As a form of fiber that can be derived from the cells of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and plants like oats and barley, beta glucan has been researched to have significant potential health benefits. Structurally, beta glucan can vary depending on the source and, with the structural variation, so can the targeted health benefits.
Beta glucan from grains are generally linear chain molecules composed of glucose units linked together by beta-1,3 or beta-1,4 bonds. These beta-glucans generally have been found to support heart health by lowering various forms of cholesterol.
Beta glucan molecules derived from yeast have branched side chains. They are linked by beta-1,3 bonds with side chains linked by beta-1,6 bonds. Yeast beta glucan are well renowned for their ability to boost immune function by priming it through interactions with the immune system in the digestive tract. Whether you understand the structural differences between the molecules or not, the important concept to understand is that beta glucan from different sources can have distinct health benefits.
Beta Glucan Immune System Benefits
Yeast are organisms that are widely present in the foods we eat and our environment. Mankind has utilized yeast for thousands of years to ferment food products, with historical records of ancient Egyptians confirming this practice. Just like bacteria, yeast and other organisms make up the human microbiome and are key contributors to health and disease. Studies are showing that yeast-derived beta glucan is one of the strongest and most effective boosters of the immune system that we know of.
Dubbed as ‘immune system trainers’, yeast-derived beta glucans have shown an ability to prime the immune system and increase its vigilance against invading pathogens. Yeast beta glucans have a 1,3 backbone with 1,6 side chain linkages. This structural arrangement with long side chains (termed as 1,3/1,6 beta glucans) make yeast beta glucans insoluble and allow them to confer unique immune benefits that other beta glucans do not possess.
The initial research showing that yeast beta glucans modulate immune function dates to the 1940s. The immune response in humans can be broken down into two basic aspects: the innate response and the adaptive response. The innate immune response is the initial response to pathogens and is comprised mainly of immune cells that envelop and kill the pathogen, including neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes. The innate immune response in non-specific and is carried out as a first line of defense. The second arm of the immune response is known as the adaptive response. After pathogens are processed through this stage, antigens from the pathogen are presented to T-cells and B-cells of the immune system for the development of a more specific response. A yeast beta glucan supplement enhances the robust nature of the first line of defense, the innate immune response, by priming and training the immune system to defend itself effectively and efficiently.
How Long Does It Take for Beta Glucan to Work?
More than 70% of the immune system is localized in the digestive tract, which is why gut health is so critical to immune health. This is where yeast beta glucan interacts with our immune system. Yeast beta glucans go to work in intestinal immune organs shortly after being consumed. Monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells of the immune system that are present in Peyer’s patches of the intestines phagocytose (or engulf) and process the insoluble 1,3/1,6 beta glucans. Over the next several days, cells containing the processed, fragmented soluble particles are shuttled to different immune organs of the body, including the spleen. Fragments then interact with receptors on various immune cells that modulate the innate immune response. This fragmentation into active beta glucan particles occurs over the first 3 to 5 days after ingestion. Immune cells slowly release these particles from days 5-10 with a decrease in release after 14 to 21 days.
Beta glucan particles then bind to receptors on neutrophils, monocytes, granulocytes, and NK cells of the immune system where they lead to a cascade of signaling events that serve to ultimately increase the efficiency and robustness of the innate immune response. Studies show that beta glucan-primed cells have an increased phagocytic capacity (to engulf pathogens), enhanced chemotaxis (improved ability to travel to a site of infection or attack) and improved oxidative burst (where free radicals are used by immune cells to damage pathogenic cells).
By priming the immune system through interactions in the digestive tract, these immune system booster molecules offer a powerful tool to support a robust immune response.
Beta Glucan Skin Health Benefits
An emerging role for various beta glucan molecules is in supporting healthy skin through wound healing properties. Research has found that when applied topically, specific beta glucan molecules may help heal skin cells. This is possible because of the multiple mechanisms of activity that beta glucan confers. We know that beta glucan supports antioxidant activity in the body and that skin damage is related to free radicals that harm skin cells. By reducing free radical damage through antioxidant mechanisms, beta glucan could positively impact the body’s healing process for the skin.
In addition, beta glucan molecules promote an anti-inflammatory response. Inflammation is a key player in wounds, infections, and other skin health issues. By applying beta glucan directly to damaged skin, it is likely that they serve to decrease the localized inflammatory response and, therefore, facilitate the body’s skin healing process.
A third way in which beta glucan molecules help with skin healing is through their immune enhancing qualities. Skin wounds, infections and other blemishes often have an immune component where the immune system is overactive. By modulating the immune response and interacting with immune cells in the skin, beta glucan can support a return to health of skin cells, leading to tissue repair. Research also indicates beta glucan interacts with non-immune cells in the skin, including keratinocytes, fibroblasts, nerve cells and others. This interaction increases collagen production in skin tissue, facilitates blood flow bringing healing nutrients to the site of skin damage, and leads to repair of the epithelial skin layer.
While more research is needed in this area, the promise shown by beta glucan benefits for healthy skin is real.
Beta Glucan Heart Health Benefits
Another area of prominent research interest around beta glucan has been evidence that these compounds improve heart and cardiovascular health parameters. Beta glucan molecules derived from oats and other grains have been found to support healthy blood lipid levels. In fact, the first research showing a beneficial effect of oats for cholesterol was reported back in 1963. These soluble forms of beta glucan have been investigated in randomized controlled trials.
A recent analysis of multiple clinical studies was published in which the authors summarized the results from trials and pooled the findings showing support for heart health. In total, 269 studies were reviewed in full and 58 were included in their final analysis, representing a significant amount of data. For oat-derived beta glucan, specifically, the authors concluded that supplementation with this soluble fiber source lowered LDL cholesterol, other non-HDL cholesterol particles, and apolipoprotein B levels. Both LDL cholesterol levels and apolipoprotein B levels are predictors of the risk for heart disease. By lowering these levels, beta glucan can help lower the potential risk for heart disease. As an add-on measure to a healthy diet, beta glucan heart health benefits can make a significant difference in your wellbeing.
Beta glucan holds a diverse range of potential benefits ranging from immune health to skin health and a healthy cardiovascular system. Potentially, beta glucan anti-aging supplements can address many health areas. It is important to recognize that the source of beta glucan makes a difference in their functional abilities. These unique compounds from yeast, fungi, bacteria, and plants offer significant potential for supporting whole body wellbeing.
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