Turkey Tail Mushroom

Also known by these names

  • Trametes versicolor
  • Coriolus versicolor
  • Polyporus versicolor
  • Yun Zhi (in traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Kawaratake (in Japan)
  • PSK (Krestin™ drug formulation using PSK derivative)
  • PSP

Key Points

  • The turkey tail mushroom, a well-documented medicinal mushroom, grows on dead logs and can be found throughout North America as well as many other regions of the world.
  • Although turkey tail mushrooms are not poisonous, they are not typically consumed as a food.
  • BCCT considers turkey tail mushroom extracts and supplements interesting and promising because of mounting scientific evidence of their usefulness as an adjuvant treatment in several cancers, their safety when taken appropriately, their wide availability and their use by many reputable integrative oncology clinicians.
  • Side effects, typically mild and temporary, have been seen in animal studies and in an early clinical trial. A few cautions are noted.
  • Extracts of turkey tail are widely available without prescription in capsule, liquid tincture, and powdered form. Strength and purity of products can vary significantly.

The turkey tail mushroom, in use in traditional Chinese medicine for many years, is one of the most intensively studied globally. A formulation called PSK or Krestin™ has been studied and used extensively in Japan for its immune-modulating effects and also as a cancer adjuvant (supplement) treatment. Use of PSK in thousands of cancer patients in Japan since the 1970s has established this mushroom’s safety record.1

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Treating the Cancer

Working against cancer growth or spread, improving survival, or working with other treatments or therapies to improve their anticancer action

Documented medicinal properties of turkey tail include immune enhancement and antitumor, antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant activities.3

Neither the turkey tail mushroom nor its constituents have been proven to be a cure for cancer as a single agent. The evidence suggests that its greatest benefit is found when used in conjunction with evidence-based conventional treatment. After conventional treatment is complete, turkey tail may be used (particularly in combination with other medicinal mushrooms) as part of an integrative plan to restore health and prevent recurrence.

Clinical Evidence

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a few clinical trials of this mushroom combined with chemotherapy for several different cancers, although to date only one study has been completed.4

Turkey Tail Effects

Turkey tail has shown these effects, which BCCT regards as strong:

  • Enhanced chemotherapy and radiotherapy effects on cancer cells while protecting normal cells5
  • Breast cancer:
    • Extended survival in patients with certain types of breast cancer.6 and improved the survival curve of people with operable breast cancer with vascular invasion.7
    • Increased natural killer (NK) cells and other cancer-killing cells in breast cancer patients8
  • Gastrointestinal cancers (stomach, colorectal, esophageal, anal and other cancers):
    • Inhibited the activity of suppressor T-cells in the regional lymph nodes in people with gastrointestinal cancer. Suppressor T-cells prevent the immune system from recognizing and responding to the cancer.9
    • Improved both the five-year disease-free rate and five-year survival after curative gastrectomy for gastric cancer10
    • Extended survival in a group of gastric cancer patients with high granulocyte and lymphocyte count ratios, perhaps through restoration of immunocompetence11
    • Increased immune parameters in patients with gastrointestinal cancer (stomach or colorectal)12
  • Improved five-year survival in patients with lung cancer stages 1-313   and increased immune parameters in patients with non-small cell lung cancer14

PSK Effects

PSK (a glycoprotein-bound mixture) is the best-known component of turkey tail. While its mechanism of action is not yet clearly defined, studies of PSK suggest anticancer mechanisms.

PSP Effects

PSP is less known, but also has medicinal properties.

  • Slowing deterioration in patients with non-small cell lung cancer19

Lab and Animal Evidence

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Cautions

When used appropriately, both oral turkey tail mushroom and PSK and PSP extracts of turkey tail have appeared safe when used in daily recommended doses for extended periods. Studies of turkey tail in cancer commonly cite doses of three grams per day, though a Phase I clinical trial in breast cancer cites safety with doses up to nine grams per day for six weeks.30

Not all study results have been positive. According to the About Herbs summary on turkey tail, some “studies on breast cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and leukemia produced mixed results. A hot water extract of Coriolus, VPS, was found to enhance development of large intestinal tumors in mice.”3132

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Side Effects

A low incidence of side effects, typically mild and temporary, has been seen in an early clinical trial and in animal studies. Limited gastrointestinal upset has been reported. Some report a cough and temporary darkening of the fingernails from taking the powdered drug. Passing dark-colored stools (not due to blood in stools) has also been reported.35 Medical supervision is advised, preferably from a licensed clinician with experience in prescribing medicinal mushrooms.

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Contraindications/Do Not Use

Do not take turkey tail or its extracts if you have a known allergy/hypersensitivity to turkey tail, PSK, or any of its components. There is insufficient evidence to establish safety of use during pregnancy and lactation. Mushroom extracts are not recommended during pregnancy.

A potential for counteraction with immunosuppressants exists due to the stimulatory effects of turkey tail on immunocompetent cells. Caution or avoidance with immunosuppressants is advised.37

Turkey tail should be used cautiously in patients with known bleeding or clotting disorders and in anyone using anticoagulant or antiplatelet agents, as it been associated with thrombocytopenia.38

Preparation

Note that in traditional Chinese medicine and in many of the studies of medicinal mushrooms, hot water extracts have been used. The cell wall of the mushroom is indigestible by humans—hence, eating raw mushrooms for culinary or medicinal reasons is not recommended. Ground mushroom eaten as a powder is irritating to the liver, yet when that ground mushroom is decocted in hot water, the medicinal ingredients become available and it is safer to consume. As a result, several integrative oncology clinicians report that they prescribe hot water extracts of medicinal mushrooms.39

Integrative oncologist and BCCT advisor Keith Block, MD, advises using extracts (rather than eating whole mushrooms) that are blends of several different medicinal mushrooms, including turkey tail. (See Commentary below).

Access

Extracts of turkey tail mushrooms are widely available without prescription in capsule, liquid tincture and powdered form. Strength and purity of products can vary significantly. Read labels carefully. Consult a healthcare professional experienced in using medicinal mushrooms for guidance in product selection.

Dosing

BCCT does not recommend therapies or doses, but only provides information for patients and providers to consider as part of a complete treatment plan. Patients should discuss therapies with their physicians, as contraindications, interactions and side effects must be evaluated. Levels of active ingredients of natural products can vary widely between and even within products. See Quality and Sources of Herbs, Supplements and Other Natural Products.

Although clinical trials have not established optimal doses of turkey tail or its derivatives during or after cancer treatment, suggested dosage recommendations are available from these sources:

  • Moss Reports (purchase required): Select from the list of cancers down the left side of the page for a report describing uses of conventional, complementary, alternative and integrative therapies related to that cancer. Ralph Moss is among the most knowledgeable and balanced researchers of integrative cancer therapies. The cost of his Moss Reports is not negligible, but many patients find them of considerable value. Moss is also available for consultations.
  • Stamets P. MycoMedicinals: An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms, 3rd Edition. China: MycoMedia Productions. 2002.
  • Also see the protocols below.

Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems

For more information about programs and protocols, see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.

Commentary

In a 2008 article, naturopathic oncologist and BCCT advisor Leanna Standish, PhD, ND, LAc, FABNO, and her colleagues suggest that “immune therapy utilizing the polysaccharide constituents of Trametes versicolor as concurrent adjuvant cancer therapy may be warranted as part of a comprehensive cancer treatment and secondary prevention strategy.”45

In Life Over Cancer, integrative oncologist and BCCT advisor Dr. Keith Block advises: “It is difficult to obtain clinically meaningful quantities of the mushroom phytochemicals from even the healthiest diet, which is why I recommend getting them in the form of extracts. Look for those containing maitake (Grifola frondosa), agaricus (Agaricus blazei), shiitake (Lentinula or Lentinus edodes), reishi (Ganoderma lusidum), turkey tails (Trametes or Coriolus versicolor), and caterpillar fungus or cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis).”46

Paul Stamets, in MycoMedicinals, says this about using a blend of several different medicinal mushrooms: “A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that, to maximize a host-mediated response—that is, to awaken the immune system---a panoply of polysaccharides and medicinal mushroom constituents is best. These constituents increase the number and activity of macrophages, killer T and NK lymphocytes. Combining medicinal mushroom species sends the immune system multiple stimuli, awakening the body’s natural defenses.”47

Naturopathic oncologist and BCCT advisor Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, August 9, 2018: There are instances when I use specific mushrooms, for instance: Coriolus (aka Trametes) versicolor (turkey tail) for breast cancer, Agaricus blazeii for ovarian cancer and chaga mushroom for melanoma. However, it is a very valuable and reasonable strategy to use a blend that includes mushrooms, each of which is standardized to its polysaccharides and beta-glucans. The key is to use a hot water extract of the fruiting bodies or a full-spectrum extract (includes mycelium) that clearly identifies on its label the quantity of mushroom extract.

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Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on June 6, 2019. BCCT has not conducted an independent review of research of turkey tail mushroom. This summary draws from the National Cancer Institutes Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®) Health Professional Version and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s About Herbs: Coriolus Versicolor, as well as from other sources noted.

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