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Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits & Usage: A Complete Guide

By October 26, 2021November 17th, 2021No Comments
Wild Turkey Tail Benefits for Health

Decades of medical research studies are revealing the tremendous health-boosting potential of certain mushrooms that have been used by traditional medicine practitioners since at least 3,000 BCE to address a variety of health concerns. Turkey tail mushroom benefits for health are well documented in the historical and modern medical literature. This article will explore why the turkey tail mushroom seems to be in a league of its own among other functional mushrooms such as reishi, lion’s mane, and cordyceps.

Turkey tail mushrooms grow abundantly on dead logs in the wild. It has been a “go to” natural medicinal for many cultures across the centuries.

“Functional mushrooms” as they are known in the wellness community, contain a wide variety of bioactive compounds. Each type of functional mushroom has its own unique bioactive profile and capacity for supporting particular bodily systems. In the case of turkey tail mushrooms, it has a unique ability to strengthen the actions of the immune system.

In this guide, we’ll examine the history of turkey tail and take a deep dive into its various health benefits and how it supports the immune system in particular.

In This Article:

What are Turkey Tail Mushrooms?

Turkey tail, also known by its scientific names Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor, or Polyporus versicolor, gets its name from its appearance: flat, fan-shaped, multicolored rings of the mushroom (fruiting body) that look much like — you guessed it — a turkey’s tail. Similarly, you may hear the mushroom referred to by its Chinese name, yún zhī (云芝) which translate to “cloud fungus”, or its Japanese name, kawaratake (“mushroom by the riverbank”).

T. versicolor is a common fungal species of the basidiomycetes class, found growing on logs, stumps, or dead trunks of deciduous trees (e.g., oak or birch) and some conifers (e.g., fir and pine trees) in North America, Asia, and Europe. Like many others in its class, turkey tail is a white-rot fungus. These fungi play an important role in breaking down lignin in rotting wood, leaving behind whitish, soft, spongy cellulose. This action helps return nutrients to the soil, where other plants may access them.

Turkey Tail Mushroom
Trametes versicolor is commonly known as turkey tail mushroom for good reason.

What are the Health Benefits of Turkey Tail Mushrooms?

It’s no surprise that stress levels are higher than ever. The New York Times reported in 2019 that 55% of American adults experience occasional stress.

The real kicker? Bouts of stress can negatively affect our immune system.

This means that there is no better time for a functional mushroom renaissance.

Like other functional mushrooms, turkey tail mushrooms are adaptogens. As their name suggests, adaptogens help the body adapt to the various types of stressors we may come across. This includes physical, biological, or chemical stressors. Adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to help stabilize your cortisol levels under stress and assist the body in reaching balance again.

This is why traditional medicine practitioners, particularly those in Asia, have used turkey tail for millennia. According to the entry for yún zhī in the Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) by Li ShiZhen, the fungus provided health and long life benefits if consumed regularly. A few of the noted benefits include removing toxins, increasing energy, strengthening the immune system, and supporting liver and spleen function (1).

In conventional medicine, turkey tail has been used to support the immune systems of people with weakened immunity (2). Research conducted in vitro suggests turkey tail has strong antioxidant properties and may protect DNA from free radical damage (1).

How Turkey Tail Mushrooms Work: Bioactive Compounds

Turkey tail possesses an impressive range of secondary metabolites, such as phenolic acids, flavonoids, and terpenoids. In fact, researchers identified 38 different phenolic compounds, including quercetin and baicalein.

If you’ve ever heard of functional mushrooms, you’ve also likely come across the term beta-glucans or beta-D-glucans. These polysaccharides are responsible for the immune-modulating effects of mushrooms. They have been shown to activate immune cells like monocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, neutrophils, macrophages, and dendritic cells in test tube studies (6).

Turkey tail is well known for its protein-bound polysaccharides, also known as polysaccharopeptides (PSPs). There are two commercial products of PSP available called PSP and PSK. PSK is also known as polysaccharide-K, polysaccharide-Kureha, or krestin. Both PSP and PSK have a molar mass of approximately 100 kDa and have been shown to stimulate the immune system in both preclinical and clinical studies (7).

PSK

A popular anecdote suggests that PSK was first discovered by a chemical engineer working for Kureha Chemical Industry Co. The engineer observed a neighbor turn his health around by drinking tea made from turkey tail mushrooms. Intrigued, he convinced his employer to investigate the healing powers of the mushroom.

The rest is history. PSK was isolated from the CM-101 strain of the turkey tail mushroom in 1971 and was commercialized by Kureha Chemicals. In 1977, the Japanese Ministry of Health approved PSK for clinical use. It has since been extensively studied for its role in supporting immune system health in a variety of situations (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).

PSP

In the 1980s, Chinese scientists started testing many strains of T. versicolor and eventually selected the COV-1 strain as their base. PSP was extracted from this strain by Professor Qing-yao Yang, and the Chinese government approved it for use in clinical settings in 1987.

So far, over 45 independent PSP-related preclinical and clinical studies have been conducted. Furthermore, the China State Food and Drug Administration has also approved 13 types of products based on the turkey tail mushroom (7).

Both PSK and PSP belong to a group of substances called biological response modifiers (BRMs). As nonspecific immuno-supportive agents, they work to restore balance to the immune system without a specific target (15).

Given that over 120 strains of turkey tail mushrooms are known to exist, not all PSPs are the same, as it is just a general term for protein-bound polysaccharides (1). The molecular weight and structure of PSPs can differ depending on the strain and growing conditions (1).

Turkey Tail Mushroom Identification

Turkey tail mushrooms can come in a wide range of colors, and one turkey tail can look quite different from another.

But it doesn’t end there. Some other mushrooms look very much like T. versicolor, making things more confusing. These imposters are commonly called “false turkey tail mushrooms,” and include Stereum ostrea, Stereum hirstum, and Trichaptum abietinum.

False Turkey Tail - Stereum ostrea
Turkey tail grows abundantly on dead trees and logs in the wild. Stereum ostrea aka “false turkey tail” (left) is often mistaken for the real thing. One way to tell the difference: algae often grows on S. ostrea.

So how can you tell the difference between “true” and “false” turkey tail mushrooms?

If you come across what looks like T. versicolor on your hike, flip the mushroom over. A true turkey tail fungus has visible pores on its white underside. S. ostrea and S. hirstum have yellow, smooth undersides. You will also commonly find S. ostrea mushrooms (fruiting bodies) with algae on them (16).

Turkey Tail Identification Quiz:

If you can answer “YES” to all the following questions about the mushroom you’re observing, then you’ve found true turkey tail!

  1. Are there pores on the underside of your mushroom? See the above below for what these should look like.
  2. Does the top side of the mushroom have very fine hairs making it velvety to the touch?
  3. Are there concentric bands of different shades on the top side of the mushroom?
  4. Is the fresh mushroom thin and flexible?
The underside of turkey tail, like all polypore mushrooms, has tiny pores. Each of these pores contains spores that the fungus releases for reproduction.

    The video below not only walks you through how to identify Turkey Tail mushrooms, but how to brew a traditional tea from your foraged findings!


  1.  

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits for Health

    Overview of Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits:

    Supports the Immune System

    Bioactive compounds in functional mushrooms can have potent immunostimulatory effects. Turkey tail enhances both the innate and adaptive immune responses, the body’s first and second lines of defense, respectively.

    We are all born with the innate response, also called a non-specific immune response. This type consists of chemical, physical, and cellular defenses.

    Adaptive immunity is acquired and specific. This type of defense allows for the expansion of certain types of white blood cells, the T and B lymphocytes.

    Preclinical studies show that polysaccharides from turkey tail can induce proliferation of both T and B cells (18,19,20).

    These findings suggest that turkey tail supplementation is a safe way to heighten the immune response in people with weakened immunity (29).

    Supports a Healthy Inflammation Response

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) include free radicals and other by-products of cellular metabolisms, such as superoxide anion (O2•-), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), and hydroxyl radical (•OH). They are also produced in the cellular response to exposure to foreign substances, like ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals.

    Reactive oxygen species are critical cell signaling mediators of normal biological processes. There is a delicate balance between ROS and antioxidants that protect cells. A disturbance to this balance can lead to excessive amounts of ROS. This phenomenon is called oxidative stress.

    Research shows that avoiding oxidative stress and supporting a healthy inflammation response are two of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy body, especially as you age.

    Some scientists think turkey tail’s effect on inflammatory responses can even help protect the brain as it ages. When used in conjunction with a Ginkgo biloba extract, mice with mild memory problems associated with aging had elevated levels of antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase (CAT) in their brains. Their brain tissue also had lower expression levels of certain inflammatory markers (17).

    Protects DNA from Damage

    Free radicals can also be harmful to your DNA, which is more sensitive to their damaging effects than other macromolecules are. Results of one study suggest that extracts from T. versicolor may have activities that can protect DNA, possibly due to the high levels of phenolic compounds in the mushroom. The underlying mechanisms of these effects are not yet clear (1).

    Supports the Gut Microbiome

    It is increasingly being understood that our overall health is highly dependent on our gut health. The composition of the gut microbiota affects everything from digestion to cognitive function.

    Beta-glucans contain bonds that cannot be broken down by human digestive enzymes. Large indigestible glycans also cannot cross the lining of the gut, so they must remain there until they are either used or excreted (33).

    This means that beta-glucans may be a potential source of prebiotics, which may contribute to changes in the health and composition of the gut microbiome (33,34).

    Polysaccharides in turkey tail may also alter fecal microbiota composition in a positive way. Researchers saw that PSP elevated the beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species while reducing potentially harmful ones. PSP also lowered the pH of the fecal microbiota, a finding that suggests a mechanism by which PSP could protect against unwanted invaders (33).

    In a randomized, open-label clinical trial, subjects in the PSP group had clear and consistent changes in their intestinal microbiome composition. These findings again demonstrate the prebiotic potential of PSP (35).

    Additionally, the immunomodulating properties and prebiotic activity of PSPs may also have a weight management effect, though human studies have not been done to test that theory (36,37).

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    Supports Liver Health

    The antioxidant activities of turkey tail may also help support liver health. Some chemicals and their toxic metabolites may be harmful to the liver.

    Animal studies investigating liver impact commonly use the hepatotoxin carbon tetrachloride (CCl4). This toxin produces ROS and a free radical called trichloromethyl (CCl3-), which are both bad news for the liver (38). Results from animal studies suggest that PSP could help protect the liver against CCl3- by regulating the immune response to the free radical, such as increasing levels of the protective antioxidants SOD, glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px), and glutathione (GSH) (39).

    Researchers identified one PSP, called PSP-1b1, that had hepatoprotective effects in mice (40). Results from another study showed that mice that consumed PSP had lower levels of liver enzymes, indicating enhanced liver health (41).

    However, more data will be needed to conclude if PSP could have similar effects in humans.

    Improves Exercise Performance and Reduces Sports Fatigue

    Many researchers are turning to natural health products to find potential ways to help decrease sports fatigue and improve athletic ability.

    Improvements in sports fatigue might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about functional mushrooms, but animal studies have found that PSP may enhance pain thresholds and have anti-fatigue activity (2,43).

    In one study, mice fed turkey tail extracts had greater forelimb grip strength and higher exercise tolerance than those that were not (43).

    Blood lactate supplies most of the energy for short, high-intensity exercise. It is measured with ammonia to help interpret an athlete’s resistance to fatigue. Turkey tail extracts may help lower blood lactate and ammonia levels after exercise, as suggested by the above study’s findings. This effect demonstrates that turkey tail extracts could help delay the onset of fatigue (43).

    Read our article about how other functional mushrooms can enhance athletic performance.

    May Support Blood Sugar Balance

    Healthy blood sugar regulation is key to achieving optimal health. All cells run on glucose (or blood sugar). When there is insufficient sugar in the blood, cells don’t get the energy they need. When there is excess sugar in the blood, blood vessels are negatively affected.

    Two hormones help ensure blood sugar levels stay within a narrow range: Insulin, which lowers blood sugar by escorting it out of the blood and to the cells, and glucagon, which raises blood sugar by prompting the liver to convert stored glycogen into glucose. In order to achieve glucose homeostasis, it is important to maintain the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

    Animal studies show that PSPs may do just that. They have been shown to support normal insulin sensitivity, which helps maintain blood glucose levels already within a healthy range (44,45,46). These results need to be replicated in clinical trials; however, these initial results in animals are very promising!

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits for Pets

    Humans aren’t the only ones who can benefit from turkey tail. This mushroom is one of the most popular immune boosters for the furry members of your family as well.

    Read our article on medicinal mushrooms for pets to find out how your pet may benefit from turkey tail.

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits for dogs and cats
    Turkey tail mushrooms can benefit pet health. Simply add the extract powder to dog or cat food.

    Not All PSPs are the Same

    While the insights obtained from the animal studies quoted in the sections above may be promising, results from animal and laboratory studies don’t always translate well to humans. Also, not all strains of T. versicolor are the same. More studies will need to be conducted to confirm the potential benefits of turkey tail for a variety of health concerns.

    Why & How to Take Turkey Tail Mushroom (the Right Way!)

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits vs. Mycelium

    Functional mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for millennia. Surprisingly, their global market value has expanded only in the last few decades. Despite this rapid and immense growth, there are few quality control standards for functional mushroom products. This means that there is a critical need for systematic scientific verification of active compounds for these nutritional supplements.

    When shopping for mushroom supplements, you may notice products claiming to have high amounts of polysaccharides. That’s good, right?

    Not so fast.

    While beta-D-glucans are a type of polysaccharide, not all polysaccharides are beta-d-glucans. Mycelium, the mushroom’s root system, grown on grains will have low levels of beta-D-glucans and high levels of alpha-glucans. These fillers are not known to have medicinal properties. Because fungi contain very small levels of alpha-glucans in the form of glycogen (53), it is unnatural to have high levels of alpha-glucans.

    So, knowing the specific beta-D-glucan content of a mushroom product is important.

    Functional mushroom products grown in North America are typically myceliated grain and not mushroom. The grain remains in the final supplement powder and means the medicinal properties will be diluted.

    For a more in-depth discussion about polysaccharides, check out our article The Truth Behind Polysaccharides in Medicinal Mushrooms.

    How Turkey Tail Mushrooms are Extracted

    Mushroom extraction makes the beneficial compounds of the fungi more readily available to our bodies. It might be tempting to try some of the raw turkey tail mushrooms you find on your walk through the woods. But our bodies lack the proper enzyme, called chitinase, to break down the mushroom’s tough cell wall. That means you would get few if any, benefits for your efforts.

    That’s where extraction comes in.

    In traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, turkey tail was prepared as a tea. That option is still available for those who can find wild turkey tail. For the rest of us, we can look for turkey tail extracts in powder or capsule form.

    Turkey Tail Supplement
    Taking an extract of turkey tail in powder or capsule format is an easy way to get a concentrated dose of the beneficial compounds found in this mushroom. Just make sure the supplement you take is a true mushroom powder, not a mycelium-based supplement.

    There is a lot of debate in the functional mushroom community about the best method of extraction for maximum benefits — alcohol, hot water, or both (dual extraction). Of course, there is a place for each method. PSK and PSP are water-soluble, and turkey tail has few primary non-water-soluble compounds of note. Therefore, Real Mushrooms uses the hot water extraction method, which keeps the beta-glucan levels high.

    For more information on our extraction process, check out The Art of Mushroom Extraction: Methods for Maximum Extract Potency.

    How to Add Turkey Tail Mushrooms to Your Diet

    Real Mushrooms cares deeply about sourcing the highest quality mushrooms. Our Turkey Tail Extracts only contain wild-harvested mushrooms (fruiting bodies). Accredited 3rd party laboratories test all our products for active compounds, including beta-D-glucans.

    Our turkey tail extracts contain over 30% beta-D-glucans! There is no mycelium, added starch, or grain of any kind. The recommended dosage for adults is ½ teaspoons per day as a dietary supplement. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to add turkey tail to your diet, there is no better way than our Turkey Tail Extract capsules. Take just two capsules a day to feel the full health benefits of turkey tail.

    As always, please consult your healthcare provider to make sure turkey tail is the right supplement for you.

    It’s easy to add turkey tail to your daily routine. Turkey tail has a very mild earthy flavor, which makes it a great immune-boosting addition to your morning coffee. Be sure to check out our Recipes section, where you’ll find delicious concoctions like Healthy Pumpkin Spice Latte With Mushroom Extract and Mushroom Cacao Latte.

    Not a coffee drinker? No worries. Here are some fun recipes you can try:

    Turkey Tail extract coffee
    Adding turkey tail powder to your morning coffee is one of the easiest ways to get the diverse health-boosting benefits of this functional mushroom.

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Side Effects

    Turkey tail is generally well tolerated. Some people have reported experiencing mild symptoms such as:

    • Gastrointestinal upset (e.g., gas, bloating)
    • Heartburn
    • Heart palpitation
    • Chest pain
    • Nausea
    • Loss of appetite
    • Dark-colored stools
    • Constipation
    • Cold- or flu-like symptoms

    Another reported side effect is the darkening of fingernails (54). Many of these toxicities were reported when turkey tail was used with other standard therapies for abnormal cellular growths (55).

    Clinical studies so far do not support a specific dosage. Participants of a pilot clinical trial reported no serious adverse events while taking up to 9 grams of turkey tail per day. Mild adverse events included heartburn, heart palpitation, constipation, chest pain, fever, radiation dermatitis, and cold- or flu-like symptoms (29).

    Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as individuals with underlying health conditions including mushroom allergy, should consult a healthcare practitioner before consuming turkey tail.

    Turkey Tail Mushroom Benefits: The Takeaways

    As you can see, turkey tail is one powerhouse of a mushroom. From our discussion above, it’s clear why turkey tail has been a respected and valuable remedy for thousands of years. Researchers will only continue to discover how turkey tail can support the immune system.

    In our modern lifestyles, we have more stressors than ever before. But adding a turkey tail supplement to your daily routine doesn’t have to be one of them. When choosing a turkey tail product, be sure it adheres to the recommendations we discussed above. Real Mushrooms’ organic turkey tail supplements only use the mushroom (fruiting bodies) to ensure that you get the most for your money.

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    *Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.

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Real Mushrooms

Real Mushrooms

Real Mushrooms is the premier provider of organic mushroom extracts, verified for the beneficial medicinal compounds like beta-glucans and free from starchy fillers like grains. With over 40 years of mushroom growing experience, Real Mushrooms prides itself on providing a transparent source of medicinal mushrooms that you can trust. All the information provided on our blog has been reviewed by our science and medical team.