Turkey Tail Mushrooms: Can They Help Fight Cancer?
Turkey tail is one of a variety of mushrooms that have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries in Asia.
Also known as Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor, it got its nickname because its vivid color patterns that appear similar to that of, yes, a turkey’s tail.
And while turkey tail mushrooms are purported to have numerous health benefits, one that particularly stands out is its reputation for boosting the immune system to fight off cancer.
Over the centuries, people in Asia have turned to more than 100 different kinds of mushrooms in an effort to thwart cancer. And some evidence suggests that turkey tail mushrooms may have anticancer properties.
You might spot one of these colorful mushrooms, which can resemble a series of discs, growing out of the side of a hardwood tree. They’re very common in the United States, and they’re pretty hardy, too.
Why do these multicolored mushrooms seem to hold so much promise? Turkey tail mushroom enthusiasts note that these mushrooms have numerous properties that benefit your immune system.
For example, turkey tail mushrooms are high in antioxidants like phenols. Antioxidants reduce or inhibit cellular damage caused by oxidative stress, a condition caused by an imbalance between antioxidants and reactive molecules called free radical molecules.
And turkey tails don’t just have high levels of antioxidants — they seem to have numerous different kinds. In fact, one 2017 study found that turkey tail mushrooms have 35 different phenolic compounds.
They also contain polysaccharopeptides, including krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP), which may help boost your body’s immune system. As you’ll see, that’s one reason so many people are interested in this mushroom’s potential role in fighting cancer.
Researchers continue to examine the potential of using extract or treatments derived from turkey tail mushrooms to prevent or treat several kinds of cancer.
Although some study results are promising, turkey tail can’t replace anticancer drugs. They should only be used by people with cancer if recommended by their oncologist.
Women undergoing treatment for breast cancer might benefit from turkey tail mushroom agents.
In fact, a 2008 review called for more research on the potential of turkey tail mushroom and its PSK for breast cancer. It was proposed as add-on immunotherapy therapy that you’d take after primary breast cancer treatment, like surgery or chemotherapy.
A 2012 study followed up on this call for research. The study was small, with only nine participants. However, the researchers found that a daily oral preparation containing Trametes versicolor powder improved immune status after standard treatment for breast cancer.
Additionally, they found that the preparation was well tolerated by the participants in the study.
While more research is needed, an in vitro 2013 study published in 2013 showed promise in using an extract derived from turkey tail mushrooms in treating leukemia.
The researchers studied the effect of an extract taken from Trametes versicolor mushrooms treat leukemia cells. They compared its use alone versus a combination of Trametes versicolor and Ganoderma lucidum, or reishi mushroom.
The researchers found that the combination was more potent than Trametes versicolor alone. They think this may be because the two different mushrooms affect different biological processes.
This combination may help cancer patients on a broader level. In one 2019 study, a team of researchers reviewed 23 clinical trials involving more than 4,200 patients.
They found that products containing these two mushrooms may indeed improve both survival and quality of life for some people with certain types of cancer, including breast, lung, and gastrointestinal cancers.
Another study that looked at the use of extracts derived from two types of mushrooms, including turkey tail mushrooms, found promise in treating colon cancer cells.
Together, the two mushroom extracts demonstrated the ability to stop cancer cells from spreading. The researchers also found the two extracts together could even enhance the effectiveness of a drug often used to treat colorectal cancers, 5-fluorouracil.
A 2015 review of 11 clinical trials and an additional 17 preclinical studies found that using PSK from the Trametes versicolor mushrooms helped lung cancer patients who underwent radiation treatment live longer.
The extract also seemed to improve other aspects of the patients’ progress, including body weight, immune function, and quality of life.
People living with other cancers may benefit from turkey tail mushrooms, too. For example, a review of eight studies that included more than 8,000 people with gastric cancer found that adding PSK to their chemotherapy helped them live longer.
However, not all of the research has been quite so enrcouraging. One recent study reported that an agent containing both Trametes versicolor and Grifola frondose wasn’t effective at controlling the spread of colon cancer cells in the lab. More research is needed.
Turkey tail mushrooms are generally considered safe. However, people with mushroom or mold allergies should steer clear of them.
While they’re generally considered safe, turkey tail mushrooms can occasionally have a few side effects to be aware of, including
- digestive upset, such as diarrhea, gas, or bloating
- darker pigment in your fingernails
It’s also important to keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements in the same way that it regulates conventional medicines. Proceed with caution and talk with a healthcare professional about any supplements you’re thinking of taking.
In traditional Asian medicine, turkey tail mushrooms have often been brewed as a tea. Many people still prefer this option.
It can also be consumed in powder form or even made into capsules. You can add a little turkey tail mushroom powder to a smoothie or make a broth with it. Just be sure to carefully follow the instructions on the package.
Depending on the outcomes of ongoing research, there may be even more options in the future if your doctor thinks it might help you recover from cancer.
Recently, researchers have found that different parts of the mushroom may provide different benefits.
In fact, a 2019 study found that a fermented substrate of the turkey tail mushroom seemed to have unique beneficial components compared with other parts of the mushroom.
Although these results are promising, people with cancer shouldn’t try turkey tail before consulting with their oncologist. It’s important to discuss your interest in any alternative treatment for cancer with your doctor to make sure it’s a safe and appropriate choice for your health.
Other natural treatments for cancer
Interested in learning about other natural treatments for cancer and cancer prevention? Learn more about the potential benefits, as well as the risks, in the following articles:
Turkey tail mushrooms are generally considered safe — and possibly even helpful. Research suggests that these colorful mushrooms may indeed have important anticancer properties.
But it’s important to remember that turkey tail mushrooms are not for everyone, especially if you’re allergic. It’s also good to keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements like this.
Talk with your doctor or a healthcare provider about your interest in these mushrooms and if they might benefit you.