There is a reason that turkey tail is the most prolific mushroom in the world growing on nearly every continent and in all regions; it is pure medicine for the human race. The immunological strength acquired when taking turkey tail is undeniable.
Trametes mushroom is a beautifully striated polypore and one of the most ubiquitous of the fungi kingdom, growing in many regions of the world with a well-documented historical usage spanned across many ancient cultures. It is known as the “turkey tail” mushroom in the West, as its fan shape strongly resembles the tail of a standing turkey.
Ancient Taoists prized the turkey tail fruiting body because it grew on evergreen pines (trees that were thought to hold deep Yang energy within their roots). Thus, it was often prescribed for conditions of Yang deficiency. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) classic texts often refer to its ability to dispel wind and dampness whilst resolving upper respiratory infection, increasing stamina and treating abnormal cells. It is recognised as a Qi and Spleen, Lung and Liver supporting her
Let’s explore some of the health benefits of Turkey Tail through both an Eastern and Western lens.
Turkey Tail & Immunity
Turkey Tail is one of the most widely researched of all medicinal mushrooms. One of the most well-known benefits of turkey tail is its immune-boosting properties.
Turkey tail mushroom contains beta-glucans, which are complex polysaccharides that have been shown to stimulate the immune system by activating immune cells such as macrophages and natural killer cells, with particular attention to its immune-modulating properties and polysaccharide content, polysaccharide K (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP). To learn more about beta-glucans and their role in immune function, read our article ‘What are Beta Glucans & How Do They Active The Immune System’.
These protein-bound polysaccharides help support a healthy and robust immune response by stimulating the release of immune-supportive compounds and modulating inflammation within the body.
Studies have shown that polysaccharides from turkey tail can suppress inflammation by inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-1β in immune cells. Additionally, turkey tail has been found to contain triterpenoids, which have been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting the activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-κB) and reducing the expression of pro-inflammatory enzymes such as cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and inducible nitric oxide synthase. Rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and phenols, turkey tail works to prevent and reduce cellular damage and degeneration.
Through a Taoist lens, the body’s first line of defence or surface immunity is referred to as our Wei Qi. Think of it as an innate armour or protective barrier that resides on the surface of your body. Protecting us against external invasion, Wei Qi is Yang in nature, and circulates on the surface between the skin and muscles and works to warm the body, supplying the skin with the energy to defend the body against any climatic or pathogenic forces (viruses and bacteria) that would otherwise penetrate the skin and cause disharmony. In general, Qi and Lung tonics such as turkey tail mushroom can be used to strengthen our Wei Qi.
Turkey tail is also believed to have cooling and clearing properties, which can help to reduce inflammation and heat in the body. It is often used in formulas to treat conditions such as sore throat, bronchitis, and inflammation of the Liver.
Turkey Tail & Conjunctive Cancer Treatment
The use of medicinal mushrooms in cancer treatment, specifically as an adjunct treatment to chemotherapy is gaining increasing attention in the Western world, with a large body of research continuing to grow as more studies are conducted. Throughout Asian countries including Japan and China, medicinal mushrooms have been approved as an addition to standard cancer treatments for over 30 years.
The numerous active compounds found within medicinal mushrooms have been shown to impact cancer cell signalling pathways and through their activation of the immune system, may inhibit the growth of certain cancerous cells. When combined with conventional therapies, turkey tail mushroom may improve the outcome of, and tolerance to more invasive treatment options, reducing and easing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
Turkey Tail & Digestive Health
A rich source of soluble fibre, turkey tail works as a prebiotic within the gut, supporting the production of beneficial bacteria within the microbiome. From a Western science perspective, studies have shown that turkey tail can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus in the gut. These bacteria can help improve digestion, boost the immune system, and even support mental health.
Chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to a host of health issues, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. Turkey tail’s anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce inflammation in the gut. The polysaccharide-K (PSK) content of turkey tail has also been shown to improve gut barrier function by strengthening the tight junctions between cells in the gut lining, preventing harmful substances from passing through.
Through a traditional lens, turkey tail is believed to tonify and regulate the Spleen and Stomach. The Spleen and Stomach are considered the "root of postnatal life" in Chinese medicine, responsible for transforming food and drink into Qi or vital energy. When the Spleen and Stomach are functioning properly, the body can extract nutrients from food, eliminate waste effectively and maintain a healthy gut lining.
Turkey tail is believed to have a cooling and detoxifying effect on the body. It is also considered to have an affinity for the Liver, which is responsible for detoxifying the body and regulating the flow of Qi. When the Liver is functioning properly, the body can eliminate toxins effectively and maintain a healthy immune system.
Used to clear Damp and Heat from the Spleen and assist the body to regulate water and temperature, turkey tail is also traditionally used to remedy instances of loose stools that occur in the presence of poor digestion and appetite.
Turkey Tail & Qi Cultivation
Central to the theory of health in Taoism is the concept of Qi, which is usually translated as ‘life force.’ Health emerges when our Qi is in a state of harmony.
Qi is derived from air, sunlight and the food we consume. We cultivate Qi with the intention to increase the body’s capacity to build and move Blood, eliminate stagnation and regulate temperature and fluid levels. It takes a combination of cyclical and never-ending cellular and energetic collaborations to produce and maintain a strong accumulation and flow of Qi within the body. However, for practical purposes, we can state that the Qi we use daily in our lives is initially derived from the food we eat is processed by the Spleen and the air we breathe is processed by the Lungs.
When you have strong Qi, you have a nice flow of energy through the organs, and the organs will be happy; they will smile. As Qi flows through the meridians and accumulates within the major organ systems, you will also have a nice strong immunity and a vibrancy about you. Qi helps us have healthy boundaries and a well-functioning system.
Turkey Tail is classified as a Qi tonic in Chinese Medicine because it is believed to tonify the Qi, or vital energy, of the body, as well as strengthen the Stomach and Spleen, which we now know are all essential to a healthy body. Turkey tail is also a Lung tonic, further improving the circulation of Qi and oxygen throughout the body. To learn more about the Lungs, read our article ‘Through The Taoist Lens: The Lungs’.
As a Qi tonic, Turkey Tail is used to support circulation and bring life to the body. The herb is particularly useful post-illness when individuals are experiencing general fatigue and weakness. The Taoists revered this incredible mushroom and would use it in their tonics to restore Yang Qi and protect the entire system.
If this article has ignited a desire to dive a little deeper into medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbs, immunity and digestive health, then check out some of our podcast episodes below!
The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs by Ron Teeguarden
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: Third Edition by Giovanni Maciocia
A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs by Daniel Reid
Clinical Naturopathic Medicine by Leah Hechtman