Turkey tails don’t entirely belong to birds anymore! The turkey tail mushroom was named for its shoot-like protrusions that fan out and look like a turkey’s tail, in a swirl of cream and brown colors. While the name may be unfamiliar, I’m sure you’ve seen Trametes versicolor mushrooms before, as they are commonly found on tree trunks around the world (1).
Turkey tail mushrooms are used in Chinese medicine and are not poisonous. Still, the back end of the fungi (also called the bracket – where the fungus connects to the tree) is too tough to eat (2). Turkey tail mushrooms contain several healthful compounds and provide many health benefits, and its use in medicine dates back to Ancient China, thousands of years ago.
Medicinal applications of turkey tail mushrooms
When powdered, this mushroom is a potent immune activator
When powdered and milled along with rice flour, turkey tail mushrooms were found to boost the human immune system on blood cells. The cells show higher levels of distinct markers, which may correlate to improved immunity to various infections. The flour and mushroom mixture also increases pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are an immune subset recruited when active inflammation has begun.
Turkey tail mushrooms might also have an impact on cytokines, which are our anti-virus crime stoppers. Interferons and other immune cytokines are essential for stopping virus spread by recruiting more inflammatory and immune cells and stimulating the virus-fighting process in humans.
If these mushrooms could boost our immune response in a general way (against various bugs), this could give us more immune to viruses and bacterial infections in the future and reduce outbreak potential and severe disease.
Turkey tail mushrooms could improve cancer recovery
It is a more common practice in Asia than in other parts of the world to supplement pharmaceutical drugs with traditional medicines. A study on an 83-year-old female breast-cancer patient reports that the addition of a turkey tail mushroom supplement didn’t impair the pharmaceutical efficacy of two anticancer drugs (paclitaxel and trastuzumab) (3).
A Phase I dose-escalation trial determined the safety and maximum tolerated dose of turkey tail mushrooms in women with breast cancer, and it highlighted the tail mushroom may help the recovery of the patient after chemotherapy and radiotherapy (4).
Some other studies have been performed exploring use of T. versicolor on various types of cancer, but these studies are extremely preliminary, and much work remains in this field (5, 6).
Protein YZP in turkey tail mushrooms may activate B cells
The YZP protein was isolated and tested on B-cells (a type of white blood cell) and in a mouse acute colitis model was shown immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory effects. This study suggests the YZP protein of turkey tail mushrooms may be beneficial for its immune properties and reduce immune disorders including colitis, which can be improved by decreasing inflammation (7).
Trametes versicolor mushrooms contain a variety of phenolic compounds
Phenolic compounds are antioxidants, known for their ability to sequester free oxygen radicals, a by-product of our metabolism that can destroy DNA, cause cancer, and result in several other nasty conditions (8).
The phenolic compounds of turkey tail mushrooms are still being isolated and, rather like protein YZP in time, will yield some interesting effects in studies performed with the purified substance. This antioxidant effect can probably be responsible for the observed effect of DNA damage reduction in white blood cells (which are essential for disease-fighting) observed in experiments with T. versicolor extract (9).
Research is currently at the stage of isolating and identifying these compounds, many of which are suspected of having beneficial health effects when consumed (10).
Also oregano is full of phenolic compounds. Check “The Benefits of Oregano.”
Sterols isolated from turkey tail mushrooms may be protective against parasites
Leishmaniasis is the result of an infection by a protozoan parasite and results in difficulty breathing, skin sores, cold symptoms, and difficulty swallowing. Ergosterol peroxide and trametenolic acid isolated from turkey tail mushrooms were effective against intracellular and extracellular stages of infection by these protozoa, suggesting their usefulness as anti-parasitic substances.
These findings are significant because T. versicolor grows wildly in many tropical countries where a high number of leishmaniasis cases occur (11).
While further studies are needed, it’s clear that this mushroom’s effects on the immune system are diverse. Future studies that continue to examine the effects of isolated compounds from turkey tail mushrooms will likely uncover even more potential functions and this fungus application.
Turkey tail mushrooms have long been used in traditional medicine, and modern medical and chemistry techniques are now only starting to catch up and explain why. This fungus appears to be extremely adept at stimulating the immune system, which may protect us against future infections and boost medical treatments like chemotherapy and vaccines.
Studies looking into the effects of specific compounds in turkey tail mushrooms against various conditions and as a supplement to treatments are currently underway. There are more answers to be revealed about this fascinating fungus in the near future!