Meet Chaga: A mushrooming immune booster

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. She is also a member of the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

By Cathleen Kronemer

In the world of “edible fungi”, there is much debate over the value of different species.  Enoki mushrooms figure prominently – and deliciously — in many Asian recipes.  Truffles are known for their rare oil-infusing properties.  The more ordinary white mushroom is an excellent source of Vitamin D.  However, the largely unheard-of chaga is hitting the scene as a powerful medicinal mushroom.

The chaga variety more closely resembles a black woodsy growth than a traditional mushroom.  As such, it goes largely unrecognized by the average forest forager. In addition to its attributes as a powerful antioxidant, chaga is currently recognized globally for its anti-mutagenic compounds and its remarkable ability to inhibit tumor growth. 

Chaga can be found in cold climates, and tends to favor growing solely on birch trees in Northern Russia and Siberia.  For thousands of years, chaga was utilized in folk medicine and Russian herbalism, harnessing its ability to help humans adapt to the harsh weather conditions in these areas. In the late 1960’s, us Westerners became aware of the powers of this mighty mushroom when the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his book, “The Cancer Ward”.  In it, he attributes healing properties to what he refers to as “the tea from the birch tree mushroom”, especially touting the benefits to patients undergoing treatments for cancer.  Between its antiviral properties and the protection it offers against the damaging effects of radiation treatments, the chaga mushroom seems to be taking the medical world by storm.

So, how can we make good use of this powerhouse? As it turns out, chaga in its powdered form shines when subjected to hot water extraction.  Tea preparation is the easiest way to enjoy chaga; its slightly bitter flavor and intense brown color make it a suitable coffee substitute. Unlike caffeine, the body’s “chi”, or “life force” is naturally stimulated as chaga tea is absorbed.

While more clinical trials are needed to fully understand the implications of the fabulous fungi to overall health, scientists remain optimistic.  Key an eye out for recipes utilizing the chaga mushroom. From reducing fatigue and inflammation to increasing mental alertness, the potential is powerful!