As we begin the shift into autumn, I’ve been giving more thought to both staying warm and boosting my immune system as we head into cooler weather. To be certain, a long winter can be taxing on both mind and body. Holistic nutritional strategies can be a way of providing the body with necessary vitamins and minerals, supporting the microbiome, and preventing illness.
Soup season is here! In the past week, the crock pot has become a staple in our kitchen one again, and I’ve been busy making broths and soup stocks to freeze and use throughout the winter. Medicinal mushrooms are a wonderful addition to bone and veggie-based broths, as they have traditionally been used to support the immune system, especially during times of physical or mental stress. Recently, our household was gifted some ethically-wildcrafted Trametes versicolor, which are a lovely addition to a medicinal mushroom broth.
Trametes versicolor (aka Coriolus versicolor and Polyporus versicolor) is a common polypore mushroom found throughout the world. On this continent, Trametes can be found in the woods, growing on fallen logs or tree stumps year round. I’ve always found this fungi on fallen oak and birch trees, but they can also be found on living trees, too. Trametes versicolor has the common name Turkey Tail because it has a striped fan shape that resembles the tail of a wild turkey. The flesh of this fungi is leathery and grows in tiled layers. Versicolor means “many colors” and the visible, fanned part of T. versicolor has a series of multicolored stripes that can range in color. Typically the stripes are white and shades of brown, though they can also be more gray, reddish, purple, blackish or blue-green. The underside of the fungi is white and a bit iridescent. Turkey tails do not have gills, but rather pores, which sets it apart from many other common fungi. Note: a comprehensive overview of mushroom identification is beyond the scope of this blog piece, but check out the resources section of this article for further information about mushroom identification and harvesting.
Turkey tail is one several medicinal mushrooms, along with reishi, shiitake, and maitake, that I use for supporting the immune system over the long-term. Trametes versicolor is immunomodulating, meaning it gently supports the immune system and can have a prolonged effect on immune wellness. Sometimes herbs in this category are called “deep immune tonics” as they tend to act more slowly and gently than “immune stimulating” herbs such as echinacea, elecampane, spilanthes, and spikenard. Many immunomodulating medicinal mushrooms are also used as adaptogens, and can help shift the nervous system over the long-term to support mood and energy balance.
Most of the clinical research on medicinal mushrooms focuses on the presence of certain immunomodulating polysaccharides (long-chain carbohydrates that may have anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting effects. Similarly, turkey tails contain polysaccharopeptides, protein-bound polysaccharides, that seem to play a role in supporting the immune system. Krestin (PSK) and Polysaccharide Peptide (PSP) are two types of polysaccharopeptides found in turkey tails. Both PSK and PSP help the body mount an appropriate immune response by both activating and inhibiting specific types of immune cells and by suppressing inflammation. Turkey tails also contain triterpenoids that are antifungal, anti-neurodegenerative, cytotoxic, and generally play a role in supporting the body’s immune response. Turkey tails have been researched in relationship to a wide variety of ailments, from rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis, HIV, HPV, and influenza. Further, turkey tails have been widely researched for their adjunctive role in cancer therapy (namely, breast/chest, gastric, colorectal and prostate cancer) as some research suggests Trametes may have antitumor properties.
T. versicolor needs to be decocted (slow-simmered) in water in order to extract its polysaccharides. I love to use T. versicolor in a broth or stock recipe with other medicinal mushrooms, garlic, onions, and veggie scraps. Mushroom broth can be cooked on a low setting in a crock pot for up to 3 days. I like to store cooked broth in small batches in the freezer for use throughout the winter. An ice cube tray or popsicle mold is helpful for this purpose.
Turkey tail mushrooms can also be decocted as part of a tea. For this purpose, I like to combine it with warming spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, and added sweetener and milk or milk-substitute (I like almond milk and maple syrup). Turkey tail can also be taken in capsule form. I recommend choosing a product that is USDA-certified organic, such as Mushroom Harvest or Fungi Perfecti.