by Robert Dale Rogers
Over the past decade, herbalists have increasingly embraced the use of medicinal mushrooms in clinical practice. These members of the Fungi Kingdom offer many health benefits, and there remains much to be learned about them.
Some mushrooms, such as reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), and maitake (Grifola frondosa) have undergone numerous in vitro, in vivo, and assorted human clinical trials.
These involve studies on the benefits of the fruiting body and mycelium, largely involving commercially-produced extracts.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a sterile conk wildcrafted from birch trees, has gained increasing popularity over the past five years. The internet is replete with stories of incredible harvests, as well as numerous multilevel marketing companies claiming outrageous medicinal properties. It should be noted that there is not one human clinical trial yet published on this medicinal mushroom.
This demand for chaga has led to a feverish state of over-harvesting that may prove to be the ruin of an important health product. What is generally not appreciated is that the sterile conk, or living organism, is only found on one in 20,000 birch trees. Some readers will immediately react in denial, but the reality is chaga where found in a birch stand will often inhabit several trees in only that specific area. Other birch stands, infected with different medicinal mushrooms, such as tinder conk (Fomes fomentarius) and birch polypore (Polyporus betulinus), will not have populations of these valuable sterile conks.
Overharvesting chaga stands means that when the birch finally succumbs and falls down, the microscopic fertile fruiting bodies may not present themselves to release spores and infect another tree. This occurs during a short one- to two-day period of time and has rarely been witnessed.
Without a source of the ability to reproduce, the chaga may quickly enter into a period of scarcity or extinction. Many herbalists will be thinking to themselves that they harvest sustainably and see so much chaga that this will never happen. I wish I shared their confidence. My herbal friend, Michael Vertolli has noted that over the past decade the chaga in forests of south and central Ontario is becoming a scarce commodity.
Another aspect about chaga is its widespread misuse in the natural health community. Ground chaga powder is found in nearly every health food store, raw food establishment, and new age café throughout North America.
The idea that this medicinal herb should be used as a general daily tonic has no validity in medicine or science. Like many herbs, it should be used when required, especially for difficult to treat auto-immune and cancer conditions, as well as adjunct therapy.
Traditional recipes for chaga involve a decoction, or slow boil, for a period of one to two hours or more followed by a twenty-four hour fermentation at a lower temperature. Why? We really don’t know, but I suspect that readers who do fermentation will surmise what may be involved. This liquid can be preserved as a tincture so its efficacy remains for an indefinite period of time. It could well be that the optimal extraction of the medicinal properties of chaga involves a conversion of some compounds into others that are either more easily absorbed or increased in efficacy.
Chaga is being touted as a cure-all for various health conditions, including hormonal cancers, diabetes, and numerous conditions with minimal proof.
As an herbalist for over forty years, I have long used plant medicine successfully with little biomedical endorsement. In fact, I consider empirical evidence to be highly underrated in the scientific world, but can millions of people over thousands of years be misguided over herbal medicine?
Dubious claims abound about the anti-oxidant properties of chaga. This is based on the ORAC scale, or Oxygen Radical Absorbent Capacity test, a measure of the capacity of any food to measure the amount of free oxygen radicals they can absorb. More than one advertorial site on the web suggests one gram of chaga has an ORAC score of 36,557, compared to blueberries at only 24.5. This is highly misleading and is simply a marketing tool.
The values indicating anti-oxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, according to a statement by the USDA.
Wild and cultivated chaga extracts vary a great deal in their chemical composition at the present time. I believe over time this particular issue will be addressed, and we can all benefit from sustainable, factory-produced extracts that undergo double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, thus placing chaga in its rightful place as an important natural medicine. Until that day I urge everyone to respect and appreciate this valuable resource and ensure its sustainability for now and the generations to come. I would strongly suggest chaga be placed, as soon as possible, on the United Plant Savers “To-Watch” List.
Robert Dale Rogers has been an herbalist for over 45 years and is a professional member of the AHG. He is an assistant clinical professor in family medicine at the University of Alberta and teaches earth spirit medicine at the Northern Star College.
He has authored over 40 books on plants and fungi of the boreal forest including The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America. His newest contribution, Mushroom Essences: Vibrational Healing from Kingdom Fungi will be released in July 2016 by North Atlantic.