbean, self-heal, and rosemary.
Enough with the triterpenes. Let’s look at another fraction – the polysaccharides.
In addition to its content of triterpenes (can’t get away from them, sorry!), chaga contains a diverse group of molecules known as polysaccharides. These molecules act, among other things, as antioxidants (17) and immune system regulators (18).
Obviously, chaga isn’t the only mushroom that contains polysaccharides, as these compounds form the structure of fungal cell walls. Polysaccharides are ubiquitous in the fungal kingdom. And in fact, other mushrooms contain the same amount of, if not more, polysaccharide fractions than chaga.
For example, the Indian oyster (Pleurotus pulmonarius) and the golden oyster (P. citrinopileatus) have been shown to contain the same number of polysaccharide fractions as chaga. What’s more, Leucopaxillus giganteus, maitake (Grifola frondosa), and hemlock reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) all contain more polysaccharide fractions than chaga (19). These mushrooms have routinely been studied for their medicinal actions, and while I understand that more does not always equal better, it is worth noting that several species outperform chaga in the polysaccharide numbers game.
However, while its number of polysaccharide fractions may not be its most impressive feature, chaga certainly excels in a particular way. Beta-glucans belong to particular class of polysaccharides that may provide the most benefit to the immune system, and research has shown that a large percentage of chaga’s polysaccharides are in fact beta-glucans (20).
Other mushrooms that have been shown to contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides include (21):
- Snow fungus (Tremella fuciformis)
- Split-gill polypore (Schizophyllum commune)
- Umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus)
- Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
- Reishi (G. lucidum)
- Artist’s conk (G. applanatum)
- Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
- Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)
To summarize: Chaga contains structural components known as polysaccharides. These compounds, of which beta-glucans is one class, display antioxidant and immuno-regulating properties. Many medicinal mushrooms contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides, including reishi, maitake, lion’s mane, and shiitake. Polysaccharides from a few of these species may outnumber those found in chaga.
Both classes of compounds discussed thus far – triterpenes and polysaccharides – demonstrate strong antioxidant activity. Oxidation is a natural process in the human body that, if left unchecked, can result in conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few). Antioxidants combat the process of oxidation by neutralizing reactive molecules in our bodies known as free radicals.
Triterpenes found within chaga have the ability to scavenge a reactive and potentially damaging molecule known as DPPH. Polysaccharides within chaga can scavenge DPPH as well, though they also have the ability to scavenge a reactive molecule known as the superoxide radical (triterpenes do this as well, though to a lesser extent). This potentially destructive molecule has been implicated in numerous diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease (22, 23, 24).
Chaga isn’t the only resource to offer help in this situation. Within the human body, a built-in mechanism is already in place. An enzyme known as superoxide dismutase targets and neutralizes the superoxide radical, helping to prevent oxidative damage. Additionally, other species have been shown to demonstrate similar effects. For example, reishi (G. lucidum) and the umbrella polypore (P. umbellatus) both possess superoxide radical scavenging ability, and both were shown in one particular study to demonstrate the highest scavenging effects of 8 mushrooms tested (25).
Another study compared the antioxidant and immuno-modulatory activities of aqueous extracts from chaga, cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris), and cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa). Chaga certainly demonstrated strong antioxidant effects in this study, as did cordyceps. Researchers found, however, that cat’s claw displayed the strongest activity in scavenging both the superoxide radical and DPPH – which, if you will recall, are two highly reactive molecules implicated in oxidative damage. When tested on mice, cat’s claw was the optimal species to exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects (26).
It’s also worth noting that pure vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, was generally just as effective, if not more effective, in displaying antioxidant activity compared to the other three species tested (this was usually seen in higher doses). Vitamin C is very prevalent in nature, and if you’re interested in learning which wild species contain large amounts of this compound, check out this article (after you’re done reading this one, of course).
To summarize: Chaga, due to its concentration of triterpenes and polysaccharides (among other compounds), displays strong antioxidant effects. Chaga is particularly effective against two reactive molecules – DPPH and the superoxide radical. Other species that demonstrate powerful antioxidant effects include reishi, the umbrella polypore, cordyceps, and cat’s claw. Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant with impressive physiological effects.
Several studies have suggested that chaga contains compounds that may be useful in the treatment of diabetes (27, 28, 29, 30). Many of these compounds have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase – an enzyme that breaks down starch and simple sugars to glucose. By inhibiting this enzyme, glucose absorption slows down in the body, ultimately reducing the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar. Chaga, with its ability to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, is therefore a promising candidate in the treatment of diabetes.
Another highly sought after fungus with similar anti-diabetic activity is the maitake mushroom. Maitake extracts have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase. Two of its compounds, oleic acid and linoleic acid, may be responsible for this inhibition.
Stinging nettle leaf extracts have also been shown to display blood sugar-lowering effects in patients with type 2 diabetes.
Several other species possess anti-diabetic properties. The list is much too vast to include here, though an online search will be sure to offer additional assistance.
To summarize: Chaga demonstrates anti-diabetic effects, notably through its ability to inhibit the enzyme, alpha-glucosidase. Similar effects have been seen in the maitake mushroom and stinging nettle.
Now, we have only looked at a snippet of what chaga has been shown to do … both scientifically and anecdotally. It is no surprise that a fungus so dearly prized by many individuals exerts a vast array of biologically-pertinent effects. This article has only scratched the surface of what chaga is capable of doing.
For example, we haven’t even discussed the anti-inflammatory, the anti-microbial, nor the anti-viral properties of chaga. Nor have we talked about other classes of biologically relevant compounds – including the polyphenols, sterols, and melanin – and their documented effects. While many of these compounds can be found in numerous plants, fungi, and even animals, there are some compounds that are entirely unique to the chaga fungus – ones that have not been discovered in other species. Inotodiol, an anti-tumor compound found only in chaga, is just one example (31).
Remember, this article is not meant to suggest that substituting another species for chaga can serve as a complete replacement for all its medicinal effects. Nor is this article’s intention to undermine chaga’s medicinal actions by pointing out that other species may perform better than chaga in certain tests of strength.
Rather, individuals who lack access to chaga, though wishing to experience similar health benefits, may find this information useful. Heck, even those with seemingly unlimited access to chaga may benefit from this information.
You see, dietary diversity is essential for optimal health. Our ancestors understood this, as evidenced by the extensive number of plant, animal, and fungal species consumed as part of their traditional diets. Today, most Americans rely on only a handful of species (i.e. corn, wheat, and soy), and no matter how clean, pure, or organic these few species may be, they cannot constitute an optimal diet without the inclusion of dozens (think hundreds) more species from the natural world.
And so it is with chaga. As fantastic as its medicine may be, surely our health would benefit from the addition and inclusion of other medicines from the various kingdoms of life.
Not only because our health depends on it, but the health of our planet, too. We cannot excessively extract one species from the land and expect the rest of the biological world to pay no attention.
And so it is with chaga.
Earth notices, and Earth responds.
Thanks for reading, and congrats for making it to the bottom! As always… happy foraging!
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