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Fungi 101, Immune System
Written By: Emily Spring
Medicinal mushrooms are getting more and more attention for their wide range of health benefits. Are you looking for the right mushroom to add as a dietary supplement? The Chaga mushroom may not be the most beautiful mushroom in the forest, but it more than makes up for it with its impressive health benefits.
Chaga mushrooms have long been used as a home remedy in Russia, Poland and First Nations cultures. Now, modern science is researching and confirming the chaga mushroom’s ability to boost immunity and overall health, as well as treat specific ailments.
Consider this your guide to the chaga mushroom: why to take it, where to find it and how to make it a daily part of your wellness routine.
Mushroom capsules, teas and coffees are becoming increasingly popular, and for a good reason. Mushrooms have long been a part of global healing practices from Traditional Chinese Medicine to Baltic practices, with more recent scientific studies verifying their efficacy. The Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms provided an overview of current research in 2017.
Looking at over 600 studies, researchers concluded that:
“More than 130 medicinal functions are thought to be produced by medicinal mushrooms (MMs) and fungi...Many, if not all, higher Basidiomycetes mushrooms contain biologically active compounds in fruit bodies, cultured mycelia, and cultured broth.”
Whether eaten raw or cooked into a broth, most mushrooms have beneficial properties. Unlike other health supplements, mushrooms are typically tolerated well, with few known side effects aside from indigestion experienced by a portion of the population.
As the field of mushroom research grows, scientists and institutions are investing in research on mushrooms for immunity, building on centuries of traditional and folk medical applications.
Chaga mushrooms, scientifically named Inonotus obliquus, are humble-looking fungi. Growing on birch trees throughout Northern Europe, Canada and Alaska, they appear as blackened, horny growths on these stark white trees. This appearance has resulted in unflattering nicknames like “birch rot” or “black mass.” Cut open, they’re bright orange and surprisingly soft.
That isn’t the chaga mushroom’s only hidden surprise: they also contain a range of potential health and wellness benefits.
In a 2015 meta-analysis of existing chaga research, Mikhail Balandaykin and Ivan Zmitrovich write that the mushroom’s chemical structure “indicates its clear antioxidant and gene-protective—i.e., anti-microbial, and anti-hyperglycemic—activities.” It’s known that antioxidants have a range of health benefits and that anti-microbial properties could combat bacteria and viruses, while antihyperglycemic properties could lower blood sugar.
Next, we’ll take a closer look at how the chaga mushroom’s specific qualities can boost immunity and health.
Researchers in Mycobiology note that the chaga mushroom contains substantial amounts of betulinic acid, as well as other potential immune-system stimulating chemicals.
To test the chaga’s effect on the immune system, researchers provided chaga mushroom extract to mice with bone marrow damage that affected their immune function. The simple administration involved soaking chagas in water for ingestion, similar to natural tea remedies. After 24 days, the mice who received chaga extract had markedly improved immune function:
These combined effects led scientists to conclude that chaga mushrooms have potential to powerfully aid compromised immune systems.
Beyond that, chaga mushrooms may boost immunity in healthy individuals, too.
Inflammation plays a central role in our immune system’s healthy functioning. When we perceive a stressor—an invading virus, a gnarly papercut or an anxious thought—our immune system kicks into gear, igniting an inflammatory response.
Inflammation is essential for dealing with pathogens and threats. When inflammation becomes chronic, it causes serious problems for our overall health.
Therefore, it’s important to combat chronic inflammation before it compromises immunity.
The good news? Chaga mushrooms, as well as other fungi, may reduce chronic inflammation, restore sleep cycles and help us to function better in daily life.
A 2013 study in Food Chemistry found that chaga mushrooms had significant anti-inflammatory effects. They were able to isolate at least 6 active compounds that helped with inflammation. The most beneficial compounds were:
In addition to these beneficial compounds, chagas are also rich in antioxidants, which are known to combat inflammation caused by free radicals.
In addition to their immune-boosting effects, chaga mushrooms may lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
A number of mammalian studies indicate that chagas can help decrease blood glucose levels. In a 2012 overview of current literature, researchers explain in Fungal Diversity that:
“Medicinal mushrooms have been valued as a traditional source of natural bioactive compounds over many centurie...Bioactive metabolites including polysaccharides, proteins, dietary fibres, and many other biomolecules isolated from medicinal mushrooms have been shown to be successful in diabetes treatment as biological anti-hyperglycemic agents. “
There is a close link between blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Recent research shows that high levels of blood sugar can triple the risk of having low levels of beneficial cholesterol, known as HDL. High blood sugar has also been linked to an excess of “bad” cholesterol, LDL.
A 2008 animal study focused on how chaga mushrooms affect mice’s blood sugar and cholesterol levels. After receiving a chaga extract for three weeks, researchers observed that blood sugar was reduced by 30%. In addition, total cholesterol decreased while LDL increased and HDL decreased.
While more research on human subjects is needed, chaga mushrooms have been shown to help maintain healthy levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, as well as helping to ward off chronic conditions related to unhealthy fat and sugar intake.
Some claim that Western scientists first heard about the applications of chaga medicine from Nobel-Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In his 1968 autobiographical novel The Cancer Ward, in which the protagonist discusses being treated with chagas in Uzbekistan.
Whether the chaga myth is accurate or not, researchers exploring chagas have started testing traditional applications. Current studies seek to understand the mechanisms by which these mushrooms achieve their heralded effects. While studies are underway to test immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects, additional applications may receive researchers’ attention in the future.
Other traditional applications of chaga include:
Unless you live in a cold northern climate with abundant birch trees, you’re unlikely to stumble across chaga mushrooms on a morning stroll. Luckily, there are more ways than ever to find these powerful fungi and make them a part of your daily routine.
Traditionally, chaga mushrooms are cut into large chunks and boiled in water to make chaga mushroom tea. If you’re able to source high-quality dried mushrooms, you may be able to make your own chaga mushroom tea. Be warned: it will have a strong, earthy mushroom flavor. For the most efficacious tea, make sure you know where your chagas come from, along with if they were grown organically
Dehydrated chaga can also be enjoyed as a powder for easier incorporation into lattes, granola and other recipes. Once again, make sure you trust your supplier, as dietary supplements are loosely regulated and not all products meet their label claims.
Maybe you don’t like the taste of mushrooms, or maybe you’re looking for a less time-consuming way to integrate them into your routine. The best solution for a chaga supplement, in this case, is capsules.
Plant People is your trusted source for plant-based supplements, and our Immune Power capsules are the easiest way to make chagas part of your lifestyle.
Chagas are a powerful mushroom in isolation. When you combine them with reishi mushroom, turkey tail mushroom and other adaptogenic fungi, their benefits are amplified. Immune Power capsules combine the power of mushrooms and herbs to boost your immunity and vitality. Formulated with USDA organic ingredients, you’ll be sure to experience incredible mushroom supplements benefits.
Plant People is a leader in plant- and fungi-based wellness. Our CBD tinctures, supplements, and CBD skincare products combine the healing power of CBD with other powerful botanical compounds to support your mood, physical body, and overall well-being. Now, we’re drawing on our extensive experience to offer our innovative Immune Power blend, pairing the power of mushrooms with Traditional Chinese Medicine to help you maintain and improve your health.
Written by Emily Spring
Emily Spring is the Director of Marketing at Plant People. A longtime proponent of balanced living, she has enjoyed over 8 years driving growth in the lifestyle, health and wellness sectors with deep experience in functional solutions for optimizing anyone's everyday life.
Reviewed by Anne Kurtz
Anne Kurtz holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. from Cornell University in Food Science, specializing in flavor chemistry and neuroscience. She is a sustainability and consumer product expert, with nine years in the consumer packaged goods industry working across R&D, innovation, claims, and digital marketing. Anne is passionate about consumer tech and writes a weekly newsletter called The Juicy Byte.
Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Antihyperglycemic and Antilipidperoxidative Effects of Dry Matter of Culture Broth of Inonotus Obliquus in Submerged Culture on Normal and Alloxan-Diabetes Mice. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18434051/
WebMD. High Sugar Diet Linked to High Cholesterol. https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20100420/high-sugar-diet-linked-lower-good-cholesterol#1
Fungal Diversity. Medicinal mushrooms in prevention and control of diabetes mellitus. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13225-012-0187-4
International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. Review on Chaga Medicinal Mushroom, Inonotus obliquus (Higher Basidiomycetes). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273099088_Review_on_Chaga_Medicinal_Mushroom_Inonotus_obliquus_Higher_Basidiomycetes_Realm_of_Medicinal_Applications_and_Approaches_on_Estimating_its_Resource_Potential
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Chaga mushrooms. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/chaga-mushroom
International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. Medicinal Mushrooms in Human Clinical Studies. http://www.dl.begellhouse.com/journals/708ae68d64b17c52,7e712f4f2518a7dc,1373e6332d0d15b2.html
Healthline. What are Chaga Mushrooms? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/chaga-mushroom#what-it-is
Mycobiology. Immunomodulatory Activity of the Water Extract from Medicinal Mushroom Inonotus obliquus. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3774877/
Food Chemistry. Anti-inflammatory and Anticancer Activities of Extracts and Compounds From the Mushroom Inonotus Obliquus. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23561137/
Vitality Magazine. Chaga mushroom and cancer. https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/chaga-mushroom-and-cancer/