Beta Glucans: Weapons of Mass Protection
Imagine it’s the middle of the night. You, the kids and the family German Shepherd are sound asleep. Suddenly, you’re startled by several loud barks. You become concerned, since Fido is not known to bark for no apparent reason. You wake up, grab a flashlight and head downstairs to investigate. Following the warning sounds coming from the family guard dog, you stealthfully make your way to the back door. There you find a menacing, shadowy figure trying to pry the door open. You shine the flashlight on them and they turn and run away into the night. Your concerns turn to relief as you kneel down and gratefully hug your loyal friend for helping to protect and defend the family.
Beta glucans, (β-Glucans), compounds found in the diet of many traditional, as well as some modern cultures, act in much the same way to protect our bodies, as the family pet in this fictional story. β-Glucans help prime the immune system by “alerting” certain immune cells of a possible threat. They act as an early warning detection system designed to rally the troops and build the defenses, in preparation for any looming issue that may pop up on our immune system’s radar. They function, not only as potent “biological response modifiers”, but also as catalysts for the production of precursor immune cells which are synthesized in human bone marrow. Their efficacy and safety record is backed by sixty (60) plus years of peer-reviewed, medical and scientific research, conducted at prestigious institutions like Harvard, Tulane, Baylor, McGill and The Medical University of South Carolina.
But what exactly are β-Glucans? How do they work with the immune system to protect us against microbes, pathogens, toxins and disease? Are they a naturally occurring component, or are they foreign to the body, and thus inherently carry side-effects?
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According to Wikipedia, “beta glucans are chains of D-glucose polysaccharides linked by beta type glycosidic bonds.” In more common lexicon, these immune-modulating agents are naturally occurring, long-chain, non-linear strands of repeating sugars found in the cell wall of certain mushrooms, (Reishi, Shiitake, Maitake), beneficial yeast, (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), and a variety of marine algae species, (i.e., seaweed). They are commonly referred to as beta 1,3/1,6 glucans.
Considered “fiber-like” because of their complex poly-branched, triple helix structure, β-Glucans are also found in the bran of cereal grains like oats and barley, and to a lesser extent, in rye and wheat. These types, (beta 1,3/1,4 glucans), are thought to possess benefits for cholesterol management and blood sugar regulation, but do not support immune function to any significant degree.
Though the research community has yet to come to a consensus, mounting evidence suggests that their therapeutic value as immune-modulating agents, lies, in part, in their structure, solubility, length and molecular weight.
Unlike the nutrients zinc, selenium or vitamin C, which provide direct nutritional support for our immune systems, β-Glucans act more like catalysts that trigger the body’s immune cascade resulting in an improved and more robust immune response. Their mechanism of action can be likened to a key, which when inserted into a car’s ignition, turns the automobile on and allows the car to operate correctly and efficiently.
Specifically, β-Glucans bind to receptor sites on human immune cells, which in turn, trigger the innate, or cellular immune system. These immune cells include macrophages and natural killer cells, as well as T and B lymphocytes. When activated by this “chemical instigator” called a beta glucan, these cells respond by calling upon other components of the immune system, including cytokines, (cell-signaling proteins), such as interleukins, interferons and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a). These substances are the cellular weapons the immune system uses to modulate inflammation, induce programmed cell death, and inhibit viral replication as well as tumorigensis (tumor growth).
In its simplest definition, cancer is an uncontrolled replication of damaged cells that grow into a mass, or tumor. In the case of malignant cancer, these cells often migrate to other regions of the body where they become life-threatening. A healthy, well-nourished body is well equipped to kill cancer cells in their infancy, and protect against other immune threats. However, when the toxic burden becomes too great, or nutritional deficiencies develop, the body’s immune system falters; this results in a higher susceptibility to disease.
Animal and human research on β-Glucans and their anti-tumor properties dates back to the early 1960’s. Results of these studies pointed to their “remarkable anti-tumor activity against a wide range of different tumors.” [http://www.beta-glucan.info/] It’s popularity among Japanese researchers has grown in the last several decades; so much so that its now being used as part the immune-strengthening therapies offered to cancer patients in that country.
According to the Lance Armstrong Foundation website, www.LiveStrong.com, the National Cancer Institute is supporting three clinical trials to investigate the effectiveness of beta glucans on a variety of cancers. It speaks favorably about these compounds and suggests that they can be a critical component of an immune strengthening regimen, due to their ability to stimulate “immune cells to attack cancer cells.”
Even if a patient decides to go the conventional route to combat their cancer, some studies show that β-Glucans can enhance the effects of chemotherapy. [The American Journal of Medical Science, 1987]
What we can state with a fair degree of certainty is that β-Glucans help fight disease by triggering the body’s natural defense mechanisms to be on the lookout for possible immune threats. Much like the family dog in our fictional story, beta glucans “alert” your body to a possible menace, so that it can take appropriate action to eliminate the threat.
Unlike other immune-enhancing substances, β-Glucans will NOT ramp up or over stimulate an already over-active immune system. This makes it a preferred immune agent for those who suffer with auto-immune issues, (i.e., MS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis).
Beta glucans are not only highly effective for immune support, they are extremely safe, as evidenced by the FDA’s decision to label them as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).
So whether you are preventatively consuming beta glucan rich foods or supplements, or utilizing them as a course of treatment while you battle an active immune issue, these “weapons of mass protection” show much promise as immune potentiators, and as such, should garner more interest and investigation from the research and scientific communities in the years ahead.
Buddy Ojeda is a Certified Nutritionist who’s worked in the Natural Products Industry since 1996. He is well versed in areas of health and wellness, including diet, lifestyle, exercise and the use of nutraceuticals. In 2009 he started his own independent education company called Training Solutions on Demand. He’s currently a resident of South Florida, where he lives with his wife of 20 years and his six year old son.
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