What are Beta Glucans?
Beta glucans are used to treat a wide variety of health problems ranging from high cholesterol and immune health to topical applications for eczema and dermatitis. They are found within the cell walls of fungi, yeasts, bacteria and plants like barley and oats.
They are most commonly used by people looking to boost their immune system especially where the body has been weakened by illness, stress or cancer treatment. They are also used to stave off the flu and the common cold as well as a number of autoimmune disorders like rheumatism and Crohn’s disease.
Beta glucans can not be synthesized by the body so you have to get them from natural dietary sources or from supplements. As well as being present inside the cell walls of certain yeasts, they are also present in fermented food products and in medicinal mushrooms like agaricus blazei, maitake and reishi.
Many studies have been done on the health benefits of beta glucans and they indicate that the best immune system effects are from the insoluble variety rather than the soluble form of beta glucan. Insoluble forms of the compound are found in brewer’s yeast and in the mushrooms mentioned previously.
Health Benefits of Beta Glucans
1) Beta Glucans to Boost the Immune System
It goes without saying that a healthy immune system is absolutely crucial to your health. It is vital that your immune system is in top working order to give you the best chance of staying healthy, fending off illness and fighting infections. A diet high in the appropriate nutrients can go a long way to ensuring your immune system is up to snuff and one of the best weapons in your fight against illness are beta glucans.
The body does not naturally produce these compounds so the only way for you get them is through external, dietary sources including shiitake mushrooms and baker’s yeast as well as certain cereal grains such as oats, barley, wheat and rye.
A large body of research shows beta glucans can act as immunomodulators meaning that they trigger a number of events in the body which regulates the immune system and makes it healthier and more efficient. (1) (2)
More specifically, these beta glucans stimulate macrophage activity. Macrophages are immune cells which ingest and destroy harmful pathogens that are trying to invade the body as well as stimulating your other immune cells into action. But that is not all, macrophages release cytokines which are chemicals that play a key role in the way immune cells communicate with each other. Beta glucans also stimulate the activity of white blood cells or lymphocytes which bind to viruses and tumors releasing chemicals that destroy the pathogens.
2) Heart Health
I am sure that you have heard all about the heart benefits linked to a high intake of oats and oatmeal. One of the main reasons that oats are so good for your heart is that they contain soluble fiber in the shape of β-glucan.
One study published in 1997 concentrated beta glucan into oat fiber extracts in order to incorporate it easily into the diets of the participants. Adult patients with high cholesterol levels were given the extract which contained either one or ten percent beta glucan.
At the end of the five-week study, both groups experienced a significant reduction in total cholesterol levels as well as LDL cholesterol. The group that took the highest dose of beta glucan experienced even more significant reductions in total cholesterol levels. (3)
More recent studies have confirmed that beta glucan was effective in reducing total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. This is significant since high cholesterol is a major risk factor in heart disease. (4)
Cancer is one of the world’s leading killers resulting in over half a million deaths each year in the US alone. In their search for an effective cancer treatment, few stones are left unturned and one of the many compounds evaluated for its effects against cancer is beta glucan.
Studies have looked at the effects of lentinan – a beta glucan present in shiitake mushrooms.
One Japanese study found that lentinan had anti-tumor properties and the ability to prevent cancer from developing. According to the researchers, lentinan also helped prolong the lifespan of patients with advanced forms of certain cancer including colorectal, breast and stomach cancer. One of the reasons that lentinan works is the way in which it boosts cytokine activity and signals the immune cells to respond to the disease. (5)
4) Bacterial Infections
Studies have demonstrated that beta glucan can help treat various bacterial infections as well as viral infections that cause the common cold and the flu. Research into the effects of beta glucan on antibiotic resistant bacterial strains has been very promising.
A study done in Boston’s Brigham hospital found that beta glucan could enhance the ability of antibiotics to treat rats infected by E.Coli and Staphylococcus aureus. These two strains of bacteria are resistant to antibiotic treatment but when the rats were given beta glucan supplements, the antibiotics proved effective. According to the researchers, the results of the study showed that when beta glucan was used alongside traditional antibiotics, the effects of the antibiotics were enhanced against these two dangerous bacterial strains. (6)
5) Respiratory Health and Colds
Consuming beta glucans appears to have a beneficial effect on respiratory illnesses and also helps reduce the symptoms people get from the common cold. Studies actually show that there is a relationship between the consumption of beta glucans and the number of days that people take off sick from work.
In a study published in 2008, researchers in Montana examined the effect of beta glucans on upper respiratory tract infections and its potential to mitigate symptoms of these infections.
The participants chosen for the study were firefighters because they were regularly exposed to fumes and smoke in their daily lives and were more vulnerable to respiratory problems than other groups of people.
The participants were separated into two groups and either given daily beta glucan supplements or a placebo. They were then asked to note any common cold symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, coughing and blocked airways. They were also asked to make a note of any common flu symptoms like headaches, body aches, weakness or fatigue. Any of the participants who experienced these symptoms for two days running were considered to have a respiratory infection.
The results of the research were promising. Those who were given the beta glucan supplements experienced 23% fewer upper respiratory infections compared to those who took the placebo. (7)
This suggests that eating plenty of food containing beta glucans can help protect you against common illnesses like the cold and flu.
How to Use Beta Glucans
You can get your beta glucans either from dietary sources or from supplements. We have already mentioned that insoluble beta glucans are present in certain yeasts, mushrooms and fermented foods. Insoluble beta glucans have an excellent effect on the immune system while the soluble variety found in barley and oats exert powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
If you can not get your beta glucans through dietary means, then supplements are readily available these days. The recommended dose is typically 500 mg either once or twice each day.
If you have any doubts about adding beta glucans to your diet, please speak to your doctor or medical provider.