Believers Say Chaga Offers Many Health Benefits

A chaga mushroom from the Open Minded Organics farm in Bridgehampton. Michael Heller photo

If you are unfamiliar with the parasitic chaga mushroom, known to thrive on birch trees in cool climates, you are not alone. But you may soon be. Chaga, known among devotees as the “king of medicinal mushrooms,” enjoys a certain mystique in the intersecting health, wellness, and food communities. Is it the matcha of the future? It might well be.

Black as a charred marshmallow on the exterior, chaga’s insides are burnt umber and the texture of wood. And while science is still catching up with the Russian, Korean, and northern European traditions of brewing chaga into tea for medicinal purposes, some in the medical community have argued that the unassuming fungus may be the cure to all that ails you. Unlike traditional mushrooms, which can be pulverized and suspended in water in order to exploit their health properties, chaga’s unique, fibrous texture makes it impossible to digest or benefit from unless it is brewed — for a really long time, over a really low heat, without ever reaching a boil. If this exceeds the possibility of your modern life (Crock Pots notwithstanding), consider yourself lucky: You can get chaga on the East End without really having to lift a fungi finger.

Chaga tea with hemp milk at Open Minded Organics. Michael Heller photo

“We make a tincture-style mixture and also a beverage called cha’tte,” David Falkowski, mushroom farmer and owner of Bridgehampton’s Open Minded Organics, said. “We have the beverage down at the farm stand. It can be served hot or cold.” Mr. Falkowski’s cha’tte — I had mine iced, given the season — comes lightly sweetened, spiced with Ceylon cinnamon, and enhanced by hemp milk. It’s a vibrant alternative to a latte, for those looking for an afternoon pick-me-up without the requisite caffeine kick. “Cha’tte is a casual way to enjoy a beverage. We just have honest, good-tasting stuff,” Mr. Falkowski said. Mr. Falkowski sources his chaga — which he brews on-site at his Bridgehampton business property on Butter Lane — from upstate New York.

The tincture is multi-purpose, though Mr. Falkowski shies away from making any medical claims. He acknowledges that there may be benefit from using chaga as a supplement to one’s diet and that it can be added to just about everything. The tincturing process takes a month or two, and involves hot water, alcohol, and glycerine, yielding a high-quality, full-spectrum extract. What does chaga, generally speaking, do, though? Besides an energy boost, chaga may offer more comprehensive medical benefits. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offers the following cautious endorsement: “In animal studies, chaga displayed anti-allergic, cognition-enhancing, and antioxidant activities. In murine colitis models, chaga exerted anti-inflammatory effects.” In layman’s terms? Chaga has been shown to fight allergies, cancer, and inflammation, but studies in the United States remain limited. Here’s some more technical jargon to digest: Chaga boasts more superoxide dismutase (SOD) than any other food on earth. This enzyme is a crucial antioxidant that can disarm dangerous free radicals, staving off disease (and possibly reducing risks for — and even reversing the damage from — certain types of cancer).

There are many chaga enthusiasts who will tell you, however, that, yes, the health claims are real. Chaga therapy — if you want to call it that — does work, and it works well, if used regularly and in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. “We have seen that people who brew it themselves — a strong brew — for anything that has to do with inflammation or immune issues have incredible results,” Bridget LeRoy, co-owner of bottled tea, Chaga Island, said.

LeRoy’s own story is nothing short of miraculous. Several years ago, days before he was set to go off to camp, LeRoy’s son was diagnosed with an aggressive case of mononucleosis. After consulting both an emergency room doctor and her own pediatrician — both of whom confirmed the diagnosis — she turned to her pediatric nurse, Debbie Falborn, with whom she had a long-standing friendship and professional relationship. Falborn had a holistic approach to medicine, and had also suffered through a number of medical issues (two serious car accidents, resulting in eight herniated discs; obesity), which she had addressed with a steady regimen of chaga brew. She suggested that LeRoy take the mushrooms and cook them in a Crock Pot overnight. Two days later, the mononucleosis had disappeared, a blood test confirmed. “They ran two blood tests,” she said, “and he was able to go to summer camp.”

Like Falborn, LeRoy has used herself as a test subject. “I drink it every single day,” she said. “I used to have asthma. I was on two steroids. My asthma is gone.” Falborn, on the other hand, was able to lose an astonishing amount of weight, 200 pounds, with the help of chaga. The mushroom, she said, is an adaptogen, like ginseng: it helps the body adapt to physical, chemical, and biological stressors. Which would explain its versatility in terms of its benefits. “I need it for my back,” Falborn said. “And I needed it for weight loss. Someone else needed it for terrible arthritis. It’s a miracle with arthritis. It really takes people’s pain away. It never ceases to amaze me.” As a registered nurse, Falborn had the added advantage of watching chaga at work with her patients, many of whom accepted her suggestion to work the brew into their daily routines. She stands by her observations: It really does work.

Bridget LeRoy and Debbie Falborn of Chaga Island at a local farmers market.

The science behind chaga is still unfolding. Inflammation has long been believed to be the culprit lurking behind human illness. “Understandably,” Falborn said, “inflammation and disease starts in the gut. If you’re not absorbing and assimilating your nutrients and your body’s inflamed, your food isn’t getting used properly. That sets you up for disease.” Millions of Americans over the age of 45 are subject to insulin resistance, an issue Falborn believes can be resolved through chaga therapy. In her own career, she has witnessed diabetic patients who have been able to reverse insulin resistance over time through the use of chaga. In short, she found the results inspiring.

Four years ago, LeRoy and Falborn decided to bottle their tea. Both women agree that those with serious medical issues (cancer, for instance) should use a far stronger chaga regimen, such as a home brew, ingested multiple times daily. Still, their product, Chaga Island, provides easy access to chaga without the time or the commitment, a course of treatment best viewed as preventative. “In this world of quick fixes, people don’t want to put something in their Crock Pot for eight to ten hours,” LeRoy said. “We have created a slow brew — a 24-hour brew — chaga. Out of nine possible ORAC [oxygen radical absorbance capacity, the method of measuring antioxidant capacity] tests, it scored high in seven of them. If you were suffering from Lyme disease, or an autoimmune disorder, we would not recommend buying it—we would recommend brewing it yourself.”

But if you’re just looking to enhance your health, consider bottled chaga as a supplement to your diet. Chaga Island comes in two flavors: cinnamon-apple cider vinegar and hibiscus-rose hips. The shelf-stable brews are made using organic ingredients with chaga that has been foraged in upstate New York by a known purveyor. The local, small-batch brews are made 110 gallons at a time and are available locally at the Squeezery, Simply Sublime, and the Springs General Store, as well as at the Port Jefferson and Westhampton farmers markets. “We’re an army of two,” LeRoy said, although she and Falborn also get help from LeRoy’s husband, Eric Johnson, and Falborn’s daughter, Taylor Falborn. “There’s no big company here. It’s me, at 54-years-old, dragging a case of chaga with a dolly. There’s no big conglomerate.” Ultimately, LeRoy and Falborn hope to expand their concept and to partner with a distributor, so that chaga can land in the hands of more Americans. In nearly half a decade, their business has grown, and they see chaga as more than a trend: it’s a lifestyle.

If you’re interested in taking the leap and brewing your own, you don’t have to be afraid to take chaga into your own hands. You can order the mushrooms online, through any number of purveyors (unfortunately, there are mixed messages when it comes to the Food and Drug Administration and its regulation of — and support for — chaga, but there are numerous websites dedicated to the practice of chaga therapy, which can help steer you in the right direction), add them to a slow cooker, and set the cooker to warm for anywhere from six to twelve hours — longer, if you can. Avoid boiling temperatures, as boiling will destroy the antioxidant qualities that chaga imparts. Chaga has no real taste at all, which means that you can infuse anything you like into it for more impact. Serve it over ice for a refreshing summer beverage, and the kick start to your new wellness regimen.