Chaga & Herbal Medicine

As I expand my knowledge of my new Alaskan home I continue to meet new people and with these acquaintances come new and often exciting information.  One such area involves recognizing and utilizing the amazing wealth of plants that live in what most people still see as an ice and snow locked land.  To say I am a neophyte in this realm is a bit like calling Denali a ‘big hill’ but I’m finding more and more folks who do possess a wonderful knowledge of the local fauna and its many uses.  Last Monday a friend spoke to me about a fungus I’d heretofore been unaware; it’s called ‘chaga’ and after doing some additional research on-line I was impressed but it’s long history of use by many north living peoples and its range of uses.  I was equally impressed by the lack of any real investigation into its components or its believed contributions to health.  I was given a verbal description of what to look for and much to my surprise I spotted this growth of chaga along East Barge Road while walking the dogs:

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Apparently this is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) which grows on birch trees and is well known in the north country and is sometimes referred to as the ‘mushroom of immortality’.  Chaga (pronounced “tsjaa-ga”) is a parasitic organism and generally appears on a birch after it is dead although the tree I spotted was still showing at least a few spring leaves.  Its texture is like wood and its color is due to an abundance of melanin which is the compound which colors human skin among other functions.  The following is an extract from a piece written by Chris Kilham who is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France.

“Relatively unused in the west, chaga is a potent immune enhancing agent that is highly popular in Russia and parts of Europe, and it enjoys a major body of science for its health benefits.

Unlike most fungus, chaga is hard and woody, bearing no resemblance to mushrooms. Instead, it looks more like a cracked piece of burned charcoal. Chaga’s black color is due to a concentration of melanin, the same pigment that colors human skin. Because chaga can be used to start fires, it is also known as the “tinder fungus.”

The name chaga derives from the Komi-Permyak language of Russia’s Kama River Basin, where the fungus has played a role in traditional medicine for centuries. Chaga can be found throughout northern Asia and in Canada, Norway, northern and eastern Europe and northern parts of the United Sates.

Chaga is rich in natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phenols, containing the compounds betulin and betulinic acid – which derive directly from host birch trees. Both betulin and betulinic acid demonstrate anti-tumor effects, which explain why chaga is known as an anti-cancer agent. Additionally, some science shows that betulin can play a beneficial role in controlling metabolic disorders, such as obesity and metabolic syndrome. A group of compounds in chaga called lanostanoids also appear to play significant anti-cancer roles.

The exact anti-cancer activity of chaga is not completely understood, but some compounds in the fungus boost immune activity, some specifically prevent cancer cells from replicating, and others cause premature cancer cell death. This argues for the utilization of a whole chaga extract, rather than isolating a single compound. In chaga, many agents appear to be active against cancer.

One of the most surprising benefits of chaga is in regards to psoriasis. In one Russian study, psoriasis patients who took chaga recovered from their condition. Given that psoriasis is notoriously difficult to treat and responds to very little therapies, this effect alone could be of enormous benefit to many.

The compound ergosterol in chaga, along with related agents, shows anti-inflammatory activity. This may account for why chaga is thought of as a life-extending agent in China, as inflammation is part of every chronic, degenerative disease. Reducing systemic inflammation can mitigate or help prevent a variety of health problems, leading to a healthier life – and presumably a longer one.

Traditionally, chaga has been used for a variety of purposes. Scientific investigation chaga’s use as an anti-allergy agent shows that in animals, the fungus has the ability to prevent anaphylactic shock – a serious and potentially fatal consequence of a severe allergy. In another study, administration of an extract of chaga reduced infection due to the Herpes simplex virus.

In a cell study, chaga showed potent activity against the hepatitis C virus. Whether this same activity will prove true in living humans remains to be seen, but if it does, then chaga will benefit thousands of people who often suffer for many years with this crippling disease.

Chaga products are widely available in natural food stores and on the Internet. One chaga product I like is made in Vermont and is available at http://www.Mariefrohlich.com.”

This information is also present in numerous other postings and articles I’ve since read on chaga; if there’s any suspected negative its that the functional compounds within the fungus may negatively interact with some medicines.  This is not an issue for me as I take no medicines other than my morning caffeine and an occasional Ibuprofen when I overdo exercise.  I was surprised to see the fungus is sold over the ‘Net in all kinds of forms from chunks to powders; two ounces of the powder used to make tea seems to run around $12.00 and one pound of chunks seem to sell for around $45.00.  However, I need not avail myself of purchasing the fungus as its growing right in the neighborhood!  Getting to some of the growths I’ve seen will be a bit of a challenge but nothing I cannot handle.  I hope to find more on my property; any I locate on my neighbor’s land cannot be harvested until I check with them.

I did have a chance to taste some of the tea locally prepared and it has a very mild flavor, almost undetectable.  There’s a definite ‘woody’ taste but as I mentioned its so mild as to be almost undetectable.  Given its proclaimed benefits and its lack of any real negatives as well as the ease of identifying it I’m going to be adding this fungus to my daily doses of cinnamon which I take via my coffee and in carbonated mixes I produce myself.  I know there’s a whole lot more of these kinds of natural treasures contained within the boreal forest; I just need to hear about them, research them and then partake of their wonders.  So much for Alaska being viewed by so many as an ice and snow locked land of igloos and polar bears!

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