Ultimate Guide To Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Last Updated on August 7, 2022

There’s a reason why Turkey Tail mushrooms are some of the most widely studied and globally-popular medicinal mushrooms. While today Turkey Tail often seems overshadowed by the growing fame of mushrooms like Cordyceps and Lion’s Mane, it’s a fundamental mushroom in the world of natural medicines.

Turkey Tail has been used for centuries and is one of the most highly prized mushrooms in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Today it has been deconstructed by science, vigorously studied in its chemistry, tested for biological activity, and placed through numerous clinical trials. 

It’s hard not to over-emphasize how important this mushroom is in the world of medicinal mushrooms. It’s the first medicinal mushroom many of us heard about, decades before medicinal mushrooms rose in popularity. Active compounds from Turkey Tail have the stamp of approval by many healthcare agencies and are even fully insured medications in places like Japan. Statistically, Turkey Tail mushrooms have likely improved health and probably even extended the lives of thousands of individuals. 

turkey tail mushroom

Natural History Of Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Turkey Tail is a type of polypore mushroom that often grows on dead branches and stumps of hardwood trees. It’s a thin, rubbery, and semicircular mushroom with sometimes colorful striations on the upper surface. It is usually only 3-6 cm in width and forms longitudinal clusters and sometimes flower-like rosettes.

The color of striations on the upper surface can greatly vary in color, hence the species name Trametes versicolor. These colors range from grey, brown, white, purple, yellow, and even have touches of red. This surface is also slightly fuzzy or velvety. 

Turkey Tail is a cosmopolitan species occurring in almost all forested parts of the world. It has morphological diversity across its range and probably distinct genetic lineages as well. There is a lot of research still needed to fully understand its true taxonomic identity and diversity, particularly in tropical regions. At least over 100 varieties of Turkey Tail are cultivated, some have been shown to be particularly medicinal.

Scientists from China often use the name Coriolus versicolor for Turkey Tail and a complete taxonomic agreement on the name has not been made. 

Turkey Tail Look-Alikes

Turkey Tail does have lookalikes. In fact, several mushrooms bear the name “false-turkey tail” due to their resemblance. The most common of these is a mushroom called Stereum ostrea which is a similarly thin and rubbery polypore mushroom. It can be easily differentiated because it’s completely smooth, bearing no fuzz on the upper surface and the underside has no visible pores. 

There may be other lookalikes in your region, so confirming with a local expert may be your best bet. Thankfully, no lookalike is poisonous or has been known to have toxic effects.

Distribution, Habitat, and Season Of Turkey Tail Mushrooms

  • Distribution: Turkey Tail mushrooms can occur almost anywhere there’s a tree for them to grow on. They are most abundant in temperate hardwood forests but have been reported in many different ecosystems and hosts.
  • Habitat: Turkey Tail mushrooms primarily grow on dead and decomposing logs, stumps, or trunks. In particular, they love hardwood tree species and tend to favor oak. Yet, Turkey Tail can grow on countless different host trees including but not limited to Maple, Sycamore, Eucalyptus, Apple, Plum, Beech, Birch, and others. They have been reported from conifers as well. Looking for adequate areas with sufficient moisture and shade for proper fungal growth can be a plus, although they can also grow in pretty exposed locations. 
  • Season: Turkey Tail can be found year-round. During the rainy season, or whenever there is adequate moisture, Turkey Tail mushrooms will fruit. In the dry season, the fruiting bodies will dehydrate naturally and be preserved on the wood. They can harbor molds and algae on their tissues or become consumed by insects over time. Old and infected mushrooms are not recommended for preparing medicine.

History Of Turkey Tail Mushrooms

The oldest record of Turkey Tail Mushrooms dates back to the original Chinese Materia Medica published 2000 years ago. It is mentioned in the Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica by Li Shi Zhen later in 1578, where over 120 varieties of “Yunzhi” or Turkey Tail are mentioned, although the taxonomic inclusion of these is not known. The traditional name “Yunzhi” translates to something like “Cloud Mushroom”, possibly because of the wavy cloud-like rings seen on some specimens. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Turkey Tail is said to be sweet and bland in taste. It is slightly cold and belongs to the liver, spleen, and lung meridians. It invigorates the spleen, removes dampness, relieves caught asthma, and stimulates immunity. 

Like a few other Medicinal Mushrooms, Turkey Tail was something prestigious and partially mythified in the culture. A medical text by author Lu Zhiyi from the 17th  has particularly colorful language about the “Five Colored Divine Lucidum” thought by some scholars to be Turkey Tail. 

Its translation reads,  “Mountains, rivers, clouds and rain, the essence of yin and yang in the four seasons and five elements, give birth to the five-colored divine lucidum”. It also says “Mushroom Zhi grows on the deep mountains and big trees, on the side of the deep spring, with five colors and tasteless, or like the shape of dragons and tigers”

In these traditions, Turkey Tail is highly valued for its nontoxic properties that can be taken regularly as a tonic to improve health, slow aging, and “keep your body light”. Just like the Reishi mushroom, these medicines were not only useful to treat specific ailments, but they enhanced overall vitality, health, and invigorated your youth. 

Turkey Tail As Medicine: Uses, Active Compounds, and Research

Today Turkey Tail has been thoroughly studied using modern science, technology, and clinical trials. Scientific research on the medicinal properties of this mushroom started in the 1970s, particularly looking into its anticancer abilities. In Japan, it has been used widely alongside conventional cancer therapy and has been approved as a natural medical treatment since the 1980s. 

Polysaccharides within Turkey Tail mushrooms have been shown to have significant bioactive properties. These not only have cytotoxic effects against cancer cells, but they also have positive effects on the immune system. For this reason, Turkey Tail is popular as an immune booster used to help prevent sickness and disease. 

Aside from these two uses, Turkey Tails has also been shown to have various other uses. This includes helping reduce inflammation, combat HPV, improve athletic performance, improve insulin resistance, and aid in digestive health. 

Active Compounds In Turkey Tail

Turkey Tails are extremely rich in a type of polysaccharide called beta-glucans that have been shown to cause unique immune responses. These are by far the most important and widely studied components found in these mushrooms. Turkey Tails also contain high quantities of antioxidants in the form of flavonoids and phenols, along with Vitamins B3 and D.

Beta-Glucans In Turkey Tail

Beta-Glucans are a group of active compounds found in most medicinal mushrooms including Turkey Tail. They are the main active components in many mushrooms, as is the case for this one. For this reason, we are going to go a bit deeper into what these compounds are.

Beta-Glucans are types of complex sugars or polysaccharides. They are chains of glucose molecules linked together by beta-bonds. They are omnipresent in the fungal kingdom and are produced by plants as well. 

And while plants produce beta-glucans, not all beta-glucans are created equal. Plant-based beta-glucans, such as those found in oats, have different linkage structures that make them less bioactive than fungal beta-glucans. Bioactivity also greatly varies amongst the many fungal beta-glucans.

Turkey Tails in particular is known to have at least 2 highly medicinal beta-glucans. These have been thoroughly investigated, extracted, studied, and put through various forms of clinical trials. A large majority of studies have been conducted using high-potency extracts of each independent beta-glucan.

The two beta-glucans most known from Turkey Tail mushrooms are:

  1. Polysaccharopeptides (PSPs): PSP is produced by a high-potency mycelium grown from a culture called “COV-1”. PSP is more common in China. Chemically distinguished by the presence of rhamnose and arabinose.
  2. Polysaccharide K (PSK or Krestin): PSK is produced with a high-potency variety called “CM-101”. PSK is more commonly used in Japan. Distinguished by the presence of rhamnose and arabinose.  Distinguished by the presence of fucose.

PSK and PSP products are usually made via the cultivation of mycelium from potent strains that have been selected for the production of the specific polysaccharide. This mycelium is grown industrially in bioreactors that produce pure mycelium. 

While beta-glucans are considered the most important, they are not the only compounds of interest found in Turkey Tail. Turkey Tail has been shown to contain over 60 small molecular weight compounds such as flavonoids, sesquiterpenes, phenols, and unique acids.  While the synergistic of these compounds haven’t been well studied, some are known to be potent antioxidants and probably have unique properties.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms For The Treatment Of Cancer

Turkey Tail mushrooms have been shown to be particularly effective in helping improve the results of cancer treatments. They are thought to do this largely through 2 distinct mechanisms. First, they have direct cytotoxic effects on cancer cells, and secondly, they have anti-cancer effects via immunostimulation. These also make cancer cells “chemo-sensitive”, thus improving the effectiveness of conventional treatments using chemotherapy. 

  • Turkey Tail Can Have Direct Toxicity To Cancer Cells

Since the 1980s, beta-glucans from Turkey Tail have been observed to have a targeted cytotoxic effect on cancer cells. They do this through various mechanisms that either inhibit the growth or spread of cancer cells or directly induce cell apoptosis aka “cell death”.

  • Turkey Tail Has Anti-Cancer Effects Through Immunostimulation

Since the late 1970s studies have been showing the immunotherapeutic potential of Turkey Tail. The immunostimulation caused by the polysaccharides in Turkey Tail mushrooms has been shown to help your body naturally attack and defend itself from cancer cells. This is because beta-glucans have proliferative effects on various immune cells, causing their numbers to increase and activity to rise. It also interacts with cytokines, which are chemical messengers used to help regulate and modulate the function of your immune system. 

Turkey Tail mushrooms are also beneficial in reducing many of the negative side effects often caused by chemotherapy and other cancer mediations. This improves the quality of life for the patients and the success of the treatment.

Research Highlights

Thousands of studies have been conducted on the biological activity of Turkey Tail and its derived compounds. These include in-vitro, animal testing, and human clinical trials. Over 40 independent clinical trials have been conducted on the polysaccharide PSP in China. Due to the extensive quantity of research, only a small fraction is mentioned here.

Turkey Tail For Cancer Treatment: Clinical Trials

  • Results from a meta-analysis study including over 8,000 patients show that PSK improves the survival of patients after curative gastric cancer resection. (Oba, 2006)
  • A clinical trial conducted with breast cancer patients showed that consumption of Turkey Tail improved immune status in immunocompromised patients. (Torkelson, 2012)
  • Eight-two post-treatment breast cancer patients were recruited to take Turkey Tail and Salvia miltiorrhiza capsules daily for 6 months. It was shown to be beneficial for promoting immunological function in patients and thus reducing discomfort associated with anticancer therapies. (Wong, 2005)
  • PSP from Trametes versicolor was shown to be associated with slower deterioration in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. (Tsang, 2003)
  • A clinical study conducted on 349 patients with stage II/III gastric cancer showed improved 3-year recurrence-free survival from the use of PSK as an adjunct to conventional treatment.  (Ito, 2012)
  • Patients with hepatocellular carcinoma unfit for standard therapy were reported to have a better quality of life index when consuming Trametes versicolor. (Chay, 2017)
  • A clinical trial on 38 patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma showed PSK from Trametes versicolor improved the median survival time and the 5-year survival rate. (Go, 1989)
  • A clinical trial conducted with 448 patients with colorectal cancer showed adjuvant immunochemotherapy with BSK was beneficial and showed a better survival curve than control groups. (Mitomi, 1992)
  • 262 patients who had undergone curative gastrectomy for gastric cancer were part of a clinical trial testing PSK as an adjunct to standard chemotherapy. PSK improved both 5-year disease-free rates and 5-year survival rates. (Nakazato, 1994)

Turkey Tail Has Anti-Cancer Properties: Laboratory Tests

  • Polysaccharides from Turkey Tail mushrooms were shown to selectively inhibit the proliferation of human liver cancer and human breast cancer cells. (Zhou, 2007)
  • PSK induces cell death in promyelomonocytic leukemia cells (Hirahara, 2013)
  • PSP from Turkey Tail mushrooms potentiate the effects of conventional cancer therapy. (Wan, 2010)
  • Polysaccharide extracts from Trametes versicolor inhibit human colon cell proliferation and induce cytotoxicity. (Roca-lema, 2019)
  • Aqueous extract of Turkey Tail mushrooms inhibits cell migration and invasion in mice with mammary carcinoma. (Luo, 2014)
  • PSP from Turkey Tail mushrooms inhibits cell proliferation and induces apoptosis in human leukemia cancer cells. (Hsieh, 2006)
  • PSK from Turkey Tail mushrooms suppresses angiogenesis in colon cancer cells. (Satoh, 2012)

Turkey Tail For Gut Health

  • Eight-week study with 24 healthy adults showed that 3.6 grams of PSP extract from Turkey Tail led to beneficial changes in gut flora and suppressed E. coli and Shigella bacteria. (Pallav, 2014)
  • Invitro tests conducted on fecal microbiota showed extracts from Turkey Tail elevated beneficial microbes while reducing potentially pathogenic ones. This strongly suggests prebiotic potential in these medicines. (Yu, 2013)
  • Turkey Tail mushrooms were shown to help suppress inflammatory bowel disease in mice. (Beong, 2011)

Other Potential Health Benefits

  • Protein-bound beta-glucan from Turkey Tail could have the potential for use against obesity. (Chen, 2019)
  • Turkey Tail mushrooms were shown to ameliorate insulin resistance and could help in the treatment of diabetes. (Xian, 2018)
  • Turkey Tail has some anti-inflammatory activity and could help in the treatment of pain for patients with osteoarthritis. (Wang, 2019)
  • Could help improve the health of the liver from alcoholic liver injury (Wang, 2019)

Using Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Including Turkey Tail mushrooms into your daily regime can be a great way to improve your health, ward off disease, and maybe even help treat certain medical conditions. There are many ways to consume Turkey Tail mushrooms, some of which may be more effective or adaptable to certain lifestyles.

It must also be noted that the use of Turkey Tail, like other medicinal mushrooms, is most effective when combined with healthy lifestyle choices. This may mean making changes in your diet and exercise routine. While using Turkey Tail may help reduce some negative effects of unhealthy lifestyles, it is unlikely that it can mediate the effects over the long term. 

Is Turkey Tail Safe?

Turkey Tail is considered safe, non-toxic, and can be consumed regularly with no ill effects. Animal studies conducted using extremely high doses of up to 5g/kg showed no signs of toxicity, suggesting it to be very safe. 

Mycelium vs Fruiting Bodies

While consuming the whole fruiting body is generally the best way to get the most benefits, both mycelium and fruiting bodies have been shown to have beneficial medicinal qualities. While mycelium is exceptionally medicinal, many products are made from myceliated grain which contains only a small fragment of mycelium and thus the medicinal beta-glucans. Instead, these materials are mostly starch and would have to be consumed in extremely large quantities to be effective. Pure mycelium products that are produced in Asia are highly effective and are often used in scientific research. 

Choosing The Right Product For Guaranteed Effects

If you’re using Turkey Tail to treat a serious illness or just want to be absolutely sure about the product you are taking, find a producer who can offer laboratory analysis on their products. This is the only way to know for sure that the product contains the bioactive compounds you are after. 

Ways To Consume Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Fresh Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Turkey Tail Mushrooms are not considered “edible mushrooms” because of their tough, rubbery, and indigestible fibers. To prepare for consumption, Turkey Tails can simply be cooked in simmering water for 2-3 hours. This will thoroughly extract their polysaccharides. This can be drunk as tea or used in broths for medicinal soups. Alternatively, you can add Turkey Tail directly into soups or stews while cooking. Consuming the mushroom itself is not toxic, but may cause some digestive issues if consumed in large quantities. Dose: 2-3 grams of fresh Turkey Tail mushrooms extracted into hot water is considered a good dose. You can raise the dose up to 15 grams or more until you feel desired effects.

Dehydrated Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Dehydrated Turkey Tail can be used just like the fresh mushroom. Make sure your product has been well stored and free of molds or insects.  Dose: Around 1 gram is a good place to start and you can slowly move the dosage up until you get the desired effect.

  • Turkey Tail Mushroom Powders
    • Activated: Activated powders have been treated with heat or have been highly pulverized to make the medicinal components bioavailable. These can be directly mixed with food, beverages, or even consumed directly. Dose: Start with 1 gram and work your way up.
    • Unactivated: Unactivated powders are essentially pulverized versions of dehydrated mushrooms. Their medicinal compounds may not be bioavailable and may require heating or extraction via hot water. The benefit of these over the whole fruiting body is that they extract much quicker.
  • Turkey Tail Mushroom Extracts
    • Tinctures: Tinctures are the most common way Turkey Tail mushrooms are sold. They contain both non-water soluble and water-soluble components which may give you a more complex product. Dose: 1 Dropper is usually a good dose but consults the packaging or the producer directly. 
    • Powdered Extracts: Powdered extracts are some of the most potent forms of Turkey Tail mushrooms. Some powdered extracts may come from fruiting bodies while others are produced with mycelium. Some may say they are rich in PSP, and PSK, or some may say they are full-spectrum. Full-spectrum suggests it’s not just the water-soluble polysaccharides. Dose: About 1 teaspoon or 500 mg, consult packaging or producer directly.
    • Check out our recommendations of the best Turkey Tail mushroom supplements

Turkey Tail Capsules and Pills

Many Turkey Tail products come in the form of capsules. These either contain activated powders or powdered extracts. In Japan and China, you can also find many capsules or pills that are marketed as the pure polysaccharides “PSK” or “PSP”. Capsules can be particularly convenient because the dose is already measured and they can easily be incorporated into an established medical routine. Dose: 1-2 capsules

Turkey Tail In Coffee, Chocolate, and Other Food Items

Turkey Tail is present in countless value-added food items. This primarily includes Coffee, but also Teas, Chocolates, Kombuchas, and many other foods. These can be particularly convenient if you’re already consuming these products daily. 

Giving Turkey Tail A Try

Turkey Tail is a safe and relatively accessible natural supplement. There is nothing to lose in giving it a try. As previously mentioned, the medicinal effects of Turkey Tail are most effective when mixed with healthy lifestyle choices. While Turkey Tail cannot be guaranteed to cure or even improve the symptoms of any illness, it may be a good place to start when looking for natural medicine to improve your life. 

Author

  • Timothee Mendez Reneau is an Environmental Science and Mycology Researcher, Author, and Contributor. He graduated from Humboldt State University Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Environmental Science with a focus on Ecological Restoration. A passionate fungi enthusiast, he was the Former President of the Mycology Club at Humboldt State University - a mecca location for mushroom foraging.

We are not a traditional society or club. World Mushroom Society is a collective of fungi enthusiasts and health advocates, sharing information and identifying top producers of high quality medicinal mushroom supplements.

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DISCLAIMER

DISCLAIMER
The information on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information found here is not meant as a substitute for, or alternative to, information from your doctor for ongoing medical treatment you currently receive. If unsure, please consult with your doctor before using medicinal mushrooms. Any content related to cancer should not be considered as prescriptive medical advice and should not be a substitute for any cancer treatment, unless advised by your doctor first. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by TGA and FDA-approved research. If you are pregnant or on prescription drugs that thin the blood, consult with your medical professional before using medicinal mushrooms.
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