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What Makes Turkey Tail Mushrooms So Powerful?

There are at least five beneficial types of nutrients and active compounds that give turkey tail its medicinal characteristics:

Polysaccharides—including beta-glucans—known as immunomodulators due to their balancing effects on the immune system
Triterpenes, which are part of the mushroom membrane and act as precursors to natural steroids
Sterols, hormone precursors that include ergosterol and fungisterol; ergosterol is converted to vitamin D2 when exposed to sunlight
Polyphenols, such as flavanoids, produced in response to environmental stressors and associated with positive benefits when consumed
Vitamins and minerals, including selenium, vitamin B3 and vitamin D—although the selenium content depends on how much selenium is available in the environment where the mushrooms grow

If these were the only compounds and nutrients in turkey tail, it would make for a pretty amazing combination. But there are two standout compounds that elevate turkey tail mushroom to superhero status: polysaccharide krestin (PSK) and polysaccharide peptide (PSP). Both PSP and PSK are polysaccharide-protein complexes: chains of many sugars bound to proteins at specific places in their molecular structures.

PSK was first isolated in Japan in the late 1960s from a strain of turkey tail known CM-101. The compound contains about 28 to 35% protein and 34 to 35% carbohydrates.

PSP, isolated in China in 1983 from the COV-1 turkey tail strain, is about 31% protein and 46% carbohydrates.

Both PSP and PSK contain alpha- and beta-glucans, as well as numerous amino acids like glutamine, which gives mushrooms their distinct “umami” flavor.[15] Both compounds are also associated with enhanced immune activity, although PSK usually gets more attention for its use as an adjunct treatment in cancer research*.

1) may prevent cell damage*

Like plants, mushrooms produce compounds called polyphenols as a natural defense mechanism. Polyphenols provide protection from UV rays, pathogens and other potential sources of attack or damage. When people consume mushrooms or mushroom extracts, these same polyphenols can act as antioxidants*.

Antioxidants prevent cell damage and inflammation by neutralizing free radicals in the body. When unstable free radicals interact with healthy cells, it results in oxidative damage, which can cause signs of aging and increase the risk for age-related diseases. Antioxidants intercept this process and restore stability before damage can occur.

The polyphenol content of turkey tail is highest in the fruiting bodies, and alcohol extracts appear to offer the most antioxidant potential

2) Stimulates and Balances Immune Responses

Many compounds in turkey tail mushroom exhibit immunomodulatory effects, including polysaccharides and triterpenes. PSP and PSK in particular have both been associated with better immune activity.

Research shows several possible ways these compounds may improve the body’s natural immune response:

PSK can activate natural killer cells, leading to more effective clearing of pathogens.
PSP can help immune cells recognize invaders and cell abnormalities, as well as activate beneficial pro-inflammatory responses to eliminate pathogens and keep cells healthy.
Turkey tail extracts can increase specific markers indicating an immune response—like tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a), interferon gamma (IFN-y) and interleukin 12 (IL-12)—which may help the body defend against pathogens*.
Polysaccharides from turkey tail can activate antibody-producing B-cells and increase production of two specific antibodies: immunoglobulin M (IgM), which is made when fighting new infections, and immunoglobulin G1 (IgG1), which controls immune responses against viruses*.
Turkey tail may activate pro-inflammatory Th1 cytokines, which can cause autoimmune responses in some cases*. However, these same cytokines can be beneficial players in immune defenses when activated appropriately*.

But turkey tail’s effects aren’t all about firing up the immune system. Like other medicinal mushrooms, Trametes versicolor can promote balance. One study showed cultivated turkey tail mycelium and its fermented substrate could increase both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, possibly by activating a protein called CD69 involved in signaling between immune cells*.

These immune system benefits appear to help healthy individuals, as well as people with low immune function. It’s also interesting to note that some effects on immunity differed between studies done in petri dishes (in vitro) and those conducted on animals or humans (in vivo), which suggests the holistic benefits of turkey tail may be greater than those observed in isolated environments.

3) may modulate Inflammation*

Because they may prevent damage to cells and tissues, antioxidants in turkey tail mushroom can reduce the potential for inflammation. Reducing inflammation may also protect against conditions like heart disease, which is believed to be associated with chronic inflammatory responses.

Turkey tail’s main medicinal compounds—beta-glucans, triterpenes and sterols—have also been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects. Both isolated compounds and extracts from the mushroom appear to reduce production of pro-inflammatory cytokines like TNF-a, nitric oxide (NO), and interleukin-6 (IL-6). When cells are in pro-inflammatory environments, extracts may also lower the levels of compounds associated with the stimulation of inflammatory responses*.

One interesting study illustrated another potential benefit by looking at arthritic rats with morphine tolerance Rats treated with PSP didn’t develop dependence on the painkiller as easily and experienced less intense withdrawal symptoms. The morphine also appeared to be more effective overall.

How did it work? It seems the turkey tail activated a specific cannabanoid receptor while increasing beta-endorphins. Together, these effects can change the way the body perceives pain. Additional reduction of pro-inflammatory compounds also played a role.

However, some studies on turkey tail show opposite effects. At certain doses, compounds from the mushroom may increase pro-inflammatory responses This indicates a potential balancing effect similar to the way turkey tail acts on the immune system and suggests different doses may be required to address specific conditions.

4) May Improve Cholesterol and Prevent Obesity*

In a study on mice with high cholesterol, extracts from turkey tail mushroom lowered total blood cholesterol levels, including triglycerides and LDL*. The effect may be due, at least in part, to an increase in lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that breaks down triglycerides in the body.

Other evidence suggests a compound called protein-bound beta-glucan (PBG) might help prevent weight gain by increasing levels of Akkermansia muciniphila, a bacterium that lives in the gut. The presence of Akkermansia muciniphila is correlated with lower levels of inflammation, which could play a role in creating a healthier gut barrier and preventing proteins or pathogens from crossing into the bloodstream and triggering immune responses. The bacterium is also associated with better insulin sensitivity, which seems to be an important factor in weight management*.

The study that examined PBG’s effects showed that transplanting the microbiomes of mice treated with PBG into the guts of mice fed high-fat diets appeared to make the gut environment friendlier to Akkermansia muciniphila. PBG also had an effect on genetic responses related to metabolism, which led to better weight control.

5) Could Improve Exercise Endurance

When scientists gave mice an extract from the mycelium of turkey tail mushroom for four weeks, the mice showed improvements in several markers related to exercise fatigue. Three byproducts of exertion—lactate, ammonia and creatine kinase—were lower in treated mice than in controls. Mice receiving the turkey tail extract also exhibited stronger grip strength.

These results suggest the treated mice experienced less muscle damage during exertion and may also have been able to use oxygen more efficiently. No toxicity was observed despite the high dosage, which was about the equivalent of 4 to 21 grams of turkey tail per day for a person of average weight. However, more research is needed to know whether the same effects can be replicated in humans.

6) May Combat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome*

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is an idiopathic condition with a wide range of symptoms, which can include lack of refreshing sleep, problems with memory, difficulty concentrating, muscle and joint pain, headaches, dizziness, moodiness, swollen lymph nodes and exhaustion after mild exertion.

Although the exact cause of CFS remains unknown, suggested causes include viral infection, immune disorder, extreme stress and hormonal abnormalities. The condition officially qualifies as “chronic” if symptoms persist for a month or more.

A study in the Journal of Integrative Medicine examined whether turkey tail mushroom could provide relief from CFS. In the study, 36 people with the condition took an extract from a turkey tail strain called CV-OH1 for two months. At the end of the study, levels of natural killer (NK) cells increased by 45%, and participants also exhibited various levels of T-cell activation and suppression. Low NK cell levels and low T-cell activation have been found in some CFS patients, so the turkey tail extract may have been working to balance the immune system.

Since both infection and autoimmunity have been suggested as potential causes of CFS, the results of this study could mean turkey tail mushroom has a potential role to play in CFS treatment by boosting or suppressing immune responses as needed.

7) Offers Potential Liver Protection

Turkey tail’s antioxidant and immunomodulatory effects may guard against alcohol-induced liver injury. PSP may also protect liver cells by helping the body maintain its own levels of an antioxidant called glutathione. This was shown in a model of liver injury in rats where those receiving PSP had lower levels of two blood markers indicating liver cell damage: serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase (SGPT) and glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase (SGOT).[38]

Another study on a rodent model of liver cancer showed fractions from turkey tail mushrooms were able to inhibit cancer cells while restoring and stimulating the recovery of normal liver cells*.

What About Turkey Tail and Hepatitis?

It’s possible that turkey tail mushroom could be beneficial in addressing liver damage from hepatitis, as well: PSP has been used in China for years to threat hepatitis shows promise when combined with other treatments from traditional Chinese medicine*.

PSP may also reduce adverse reactions and improve patient outcomes when used along with interferon, a common pharmaceutical treatment for hepatitis. 8) Has Antibacterial and Antiviral Properties

Compounds in turkey tail can interact with the immune system to provide protection against bacteria and viruses in several ways:

Beta-glucans may kill bacteria by boosting the body’s production of nitric acid*[41]
Alcohol extracts from cultivated turkey tail may damage bacterial cell membranes or prevent bacterial cell division to stop bacteria from multiplying*[42]
PSK can boost antibody-producing B-cell activity and improve survival rates even when white blood cell counts are low*[43]

9) May Promote Better Gut Health*

A handful of studies suggest supplementing with turkey tail mushroom could improve gut health by combatting inflammation and supporting beneficial bacteria*.

One study looked at how PSP affects the microbiome when compared to the antibiotic amoxicillin.[49]. Twenty-four people were randomized into three groups—PSP, antibiotics and control—for eight weeks. Stool analysis showed that PSP had prebiotic effects, which can include increasing “good” microbes in the gut*.[50] The amoxicillin group, on the other hand, had an increase in pathogenic bacteria that persisted for 42 days after they stopped taking the antibiotic.

Similar results were seen when PSP was combined with a type of complex carbohydrate called fructooligosaccharides (FOS) in a culture medium along with microbes commonly found in the human gut:

Beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species increased
Pathogenic Clostridium, Staphylococcus and Enterococcus bacteria decreased
More short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and lactate were produced, which can feed “good” gut bacteria[52] and keep the gut lining healthy

Turkey tail’s anti-inflammatory effects may provide additional benefits in cases of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Mice with ulcerative colitis given extracts from the mushroom had lower levels of inflammatory cytokines like TNF-a and IL-6. The extracts also appeared to interfere with the production of IFN-y and IL-4 cytokines

Taken together, these studies suggest the antibacterial, antiviral and immunomodulatory activities of turkey tail could improve the gut microbiome and help maintain a healthier gut environment.

10) May Have Beneficial Effects for Cancer Patients

Although PSK from Trametes versicolor has been used in Asia alongside traditional cancer treatments for decades, it hasn’t yet been incorporated into mainstream clinical use in the Western world. But studies continue to be conducted, some of them in humans, which is an exciting development given that most medicinal mushroom research to date has focused only lab animals or isolated cell cultures.

In some of the studies, turkey tail mushroom appears to work as a biological response modifier (BRM), literally modifying the immune response to better equip the body to target and clear cancerous cells*.

It’s also possible that the mushroom’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity may prevent cellular damage that can lead to cancerous abnormalities*.

How Might Turkey Tail Work Against Cancer?

The current body of research suggests several potential mechanisms of action to explain the correlation between turkey tail and better outcomes for cancer patients:

PSK appears to improve the immune response by increasing white blood cell activation and upregulating key cytokines while also interfering with enzymes involved in the process of metastasis*[55]
Antioxidants may protect tissues against initial damage from carcinogens and from the secondary effects of chemotherapy and radiation*
PSP could improve the body’s natural defenses against cancer by improving how immune cells work, increasing both chemokines and cytokines and helping dendritic cells and T-cells eliminate cancer cells*[56]
PSP may increase macrophage function to better clear tumor cells when used in conjunction with other cancer treatments*[57]
PSK appears to prevent cancer cells from dividing out of control by interfering with early stages of the cell cycle, resulting in cancer cell death*[58]
A unique lipid in turkey tail mushroom may work with PSK to increase its uptake and also positively interact with toll-like receptor 2 (TRL2) proteins,[59] which help the body recognize pathogens and can prompt the immune system to attack cancerous cells*[60]

These effects may explain why one meta-analysis of people receiving turkey tail along with traditional cancer treatments in clinical trials had a 9% reduction in five-year morality rates—particularly those with breast, gastric and colorectal cancers.

However, not every study involving turkey tail mushroom and cancer shows beneficial results. Continued research is needed to determine the best ways to prepare and administer the active compounds for optimal outcomes.

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