Black or dark brown Inonotus obliquus, known as chaga fungus and ’Hamvaskéreg gomba’ in Hungarian literally meaning peachy bark, is named after its appearance because it looks like the bark of a tree on which the fungus grows burned. Inonotus obliquus became known centuries ago throughout Europe, primarily as an immune enhancer and anticancer medicinal mushroom.
It is difficult to say exactly how long it has been known for its therapeutic effects, but a very thought-provoking hypothesis makes it special among medicinal fungus. Some scientists assume that the hauslabjochi man or more commonly known as Ötzi, the ice man (who is the oldest human body of the world, discovered in fullest preservation) also knew this type of mushroom. It is currently examined if it was possible to find this mushroom in the early Middle Ages, that is to say, about 5,300 years ago. If it is proved, the mushroom can be regarded as the oldest dietary supplement known to mankind.
If the Ötzi hypothesis is not backed, the appearance in the herbal guide written by Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing also proves that the mushroom has been known for a long time. The volume is the first written reminder of the herbs, which was written around 100. In the book, the mushroom is mentioned as God’s Gift.
In addition, Russian people were the first, most active beneficiary of the chaga mushroom before discovering their therapeutic properties around the world. The Khanty people, who had been living along the Ob River since about 11th century in Western Siberia, consumed the mushroom due to their digestive and detoxifying properties, or used as a soap to clean wounds.
In Russia, a number of clinical trials were conducted to investigate the effects of chaga. One of the major findings is that the Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow acknowledged the healing effects of this mushroom in 1955: it was registered as a gastrointestinal, immune, antineoplastic and nervous system enhancing mushroom.
Habitat and appearance
It grows predominantly in the cold forests of Tajga, near the Arctic Circle, which is the most commonly produced fungus in the northern latitudes of Russia, Scandinavia, Korea, Japan, the United States of America and Canada.
It cannot be found on the ground, because it settles on the trunks of birch trees and some other hardwoods. When the trees lose their branches or get injured during the storms, the fungus grows above the damage where it serves as a protective scar, forming a unique symbiosis with the tree. Birch tree can survive for many years due to the colonization of the mushroom. It is first-sized, later it may even be human head-sized, it is very dark, as if the damaged tree trunk was covered with carbon.
Fortunately, it has a much better taste than it looks. The tea made from it is, for example, a pleasant, earthy flavour in which vanilla flavours can also be found.
What it contains
The rich nutritional value of the fungus is attributed to its extraordinary habitat and lifestyle. It grows in cold forests where temperatures are often around freezing, often covered with snow and ice. At the same time, during the summer period, it gets a lot of UV radiation; the difference in temperature that it can wear is extreme. However, it struggles with many natural enemies (e.g. bacteria, worms, fungi) to survive.
Against all of these environmental threats, the mushroom can protect itself, due to its biologically active substances.
- antioxidant enzymes
- sesquiterpene lactones
- betulinic acid derivatives
5 grams mushroom contains
- 5 calories
- 0 g fat
- 0 g carbohydrate
- 0 g sugar
- 5 g fibre
- 1 g protein
Its beneficial effect
Its effects were analyzed in a number of studies, and the following effects are probable:
General immune system enhancer
Studies carried out so far found that this fungus is able to activate the human immune system. One of the most important ingredients in the cell wall is beta-glucan, a polysaccharide that also plays a role in regulating the immune system, able to normalize the overactive and underlying immune system. Beta-glucan also helps normalizing cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
In 2011, a group of Korean scientists published a report that investigated changes in the activity of human immune cells as a result of Inonotus obliquus extract. Significant changes in Th1 and Th2 cytokine secretion levels were observed – cytokines are the chemical messengers of our immune system. This cytokine shift changed the production of antigen-specific antibody-producing cells. The production of antibodies is a key component of a healthy functioning immune system.
A study in 2015 highlighted chaga’s ability to fight against certain infectious bacteria (e.g. Pseudomonas aeruginosa). In order to grow and become toxic in the human body, bacteria must communicate effectively with each other. The chemicals of the mushroom can interfere with this communication, so the mushroom can help protecting the human body from certain bacterial infections.
Studies by the Memorial Sloan Cancer Centre found that the fungus can inhibit cancer progress. In the anti-tumour treatments supplemented with Inonotus obliquus extract, tumour reduction of 60 % was observed.
Another study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology reviewed the effect of the fungus on human hepatocellular cancer. Research found that its extract can prevent the growth of liver cancer cells and may also be useful as a potential therapeutic in liver cancer cases.
Among the phytosterols in the fungus, there can be found 45% lanosol, 25% inotodiol, the remaining 30% ergosterol and further compounds. In vivo and in vitro studies revealed the direct anti-tumour effects of both lanosterol and inotodiol. Lanosterol also has an antiviral effect.
Betulic acid derivatives make it really unique. Betulic acid is a strong therapeutic agent that is currently being tested for anti-viral (e.g. anti-HIV) and anti-cancer. Also, its cholesterol-lowering effect is also known.
It contains a large amount of so called SOD (superoxide dismutase), which is an extremely powerful antioxidant enzyme that has an excellent effect on free radicals. Studies found that its phenolic compounds also promote the fight against free radicals, thus protecting cells from oxidation.
In the cellular analysis of human lymphocytes, the extract was capable of reducing DNA damage caused by hydrogen peroxide more than by 40 %.