Turkey tail (Latin name Trametes versicolor) received its common name for rather obvious reasons. Its characteristic concentric circles and fan-like shape appear strikingly similar to the tailfeathers of a certain ground-dwelling fowl. However, they are not the only mushroom to sport such an aesthetic. Their smooth bright white undersurface, comprising many thousands of microscopic pores, set them apart from their lookalikes.
At first glance, this fungus seems quite regular. Its commonality almost undermines its medicinal utility. If you go for a walk in almost any forest in North America, you’ll likely see it growing on the decaying logs of any of the 70 tree species on which it thrives.
As you’ll see, turkey tail packs a truly powerful medicinal punch. But the mushroom isn’t alone in its ability to potentially soothe many of the modern diseases that afflict humanity. It stands alongside species such as lion’s mane, reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms that provide a host of health benefits, from regenerating the nervous system to quenching inflammation.
In his TEDMED talk, mycologist and author Paul Stamets tells of a time, years ago, when his mother called him worried on the phone. She told him her right breast was five times the size of her left, and that her lymph glands were the size of walnuts. It was discovered she had stage four breast cancer and was given less than three months to live.
Too old for radiation and surgery, her doctor recommended taking part in a study at Bastyr Medical School revolving around an experimental treatment: turkey tail mushrooms.
Alongside conventional cancer drugs, she started taking eight mushroom capsules each day beginning in June 2009. By 2012, she had no detectable tumours.
Although moving and in some ways shocking, this single account of success doesn’t prove the efficacy of turkey tail mushrooms against cancer. However, a host of studies support the potential use of turkey tail against the disease, and constituents from the fungus are currently used as an adjuvant cancer therapy in Japan and China.
The mushroom contains two complex carbohydrates known as PSP and PSK, both of which demonstrate promise against cancer cells and protection against conventional cancer treatments.
Research published in the journal PLOS ONE found PSP to provide protective effects against both cancer stem cells and chemotherapy.
Both PSP and PSK also appear to target cancer cells in a two-fold manner. Firstly, they help to stimulate immune cells by whipping them into a frenzy. They cause them to multiply and start to produce molecules that are involved in apoptosis (the controlled destruction of cancer cells).
Secondly, these two molecules also have a direct toxic effect on tumour cells independently of the immune system. They manage to achieve apoptosis without the assistance of immune cells, reduce the ability of cancer cells to spread, and arrest the out of control cell cycle that leads to constant multiplication and tumour growth.
A collection of human trials also add serious credibility to the potential of turkey tail as a cancer treatment and adjuvant. A small phase one clinical trial published in 2012 separated eleven women into three groups, with each group receiving either 3 g, 6 g, or 9 g of turkey tail. They consume the doses daily for six weeks following radiation treatment — a procedure that can weaken the immune system.
The researchers found that turkey tail increased the activity of a wide range of immune cells. They concluded that 9g of turkey tail daily is safe for women with breast cancer and may increase immune status following radiation therapy.
Our guts house trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. These minute creatures make up our microbiome. When we consume a healthy diet, we increase the diversity of our microbial populations, which helps us to uptake more nutrients from our food and even protects us against diseases and inflammation.
However, the modern diet does our microscopic allies no favours. Too much of the wrong foods can cause an imbalance within our gut, impact our digestion, and predispose us to illness — a state known as gut dysbiosis.
A variety of foods work as prebiotics and help us to feed our microbiome and build up crucial diversity, and turkey tail sits proudly on that list.
Research published in Gut Microbes tested the effects of the turkey tail constituent PSP on the balance of the microbiome. Some of the subjects received PSP, some received no treatment, and others were given amoxicillin, an antibiotic that causes detrimental shifts in the microbiome.
The researchers found that the antibiotic caused negative changes in the gut, whereas PSP from turkey tail acted as a prebiotic capable of causing positive changes in gut microbe composition.
Almost half of the population of the United States are currently obese and therefore are more likely to face conditions such as stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. While reducing calories, eating healthier, and exercising properly are key interventions, turkey tail mushroom also appears to offer a tool to counter obesity.
Turkey tail contains yet another three-letter compound called PBG. This molecule may help to prevent obesity by balancing out certain strains of bacteria in the gut that play a role in the condition.
Animal research found that PBG exerts an anti-obesity effect by enhancing the richness of microbial species in the gut and by enhancing metabolism. The researchers stated that turkey tail could be used as a novel therapy in the treatment of obesity.
One member of an extensive pantheon
Turkey tail shows some real promise against some of the deadliest and most prevalent diseases that humanity currently faces. However, this fascinating mushroom species acts as only one member of a pantheon of medicinal mushrooms.
As the science behind medicinal mushrooms continues to develop, researchers are better understanding how we might use them together, and with other medicinal plants, to form new and effective health strategies.
Luke Sumpter is a freelance journalist that specializes in health, wellness, and alternative therapies. Currently, he’s working on a dissertation exploring the emerging role of the endocannabinoid system in orthopaedic medicine.