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Turkey tail mushrooms have been used by traditional medicine practitioners in much of Asia for well over a thousand years. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) turkey tail has been used for strengthening the immune system, increasing energy, removing toxins, and many other purposes. Turkey tail is the most studied medicinal mushroom in the world, including recently in the West where it is gaining acceptance in the medical community.

What Are Turkey Tail Mushrooms?

Turkey tail mushrooms are a multicolored, flat, fan-shaped, fungi that grow on the bark of often dead hardwood trees in wooded areas. Turkey tail have no particular geographic preference — they’re one of the most common fungi and flourish on every continent save Antarctica. This mushrooms’ shape and swirling color pattern is reminiscent of its namesake — the tail of a turkey.

Turkey tail (scientific name Trametes versicolor) is a polypore fungi. Polypores such as turkey tail (and reishi) have thousands of tiny spore-producing pores under their tops, as opposed to the gills of many other common mushrooms (such as shiitake).

Turkey tail are thin and hard, with a leathery and tough texture that makes them a poor choice for eating (though they are considered edible and safe to eat).

turkey tail mushrooms growing on tree

Turkey Tail Mushrooms Health Benefits

Like other function mushrooms (mushrooms that provide health benefits well beyond their nutritional makeup), turkey tail have a wide variety of bioactive compounds — chemicals that while they exist in small amounts are able to contribute greatly to promoting good health. For turkey tail, those bioactive compounds contribute to a stronger immune system, fighting cancer, and other health benefits.

Turkey Tail Supports a Healthy Immune System

The bioactive compounds in turkey tail have powerful immunostimulatory effects — they increase the immune system’s ability to fight disease and infection. The immune system has both innate and adaptive immune responses. Turkey tail is best known for it’s ability to enhance the actions of both our innate and adaptive immune responses.

  • Innate responses we are born with — our bodies have this first line of cellular, physical, and chemical defenses that are non-specific — they target any pathogen that enters the body.
  • Adaptive responses we aren’t born with — our bodies develop them over time to target very specific intruders.

Turkey Tail Polysaccharides

A polysaccharide is a type of carbohydrate that is built from the linking of thousands of simple sugars. Examples of simple sugars are sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Examples of common polysaccharides include starch and cellulose. In mushrooms, polysaccharides serve as a support system for cell walls and tissues, and are also used for energy storage. In humans, the polysaccharides in turkey tail support the immune system in a number of ways, such as by inducing the proliferation of T and B cells — they stimulate the immune system to increase production of these two types of white blood cells.

Turkey tail contains over a hundred different polysaccharides, with three in particular playing significant roles in improving the immune system:

  • Polysaccharide peptide (PSP)
  • Polysaccharide K (PSK)
  • Beta-glucan

Polysaccharide peptide, or PSP, can improve the ability of the key immune response white blood cells T lymphocytes (also called T cells or thymocytes) to penetrate tumors. PSP also increases immune cell levels and stimulates their actions. This includes monocyte cells, which are white blood cells that kill microorganisms to fight infection and boost immunity.

Polysaccharide K, or PSK or krestin, supports the immune system by boosting the activity of the T cells that act as a bridge between the innate (born with) and adaptive (acquired) immune functions. PSK also stimulates dendritic cells — cells that in turn activate T lymphocytes (T cells) that attak specific foreign substances.

Beta-glucans, or beta-d-glucans or β-glucans, are a the third important type of polysaccharide. All mushrooms have some beta-glucans, but the quantity varies greatly by species. At the top of the list is turkey tail, which have beta-glucans in abundance. Following not too far behind are lion’s mane and cordyceps mushrooms, and then further back are reishi and chaga mushrooms.

Beta-glucans up the production of a few white blood cell types, including T-helper cells, T-killer cells, and macrophages — all of which assist in the immune system’s response to pathogens such as bacteria and virus. Beta-glucans are a type of Biological Response Modifier, or BRM. BRMs are interesting in that they have the ability to turn up or turn down immune system activity. To effectively fight off an infection a BRM like beta-glucan will increase the immune response. In contrast, the same BRM can slow down an overactive immune response by stimulating the release of anti-inflammatories.

Turkey Tail Supports Gut Health and Digestion

Gut health and proper digestion is a turkey tail health benefit that’s in addition to this mushroom’s immune system support, but it could be considered a part of immune system health — gut health is closely intertwined with the immune system.

Gut health refers to the state and function of the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract is part of the digestive system and is composed of the organs involved in the processing of food and liquid, from start to finish. These organs include the:

  • Mouth
  • Pharynx (throat)
  • Esophagus (food pipe or gullet)
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Rectum
  • Anus

Gut microbiota are the microorganisms (or microbes) — such as the trillions of healthy (or “friendly” or “good”) bacteria — that live in the digestive tract. Collectively, all of the gut microbiota are thought of as a community of sorts and often referred to as the gut microbiome. Because the gut is extremely important for proper immune function, having a healthy gut microbiome is essential for maintaining an effective immune system.

Prebiotics are fibers that can’t be digested. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s quite the opposite. Because prebiotics aren’t digested, they become a food source for healthy gut bacteria — prebiotics help support the growth of good bacteria and a healthy gut microbiome. Turkey tail contains plenty of prebiotic fiber, thereby supporting the gut microbiome and in turn supporting the immune system, as 70% of the immune system resides in the gut.

The same polysaccharide peptide, or PSP, that was discussed above in the Turkey Tail Polysaccharides section acts as a prebiotic and thus helps to regulate bacteria balance in the gut.

Turkey Tail Has Anti-Cancer Properties

When it comes to cancer, turkey tail is by far the most researched medicinal mushroom. There have been more than 400 studies of turkey tail extract that have demonstrated this mushroom inhibits the growth of cancer cells, acts as a powerful antioxidant, and stimulates the immune system.

As one example, an in vitro study — a study performed with cells outside the body (“test-tube experiment”) — demonstrated that turkey tail extract induced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in leukemia cells.

These studies demonstrate that turkey tail may have therapeutic effects against several types of cancers, including melanoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer.

There doesn’t seem to be one single factor behind turkey tail’s ability to fight cancer. Instead, there are a number of mechanisms by which the fungi may bring about cancer-protective effects:

  • Stimulation of the immune system
  • Promotion of antiangiogenesis — the prevention of growth of the new blood vessels that tumors need to survive
  • Elimination of free radicals due to strong antioxidant effects
  • Reduction in tumor cell division (tumor cells’ ability to multiply)

Turkey tail accomplishes these anti-cancer powers primarily due to its main active components — the polysaccharides discussed above in the Turkey Tail Polysaccharides section. The polysaccharides PSP and PSK are unique to turkey tail and are thought to be among the most powerful immune-boosting carbohydrates known. They’re the main reason why for decades this fungi has been used as an anticancer treatment.

Turkey tail is especially beneficial in suppressing tumors. For just this reason turkey tail has been used for decades in China and Japan as an adjunct (a secondary treatment used together with a primary treatment) to standard cancer treatments for gastric cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer. According to a National Cancer Institute review there is ample evidence that turkey tail can improve survival chances for these kinds of cancer.

Turkey Tail Is Rich in Antioxidants

In response to stress, pollutants, and even as a by-product of normal metabolic processes, the human body produces free radicals — unstable atoms that damage healthy cells, causing illness, chronic inflammation, and aging. Antioxidants are the counter-force to free radicals. Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit oxidation — the chemical reactions that produce the cell-damaging free radicals.

Turkey tail are loaded with some of the most potent kinds of antioxidants — flavonoids and phenols. Flavonoids are metabolites — compounds produced by plants for development and growth. They are potent anti-inflammatories and antioxidants that fight free radicals. Phenols are organic compounds are antioxidants that are powerful free radical scavengers — they “mop up” free radicals and make them inactive.

Turkey tail includes dozens of types of phenols and flavonoids, including quercetin — an antioxidant that can help control blood sugar levels, kill cancer cells, reduce swelling, and help prevent heart disease.

How to Consume Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Turkey tail have a earthy to bitter flavor, and their texture is thick and leathery. So while they are considered an edible mushroom, there’s not much of a reason to try to include them in a dish — even if cooked thoroughly. Instead, this mushroom is usually consumed in the form of a powdered extract.

Turkey tail supplements are available in capsule form, but by purchasing turkey tail powder in bulk you can save money and have it in a form that’s convenient to add to your favorite fruit drink, smoothie, or shake. The most commonly recommended dosage is 2 grams (2000 mg) daily.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms Side Effects

Turkey tail mushroom is considered to be very safe for most people. For healthy adults it is almost always well-tolerated. Side effects are considered to be very rare, and when they do occur are usually limited to digestive upset.