Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More on Chaga!

There's been a lot of interest in the post I did in September on Chaga and the Wild Harvesting Dilemma. As a supplement to that, I've just put up a video on YouTube taken from an Herbal Field Studies field workshop last August in which I discussed chaga.  Enjoy!

That being said, in the couple of months since I wrote that post I have seen a disturbing acceleration in the number of products containing chaga on the market. It's being added to vitamin supplements and various kinds of powdered supplements, and most disconcerting of all in food products as well! Sadly, this is the result of a lot of companies trying to cash in on the chaga craze at the expense of chaga, the environment and the people who really need it. It's also just a marketing gimmick! In most cases these products don't contain enough of the fungus to have any health benefits. However, they may have enough in them so that if these products are consumed on a regular basis for a long time our body could get used to the chaga and it won't work as well if some day we really need to use it. This is why I never recommend the use of vitamins, powders or food products that contain medicinal herbs! This is not an appropriate use of these medicines. They are not meant to be consumed in minute quantities over very long periods of time.

Aside from the fact that minute amounts of chaga (or any herb for that matter) in a multivitamin or chocolate bar are not going to do much for anyone, the bigger issue here is that chaga is difficult to cultivate and the cultivated fungus is significantly inferior to the wild harvested source. As a result, it's wild harvested chaga that these companies are using. For reasons that I explained in my previous post on this topic, wild harvesting chaga on a commercial scale simply is not sustainable. Even if the level of consumption stays at the current rate (and it is actually increasing rapidly), within a few years this fungus is going to be severely depleted in the wild like other herbs that have been over-harvested such as ginseng (Panax spp.) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is now rare, endangered or extinct in most of its former range due to over-harvesting.

Even if it was useful to consume chaga in this way, it should not be used on a commercial scale until good quality cultivated sources are readily available. That also goes for other wild harvested herbs and foods unless they are species that are very aggressive or "invasive" by nature and the scale of harvesting isn't too large.

I strongly encourage anyone who uses herbal products to only use those that are manufactured from certified organically grown sources. In the case of chaga, if you love and respect herbs and Nature, you might even want to consider complaining to stores or companies that sell or manufacture these products. If we can raise the level of awareness of these issues maybe things will change before chaga goes the way of other herbs that have been over-harvested.

So, you might ask why I'm putting out information on the medicinal uses of chaga at all? Firstly, although the current popularity of this fungus is not a good thing, I'm hoping that some good can come of it by using it as a vehicle to help raise awareness of these issues. Secondly, I feel that it is a very important part of our healing process that we engage with Nature as much as possible and learning about herbs and making our own medicines is a great way to do that for those who are so inclined, as long as it is done in a respectful manner. Teaching people how to do this is one of the ways that I can help people to connect with Nature and the medicines that they use, as well as how to do it in a way that honours our relationship with the world we live in. Finally, chaga is an awesome medicine (when used correctly)! Nevertheless, due to the significant reduction in wild populations, I have significantly reduced my use of it to those conditions where it really excels, which are conditions of the bone marrow and autoimmune conditions that don't respond as well as I would like to some of the other herbs that I typically use for these types of conditions. I also only use it at a proportion of no more than 20% of a formula. For all of its other uses chaga works no better than many of the other herbs that I use. I also encourage everyone else to use it similarly to reduce our impact on wild populations.

Unfortunately, chaga is primarily being promoted for use as a general tonic, which leads to the greatest amount of consumption. Although it can be very effective as a tonic when used correctly, it should not be used indiscriminately. However, under the current circumstances I no longer recommend its use in this way. There are many medicinal mushrooms and other herbal immune tonics and adaptogens that are available commercially from organically grown sources that work just as well. There's no need for chaga to be used as a general tonic.

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is an excellent tonic mushroom that is readily available from organically grown sources.

If you do wish to harvest some chaga for personal use, it should only be harvested in areas where there is no evidence that anyone else has been harvesting it. There should also be a fair bit of it around so that you only have to harvest from a small percentage of the fungi. Chaga often grows high up where we can't reach it, so look up. If you only find one that is growing at a level that you can reach but there are at least a few in the area growing up high, it's fine to harvest it. Look for fungi that grow out past the surface of the tree and only harvest up to 50% of any given fungus. Make sure that you leave some of the outer black crusty portion and don't cut it deeper than the surface of the tree.

Although chaga is traditionally used as a tea, it is best to make a tincture of it. The amount of fungus required per unit dose is much smaller for tinctures because they extract the chemical constituents and are assimilated more efficiently. There are some people who claim that medicinal mushrooms can not be extracted as tinctures. This isn't true! Most of the people who make these claims are affiliated with companies that use expensive high-tech extraction methods that you can't use at home. Some have been propagating this misinformation to encourage people to use their products. The key to making a tincture is that the fungus must be chopped very fine, basically to the level of a very course coffee grind. It is best to use a menstruum (extraction medium) that is 60% water, 30% alcohol and 10% glycerin. This menstruum will efficiently extract polysaccharides and other constituents that don't like alcohol, but still extract those that like alcohol efficiently as well. Finally, the herbs should be macerated (soaked in the menstruum) at least three months before you press and filter it to make your tincture.

It wasn't my intention to keep harping on this topic. There was a lot of action on my previous post on chaga, so I decided that it would be nice to put up a video on it. The video was recorded about a month before I did that post. It was coming across that butchered chaga during that field workshop that inspired me to finally write that post, although I had been thinking about it for some time. After seeing a growing number of ridiculous products containing chaga appear on the market over the last couple of months and then watching that video a few times while editing it, I felt like there was a bit more I needed to say about it. So there it is! The next post will be about something else...


  1. HI MIchael --

    Thank you for these wonderful posts on chaga, and please don't feel you need to apologize. I hope you will write many more such eloquent defenses of sanity. In my neighborhood, in what is considered "remote" and "sparsely populated" northern Wisconsin, the wild leeks and ginseng have been decimated by brutal overharvesting. People come through, often trespassing on private property, and just hack away at whatever they want. It's sickening.

    When my decades-long psoriasis morphed into full-blown psoriatic arthritis I began scouring the internet and the research for effective, natural treatments, but came upon chaga almost by accident in the form of popular consumer hype. On further research I was amazed and appalled by how this precious resource was being exploited by people who don't even need it!

    For what it's worth, I am surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of public land, but have decided to harvest only the chaga I can find on my own property, at ground level, and only from growths bigger than a grapefruit, and only, obviously, taking what I need for my own use. Our birch forests are already threatened by global warming, and our ag extension agent tells me that our birch will probably be gone within a couple of generations. It's hard to know how to care when surrounded by so much greed and insanity. It's hard to know how to live virtuously in a horribly corrupted world. It helps to know that others are fighting the good fight. Keep up the posts!!

  2. thank you for this wonderful article...full of information...I am fortunate to live in the middle of nowhere, where it is hard for people to come and harvest the area...The Northern Athabaska Basin is stil intact, except for a few mines.. We are lucky.
    connie fossenier (paxman)