While some medicines are synthesized in a lab, others come from the plants, fungi, and animals around us. One example is turkey tail, a mushroom that may be useful for boosting the immune system and helping cancer patients live longer.
Turkey tail, known by its scientific name Trametes versicolor or sometimes Coriolus versicolor, gets its name from multicolored brown and tan rings that look like turkey feathers. Turkey tail has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, where it goes by the name Yun Zhi and is often made into tonics or teas to treat infections and lung diseases . In Japan, it is approved for use alongside cancer treatments, but in the United States it has not yet been approved to treat any diseases.
People may use turkey tail supplements that consist of extracts from the full mushroom, or they can use purified extracts of turkey tail’s active ingredients, which may go under the names krestin, Polysaccharide-K (PSK), or polysaccharopeptide (PSP). PSK and PSP are similar molecules that are extracted from different strains of turkey tail mushrooms .
Many studies have shown that different turkey tail products help cancer patients. These studies do not suggest that people with cancer take this mushroom alone; rather, they show that PSK or PSP can help increase the efficacy of traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation for many cancer types, including:
- Gastric: several studies involving thousands of patients have found that when gastric cancer patients take PSK along with chemotherapy, they live longer than patients who take chemotherapy alone [3,4]. In particular, one study found that people who have more severe cases of gastric cancer involving metastases may see the best results .
- Colorectal: multiple clinical trials have shown that people with colorectal cancer are often in remission longer and live longer when they take PSK along with chemotherapy [6–8]. They may also have fewer metastases .
- Lung: a meta-analysis of 28 studies found that turkey tail might help patients with lung cancer. While not all of the studies found exactly the same results, most of them showed some sort of benefit for survival, immune system response, or cancer symptoms .
- Breast cancer: some studies have shown that breast cancer patients live longer when they take turkey tail products , although other studies haven’t found much difference . Interestingly, two small studies found that turkey tail may boost the immune system in breast cancer patients. In one trial, women with breast cancer were given PSP in addition to another type of mushroom, and in the other, patients were given a freeze-dried turkey tail product. In both cases, the patients who took the mushroom products had stronger immune systems [11,12].
- Leukemia: in one study, PSK kept some patients in remission for longer periods of time .
Clinical trials have found that turkey tail products may have little or no benefit for patients with esophageal cancer [3,14]. Additionally, this mushroom doesn’t seem to produce much effect for people who have liver cancer [15,16].
Related: Why the 5300-year-old Ötzi the Iceman may have carried this fungus in his pouch
Why do some of these trials show different results? There are many reasons why turkey tail may work better for some people than for others. It may be possible that mushroom products work better with certain types of chemo medications than others. It is also possible that turkey tail is more effective in certain patients depending on the genetics of their tumor, or depending on other biological factors. For example, one study in gastric cancer patients found that peoples’ relative levels of certain types of immune cells predicted whether or not they would respond to PSK .
Even when turkey tail doesn’t directly help cancer patients live longer, it may still provide other benefits. Some animal studies have found that turkey tail’s active ingredients can help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation . Additionally, at least one human clinical trial has found that PSK may give patients a better quality of life by reducing appetite loss and pain, when they take it along with their cancer treatments .
How Does Turkey Tail Work?
This mushroom is thought to boost the immune system, which can help the body fight cancer. The active components in turkey tail can stimulate the body’s immune system to produce substances called cytokines that can increase inflammation. Some of these cytokines, such as TNF-α, can help kill cancer cells . Many studies have also showed that turkey tail products can increase and activate different types of immune cells [7,11,12,19,20].
What are Other Benefits of Taking Turkey Tail?
While turkey tail can improve the immune system of cancer patients, some studies have found that this mushroom can also improve immunity in healthy patients by boosting the number or function of immune cells [18,21].
This mushroom also contains polyphenols, molecules known to act as antioxidants . The polyphenols found in turkey tail extracts can protect cells and DNA against damage [23,24]. Turkey tail may also help the body produce its own natural antioxidant enzymes .
While most turkey tail studies have been performed in cancer patients, there is some evidence that it may help with other diseases as well. In one small trial, the combination of turkey tail along with the reishi mushroom helped patients with HPV viral infections . Another recent study found that turkey tail helped diabetic rats become less insulin-resistant, although this has not yet been studied in humans .
Is it Safe to Take Turkey Tail?
Studies in several types of cancer reported that turkey tail is safe for most people. It may occasionally give someone mild side effects, such as nausea or heartburn, but it generally isn’t thought to cause any major problems or to affect liver and kidney function [8,10,12,21,27].
Should You Take Turkey Tail?
It’s hard to know how well turkey tail will work for each individual person. If you are interested in trying turkey tail to help with cancer treatment or with treatment for another disease, talk to your doctor. Your healthcare provider can help you decide whether taking this mushroom may help.
- Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version - National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/mushrooms-pdq. Updated October 25, 2019.
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- Oba K, Teramukai S, Kobayashi M, et al. Efficacy of adjuvant immunochemotherapy with polysaccharide K for patients with curative resections of gastric cancer. Cancer Immunol Immunother CII. 2007;56(6):905-911.
- Niimoto M, Hattori T, Tamada R, et al. Postoperative adjuvant immunochemotherapy with mitomycin C, futraful and PSK for gastric cancer. An analysis of data on 579 patients followed for five years. Jpn J Surg. 1988;18(6):681-686.
- Mitomi T, Tsuchiya S, Iijima N, et al. Randomized, controlled study on adjuvant immunochemotherapy with PSK in curatively resected colorectal cancer. The Cooperative Study Group of Surgical Adjuvant Immunochemotherapy for Cancer of Colon and Rectum (Kanagawa). Dis Colon Rectum. 1992;35(2):123-130.
- Torisu M, Hayashi Y, Ishimitsu T, et al. Significant prolongation of disease-free period gained by oral polysaccharide K (PSK) administration after curative surgical operation of colorectal cancer. Cancer Immunol Immunother CII. 1990;31(5):261-268.
- Ohwada S, Ikeya T, Yokomori T, et al. Adjuvant immunochemotherapy with oral Tegafur/Uracil plus PSK in patients with stage II or III colorectal cancer: a randomised controlled study. Br J Cancer. 2004;90(5):1003-1010.
- Fritz H, Kennedy DA, Ishii M, et al. Polysaccharide K and Coriolus versicolor extracts for lung cancer: a systematic review. Integr Cancer Ther. 2015;14(3):201-211.
- Iino Y, Yokoe T, Maemura M, et al. Immunochemotherapies versus chemotherapy as adjuvant treatment after curative resection of operable breast cancer. Anticancer Res. 1995;15(6B):2907-2911.
- Wong C-K, Bao Y-X, Wong EL-Y, Leung P-C, Fung KP, Lam CWK. Immunomodulatory activities of Yunzhi and Danshen in post-treatment breast cancer patients. Am J Chin Med. 2005;33(3):381-395.
- Torkelson CJ, Sweet E, Martzen MR, et al. Phase 1 Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer. ISRN Oncol. 2012;2012.
- Ohno R, Yamada K, Masaoka T, et al. A randomized trial of chemoimmunotherapy of acute nonlymphocytic leukemia in adults using a protein-bound polysaccharide preparation. Cancer Immunol Immunother CII. 1984;18(3):149-154.
- Ogoshi K, Satou H, Isono K, et al. Immunotherapy for esophageal cancer. A randomized trial in combination with radiotherapy and radiochemotherapy. Cooperative Study Group for Esophageal Cancer in Japan. Am J Clin Oncol. 1995;18(3):216-222.
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- Chay WY, Tham CK, Toh HC, et al. Coriolus versicolor (Yunzhi) Use as Therapy in Advanced Hepatocellular Carcinoma Patients with Poor Liver Function or Who Are Unfit for Standard Therapy. J Altern Complement Med. 2017;23(8):648-652.
- Toge T, Yamaguchi Y. Protein-bound polysaccharide increases survival in resected gastric cancer cases stratified with a preoperative granulocyte and lymphocyte count. Oncol Rep. 2000;7(5):1157-1161.
- Coriolus Versicolor | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/coriolus-versicolor. Updated April 12, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2020.
- Tsang KW, Lam CL, Yan C, et al. Coriolus versicolor polysaccharide peptide slows progression of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Respir Med. 2003;97(6):618-624.
- Lu H, Yang Y, Gad E, et al. TLR2 agonist PSK activates human NK cells and enhances the anti-tumor effect of HER2-targeted monoclonal antibody therapy. Clin Cancer Res Off J Am Assoc Cancer Res. 2011;17(21):6742-6753.
- Wong CK, Tse PS, Wong ELY, Leung PC, Fung KP, Lam CWK. Immunomodulatory effects of yun zhi and danshen capsules in health subjects--a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Int Immunopharmacol. 2004;4(2):201-211.
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- Donatini B. Control of oral human papillomavirus (HPV) by medicinal mushrooms, Trametes versicolor and Ganoderma lucidum: a preliminary clinical trial. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2014;16(5):497-498.
- Xian H-M, Che H, Qin Y, et al. Coriolus versicolor aqueous extract ameliorates insulin resistance with PI3K/Akt and p38 MAPK signaling pathways involved in diabetic skeletal muscle. Phytother Res PTR. 2018;32(3):551-560.
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