Medicinal Mushrooms | Polysaccharides and Beta-glucans

March 15, 2019

Medicinal Mushrooms | Polysaccharides and Beta-glucans

Humans have been fascinated by Mushrooms for millennia. We have used them in traditional medicine for at least 2000 years and probably much longer.

Medicinal Mushrooms contain a complex array of beneficial compounds. These compounds through their complexity can support our immune system, act as adaptogens, and help balance the function of essential systems in our bodies.*

So how does this all work?

In this introduction, we will focus on the water-soluble components of medicinal mushrooms, Polysaccharides and beta glucans. If you're not familiar with these, don't be intimidated by the names. I'm going to break down a clear and concise explanation of each.



Beta glucan is a chain of glucose molecules connected by beta glycosidic links. Learn more about them on our page about beta glucans.

The term polysaccharide simply means "many sugars." A polysaccharide is a number of sugar molecules linked together to make a structural fiber. The most common polysaccharide in nature is cellulose (the building block of plants) which takes the form of a long linear chain. The second most common is chitin the building block of mushrooms.

Medicinal mushrooms can contain several types of polysaccharides, some of which are very complex. Polysaccharides called beta-glucans are present in many mushrooms. These are made of a single type of sugar (glucose) and can have multiple branches giving them complex shapes.  There are also, heteropolysaccharides which are made of multiple types of sugars and protein-bound polysaccharides, which as the name implies are polysaccharides molecularly bound to protein.

Most of the medicinally valuable mushroom polysaccharides are locked up by chitin in cell walls. Since our digestive system doesn't effectively break down chitin, the polysaccharides need to be extracted from the mushrooms to gain their medicinal benefit. This is accomplished via a hot water extract which you can learn more about on our process page.

Three key things to know about Medicinal Mushroom Polysaccharides:

  • They have unique complex branching (think snowflake) compared to plant cellulose (think chain links).
  • Our digestive system doesn't effectively break them down, so they travel through us as a fiber.
  • Our immune system has multiple classes of receptors which are hard-wired to respond to these complex mushroom polysaccharides.*

How do Polysaccharides Work?

As polysaccharides travel into our digestive system, they attach to receptors on our immune cells (Macrophages and Dendritic cells). There are many of these cells on the surface of our digestive system as one line of our immune defense. Some polysaccharides may also be absorbed by our gut into our bloodstream and attach to immune cells there.

Once attached to an immune cell receptor the polysaccharide creates a response in the immune cell. This response is communicated to the rest of our immune system via a chemical signal (Cytokines). This response will vary depending on the type of immune cell/receptor and the size/type of polysaccharide. The response may take the form of immune boosting as signals can be sent out to increase the activity of immune cells. The chemical signal may also produce an immune moderating or adaptogenic response.


A lot of people ask what adaptogens do. The simple explanation is that they help balance and regulate a system (or systems) in your body.

Picture this, a third-grade classroom filled with 30 chaotic 9-year-olds left to their own devices before the school bell rings. Sometimes systems in our body act like that. At the school, a good teacher walking into the classroom restores calm and order for the kids. In our bodies, adaptogens promote that state of balance and calm for our systems. 

The Takeaways

  • Medicinal Mushrooms contain a wide array of beneficial compounds offering support for our immune system on multiple levels.
  • Polysaccharides are one unique category of the beneficial compounds medicinal mushrooms offer.
  • They have to be extracted from the mushrooms in order to effectively trigger our immune cells.
  • Mushroom polysaccharides can promote a strong immune defense.
  • They can also support systems in our body as adaptogens.


Join our mailing list to get future posts where we will discuss other important components of medicinal mushrooms; Triterpenoids, Sterols, and glycoproteins.

In the meantime, if you want to dive deeper into the world of Medicinal Mushrooms, here are three of the best books on the subject. Happy Reading!

Medicinal Mushrooms
The Fungal Pharmacy
by Robert Rogers
Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal Mushrooms
by Christopher Hobbs
Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal Mushrooms
by Martin Powell

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