Fun fact… did you know that as members of the kingdom of fungi, mushrooms are more closely related to animals (including people) than they are to plants ! This could be one reason why certain types of fungi are so beneficial for human health. One of the best health-promoting mushrooms is turkey tail, which is a beloved medicinal mushroom in both ancient and modern Chinese and Japanese traditions.
Turkey tail mushroom (also known as Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor, and Polyporus versicolor) is so named because of its appearance. The colorful stripes on the outer edge of this frilly mushroom look very much like the tail feathers on a turkey. In Japan, they are known as kawaratake, which means “cloud mushrooms.”
Like maitake mushrooms, turkey tail is a polypore mushroom. What this means is that unlike the typical mushrooms which contain a button cap and gills, turkey tail mushrooms are bracket mushrooms that grow on tree trunks.
Fungi are organisms that absorb their nutrients from decomposing organic matter. Trametes versicolor particularly favor growing on dead trees, branches, and stumps which provide them with the specific growing environment in which they flourish.
Turkey Tail Is an Adaptogen
Turkey tail mushrooms are considered an adaptogen in herbal medicine, which means that they work to balance many aspects of health. They provide support against stressors of all kinds. They are also immunomodulatory, which means that they modulate the function of the immune system.
If the immune system is under-reacting, adaptogens will boost certain aspects of it, and if it is over-reacting, adaptogens help to calm it down. Adaptogens have many other health benefits such as anti-stress, anti-fatigue, anti-depressant, and anti-anxiety, to name just a few .
Turkey Tail Is a Common Cancer Therapy in Asia
Medicinal mushrooms such as turkey tail contain polysaccharides called alpha-glucans and beta-glucans. It is the beta-glucans that have been so well-studied and identified as being the primary source of biological activity.
“Polysaccharide” means “many sugars” but they are beneficial sugars bound to protein, and they work in the body in a number of ways. The specifically studied polysaccharides in turkey tail are Polysaccharide-K (PSK), also known by the Krestin, and Polysaccharide-Peptide (PSP).
We have an abundance of studies that show that PSK, used in Asia for cancer patients since the 1970s, stimulates a number of components of the human immune system. It is known as a biological response modifier or BRM.
BRMs have the potential to improve the “host versus tumor response,” which essentially means that they increase the ability of a person with cancer (the “host”) to defend themselves against tumor progression . It has taken years of studying PSK and PSP to validate just some of the ways in which they work in the body.
8 of the Best Health Benefits of Turkey Tail Mushrooms
All backed by research, here are 8 of the best turkey tail mushroom benefits for human health.
#1. Provides Antioxidant Protection
Antioxidants are important because they help to reduce or buffer the damage caused by free radicals and oxidative stress. Free radical damage can compromise the function of otherwise healthy cells, including the DNA.
Over time, free radical damage can increase your risk of developing chronic health problems. By eating plenty of foods rich in antioxidants, however, you can offset damage by free radicals. Turkey tail contain a significant amount of antioxidants. One 2017 study  found 38 different antioxidant compounds known as phenols and flavonoids in a sample of Trametes versicolor.
#2. Supports the Immune System
Turkey tail mushrooms are incredibly beneficial for the human immune system. The abundant antioxidants mentioned above act to support the immune system by reducing inflammation and stimulating the release of cytokines (chemical messengers) that are involved in immune system regulation and communication.
Turkey tail have other immune functions as well. Dendritic cells, the main activators of the immune system are prodded into action. Natural killer cells and lymphocyte-activated killer (LAK) cells are activated, and they scour the body for cancer cells and viruses.
Macrophages, which protect the body against pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and other harmful substances are promoted. TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha) and other cytokines are stimulated or inhibited, which regulate the function of immune cells.
As noted above, Trametes versicolor are immunomodulatory, meaning they can dampen down an over-reacting immune system, or boost immunity if it is low [5-8].
#3. Fights Against Pathogenic Bacteria
Turkey tail mushrooms are frequently used to battle infections, including those associated with influenza or the common cold. They can do more than this, however. They are powerful against both gram-positive and gram-negative pathogenic bacteria like golden staph (Staphylococcus aureus), a well-known antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria currently plaguing hospitals, nursing homes, and other healing environments.
Golden staph likes to live in the upper respiratory tract and on the skin. It is extremely virulent and can result in death if it gets deeper inside the body and is not treated quickly enough.
Salmonella enteritidis is a gram-negative pathogen which turkey tail can also help to eradicate. . This bug, caused by eating contaminated food, can make you feel absolutely rotten. Symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea, bloody stools, fever, chills, headache, and vomiting.
Turkey tail is effective because of its abundance of antioxidants and polysaccharides, which link up with the proteins and cell walls of bacteria, disrupting microbial membranes and inhibiting energy metabolism in the bacteria. This effectively creates havoc for the pathogen and kills it .
#4. Defends Against Abnormal Cell Growth
Turkey tail mushrooms are well-studied for their anti-cancer effects. In fact, they have been utilized in Asia since the 1970s for use with cancer patients. Studies show that they have the following anti-cancer effects:
- promoting apoptosis (programmed cell death, a process absent in cancer cells) and inhibiting tumor growth 
- inhibiting enzymes known as metalloproteinases involved in the metastasis (spread) of cancer cells 
- may protect tissues from the toxicity of chemotherapy and radiation, and may also help prevent second malignancies due to the carcinogenic effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy 
- as an adjuvant to chemotherapy, improving both survival and disease-free survival of patients with cancer 
- may inhibit carcinogenesis (the rise of cancer) by inhibiting the action of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) on vulnerable cells 
- working synergistically with chemotherapy drugs to increase their cancer-killing effect 
- protecting tissues against the toxic effects of radiation 
One Woman’s Experience with Turkey Tail Mushrooms
One 2012 study  discussed the experience of an 83-year-old woman diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. She was considered too old for a mastectomy or radiation and given only three months to live. She had a remarkable result with Trametes versicolor.
Combined with chemotherapy, the turkey tail boosted her immune system and increased the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. The patient was still alive and disease-free five years later.
Other Notable Research Studies for Turkey Tail Mushroom and Cancer
A small 2012 clinical trial  involving 11 participants with breast cancer found that turkey tail had a significant effect on key components of their immune system. It increased white blood cells, natural killer cells, CD8 T-cells, and CD19 B-cells. Researchers in this study noted that up to 9 grams (9,000 mg) of Trametes versicolor per day was well tolerated.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 23 clinical trials  involving 10,684 patients with gastrointestinal cancer found that polysaccharide K (PSK) treatment significantly increased the overall survival of the patients in years one through five, and even beyond that. They also found that there were significant increases in disease-free survival from years one through seven, with no side effects.
IMPORTANT NOTE: While it is not suggested to try and heal cancer using turkey tail mushroom alone, when used in combination with other therapies it may prove beneficial for cancer patients. If you have cancer, or suspect that you do, always consult with a qualified physician for appropriate treatment.
#5. Inhibits Viruses
Several studies have found that PSK has anti-viral action. It has been used for its ability to inhibit HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the virus associated with AIDS) . Turkey tail mushroom has also been found to be beneficial for HPV (human papillomavirus, a sexually-transmitted infection) in preliminary clinical trials .
#6. Promotes Beneficial Gut Bacteria
The importance of prebiotics and gut health has come to the forefront over the past several years. As a reminder, prebiotics act as “food” for probiotics – the beneficial gut bacteria that help to keep us well.
Prebiotics modulate the human gut microbiome and help inhibit several health conditions including diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Mushrooms are especially beneficial for helping to improve the microbiome of the gut as they are super-special prebiotics [16-18].
#7. May Improve Athletic Performance
Despite a lack of studies on Trametes versicolor and athletic performance, many athletes and people who demand a lot out of their bodies are reporting that supplementing with turkey tail helps them, over time, to improve energy levels and to bounce back from rigorous exercise more easily.
One preliminary animal study reported that turkey tail mushroom “has beneficial effects on performance improvement and anti-fatigue activity, and thus has great potential… ”
#8. Improves Insulin Resistance
Medicinal mushrooms have been studied for the various modes of action they have with regard to protecting against diabetes. They seem to act in several different ways, including inhibiting the absorption of glucose (sugar), protection of the beta cells of the pancreas, promotion of insulin release, enhancement of antioxidants, countering inflammation, and modulation of various metabolic pathways that involve the control of glucose in and out of cells.
Turkey tail mushrooms have been investigated for their anti-diabetic properties and effects on insulin-resistant cells in animal studies. In two studies [20, 21] researchers found that turkey tail significantly reduced blood glucose levels and influenced enzymes and genes associated with development of diabetes and insulin resistance. Hopefully human trials will follow.
Look-Alike Mushrooms Are Not the Same as Turkey Tail
Be aware that there are mushrooms that look quite similar to turkey tail. They are even called “false turkey tail” (botanical name Stereum ostrea). Also referred to as “golden curtain crust,” these are look-alike mushrooms, but they do not have the same therapeutic properties as Trametes versicolor. They tend to be a little more reddish in color than turkey tail. They do contain some therapeutic compounds but should not be confused with true turkey tail.
It is always a good idea to purchase your turkey tail mushrooms and extracts from a trusted organic grower/supplier who tests for quality and purity in their products.