Chaga consists of an unusual concoction of antioxidants, polysaccharides, alkaline compounds, phytonutrients, flavonoids, vitamins, phenols, enzymes, amino acids and organic acids. Packed with over 215 trace minerals that are essential for a variety of mechanisms in the body, making it a well-rounded supplement for vegetarian, vegan and reduced meat diets – and the perfect Veganuary ally!
When walking amongst the flora and fauna of a boreal forest, perhaps in Scotland, Russia, northern Europe, or Alaska, chaga may be mistaken for just a strange dark growth on a tree… The rather peculiar, Chaga or Inonotus obliquus is not a mushroom, nor the fruiting body of a fungus. It is a sclerotium or mycelial mass, capable of surviving extreme environmental conditions. Chaga has a black exterior which is caused by exposure to sunlight, and when you look closely at pieces of it broken up you will see a mycelial web dispersed throughout its golden rock like surface.
Most commonly found on birch trees in the northern hemisphere, this parasitic fungus attacks and digests the inner part of the tree, known as the heartwood, causing decay in the birch trees for 10 to 80+ years. What makes chaga so intriguing as a medicinal organism is that most of its compounds are derived from the trees it feasts on. Comprised of an array of minerals and unusual compounds; we are lured into a deep dive into its possible uses within the human body and its potential as the ideal supplement – particularly for those that do not consume red meat and dairy.
Shown here are quantities of 7 trace minerals found in chaga – based on 100g extract sample and measured in ppm (parts per million).
100g sample – *Analysis by ICP Feb 2020
Potassium is an important part of our diet. Found in chaga in the highest quantity out of all the trace minerals; there is 5.1g of potassium present in 100g of chaga (around 1.5x higher than that in a comparable quantity of banana – which has 3.6g per 100g). Potassium is also an electrolyte and so is used in our muscles and nerve cells to conduct electrical impulses and may improve energy levels. Important in a variety of bodily functions including blood pressure, water balance, digestion, heart rhythm and pH balance . However, it’s important to note that the kidneys struggle to process potassium if they are damaged – so always check with a qualified medical practitioner if you have concerns.
Calcium is used in the body for a range of mechanisms; most notably for our bones and teeth. It is actually the case that our bones stop absorbing calcium after the age of about 30. However, if you do not have enough calcium in your diet and body, calcium gets taken from the bones, leading to weakened bones and an increased susceptibility to them breaking . Most commonly found in our diets in dairy products such as cow, goat and sheep milk, calcium can also be found in chaga in a relatively high quantity – according to the table above – 110 mg per 100g sample. This suggests that chaga and basic dairy products such as milk and yoghurt contain just about the same amount of calcium per 100g . So instead of buying plant-based milk fortified with calcium, why not drop some chaga tincture into the milk of your choice instead?
Magnesium is a vital mineral that supports muscle and nerve function and energy production. It plays a part in the action of over three hundred enzyme reactions in the body . Interestingly, magnesium blocks calcium which allows our muscles to relax which has been linked to preventing organ damage and lowering blood pressure [4,5]. Found in dark leafy greens, whole grains, legumes and dried beans; a well-rounded diet should contain lots of magnesium. However, it does seem appropriate to suggest that eating a diet super high in nutrients can be difficult to maintain and is not always possible. Chaga extractions therefore may be an easy way to get all these important minerals regularly into our diet.
The most prominent mineral in the human body, iron carries oxygen around the body and to and from the lungs. A lack of iron can cause anaemia- a condition linked to symptoms such as fatigue and feeling cold . Adequate amounts of iron are notoriously hard to acquire from vegetarian, vegan diets. With chaga containing small amounts of iron, taking chaga extract may contribute to reaching the recommended daily iron requirements. It may also be useful to mindfully incorporate chaga during menstruation due to blood loss occurring, with NHS recommendations being highest for women aged 19-50.
One of the more prominent minerals in chaga is Zinc; another important mineral found in chaga as it is required for the structural integrity and/or formation of over 300 enzymes, some of which aid in digestion, metabolism and nerve function . Also aiding in the functioning of the immune system, it is the second most abundant trace mineral in your body after iron .
There are a multitude of studies that show the importance of zinc for the immune system. Listed below are some of them to highlight why choosing a mushroom tincture high in zinc is perfect for the winter months.
Only 0.1% of your natural zinc is replenished in the body on a daily basis, therefore supplementation is recommended .
Copper is an essential nutrient, and although not regarded as a significant nutritional problem for populations, is necessary to maintain a variety of physiological functions. Used in energy metabolism, reactive oxygen species detoxification, iron uptake, and cell signalling. Deficiency may lead to symptoms such as cardiac disorders, osteoporosis and anaemia.  Chaga contains around 0.28mg per 100g which makes up about a third of the daily recommended amount. Food sources highest in copper are organ meats, shellfish and fish, along with nuts, wholegrains and chocolate.
Found in unknown but estimated high quantities in chaga, Vitamin D is a modulator of adaptive and innate immunity. It also helps manage calcium in the body and maintains skeletal health .
Increasing our intake of vitamin D in the winter time is suggestible as this is when we are more susceptible to the flu . Vitamin D content in the body is linked to the progression of viral diseases from the flu to HIV, with a direct link between low vitamin D levels and higher rates of viral diseases, including upper respiratory tract infections. The synergy of melanin and vitamin D in vitro has been found to play a possible role in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections . (You can read more about melanin below).
In the longer sunnier days, we should be able to produce enough vitamin D from sunlight. However, between October and early March when days are still short and we spend less time outdoors and the days are shorter, it is advised to supplement our diet with vitamin D rich foods. Foods containing high amounts of vitamin D, suggested by the NHS include oily fish, liver, egg yolks and red meat. Mushrooms however are the only vegan, non fortified dietary source of vitamin D, containing more than the recommended foods and near to the daily recommended amount . Chaga may also have cholesterol reducing properties , which makes it a healthier source of vitamin D than the suggested foods.
The other vitamins in chaga are 3 of the 8 essential B vitamins, namely;
Vegans and vegetarians are listed as at higher risk of deficiency due to not having red meat, poultry, fish and dairy products in their diets, therefore chaga provides a fascinating option for supplementing these diets.
Chaga as an antioxidant
As well as some of the minerals mentioned above. A couple of very interesting compounds within chaga have been found to have antioxidising effects within the body.
Firstly, a bit of background on antioxidants and why they are important: the production of free radicals often occurs in the body, these are molecules created from normal metabolism in the body but can cause harm when in high quantities. An antioxidant is something that may prevent the potentially harmful cell damage caused by free radicals. A range of chronic health issues are due to or at least linked to free radical damage including cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, cataract and cancer .
In one in vitro study, the DNA in human lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell which functions within the immune system) was studied when treated with chaga extract under oxidising conditions. Cells pre-treated with aqueous chaga extract showed a 40% reduction in DNA damage . Certain compounds that may have something to do with these results are listed below:
Superoxide dismutase (SOD) This enzyme is part of the first defence against free radicals in the body. Significant therapeutic action and potential for use in treatments has been found for cancer, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes. 
Betulinic Acid (BA) is a triterpene found in large quantities in the outer bark of birch trees that has potent antioxidant ability [21, 22]. BA has been found to prevent alcohol induced liver damage in mice through an antioxidising pathway . It has also been found to have potent antitumour effects [24, 25, 26].
Lastly, we take a look at melanin. Melanin provides pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes and provides protection from UV radiation. Manufactured in our skin from sunlight, we can potentially supplement our melanin intake with mushrooms. As the only vegan food source of melanin; it is highest in quantity in black mushrooms, including chaga.
Melanin aids in immune response, has antibacterial and antioxidising properties . (See below for studies).
Concluding that melanin-containing mushrooms can provide significant protection against radiation. This study provides insight into the possibility that humans can receive similar protection for radiation by consuming black mushrooms such as chaga. 
There is a lack of research on the efficiency of consuming melanin (possibly due to a lack of organisms containing it) and so more research into human consumption of melanin is needed.
It is apparent that the mechanisms and uses of all these vitamins, minerals and unusual compounds within the body are very complex. Interacting in an almost uncountable number of ways, it is of course difficult to understand exactly how everything interacts within the body… but it may be exactly this that makes chaga so special and why it is so highly regarded in the mushroom world. Perhaps why it has reported use in the higher latitudes for thousands of years – due to providing such a vast mix of these compounds in one single organism.
Aside from being high in essential minerals that can be gained from a high nutrient diet, chaga is packed with many minerals that are found in red meat, egg yolks, dairy and shellfish. This makes it the ideal well-rounded supplement for vegetarian, vegan and reduced meat diets. Along with its vitamin D, melanin and zinc content, chaga may be the perfect addition to the winter months to support our immune systems against viruses and oxidative stress.
Chaga extracts need to be made from wild harvested chaga, otherwise they will not contain all the important compounds derived from the host birch trees . All our Chaga is sustainably wild-foraged in the Scottish Highlands to keep it native. We do one harvest per year and £1 from every bottle of our Chaga tincture goes towards reforesting initiatives in Scotland.
Traditional use for consuming chaga is predominantly hot water extracts and teas. However, certain compounds, namely betulinic acid (mentioned above) is more soluble in alcohol than water. This shows how an alcohol extraction is necessary to access this antioxidising, anti-cancer and liver cleansing compound . For example, when studying alcohol extractions of chaga on colon cancer cells; cell growth and division was halted . This may be the case for other compounds that are not soluble in water and need an extra extraction to become available for our bodies to use.
The potential uses of chaga as a medicinal mushroom is a long and complex topic so if any of the subjects or compounds mentioned above have got you thinking, please let us know in the comments!