Of all the fungi we know as medicinal mushrooms, chaga, which has been dubbed the “King of Medicinal Mushrooms”, is probably the strangest looking of them all. If you were walking in the forest and came upon one, you might not even notice it because it doesn’t at all resemble any other mushroom with which most of us are familiar.
The majority of medicinal mushrooms grow in the form of what is called the fruiting body of the fungi. This portion of the fungus, which usually grows into a familiar mushroom-like shape, (or perhaps a hoof-like shape in the case of shelf mushrooms) bears spores which are released from its gills or pores into the atmosphere to seed the next generation. Such mushrooms are called fruiting bodies because their primary purpose is similar to the fruit of a tree, which is the seed bearing aspect of the organism designed to reproduce its species.
Unlike most other medicinal mushrooms, the portion of the chaga organism that is most valuable for its medicinal qualities is not the fruiting body. Rather it is a dense, woody part of the mycelium called a sclerotium.
Two other names for chaga sclerotia are conk and clinker.
A chaga conk grows primarily as a protuberance out of the sides of living birch trees, although they can also grow on beech, alder or elm. Its exterior is black and hard and has the look of charred, burnt, crusty charcoal. However once cut from the tree and broken apart, its interior is revealed, which is a rich rusty orange color.
There is some controversy over whether the relationship between chaga and the trees in which it grows is a parasitic or symbiotic one. What is understood though, is that the chaga organism feeds off the tree’s bark and wood. By doing so, vital nutrients found in these parts of the tree are transformed by and into the fungus itself, in the process rendering them into a form that is more bioavailable to us when we consume remedies made from the chaga clinker.
Growing wild in forests across northern regions of the northern hemisphere mostly in very cold, harsh conditions in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Canada, chaga has a rich history of use as a folk remedy, particularly in Siberia, where it has long been a favored tonic and medicine used by people native to that part of the world.
Chaga was written about by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his semi-autobiographical 1967 novel The Cancer Ward. Up until that time chaga was virtually unknown to most modern day people, particularly those living in the western world, and so this book served for many as their first introduction to this medicinal mushroom.
Chaga mushrooms, which have an extremely high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value, are an intensely rich source of antioxidants, making them powerful free radical scavengers.
The triterpenoids betulin and betunlinic acid are two of the most important active constituents found in chaga. These compounds have been clinically demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-tumor effects. They are currently being used in the treatment of HIV and are being studied for their effectiveness as anti-cancer treatments.
Another triterpene found in chaga, inotodiol, has been shown in in vivo experiments to have significant anti-tumor effects.
Beta glucan polysaccharides are another prominent and powerfully beneficial component of chaga which have been shown to be very effective in supporting, balancing, tonifying and enhancing the body’s own immune intelligence in order to overcome a variety of ailments, including those involving inflammation, infection, and even malignancies.
Chaga also contains various different minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium boron, chromium, copper, germanium, manganese, selenium, and zinc.
The classic way to prepare chaga for therapeutic use is to make a tea from it.
Various preparation techniques can be used, but perhaps one of the simplest is to simmer a small hunk of chaga, approximately 2 cubic inches or so of the inner, rust color portion of the mushroom, in 2 quarts of water for half an hour to an hour.
The resulting tea will have a slight vanilla flavor to it, which can be enhanced by adding a bit of vanilla extract, and it can be enjoyed as is or sweetened with a bit of honey or maple syrup. Adding some dairy cream or nut milk is another option to create a delicious and nourishing tonic beverage.
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