Chaga is the Russian name for a fungus that you brew to make a drink resembling black tea or coffee (without the caffeine). With milk or cream, chaga is somewhat mocha-flavored. Cookbook author Kim Hendrickson has made chaga ganache truffles with it and I've made "chagalot" ice cream. Friends have used chaga to make a tasty porter-like beer.
Chaga grows on birch trees. It is mostly known from Siberia but can also be found at high elevations in the Appalachian mountains, and I lead at least one chaga hunt every year. It can grow on other trees, but then it's not chaga and is not necessarily medicinal. There are also many things that can be mistaken for chaga (see video below and here). I know more than one person who has mistaken a cherry burl for chaga, and one got a hefty dose of cyanide for his trouble.
Like many fungi, chaga is both flavorful and highly medicinal. Chaga apparently absorbs and concentrates the immune compounds the birch tree sends to fight its infection. Chaga is apparently extremely rich in antioxidants, although frequent claims that it has by far the highest amount of any food on earth are, to my knowledge, unsubstantiated (there's only one real study I've seen, and it only compares chaga to three other medicinal mushrooms).
Still, plenty of studies testify to chaga's anti-cancer benefits. One customer has successfully treated her dog with it; testimonial below. Chaga also protects against radiation, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, nourishes the liver, and helps with hypoglycemia, and more. These are just it's scientifically-proven effects.
Note that nothing on this page, to my knowledge, has been evaluated by the FDA, so it's illegal to say that chaga can treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
"Irina invites you to a cup of chaga tea."
Just because chaga is hard doesn't mean it's dry. Like any fungus, as soon as it is harvested, it must be either dehydrated or refrigerated. Otherwise you will soon notice a white powdery appearance, mostly on the black part. How dangerous a little of that is, if at all, I don't know, but I do know a lot of it smells moldy, which I assume is not good. I don't worry about any that's already on there, but I avoid creating any more, and using wet chaga that you ground into powder and stored in sealed jars in your pantry for months could do you more harm than good.
Dehydrate your chaga whether you see mold on it or not. It will dry easier the more it's broken up. Doing this with a hammer and chisel (or sturdy screwdriver) on a concrete surface in a cardboard box (so your chunks don't fly everywhere) works well. Then use a dehydrator or spread your chunks out in an airy place. Air circulation is important. I assume that two-inch pieces in a dehydrator set at 150 degrees for eight hours or in a dry, airy place for three days is enough.
"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
"This porridge is too cold." So she tasted the last bowl.
"Ahhh, this porridge is just right." And she happily ate it up.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Most herbalists recommend simmering mushrooms to free up the polysaccharides (though I have heard that a "hard boil" can actually damage them). But chaga is not a mushroom; it's the fungal mycelium (more on this below).
Some claim that it is not necessary to boil mycelium because it is only about 12% chitin. Paul Stamets does claim that the mycelium medicines he sells are more digestible. However, mycelium and mushrooms have the same amount of chitin because they are made of the same exact thing (Joseph Allawos, personal communication, 11/5/12). Although one would expect the far less dense mycelia to take less time to break down, it may still require cooking.
According to Greg Marley, “one study of chaga’s antitumor activity showed that the active anticancer components are increased in the tea by boiling a decoction and virtually absent in the non-boiled tea. Since a hot water extraction is necessary to access the polysaccharides that stimulate host immune response, I would not recommend the warm water steeping method” (Mushrooms for Health, 101; by "warm" he means anything under 212ºF).
The problem with boiling is that, according to Cass Ingram, the medicinal components of chaga include not only polysaccharides but proteins, sterols, SOD, and enzymes including catalase, peroxidase, RNAase, and DNAase, all of which are damaged or destroyed by temperatures above 180ºF. In that case, it's important, as with miso, not to boil chaga. Instead, use ground chaga and either steep or simmer it in not warm, not boiling, but hot water -- in a crock pot, for instance. With the lid off, mine (remarkably called the "Crock Watcher") keeps the temperature steady at 160ºF.
Cass recommends simmering chaga for several days. Whether it takes that long, I don't know, but one advantage of using a crock pot to simmer chaga at low temperature is that, with the lid off, it will slowly cook down to a much more flavorful concentrate, even a syrup. For a compendium of more conflicting recipes, see here.
Chaga is a tonic, a "nutraceutical" food like garlic, so it has no strict dosage. Most sources recommend 1 gram a day (about 1 powdered teaspoon) for maintenance, 2-3 grams per day for treating a condition. You can surely drink a lot more than that. Still, too much of anything is not good for you. I have read, though I can't remember where, that it is remotely possible over time to "overdose" on chaga. I've also heard that a single large dose can give people the runs.
If you grind the chaga (and not everyone bothers to do so), try using one to two times what you'd use for coffee, i.e., half a cup per quart. Many sources (see "compendium" above) recommend a ratio of 1:5 chaga to water by weight, but by my calculations this would mean using up to two cups of ground chaga per quart!
For more precise directions on how to prepare chaga, see my page on reishi. When done, strain and cool the mushrooms enough to squeeze the liquid out of them. You can ferment these grounds or further extract them by soaking them in vinegar or give them to an herbalist/brewer friend who will do either one. Until then, covered in water, will keep in the fridge for many months.
Some people use only the inner part of the chaga, but judging from this study, the black outer "crust" is worth using as well. You would think that this is the part that contains the antioxidant compound melanin (Babitskaya 2002), as with Tuber melanosporum, the black truffle. It is surely the source of the pigments that go into the water. However, melanin is not soluble in water or stomach acid (Ye 2011), so I don't see how we absorb that compound at all.
Similar confusion surrounds an even more important component, betulin. Betulin, according to Ingram, is a protective substance in birch bark, and for us, also incredibly protective. Remember that the basic way to understand why chaga is medicinal is that it simply absorbs whatever immune compounds the birch tree throws at it to try and fight it off. The main value of mushrooms in general is often said to be their own immune-boosting compounds: they fight off bacteria etcetera quite well and give us the ammo to do the same.
The problem with betulin is that it is "about as water soluble as butter." Betulin can be easily converted into betulinic acid, which is also available in many plants, but it is equally insoluble. Unlike butter, your body can't absorb it. It's not bioavailable. And that problem is not easy to fix. If it was as easy as tincturing, there wouldn't be scientific papers devoted to figuring it out.
Now, many sources, including apparently Ingram (though I don't see him directly saying so either in his book or the interview linked to above), claim that "the chaga fungus absorbs and concentrates the betulin (betulinic acid) from the birch and transforms it into a form that can be ingested." Ingram clearly states in the interview that a water extract is sufficient and that betulinic acid is one of the beneficial compounds you'll get. Yet, this comprehensive article (and others) say there is no scientific basis for this claim.
I've gone in circles like this for years. Surely you have better things to do. I love the title of a book on my shelf, Stop Improving Yourself and Start Living. I haven't gotten around to reading it. Back when we could talk to plants and mushrooms, we didn't need billions of dollars to figure things out. We didn't need "medicine" in the first place because we rarely got sick, and the best "medicine" was — and is — friendship.
Most mushrooms are "here today; gone tomorrow." Not chaga. It grows only about a couple cubic inches a year (see photos here). Mushrooms are the "fruit" of fungi in that they are the way fungi spread their "seeds," i.e., their spores. Chaga, on the other hand, is the herniated mycelium, i.e., the body of the fungus itself, popping out of the tree, along with the heartwood its been eating. In other words, chaga is a canker rot, an infection that eventually kills the tree and itself.
Just because chaga is apparently a parasite doesn't mean that it's "bad," nor does removing the relatively small exposed portion do anything to stop it from growing. I don't know whether it's better for the Earth to harvest chaga or to leave it alone, but I do know chaga takes many years to grow. Paul Stamets speculates that the exposed wood you leave can be attacked by insects, so it's preferable to buy cultivated chaga mycelium like his. But as far as I know, there's no evidence that chaga mycelium (the non-herniated part) is medicinal. Mushrooms are often grown on sawdust, not solid wood, and sometimes grain, coffee grounds, corn husks, or other alternative substrates, all of which would of course affect the composition of the mycelium. You are what you eat!
There are apparently tons of chaga in northern woods, so like ramps, there's little danger of running out anytime soon. Besides, the impact of chaga harvesting, even commercially, is nothing compared to the impact of agriculture.
All that said, I think the best policy is just to try and make the most of the chaga you use. Given it's looks and value, I like to call it "black gold." My friend uses it to start fires for Native American sweat lodge ceremonies.
Birch has always been a sacred tree in Siberia. I always thought that this is because Amanita muscaria grows under it (in symbiosis with it). This red mushroom with white spots is the most famous mushroom in the world, probably because it is hallucinogenic. It's used to herd reindeer, who also enjoy it, and many believe the idea that traditions regarding Santa Claus derive from it. But several other useful mushrooms grow with birch as well.
Many believe that Otzi, "The Iceman," the 5,300-year-old hunter-gatherer found in the Italian Alps in 1991, was carrying chaga. He wasn't, but he was carrying two other mushrooms that also grow on birch. One was the birch polypore, used for medicine and for sharpening knives. The other was Fomes fomentarius, which, like chaga, is also called "the tinder fungus" because both can be used to start fires. Fomes is also not to be confused with Styrofomes, which when melted releases styrene, benzene, and ethylene, all known carcinogens.
Speaking of healthier alternatives, according to The Lancet, Otzi also had tattoo marks that statistically correlate to standard acupuncture points. That's 2,000 years before the accepted birth of acupuncture (study and images here).
Fomes, by the way, is also known as "amadou," as in Amadeus, which, like Dorothy or Theodore, means "love of God" (amare in Latin means "love"). Amadou can also be pounded into hats, which is one way to get through my thick skull. That's amoré!
Unlike the tinder fungus, chaga is not used as tinder but rather, as a "coal extender." The gold part of the chaga, when smoldering, can stay lit for days. In 2010, Luke Cannon used chaga to start a campfire. Before going to bed, he dropped the chaga in a cup of water, then poured it out and left it on the picnic table. The next morning, the chaga was still burning. Sounds like Hanukkah, or some of my old flames.
However you acquire or prepare chaga, I hope it's with reverence, for that's where the medicine really is.
To order chaga or other medicinal mushrooms, see here.
Thanks a lot! The first pound lasted a long time. Since I started my dog on chaga and another alternative drug called LDN, her cysts have dramatically reduced in size and are not even noticeable now. She also had a small hard cyst on one ear which is now completely gone. I don't know if it's the chaga or the LDN or the combination of the two, but I am going to continue to give her both. She loves the taste of chaga tea and thinks it's a treat!
I have told a lot of people about you and the benefits of chaga. Thanks again!