molecular approach medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms – A molecular approach

Mycotherapy is a discipline that uses medicinal mushrooms in the context of Health. Widely practiced for millennia in Asia, this approach was still very confidential in the West a few decades ago. Today, the medicinal mushroom market is booming in the U.S. and results in the emergence of many products ranging from food supplements to functional drinks and cosmeceuticals.

The European market is still in its infancy, but Europe is gradually awakening to this fascinating discipline, more and more supported by scientific data. Laboratories like Hifas da Terra thus act as pioneers in the domain. However, much work needs to be done to enable professionals in the Health and Nutraceuticals sector to develop their expertise in the field to allow everyone to benefit from the surprising benefits of mushrooms. This series of articles is initiated in the hope of inspiring these professionals, but also in order to contribute to the evolution of scientific mycotherapy in Europe.


Like medicinal plants, medicinal mushrooms contain multiple active substances. They are characterized by the presence of 2 main categories of active ingredients: polysaccharides and secondary metabolites (triterpenes, diterpenes, polyphenols, etc.). This type of “molecular tandem” is not uncommon in herbal medicine since it is typical of adaptogenic plants. Therefore, we may assume that mycotherapy will have many common points with adaptogenic herbal medicine (some medicinal mushrooms are also considered adaptogens themselves). The scientific literature seems to confirm these similarities even if it highlights a non-negligible difference: the main active ingredients of adaptogenic plants seem to be secondary metabolites (with the supporting polysaccharides). Simultaneously, the activity of medicinal mushrooms appears to be based mainly on their polysaccharides (with supporting secondary metabolites). This difference is probably explained by a vast abundance of bioactive polysaccharides in fungi when adaptogenic plants seem particularly rich in secondary metabolites.

This importance of the polysaccharide fraction will obviously vary from one medicinal mushroom to another. Still, it highlights an essential point: the massive impact of the microbiotic action in the context of mycotherapy.

We also note that the active molecular profile is not limited to these two categories since certain fungi contain additional specific molecules like proteoglycans, ergothioneine, etc.


As just seen, it appears essential to benefit from two very different categories of molecules. However, most of the extraction methods intended to enrich a plant / fungal extract in triterpenes rarely lead to an enrichment of the polysaccharide fraction and vice versa (specific extraction methods are exceptions, but these are delicate processes requiring great expertise). So, it is important to select its extract carefully according to the desired goal or combine different extracts of the same fungus and, of course, to adapt the doses according to the content of the selected extract’s active molecules.

Furthermore, molecules of interest can be found in various quantities in various parts of the fungus (depending on the part amount harvested, the molecular profile can indeed vary). Thus, a distinction is to be made between active agents resulting from basidiomas (fruiting of the fungus, being the “visible” part of the latter) and active agents resulting from mycelium (branched structure often less visible from fungi). Active ingredients from the basidioma often enjoy a better reputation usually because the mycelium, cultivated in vitro, is too often marketed with its culture substrate (cereals in solid medium, algae in liquid medium). We then obtain a product of much less interest since a fraction of it is quite simply not the fungus but the substrate. But as always in the world of sourcing natural extracts, it is not possible to generalize because some extracts of fruiting bodies are of poor quality. In contrast, some extracts of mycelia are quite qualitative. The molecular profile will decide.

Finally, we need to ensure the absence of contamination, especially heavy metals. Indeed, many fungi can capture and accumulate this type of contaminants. So the quality of the environment in which the fungus is cultivated must thus be irreproachable.