Beta-Glucan: The Natural Immunity King
The global fish oil market is expected to reach $4 billion by 2022. But fish oil may eventually soon be overtaken by something else with broad-ranging health benefits: beta-glucan. It's only recently become the talk of the nutritional town, and news of its capabilities has just started to trickle down into the mainstream.
Beta-glucans are polysaccharides (a carbohydrate with several sugar molecules bonded together) that occur in the cell walls of certain cereal grains, bacteria, fungi, and algae.
The intriguing thing about them is that once ingested by humans, the immune system recognizes the beta-glucans as pathogen-associated molecular patterns or PAMPs. This means beta-glucan activates both innate and acquired immunity, which is a good thing.
Innate immunity is what you're born with. It consists of cells like neutrophils, monocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, and a set of 30 blood proteins known as the complement proteins. Together, they wage a concerted attack against invading pathogens.
Adaptive immunity, however, involves cells that require "training." Each infectious exposure "teaches" cells known as T-cells and B-cells to produce antibodies that attack specific infections. These cells "remember" the infection and produce long-lasting immunity to it. (This process is also the basis of most vaccines.)
It was initially thought that beta-glucans only activated innate immunity, which is great by itself, but the recent discovery that they also activate acquired immunity is really exciting.
In practical terms, it means beta-glucan has immunomodulatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and radioprotective (protects healthy tissue from radiation) properties. And, since beta-glucan is essentially insoluble fiber, scientists posit that it might also have cardioprotective effects through increased control of cholesterol, weight, and glycemic response.
Lest you get the wrong idea, beta-glucan is NOT a pathogen of any kind. It merely tricks the immune system into thinking it's being attacked. It puts the immune system on permanent alert.
I'll draw you an analogy: Some 25 years ago, the US Air Force had nuclear-equipped B-52H Stratofortress bombers in the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They were on permanent alert in case Russia got a little froggy.
The B-52s have since been grounded, but their situation was similar to what beta-glucan does; it puts the immune system on round-the-clock alert against any potentially harmful enemies. If something does have the temerity to "attack," the odds of repelling it quickly are then far greater.
Let's say a virus has just invaded one of your cells. Almost immediately, the cell releases "cytokines," which are like chemical Paul Reveres that alert other cells of the invasion.
T-cells and natural killer cells come charging to the site of infection, but rather than save the infected cell, they destroy it so the viruses or bacteria inside will also die. (What is true in Star Trek is also true in immunology: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.)
While these T-cells are performing their grim duty, they're also instructing B-lymphocytes to start forming immunoglobulins (antibodies) that are constructed to attach to that specific invader, much like a key fits a lock. The antibodies then enlist complement proteins to punch holes in the cell wall of the invader so it looks more like a Swiss cheese than a big, bad, pathogen.
In order to "remember" the "lock" of this particular invader, memory T-cells are formed so that any future invasions by the same invader can be quickly squashed.
Of course, this system isn't foolproof. If it were, you wouldn't see people come down with flu, colds, or other infectious diseases. You wouldn't see cancer.
However, ingesting beta-glucan on a regular basis seems to fortify the whole system, thereby increasing the odds of repelling a disease entirely or defeating it in less time than might otherwise be possible.
There's been a ton of research on beta-glucan, with a good number of human studies. Take for instance what happened when patients (from 25 to 65 years old) were given beta-1,3-glucan over a 90-day period:
- 3.3 fewer sick days.
- 70% fewer upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) symptoms: runny nose, plugged nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, hoarseness, head congestion, chest congestion, feeling tired, headache, body aches, and fever.
- 10 fewer URTI symptom days.
- 45% fewer URTI symptom episodes.
- 80% lower overall severity of URTI symptoms.
That's just one study, but as of this writing, 17 other studies have found that people using beta-glucan had increased resistance against URTI. Another eight studies found that both recreational and elite athletes who used beta-glucan before intense exercise had a far smaller than normally seen decline in immune system functionality.
Other studies found that beta-glucan even helped allergy sufferers, reduced outbreaks of herpes, and even lessened the pain in osteoarthritis sufferers.
And here are a couple of layers of icing on the immunological cake: Age didn't seem to be a factor in the efficacy of beta-glucan; it worked just as well in codgers as young people. Neither did the use of beta-glucan lead to any apparent side effects, which means it's perfectly safe.
The short answer is no, for several reasons.
But when I first started looking at beta-glucan, I figured you could get an effective dose by just eating half a cup or more of oatmeal. I'd seen that the human equivalent to the doses of beta-glucan used in a couple of animal studies amounted to less than a gram a day, and a half cup of oatmeal, lo and behold, contained roughly 2 to 3 grams.
I've since learned that it's not that simple. Oatmeal, along with the other beta-glucan containing foods, has a mixture of different isomers of beta-glucans. That's not terrible, but beta-1,3-glucan is much more potent.
Further, our gastrointestinal tracts aren't prepared to adequately digest some of the cell walls of those natural grains like oatmeal (or yeast, for that matter) to give the gastrointestinal system access to beta-glucan. In other words, they're not very bioavailable.
And lastly, according to Dr. Vaclav Vetvicka, director of research at the Department of Pathology at the University of Louisville, "When beta-glucan is not adequately purified, it will contain numerous impurities, often acting against the biological effects of the molecules."
All of this is why algal beta-1,3-glucan, extracted from Euglena gracilis, is the preferred choice.
Algal beta-1-3-glucan has no chemical side branches or particulate matter. Its cell wall is much thinner than that of oat or yeast, making it easier to digest. Lastly, the concentration of beta-glucan in the cell walls of algae is over 95%, compared to the 60 to 80% found in certain yeast.
Don't get the idea that algal beta-glucan is just a bunch of dried seaweed, though. The Euglena gracilis is carefully grown and cultivated in stainless steel tanks using filtered water and food-grade nutrients.
When the algae reach their "target density," they're removed from the fermentation broth and the algal cells are filtered out. The beta-1,3-glucan is then extracted, washed, dried, milled, and finally packaged.
This is exactly the form of beta-glucan Biotest uses in its I-Well™ immuno-support product.
The I-Well™ supplement supports the body's natural immune function by harnessing the firepower of beta-1,3-glucan and three other immuno-enhancing compounds: solid lipid curcumin particles, microencapsulated Vitamin D3, and the potent EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate).
Each of the "team members" in the I-Well™ formula has its own superpower that warranted its inclusion in the I-Well™ Immune Support formulation:
- Beta-1,3-glucan, as explained, keeps the immune system alert to invading pathogens.
- Solid lipid curcumin particles target inflammation support.
- Vitamin D3 allows immune defense cells to activate more efficiently.
- EGCG appears to strengthen the immune system.
Take 3 capsules a day to reinforce, strengthen, and support the body's natural immune system.
- Rondanelli M et al. The biological activity of beta-glucans. Minerva Med. 2009 Jun;100(3):237-45. – This review summarizes the recent knowledge about the positive effect of beta glucans on human health. Quote: "A growing body of science indicates that beta-glucans promote health in a number of important ways. For instance, several studies have also shown that oat beta-glucans blunt the glycemic and insulin response. Moreover, beta-1,3-glucans improve the body's immune system defense against foreign invaders by enhancing the ability of macrophages, neutrophils and natural killer cells to respond to and fight a wide range of challenges such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites."
- Vetvicka V et al. Glucans and Cancer: Comparison of Commercially Available B-glucans – Part IV. Anticancer Res, 38(3):1327-1333, Mar 2018. – Quote: "Among the well-studied effects of B-glucans, we can mention stimulation of both humoral and cellular immunity, metabolic control of diabetes, stimulation of wound healing, stress reduction, attenuation of chronic fatigue syndrome, lowering cholesterol levels, and inhibition of cancer. ...Chronic respiratory problems. In Japan, glucan has been widely used, for over 30 years, in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancer."
- Davis JM et al. Effects of oat beta-glucan on innate immunity and infection after exercise stress. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004, Aug;36(8):1321-7. – These data suggest that daily ingestion of beta glucan may offset the increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) associated with exercise stress, which may be mediated, at least in part, by an increase in macrophage antiviral resistance.
- Volman JJ et al. Dietary modulation of immune function by β-glucans. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 94, Issue 2, 23 May 2008, Pages 276-284. – The immune response can be modulated by nutrients like β-glucans, which are glucose polymers that are major structural components of the cell wall of yeast, fungi, and bacteria, but also of cereals like oat and barley. In this review the current status concerning possibilities to modulate immune function by β-glucans is discussed. In vitro as well as in vivo studies in animals and humans show that especially β-glucans derived from fungi and yeast have immune modulating properties. Most frequently evaluated are effects on leukocyte activity, which has been suggested to contribute to the increased resistance against infections observed after β-glucan interventions.
- Vetvicka V et al. β-Glucan Improves Conditions of Chronic Fatigue in Mice by Stimulation of Immunity. The Open Biochemistry Journal, 2-18-2020. – This study found that glucan supplementation strongly improved the suppressed phagocytosis and changes in cytokine and levels of oxidative stress markers caused by fatigue. In addition, glucan supplementation also increased the motor functioning of tested animals.
- Akramiene D et al. Effects of ß-glucans on the immune system. Medicinia, 11 August 2007. – This paper explains how ß-Glucans are naturally occurring polysaccharides. These glucose polymers are constituents of the cell wall of certain pathogenic bacteria and fungi. These substances increase host immune defense by activating the complement system, enhancing macrophages and natural killer cell function. ß-Glucans also show anti-carcinogenic activity. They can prevent oncogenesis due to the protective effect against potent genotoxic carcinogens. As immunostimulating agents, which act through the activation of macrophages and NK cell cytotoxicity, ß-glucan can inhibit tumor growth in promotion stage, too.
- McFarlin BK et al. Baker's yeast beta glucan supplementation increases salivary IgA [immunoglobulin] and decreases cold/flu symptomatic days after intense exercise. J Diet Suppl 10(3):171-83, Sept 2013. – Beta glucan was associated with a 37% reduction in the number of cold/flu symptom days postmarathon compared to placebo (p = .026).
- Kwanghook K., et al. Algae-derived β-glucan enhanced gut health and immune responses of weaned pigs experimentally infected with a pathogenic E. coli. Animal Feed Science and Technology, Volume 248, February 2019 – Quote: "Feed supplementation of algae-derived β-glucan alleviated diarrhea of F18 E. coli infected pigs by enhancing gut integrity. Feeding β-glucan also boosted host immune response against E. coli infection."
- Borchani C et al. Structural Characterization, Technological Functionality, and Physiological Aspects of Fungal B-D-glucans: A Review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 56(10:1746-52, PMIC 25830657, Jul 2016 – Quote: "Thus, they [(1-3)(1-6)-B-glucans] are effective in inhibiting growth of cancer cells and metastasis and preventing bacterial infection. In humans, B-glucans reduce blood cholesterol, improve glucose absorption by body cells, and so help wound healing."
- Graugaum H-J et al. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled nutritional study using an insoluble yeast beta-glucan to improve the immune defense system. Dood Nutr Sci, 3(6):738-746, June 2012. – In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized clinical trial, the effect of an insoluble yeast beta-glucan preparation on the incidences of common colds and its effect on common cold symptoms were compared to placebo. ...the beta-glucan group had significantly less infections compared to placebo. Beta-glucan significantly reduced the typical cold symptoms ('sore throat and/or difficulty swallowing', 'hoarseness and/or cough' and 'runny nose') as opposed to placebo. The present study demonstrated a prophylactic [preventative] effect of yeast beta-glucan on the occurrence of common colds as opposed to placebo. In addition, when these episodes occurred, they were from the beginning less pronounced and subsided faster.
- Carlos AF et al. β-Glucan successfully stimulated the immune system in different jawed vertebrate species. Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Volume 62, February 2019, Pages 1-6. – Several reports have shown the positive effects of β-glucans on the immune system. For 28 days, scientists, fed four different vertebrate species: mice, dogs, piglets and chicks, with two β-glucan molecules (BG01 and BG02). They measured the serum interleukin 2 as an indicator of innate immune response, the neutrophils and monocytes phagocytosis index as a cellular response, and antibody formation as an adaptive response. The results clearly showed that the different β-glucan molecules exhibited biologically differently behaviors, but both molecules stimulate the immune system in a similar pattern in these four species. This finding suggests that vertebrates shared similar mechanisms/patterns in recognizing the β-glucans and confirms the benefits of β-glucans across different vertebrate species.