Quite a few research studies in recent years have been looking at the various benefits of polysaccharides. These compounds are found in different plants, such as mushrooms and marine algae. It has long been known that medicinal mushrooms, for example, boast quite a few important functions, such as immune modulation and anticancer mechanisms. These functions are mediated by these polysaccharide molecules.
Overall, polysaccharides from either mushrooms or seaweeds have been shown in laboratory, animal, and human studies to be:
- Anti-cancer and anti-tumor
- Immune modulating
- Antithrombotic (blood thining)
- Lower high cholesterol
- Support diabetes and other metabolic abnormalities
- Support inflammatory conditions such as IBD
- Support liver health
- Support kidney health
What are polysaccharides?
Polysaccharide molecules are long, complex, branched chains strung together from individual sugar molecules such as glucose and galactose. Hence the name, ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’, and ‘saccharides’ meaning ‘sugars’. However, unlike the sugar that you might find in the kitchen or in processed foods which you might associate with poorer health outcomes, when they are part of this long complex chain, they behave completely differently. Additionally, the branches of polysaccharides can have various molecular groups attached, that enhance their therapeutic functions, such as sulfate groups. Some examples of polysaccharides are beta-glucan, fucoidan, and carrageenan.
How do they work?
Research is still in early stages and ongoing, so some of the mechanisms of how exactly these polysaccharides have their therapeutic effects are still unclear. We know that these long chains have different polarities, and that enables them to interact with many different factors within our bodies and with foreign pathogens. For example, sulfated polysaccharides can physically interfere with the Herpes Simplex virus (which causes genital herpes and cold sores) to prevent it from adhering and entering host cells. Or they can bind with immune system cells and enhance their functioning and to fight infections, and reduce runaway inflammatory responses.
Given how much positive and promising research already exists, it will not be surprising to see more and more studies being devoted to fungal and algal polysaccharides, especially in an era of high vigilance around viruses.