Let's Talk Turkey Tail Mushrooms
History, Benefits, Studies, and Cancer Research
Have you heard of Turkey Tail mushrooms? If not, you aren't alone. Even though these super mushrooms have been used for over 3000 years, they may not be as popular as other functional mushrooms, like Reishi and Chaga. But that doesn't make them any less beneficial!
Turkey Tail mushrooms contain antioxidants, and many other compounds to help support immunity, gut health, anti-aging, and more. These mushrooms also contain unique compounds that halt the growth of cancer cells and even prevent said cells from forming in the first place.
Turkey Tail mushrooms, otherwise known as Coriolus Versicolor or Trametes Versicolor, are aptly named for their appearance - which, you guessed it, resembles the tail of a turkey. You can find these multicolored beauties growing in abundance worldwide, but mainly in North America, Europe, and Asia. They're found growing in lush forests on fallen trees and stumps, and lucky us, they grow exceptionally easily. Weather be damned, these mushrooms are found everywhere, from tropical forests with high temperatures to boreal zones of freezing cold.
These mushrooms are no spring chicken, either. In Asia, there is a long history surrounding the consumption of these mushrooms. Although Turkey Tail has a pleasant earthy taste, they are also very tough, making them almost impossible to chew straight from picking. Consequently, the most popular way of consuming them has been as tea, an intake method featured in ceremonies in the Chinese Materia Medica since around 200BC!
During these ceremonies, Turkey Tail was believed to be the mushroom of the spirit and vital energy, making it sacred. Much later, in the 1960s, Japanese doctors introduced Turkey Tail as a treatment for various types of cancer. Since then, it's been used very commonly to support and treat cancer patients in China and Japan. Now it's gaining momentum in Western cultures.
General Benefits of Turkey Tail Mushrooms
Turkey Tail as an Anti-Inflammatory
Inflammation is your body's defense response to a number of sneaky culprits. Food is usually suspect number one, followed by exposure to toxins such as pollution and chemicals, and over-exertion of the body. When your body encounters these conditions, it sends cells to the area under attack. These cells trap bacteria and any other offending agents, then begin to repair the injured tissue. This reaction is a normal part of the body's healing process.
Although a normal process, inflammation can lead to many issues, including arthritis, asthma, cancer, diabetes, and auto-immune disorders, causing a lot of pain. But by reducing inflammation, you can better your chances of avoiding sickness in the first place and significantly reduce general and acute pain in your body. As a preventative measure for chronic illness, reducing inflammation is a no-brainer. As a treatment for everyday aches and pains, this reduction can offer some profound relief. Many of us are so numb to the feeling of pain in our bodies that we hardly realize it's there. That is until we find some relief from inflammation, which is totally possible with the help of a proper diet and supplements.
Turkey Tail mushrooms happen to be rich in compounds called Polysaccharide peptide (PSP) and Polysaccharide-K (PSK). These compounds have been studied extensively and are found to increase the body's immune response, which suppresses inflammation. Additionally, flavonoids, another anti-inflammatory, pro-immunity compound, are also present in Turkey Tail. Win, win, win!
Turkey Tail and Immunity
Like other functional mushrooms, Turkey Tail is an adaptogen. As the name suggests, adaptogens help the body adapt to the many stressors that life has to throw your way.
Stressors show up in the body as:
Stressors show up in our minds as:
Many stressors in our lives are unpredictable (like, say, a global pandemic), so preventatively strengthening your body's immune response can be super helpful in keeping these stressors at bay.
A strong immune system can also help keep one stressor from multiplying into something more serious, like fatigue turning into illness or anxiety turning into indigestion. Essentially, strong immunity builds an armor of defense, so your body is internally well-prepared for external factors to show up unexpectedly.
As noted earlier, Turkey Tail mushrooms are unique because they include compounds like PSP and PSK. These compounds work by producing certain types of white blood cells that fight infection, boost immunity, and stimulate dendritic cells that regulate the immune response. Who couldn't use a little PSP and PSK, am I right?
Turkey Tail and Gut Health
In more recent years, Western medicine has emphasized the importance of a healthy gut, and for a good reason. The health of our gut flora dictates how we absorb and break down nutrients which can either keep our bodies in tip-top shape or leave us feeling depleted in many seemingly unrelated ways - like anxiety or more obvious ways like indigestion. Both example issues can be symptoms of a seriously compromised digestive system. That's why the prebiotic abilities of the compound PSP found in Turkey Tail are so beneficial in supporting your gut health. If you're not familiar with prebiotics, you're not alone. They've been the missing link to gut health ever since probiotics started getting all the attention. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria that live in your gut, while prebiotics is the food that helps that bacteria grow. Essentially, probiotics can't thrive or even live without the support and nourishment of prebiotics. Lucky for all of us, Turkey Tail has got you covered in this department and is an excellent addition on anyone's journey to repair the health of their gut.
Turkey Tail, Antioxidants, and Anti-Aging
It's become common knowledge that antioxidants are great and can be found in all sorts of healthy food important for improving overall wellness. What's less common is understanding the role antioxidants play in our overall health. Let me catch you up to speed: Antioxidants are crime-fighting molecules. (No, not really, but they DO fight free radicals in your body).
Free radicals are unstable atoms that are naturally formed by exposure to toxins. Having some free radicals in your body is completely normal, and we actually need a healthy amount of them to be healthy. But when outside factors like pollution, smoke, alcohol, radiation, or anything broadly labeled as a "toxin" overproduce free radicals, they outnumber the antioxidants' defense. This is no good and can lead to cell death and even damage your DNA, which plays a pivotal role in aging. That's right, AGING! Do I have your attention now? While we all want to grow old and get a senior discount at Denny's with our families, we also want to grow old healthily.
Good news: by consuming antioxidant-rich foods and supplements, you can effectively protect yourself from rapid or poor aging. Better news: Turkey Tail mushrooms are blissfully rich in antioxidants such as the previously mentioned flavonoids and phenols. In fact, there have been up to 35 different phenolic compounds found in one sample of Turkey Tail extract. So load up on these magical little guys and protect that youth of yours at all costs!
Turkey Tail and Cancer
Now that we've established how Turkey Tail can improve immunity, decrease inflammation, and provide us with antioxidants, it's time to explore how these traits factor into the possible prevention and treatment of cancer.
The immune system and cancer have so much evidence connecting one to the other that a treatment called "immunotherapy" is being used in cancer patients.
Immunotherapy has been gaining popularity in western medicine in more recent years as an additional treatment to more familiar methods like chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. In the East, however, in places like China and Japan, immunotherapy has already been a routine clinical practice since as early as 1977. So what is immunotherapy, and how does it work? Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the power of the body's immune system to prevent, control, and eliminate cancer. How it works is by properly supporting the immune system and targeting specific threats to the body. The body then learns to respond against the virus, bacteria, or other disease-fighting microorganisms. Many cancers start from sites of infection, chronic irritation, and inflammation, so reducing inflammation can reduce the risk of cancer in the first place. Reducing inflammation is also helpful in slowing down the growth of cancerous tumors.
Similar to immunotherapy, there have been new anti-inflammatory therapies to aid in cancer development. We've already gone over how antioxidants fight free radicals in your body, preventing cell death and damage to your DNA, but what you might not know is how chemotherapy makes your body especially vulnerable to free radicals running amok.
Though there is not much research on the prevention and treatment of cancer via antioxidants, there is evidence that antioxidants can keep your body healthy during cancer treatment, leading to better odds and outcomes.
Here they are again - time to talk about PSK and PSP. Both protein-bound polysaccharides. PSK has undergone extensive human clinical trials and has shown outstanding potential as a cancer therapy agent, specifically in gastric, esophageal, colorectal, breast, and lung cancers. Studies suggest that PSK may be effective as immunotherapy or a biological response modifier (BRM). BRMs have the ability to teach the body to defend itself against tumor growth.
There have been some astounding studies that support the idea that Turkey Tail mushrooms can aid in limiting your chances of getting cancer and help your body defend itself if you do develop the disease. As we've seen, these mushrooms possess several compounds that effectively slow, and potentially even halt, the growth of cancer cells.
So, what's the bottom line on Turkey Tail? This well-researched, well-used mushroom is something to be curious about, and certainly worth the addition to one's supplement routine.
Dive in Deeper: Studies Referenced in this Article
Cancer studies surrounding Turkey Tail mushrooms have mostly landed on the impact of PSK, the protein found in the mushrooms. There have been many studies exhibiting the positive impact of PSK on many forms of cancer such as lung, breast, colorectal, gastric, and more.
In 1994, 262 patients who had undergone gastrectomies due to gastric cancer were put into a clinical trial. At random, some were selected to receive standard treatment as the first group, and the other group was selected to receive treatment that included PSK. The patients were then monitored for 5 to 7 years. The data came back showing that those prescribed PSK showed a 70.7% improvement in DFS (disease-free survival) rate vs. only 59.4% improvement in the standard group. It also showed an improved survival rate of 73% vs. 60% compared with the standard group.
Similarly, a retrospective study involving 63 patients with colorectal cancer showed that those who received PSK had a 76.2% relapse-free survival rate after three years of treatment. Those who didn't receive the add-on benefit of PSK scored much lower at only 47.8%.
In 2007, a meta-analysis was done again for those suffering from gastric cancer on a much larger scale. This study included 8009 patients, who had already received resection surgeries, and 4037 of these patients received PSK treatment in tandem with chemotherapy. The results from including PSK in treatment showed effective immunotherapy and showed significantly improved survival rates.
Any progress in cancer treatment is something to celebrate, but finding an alternative with very few side effects that are sustainably and easily foraged is nothing short of a miracle. Here's hoping we can spread the word and share the seemingly endless benefits of this impressive fungi with everyone.