Throughout documented history, Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has been used and revered by many ancient cultures for its health and life-enhancing qualities.
In 1991, the mummified remains of “Otzi the Iceman” were discovered preserved in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. “Otzi” lived about 5,300 years ago, at the end of the Stone Age. Among Ötzi’s possessions were two birch bark baskets, and two species of polypore mushrooms with leather strings through them. One of these, the birch fungus, (Chaga) is historically known to have antibacterial properties, and was likely used for medicinal purposes. Researchers believe that Chaga was used by people of that time to help prevent bacterial and viral infections, to heal wounds, and to treat intestinal parasites.
Stories of Chaga’s healing properties abound in the folklore of the indigenous people of Siberia, the Baltic, and Finland dating back at least 5,000 years. These folklore accounts are traced to a fungus that grows on birch trees in Western Siberia, and was used to disease includingtreat cancer. One of these indigenous groups, the Khanty of Siberia, has traditionally used Chaga to not only prevent illness, but to treat a wide variety of ailments. Chaga has also been used as a body cleanser, and for purification rituals. Chaga continues to be used in Asia for these same purposes today.
In the 3,000 year history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Chaga has been revered and used throughout Asia. TCM regards optimal health as the result of the smooth flow of “Chi” (universal life energy) throughout the body. This promotes balance and harmony. Illnesses result from imbalances. In the 28th century B.C., Emperor Shen Nung of China recorded 365 herbal remedies in the Shen-Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching. The class of Medicinal Mushrooms, of which Chaga is a member, was included among the “Upper Class” herbs – the herbs that nourish life. Emperor Shen Nung honored this class of superior mushrooms as the “King of Herbs” and as “Medicinal Gifts from the Gods”.
The use of Chaga in Russian folk medicine was first documented in the 15th century A.D. Chaga has commonly been enjoyed by Russian peasants as a refreshing tea, and has been used medicinally for a wide range of ailments. Perhaps the most well-known use for Chaga has been as a Russian folk treatment for cancer. Chaga is valued as a health-promoting tonic – one that helps to purify the body and support a strong immune system. It is also used on the skin to promote healthy, young-looking skin.
Regions of Russia in which Chaga is consumed as a daily tea have been reported to have a lower incidence of chronic diseases like cancer. This has led to numerous scientific studies in Russia. In 1955 Chaga was approved for use against cancer by the Medical Academy of Science in Moscow, as well as to decrease the side effects of other treatments such as radiation, and to support the immune system. In 1960, a report was received by the U.S. National Cancer Institute that Chaga had been used to successfully treat cancer patients in Australia.
Chaga was largely unknown in Western Cultures until the 1968 publication of Aleksander Solzenitsyn’s Nobel-prize winning novel, The Cancer Ward. In this semi-autobiographical novel, a country doctor believes that the low incidence of cancer among the Russian peasants is because they regularly drink Chaga tea. The patients of the cancer ward would sneak Chaga into their ward. Diagnosed with terminal cancer himself, Solzenitsyn is claimed to have attributed his own recovery to Chaga.
Scientific research has continued, primarily in Eastern Europe, China, Korea and Japan. This research has focused on isolating the active compounds that would explain the therapeutic effects claimed to be found in clinical applications, folklore, and personal testimonials. In 1984, Finnish Scientist, Dr. Kirsti Kahlos, began what is perhaps the best known research. Dr. Kahlos’ research demonstrated that Chaga has anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-cancer, and anti-tumor properties. Other researchers have found compounds in Chaga that are claimed to have high anti-oxidant values, as well as anti-inflammatory and immune system stimulating properties.
Today, the use of Chaga is growing in Western cultures as people search for more holistic approaches to preventing disease and promoting optimum health. In testimonials, people report finding relief from the same conditions described in folklore, as well as from many modern-day health concerns. They include viral complaints such as colds and flu, as well as Herpes. Athletes claim improved endurance, and people who already enjoy good health describe better vigor and a general feeling of well-being. Chaga is regarded as a “functional food”, restoring the flow of Chi throughout the body and returning it to a balanced state of health. Chaga is also believed to promote longevity.
While scientific research continues to add to our knowledge about how the health and life-enhancing properties of Chaga work, it is in peoples’ real-life experiences that we are most likely to find the best evidence of what Chaga can do for us.