Decades of medical research studies are confirming the tremendous health-boosting potential of certain mushrooms. These “functional mushrooms,” as they are known, 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 scientific 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.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into turkey tail mushroom’s various health benefits and how it supports the immune system in particular.
“Functional mushrooms” as they are known in the wellness community, are edible mushrooms that 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, among other benefits.
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 mushrooms have beta-D-glucans in abundance. They also contain additional bio-compounds that are responsible for some of their other unique health-supporting properties, as we will in this article.
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 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 for their own growth.
Turkey tail possesses an impressive range of primary and secondary compounds. The secondary compounds are lesser known medicinal components such as phenolic acids, flavonoids, and terpenoids. In fact, researchers identified 38 different phenolic compounds, including quercetin and baicalein. Quercitin and baicalein are two phenolic compounds found in other natural plants and herbs with an incredible amount of research and value behind them.
Turkey tail is well known for its protein-bound polysaccharides, also known as polysaccharopeptides (PSPs). There are naturally occurring protein-bound polysaccharides in turkey tail mushrooms and there are two commercial isolated protein-bound polysaccharides available called PSP and PSK.
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).
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, but primarily in oncology (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).
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 non-specific immunosupportive 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, growing conditions, and extraction technique (1).
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 traditional uses for turkey tail include: removing toxins, increasing energy, removing excessive fluid, strengthening the organs responsible for the immune system, and supporting liver, lung and spleen function (1). Some conditions that benefit from turkey tail use include coughs, breathing difficulties, hemorrhoids and joint pain.
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).
Continue reading for an overview of the most common modern applications for this healthy mushroom.
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 many of our body’s systems negatively.
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.
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).
Functional mushrooms may also enhance a third immune system known as trained innate immunity, an emerging concept in immunology (56).
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).
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).
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 polysaccharide peptide (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).
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 polysaccharide peptide (PSP) in turkey tail, 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.
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. However, animal studies have found that turkey tail polysaccharide peptide (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.
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!
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.
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.
In traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, turkey tail was prepared as a tea. That option is still available for those who can find and identify wild turkey tail. For the rest of us, we can look for turkey tail extracts in powder or capsule form.
HOWEVER, not all mushroom extracts and supplements are made the same. To reap the turkey tail mushroom benefits for your health, you must select a quality supplement. There are 3 important supplement buying guidelines to consider.
Most importantly, look for a product whose label indicates that only the turkey tail mushroom is used and NOT mycelium. Mycelium is essentially the root structure of the fungi. Not only does it contain fewer of the desirable bio-compounds, but it is grown on grain. That grain is intertwined with the mycelium and ends up in the supplement. The grain the mycelium grows on dilutes the potency of the end product and loads it with unnecessary starch and filler.
Read our guide to buying the best turkey tail supplement to help you select a product that will deliver the concentrated bio-compounds responsible for the health benefits you seek.
Real Mushrooms cares deeply about sourcing the highest quality mushrooms. Our Turkey Tail Extracts only contain the mushrooms. 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 reap turkey tail mushroom benefits, there is no better way than our Extract capsules. A maintenance dose is just two turkey tail capsules a day.
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. This mushroom has a very mild earthy flavor, which makes it a great immune-boosting addition to your morning coffee.
Here are some fun recipes you can try that include turkey tail powder:
Turkey tail is generally well tolerated. Some people have reported experiencing mild symptoms such as:
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).
A meta-analysis done using turkey tail and another functional mushroom while undergoing conventional cancer treatment only mentioned 1 study out of 23 had a serious adverse event. In fact, 7 of the 23 research studies found a decrease in adverse events when using these functional mushrooms alongside conventional therapies, such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation (60).
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as individuals with underlying health conditions including mushroom allergy, should consult a healthcare practitioner before consuming turkey tail.
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 to help ensure you get the turkey tail mushroom benefits you are looking for.
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