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Chaga (Inonotus obliquus): A mushroom with many medicinal properties

Written by Matthew Clark

Medicinal fungi like chaga have boomed in popularity in recent years. This article shares some of the potential ways it can support our health.

Introduction

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a black, parasitic mushroom, which looks on the outside like a lump of burnt, craggy charcoal; it belongs to the Hymenochaetacea family of fungi. The genus Inonotus is widespread is widespread in North America, Asia and Europe and comprises around 100 species, represented in Europe by four species, one of which is Inonotus obliquus.

The term ‘chaga’ most probably derives from Russian; chaga is also known as birch conk (a woody growth), clinker polypore, cinder conk and black mass, and may usually be found on the boles of birch trees, (1) though occasionally on other trees: on alder, ash, beech, chestnut, hornbeam, plane-tree, poplar, maple, rowan, oak, walnut, and willow. However, reports on the growth of chaga on trees besides beech are often unreliable as the fungus growing on the other kinds of tree are similar and often confused with chaga. (2)

Chaga grows externally on the bark of the host tree, be it living, dead, standing or fallen. Under the black surface, the chaga mycelium is an orange/brown colour. It causes the decomposition of live boles and usually grows to around between 25-40 centimetres; it dries to a consistency similar to that of hard cork. Chaga usually infects trees that are 30-40 years old through wounds in the bark and can continue to grow on the bole for another 30-80 years. On old trees the growth of chaga can exceed 50 cm in diameter. (3)

Low in calories, high in fibre, and rich in minerals and vitamins, chaga has been used as a traditional medicine in various cultures since time immemorial, particularly in Russia, China, Poland (4) and the Baltic countries. It is also used for food in China. (5) Chaga is used to treat diabetes, parasites, tuberculosis, inflammation, gastro-intestinal problems, heart disease and several kinds of cancer. (6) Perhaps the oldest reference to the use of chaga as a medicine is by Hippocrates (c. 460–370 BCE) in his Corpus Hippocraticum, in which is described the use of infusions of chaga to wash wounds. (7)

For medicinal treatments chaga is usually ground to a fine powder and made into a tea, which tastes like mushrooms. It is also available in capsule form as a supplement, sometimes in combination with other mushrooms, such as cordyceps. However, many commercial products are simply unprocessed powdered chaga without having been extracted. This means the active compounds are not bioavailable and so one must be careful when buying a product that the quality is good and that the preparation process is clearly explained if it is simply a powder and not an extract.

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practising Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006, Matthew has been lecturing world-wide on yoga, philosophy and psychedelics. He is currently the managing editor of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies.

His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca (2017), which is an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece; and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018). In June 2021, he published another short book, Therapeutic Experiences and Psychedelics: Soma/Haoma and Complex Plant Formulas in Asia. Matthew also writes songs, plays guitar and records as Mahabongo.

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practising Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006, Matthew has been lecturing world-wide on yoga, philosophy and psychedelics. He is currently the managing editor of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies.

His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca (2017), which is an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece; and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018). In June 2021, he published another short book, Therapeutic Experiences and Psychedelics: Soma/Haoma and Complex Plant Formulas in Asia. Matthew also writes songs, plays guitar and records as Mahabongo.

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