Turkey Tail Mushrooms & The Antifragility of Immunity
This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, one of this era’s finest publications for plant aficionados.
Medicinal mushrooms have a lot to contribute to an herbalist’s practice. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is begging to be used, like the little kid persistently raising its hand in the classroom, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me ppllleeaassee!” This little mushroom–so tenacious, resilient & adaptable–has so much to offer in terms of medicine. Their earthen-colored fan shapes herald the arrival of the rains as they move in and digest dead trees, turning them into soil so new life can sprout. These decomposing fungal organisms (known as primary decomposers) are vital in the cycle of life & the seasons, each one an agent in an autumnal pull back to the earth, doing the good dirty work so new life can leap forward in the next season.
Turkey Tail mushrooms are busy little beavers in our ecosystems, aiding decomposition & soil generation. In human & animal bodies, the story changes. They means by which they support immune function are enchanting–providing clever little nudges here & there that invigorate our immune response. They’re ubiquitous in the wild and versatile in combination with other plant medicines. To me, this makes them a key member of the apothecary.
Learning about Turkey Tail mushrooms is a welcome lesson in antifragility. Antifragility refers to the concept that certain systems thrive from shocks, volatility, and stressors in the environment. We see this phenomenon in post-traumatic growth, scandalous & volatility-loving celebrity reputations, evolutionary paths of species, and adaptive mechanisms in human bodies. We not only tolerate shocks, but we need a bit of it.
This particularly holds for our immune systems, which tends to go haywire when bored or gradually weakened by chronic infections and persistent environmental stressors. A little shake-up every now and then invigorates the organism & system. It’s part of our nature.
When our immune system gets lax & stagnant, its activity gets misdirected and can turn on itself. Like the bored student who starts to heckle her classmates or the family that bickers when snowed in for 5 days. Put an engaging assignment in front of her, give the family members a new board game and all is peaceful. Stimuli like this have a purifying effect on relationships. This is known in some circles as hormesis, and it’s responsible for the health benefits of exercise, intermittent fasting, (beneficial responses to) vaccinations, and the tissue repair processes stimulated by certain kinds of oxidative stress & inflammation. All involve clever stressors that nudge the system into strengthening the adaptive response.
Turkey Tail mushrooms help our immune systems adapt by providing a clever stressor. Their B-glucans (polysaccharide) are the constituents considered most responsible for this hormetic effect. (They are contained in all fungal cell walls, so B-glucans are universal in medicinal mushrooms.) Upon ingestion, they dock with receptors in the small intestine, which initiates an immune response (B-glucans resemble a bacterial cell to the body). Different mushrooms have varying beta glucans and each elicits a slightly different effect on the immune system.
This is the cornerstone mechanism for Turkey Tail’s pharmacological effect in the body. Being the most studied medicinal mushroom, Turkey Tail is widely used in contemporary cancer treatment in Asia. The mushroom contains 2 notable protein-bound polysaccharide complexes: PSP & PSK (both are B-glucans). They help inhibit tumor development directly while stimulating a host-mediated immune response, making it a preferred complementary therapy among integrative oncologists & medical herbalists. (PSK is an approved cancer drug in Asia.) While most of the clinical trials concerning Turkey Tail are conducted with PSP & PSK (which don’t give a complete picture of Turkey Tail as a whole organism), studies are currently underway using the whole biomass–a welcome improvement. Other areas with research support include HIV, HSV, Hep C, and Chronic Fatigue syndrome. I’ve seen cases where Turkey Tail has helped cases of viral meningitis, Lyme disease (and particularly neurolyme), and mononucleosis.
Being a widely available & agreeable mushroom, I use Turkey Tail often. I particularly employ it in cases of immune suppression & sluggishness–especially when it appears to be a chronic or persisting condition. I find its taste to be neutral-slightly sweet and only slightly warming. It agrees with most people I see. The client presentation that makes me think of Turkey Tail is some bogged down with chronic infections and is running colder/cloudier because of it. (And this mushroom blends very well with Rosemary for this. A favorite combination of mine is Turkey Tail/Rosemary/Ashwaganda for these types of cases.) Because of this, it’s a quasi-adaptogen of mine. From personal experience, working with several clients, and hearing a bajillion anecdotes, I think that medicinal mushrooms help our immune systems become more adaptive and, in some ways, more intelligent. Their clever prodding helps us keep our systems on their toes, invigorating us in the process.
These forest darlings have been with people a long time. Trametes species have been used for centuries around the globe, including China, Mexico, Finland, and even England. I’ve also seen references to Australian Aboriginal use of Trametes species of sucking on the polypore for mouth sores. But most of the traditional use comes from Ancient China & Japan, where mushrooms were enthusiastically embraced in healing & medicine traditions. (In contrast, Western cultures tended towards mycophobia, associating the fungal beings with witchcraft & devilry.) The Ancient Taoists observed its ease in growing on pine trees–a notoriously antifungal wood. This fashioned a reputation for Turkey Tails as one of stubbornness, resilience & strength. In Japan, it earned the name kawaritake, meaning “bellowing clouds.” This also conveyed a sense of longevity, divinity & spiritual resilience. It was used for centuries in TCM to clear damp condition, strengthen the lungs, stomach, & spleen, increase energy & assist in convalescence in long-term diseases.
Finding Turkey Tail Mushrooms
These mushrooms are primary saprophytes, meaning that they grow on fresh, organic material (mostly wood). They’re found in every state in the country and are known as ‘bracket fungi,’ which form leathery/leaf-like structures in concentric circles. When you’re in the field, you want to look for the characteristic Turkey Tail fan shape, with tiny pores underneath & a hairy/velvety top surface. There are other Trametes species–notably T. hirstua, which is usually white & paper thin. There is also a False Turkey Tail (Stereum ostrea) which is larger and funnel-shaped when compared to the true Turkey Tail. (Michael Kuo has a ‘True Turkey Tail’ key on his website, listed below.) I read on one site, “Found everywhere on dead logs & stumps. If you can’t find them, you need to visit an eye doctor or give up mushroom collecting.”
They are also silly easy to cultivate. Being quite the aggressive little guys, they’ll pretty much grow on any type of wood (except for cedar, cypress, pine, and redwood). You can pick up plug spawn to inoculate to fresh logs fairly inexpensively. In fact, due to their prolific fruiting habits & abundance, they are one of the most common contaminants of other mushroom logs (like Shiitake or Maitake). It’s a weedy little mushroom.
A Few Worthy Recipes
While some say that Turkey Tail smells like gym socks, I find their flavor to be very mild (when compared with Reishi, Shiitake & the like). So these little critters often find their way into my decoctions. I especially like this blend below as a nourishing adrenal/immune/nervous system tonic. Use a generous pinch (the 4-finger pinch as I call it) each of the following and prepare as usual.
- Oatstraw or tops
- Ashwaganda root
- Turkey Tail fruitbodies
- Nettle leaf
- Tulsi aerial parts (add towards the end)
Hawthorn berries (or leaves/flowers) make a nice addition, as well as Devil’s club root bark.
And here’s a mineral rich, cleansing & fortifying Spring tonic recipe that I swear (& make promises) by. I call it ‘Live Long & Prosper’ (Adapted from Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe.)
Live Long & Prosper
In a big stock pot, add:
- a large handful of nettles
- a large handful of fresh dandelion roots, leaves & flowers
- fresh chopped blackberry leaves
- fresh chopped yellow dock root
- a sprig of young horsetail
- a handful of cleavers
- good pinch of dried calendula blossoms
- a bit of kelp, nori (or whatever seaweed you have around)
- pinch of hawthorn berries (and leaves/flowers if you have them)
- good 4-fingered pinch of sliced dry or fresh Turkey Tail mushrooms
Cook on medium until the brew reaches a light boil. Simmer for several hours. I usually let the liquid reduce by half. Strain it–you’ll have this dark, bitter liquid. Add black berry juice, molasses & honey until it’s sweet enough for you. I like to add a little good-quality brandy to help preserve it. Keep it in the fridge, but consume it within 3 months. I take a few tablespoons daily. Don’t be shy.
Tincturing Medicinal Mushrooms: The Double Extraction Process
Mushroom tinctures are made using a double-extraction technique. First, the alcohol extracts the constituents that are not soluble in water, like sterols & terpenes. After the mushrooms have been extracted in alcohol, it goes through a hot water extraction or decoction process to extract the beta-glucans, proteoglycans, and other immune-supporting polysaccharides. The below steps outline the double extraction process using the folk method of tincturing. (For more detailed recipes and ratios, see references below.)
Part 1: Alcohol extraction
Break the fruitbodies up into the smallest pieces possible. This makes for a larger surface area and thorough extraction. It’s easier to do this while they’re still fresh before drying.
- Fill a quart or half-gallon canning jar halfway with the dried mushroom.
- Add the vodka, filling the jar to the top. Label it!
- Cap the jar and keep it in a warm, dark place. Agitate daily.
- After about a month, strain.
Part 2: Hot water extraction
- Take the alcohol-soaked mushroom pieces that are left over after straining (called the marc) and put them in a pot. Cover them with water.
- Simmer for 2 hours. The water will evaporate throughout this time.
- Allow the tea to cool before you strain it. Discard all the solids but save the water.
- Add this water to an equal amount of the alcohol extract. This gives you an extract that’s 25% alcohol, as the vodka was 100 proof to begin with (50% water/50% alcohol).
You may need to do some measuring before you boil the water to make sure you have enough. Gauge the amount of liquid used in your first alcohol tincture and boil at least triple that amount of water for the hot water extraction. It may seem like a lot but it will reduce (you can always keep boiling if it doesn’t).
Suggested use varies depending on the size of the person and the strength of the tincture. A good standard amount is 1/2 of a teaspoon taken 2–3x a day. It should keep for about 2 years. And as always, store in a cool place in dark-colored bottles away from direct sunlight.
…And Some Odd Ways that People Use Turkey Tails
I’ve heard of folks tearing a fruitbody off a log and chewing fresh. It’s called “Redneck Chewing Gum.” Sounds fishy, but some people do it. I’ve had people ask for Turkey Tail extract to use as a hair strengthener. (It’d never occur to me to put this in my hair, so I have no idea if this works or not. But I neither want straight hair, nor wish to waste product on vanity.) It’s also used in floral arrangements by some outfits in Europe. I’ve also come across a couple hardcore mycophagists who toss the fruitbodies into their stew.
Hobbs, C. (1986). Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture. Summertown: Botanica Press.
Kuo, M. (2005). Trametes versicolor: The Turkey Tail. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/trametes_versicolor.html
Powell, M. (2010). Medicinal Mushrooms: A Clinical Guide. East Sussex: Mycology Press.
Rogers, R. (2011). The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms & Lichens of North America. Berkely: North Atlantic Books.
Stamets, P. (2002). MycoMedicinals: An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms. Olympia: MycoMedia.
Stamets, P. (2012). Turkey Tail Mushrooms Help Immune System Fight Cancer. Huffington Post. Retrieved June 10 2013 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stamets/mushrooms-cancer_b_1560691.html
 Its former Latin name is Coriolous versicolor. Fungi are often renamed as new developments in DNA analysis cause a bit of taxonomic reshuffling every now and then. So if you see references to C. versicolor, it’s referring to the same organism.
 Besides helping decompose organic material & build soil, the enzymes secreted by mycelium have bioremediation potential, and may play a role in breaking down persistent soil contaminants.
 There have been some notable studies demonstrating this effect. David Strachan (1989), a British epidemiologist conducted a study in which a correlation between small families and hay fever and ezcema was observed. Younger siblings are thought to be less at risk for autoimmune conditions, thanks to the microbial exposure of elder members. So, to an extent, microbes (and things that resemble them) can help keep the immune system on its toes, and even recalibrate it.