It may well be winter but the pantry is stocked full of treasures gathered and dried throughout the summer and fall. Turkey Tail mushroom is one of those treasures. Considered a functional food and medicine it has been used for centuries in Asia, Europe and by indigenous peoples in North America. I discovered it in the same manner that I discover many of the medicinal plants that show up for use in my herbal practice – when a need for that particular medicine arises.
A friend and hiking buddy of mine recently passed away after battling esophageal cancer and shortly thereafter, another friend received the same diagnosis. It left me asking, “why?” I was already aware of my talented artist friend’s long suffering with Hepatitis C, and a musician friend suffering with the same. Both were seeking alternatives. I found myself asking, “How can I help?” In answer to that question someone shared a TED Talk video on Facebook, Paul Stamets: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world. And if that wasn’t enough to get my attention, CNN picked up the story and aired a shorter video called “The ‘Forbidden Fruit’ of Medicinal Mushrooms,” with mycologist, Paul Stamets. That is how I came to learn of Turkey Tail mushroom and it’s ability to assist in remediating certain viral conditions and cancers.
Not only did Paul talk about Turkey Tail mushroom, but he also shared the story of his mother’s stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver. The oncologist, who was a woman, said it was the second worst case of breast cancer she had seen in 20 years of practice. She predicted that Paul’s mother had less than 6 months to live. She also told them about a new study using Turkey Tail mushroom to cure cancer. One year later after a course of Turkey Tail mushroom in addition to the standard drugs Taxol (paclitaxel) and Herceptin (trastuzumab), she had no detectable cancer.
Turkey Tail mushroom, whose botanical name is Trametes versicolor, for its wide variety of colors, resembles a wild turkey tail. It is a member of the polypore family because it emits spores from pores on the underside of the leathery cap. It has long been used in China as a medicine where it is known as Yun Zhi. In Japan where it also has a long history of use is known as kawaritake, or “cloud mushroom” for the image it invokes of billowing clouds. In traditional Chinese Medicine Turkey Tail is used to clear dampness, reduce phlegm, heal pulmonary disorders, strengthen the stomach and spleen, increase energy and benefit people with chronic diseases. Chinese medical doctors consider it a useful treatment for infection and/or inflammation of the upper respiratory, urinary and digestive tracts. It is also regarded as a curative to chronic active hepatitis and is used to treat general weakness of the immune system.
Turkey Tail is incredibly abundant and may be some of the most common mushrooms found on the planet. Any time a plant is “common” you can be assured that it is the people’s medicine that is needed at that time. It is found virtually anywhere that there are dead hardwood logs and stumps. Lucky for me, it grows in the woods all around my house. I gather it all year long, dry it in paper bags and store it in a glass jar.
Wild Turkey Tail has a lifespan of a year or two but persist years after they die, attracting and harboring a succession of other organisms. They generally stay potent for many years. Actions include: Anti-tumor, Anti-Viral, Anti-microbial, Immunomodulating, Anti-oxidant, and it has been found to be effective for immunodeficiency, and against multiple types of cancers, Hepatitis B & C, and malaria.
Hot water extracts known as decoctions extract the rich immune supporting polysaccharides common to all medicinal mushrooms. Decoction is the only clinically validated method for breaking these polysaccharides out of indigestible cell walls. Hot water dissolves the indigestible fiber, chitin, which is a derivative of glucose and is also found in the outer skeleton of lobster. Most hot water mushroom/mycelium extracts are at least a 20:1 concentration.
The anti-cancer polysaccharide found in Turkey Tail is polysaccharide-K (PSK.) PSK fights cancer tumors by inhibiting growth of cancer cells, stimulating immune response and enhancing the population and activity of NK cells and other lymphocytes. It is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation treatments as a non-toxic therapy to boost immune function (depressed by chemo and radiation), and to increase cancer survival rates. PSK has shown to be beneficial as adjuvant therapy in the treatment of gastric, esophageal, colorectal, sarcoma, carcinoma, breast, cervical, prostate and lung cancers, which is very good news indeed.
So where my mind goes with this is, why just an adjuvant therapy? If radiation and chemo depresses the immune system and Turkey Tail boosts it while at the same time supporting and protecting the body against cancer, could Turkey Tail do the trick all on its own? Or better yet, what if it were part of a longevity strategy so that toxic therapies weren’t even a consideration? There is no question in my mind that more research is needed.
Turkey tail is renowned in Asia as a source for cancer therapy, but is unlikely to be patentable in the US, deterring big pharma from conducting costly clinical studies. The reason for this is that the FDA requires that the Active Principle Ingredient (API) need be disclosed before approving a drug. The problem with this is that PSK is an assortment of sugars and attached proteins but has no unique molecule responsible for its impact on the immune system. This affirms its designation as a functional food.
I feel very blessed to be able to wild craft Turkey Tail from around my home and when I’m walking in the woods I like to chew on a piece of it as a way of connecting with its medicine. It is tough and chewy with a non-distinct flavor. One thing to keep in mind with Turkey Tail mushrooms, like other mushrooms, is that they can hyper-accumulate heavy metals from air and soil pollution. This is one reason why it is important to find reliable or certified organic mushroom products. On the good side of this is that Turkey Tail can also accumulate selenium. I, personally, am dealing with mercury poisoning and when mercury meets selenium, they form a molecular unit that is totally non-toxic. So the next time you make a soup stock, try adding some Turkey Tails!
The usual dosage in powdered form is 2 – 3 gm/3 X a day mixed into food or taken in a capsule. (Available from www.fungi.com)
The therapeutic dosage is an escalation to 9 gm over a nine week period.
1. Paul Stamets is a mycologist living in Kamilche Point, WA. He is the author of six books on mushroom cultivation and identification, including “Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms,” and most recently “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” His business website is www.fungi.com
2. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH) approved a $2.25 million-dollar, 7-year study conducted jointly with Bastyr University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Washington. Researchers analyzed the impact of Turkey Tail mushrooms on the immune systems of patients with breast cancer. Results showed enhanced immune function that was dose dependent. The product taken was Host Defense Turkey Tail mushroom in pill form produced by Paul Stamets. Since Turkey Tail mycelium is presented in its unaltered form it qualifies as a FDA approved “nutraceutical” ingredient.