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No, we’re not talking about the kind of turkey served up at Thanksgiving dinner! These medicinal mushrooms earned their name because they look like a fanned-out turkey’s tail. People have used medicinal mushrooms for centuries to support the immune system and promote well-being. Plus they taste delicious in a morning cup of mushroom coffee.
What Are Turkey Tail Mushrooms?
Turkey tail mushrooms (aka Trametes versicolor) are a polypore fungus. (That just means many pores). They’re called Coriolus versicolor in some older literature. Unlike shiitake and other mushrooms with gills, turkey tails have tiny pores underneath. These pores release spores, helping them propagate.
These striking mushrooms grow in forests across the earth – from the United States to Japan. Their English name comes from their likeness to fanned-out tail feathers on a turkey. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) students will know them as Yun Zhi.
These mushrooms are famous for their vibrant and diverse color patterns. Their upper surface often features rings of various shades. You’ll see brown, tan, white, and blue, each contributing to their distinctive appearance. Turkey tail mushrooms usually grow in overlapping layers on dead or decaying wood.
Benefits of Turkey Tail Mushrooms
Besides their beautiful appearance, turkey tail mushrooms are popular for their health benefits. Researchers believe many of their compounds have immune-supporting and antioxidant properties.
As a result, they’ve been a part of the traditional medicine of various cultures for centuries. The benefits of turkey tail mushrooms primarily stem from their immune-supporting properties:
How Turkey Tail Mushrooms Support The Immune System
Turkey tail is thought to support immune responses through two types of bioactive compounds. One is polysaccharopeptides (PSP), and the other is polysaccharides. Here are some of the immune benefits associated with turkey tail mushrooms:
1. Modulating The Immune Response
Carbohydrates called polysaccharides in turkey tail are involved in immunomodulation. These compounds can interact with immune cell receptors, regulating and enhancing immune function.
This means they can boost underactive immune activity or reduce overactive immune activity. It’s all about bringing it back into balance. When the immune system is overactive, it can lead to autoimmune conditions.
2. Stimulating The Immune System
Certain compounds in turkey tail may stimulate immune cell activity. You may remember reading about these cells in high school biology class. Macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells, two types of white blood cells, play a key role in the immune response.
Macrophages are responsible for consuming and destroying foreign substances. Natural killer (NK) cells help recognize and eliminate infected or abnormal cells. (Think cancer cells). Studies show they become more active in the presence of turkey tail.
Some studies suggest turkey tail can also increase cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activity. These cells also play a crucial role in eliminating infected or abnormal cells like cancer cells.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved turkey tail in clinical trials for cancer. Men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer got it alongside conventional cancer treatments for immune support.
Japan and China use turkey tail as a complementary therapy to traditional cancer treatments. It’s shown benefits for several types of cancer, including:
- Lung cancer
- Breast cancer
- Gastric cancer
- Colorectal cancer
Cancer patients typically receive other treatments besides turkey tail. But turkey tail can help enhance cancer treatment. A systematic review confirmed polysaccharide krestin (PSK) in turkey tail has anti-tumor activity. While researchers aren’t sure how it works, it seems helpful as an adjuvant to cancer treatment.
Even the National Cancer Institute agrees that turkey tail mushrooms have anticancer effects. They found adding turkey tail to other treatments could significantly improve survival rates.
Six randomized clinical trials found that lung cancer patients receiving PSK improved in many ways. They had fewer symptoms, improved well-being, better immune responses, or longer survival rates. If you’re looking into using turkey tail and other medicinal herbs for cancer care, be sure to run them by your healthcare provider first.
3. Stimulating Cytokine Production
Cytokines are signaling molecules that play a crucial role in communication between immune cells. Turkey tail mushrooms may stimulate the production of certain cytokines. The result may be a more coordinated defense against pathogens.
A systematic review found most medicinal mushroom supplements improved cytokine response.
4. Increased Production of Immunoglobulins:
Some studies suggest turkey tail mushrooms enhance immunoglobulin production, like immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA plays a key role in the mucosal immune defense (aka it improves the gut lining).
A healthy intestinal lining protects against infections in the lungs and digestive tract. It also prevents food molecules from entering the bloodstream before being fully digested. A “leaky gut” sets us up for allergies, autoimmune diseases disease, and other health conditions.
5. Gut Health
Research suggests the gut microbiome plays a significant role in immune system function. In some studies, turkey tail mushrooms improved gut health by serving as prebiotics. These fibers feed beneficial gut bacteria, which could influence immune responses.
Phenolic compounds in turkey tail mushrooms, like flavonoids, have antioxidant properties. These Aantioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals that can damage cells and tissues. By Rreducing oxidative stress and DNA damage we can support immune health.
7. Reducing Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can weaken the immune system over time, but there are ways to help. Some compounds in turkey tail mushrooms may have anti-inflammatory effects. Reducing inflammation helps to regulate the immune response.
Risks & Precautions of Turkey Tail
When foraging for these mushrooms, be aware they do have lookalikes. False turkey tail mushroom (stereum ostrea) looks similar to turkey tail. It has some of the same benefits, including antimicrobial compounds, and isn’t dangerous. But, it also isn’t as potent as the real deal.
As with all natural remedies, be cautious when considering turkey tail mushrooms. If taking medications, check with a health professional before adding them.
Some people may have adverse reactions to turkey tail mushrooms. One potential side effect is darkened fingernails. If taking them causes side effects, stop and consult a healthcare practitioner for advice.
How to Use Turkey Tail
You can use turkey tail mushrooms in many forms to get their health benefits. Here are some common ways to use turkey tail mushrooms:
- Tea and Decoctions: One popular method of using turkey tail mushrooms is to make a tea or decoction. Just simmer dried turkey tail mushrooms in water to extract beneficial compounds. You can enjoy the resulting liquid as a warm beverage.
- Culinary Use: Some cultures use turkey tail mushrooms in cooking, but they’re often tough and not palatable. Cooks will use them to flavor broths, soups, or stews. Take them out before eating (like bay leaves) due to their tough texture.
- Tinctures: Tinctures are liquid extracts made by steeping the mushrooms in alcohol or another solvent. You can take them straight or add them to beverages. Medicinal mushrooms extract a little differently than other plants, so most herbalists use a dual extraction method.
- Powdered Supplements: Turkey tail mushrooms are available in powdered form as dietary supplements. You can mix the powdered extract into smoothies, juices, or other liquids. You can also sprinkle it onto yogurt or oatmeal.
- Capsules and Tablets: Turkey tail mushroom pills are convenient for those who prefer a pre-measured dose. Follow the recommended dosage instructions provided on the product label.
When using turkey tail, remember the preparation and dosage can vary. For example, methanol extracts have the highest amount of antioxidants. Water extracts have the highest number of polyphenols and flavonoids.
Some turkey tail supplements have both the fruiting body and the mycelium (root). Others just have one or the other.
Always follow the dosage guidelines on the packaging or from a healthcare professional.
What I Do and Other Mushrooms to Try
I like including turkey tail extract as a part of my morning cup of mushroom coffee. It’s great to start the day with a healthy immune response. I’ll also include it in other herbal teas and drinks throughout the day. While I don’t do the same exact thing every day, turkey tail can be a great addition to a health regimen. It can help keep your immune response strong and promote digestive balance.
Here are some other medicinal mushrooms to try (maybe in your coffee!):
- Lion’s Mane – This funny-looking mushroom is excellent for the brain.
- Reishi – Reishi mushroom supports immunity and sleep and may even help you live longer!
- Cordyceps – This caterpillar fungus supports energy, metabolism, and physical endurance.
- Maitake – This “hen of the woods” supports the cardiovascular and immune systems and promotes fertility.
Have you ever tried turkey tail mushrooms? What form did you have it in? Did you notice any benefits? Share below!