Beta-glucans are compounds found in certain foods that have essential medicinal benefits. For example, they are one of the primary compounds that give medicinal mushrooms powerful immune-boosting benefits. They also benefit cardiovascular health, cholesterol, blood sugar, and much more. But what exactly are beta-glucans, and how do they benefit our health?
Beta Glucans: Everything you Need to Know
Beta-glucans (β-glucans) is “soluble fibers that come from the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and some plants.” They make up a specific group of polysaccharides, which are large molecules of many smaller monosaccharides. Monosaccharides are simple sugars, like glucose. Beta-glucans are found in many plants, such as oats and barley, and are also commonly found in mushrooms.
Studies on β-glucans have found that they possess numerous health benefits. They appear to be very effective at lowering cholesterol, especially the “bad” type of cholesterol (LDL). Beta-glucans also appear to play a beneficial role in tumor inhibition, insulin resistance, hypertension, obesity, and dyslipidemia. Additionally, beta-glucans have significant antimicrobial effects, helping to stop the growth of harmful bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms.
What Are The Health Benefits of Beta Glucans?
Research on beta-glucans has identified many impressive health benefits. The top beta-glucan health benefits include:
Beta Glucans May Support Immune System Function
One of the most well-known benefits of beta-glucans is their ability to support immune system health. Studies on the beta-glucans show they can act as immune system activators and cell response modifiers. In the body, beta-glucans bind to specific receptors and trigger a cellular response that’s especially helpful in cases of immunosuppression and depleted blood cell production.
Beta-glucans also promote the activity of lymphocytes, which are white blood cells known as “Th1 and Th2 effectors”. Th1 lymphocytes regulate the immune response against pathogens within cells, while Th2 effectors regulate the immune response against extracellular pathogens.
Because beta-glucans activate innate immune cells, they enhance a wide range of immune system activity and support overall immune function. This immune cell activation also sets off adaptive immune cell responses, which studies suggest may help to inhibit tumor growth.
Eating more foods or supplements with beta-glucans may help support the body’s immune response and increase your body’s ability to fight off infections and prevent disease.
Beta Glucans May Help Manage Cholesterol
Research on beta-glucans suggests they have a positive effect on cholesterol management. In the digestive tract, beta-glucans act as dietary fibers. Two forms of beta-glucans, insoluble and soluble, can interact with lipids and biliary salts in the intestines and lower cholesterol levels as a result. According to one study, “these fibers, via their digestion or fermentation by intestinal microbiota, may affect cholesterol metabolism by acting on bile acids and affecting lipid absorption.”
Cholesterol is not a bad thing. It is essential for life and is needed for the formation of bile acids, steroid hormones and vitamin D. Cholesterol only becomes harmful when its concentrations are elevated in the blood, particularly when LDL cholesterol levels are elevated. Elevated LDL cholesterol may cause long-term chronic inflammation in the artery wall, resulting in increased cholesterol storage. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and reduces the action of LDL.
Beta-glucans can bind to bile acids, monoglycerides, free fatty acids, and cholesterol. They also decrease the absorption of these chemicals in the blood and encourage their elimination through the digestive tract. As a result, beta-glucans may lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Studies have shown, however, that they do not seem to affect HDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Beta Glucans May Support Gut Health
Acting as dietary fibers, beta-glucans may also influence the microbial environment in the gut and support overall gut health. As intestinal bacteria ferment these fibers, a compound known as butyrate is produced.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that may restore damaged intestinal tissue and support the strength of the gut lining. Additionally, it may help reduce inflammation in the gut and may help to fight off gut infections like parasites or Candida.
Because of their effect on the microorganisms in the gut and on repairing damaged gut tissue, beta-glucans can be utilized as compounds for enhancing overall intestinal health.
Beta Glucans May Help with Weight Control
Various human and animal-based trials have proven that beta-glucans have anti-diabetic and anti-obesity effects. Acting as dietary fibers, beta-glucans can make you feel full after eating, promoting satiation and preventing overeating. As bacteria ferment these dietary fibers in the intestines, short-chain fatty acids are produced. In addition, these short-chain fatty acids help to control the release of various appetite-regulating hormones, such as ghrelin and peptide YY.
Beta Glucans May Help Manage Blood Pressure
Research on beta-glucan has shown that it can reduce high blood pressure (hypertension). In a study performed on rats with hypertension, a diet containing 5% shiitake (Lentinus edodes) or maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushroom caused a decrease in mean systemic blood pressure. This was attributed to the beta-glucan content of these mushrooms. Another clinical trial with foods containing oat beta glucans showed that they lowered blood pressure in subjects with a body mass index (BMI) above the median.
Beta Glucans May Support Bone Health
In clinical trials, beta glucan has demonstrated anti-osteoporotic activities. Osteoporotic fractures occur when people have osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones become fragile due to deterioration or low bone mass. According to one study, “beta-glucans mobilize murine progenitor cells from bone marrow and enhance murine hematopoietic recovery following bone marrow injury.” Though current research is promising, more research is needed to study beta-glucans effects on bone health.
What Foods Have Beta Glucans?
Many foods have beta-glucans in them, mainly plant foods. Some of these have higher beta-glucan content than others. For example, mushrooms are naturally high in beta-glucans and are considered one of the top foods. Some other beta-glucans foods include:
- Shiitake Mushroom
- Maitake Mushroom
- Reishi Mushroom
- Agaricus Mushroom
- Nutritional Yeast
- Whole Wheat
- Algae (spirulina, chlorella, etc.)
Eating more of these beta glucan-rich foods may have a positive effect on immune system health and cholesterol levels. They may also support gut health, among other benefits.
Should I Supplement with Beta Glucans?
Beta-glucan supplements may positively affect cholesterol levels, but most people can get plenty of beta-glucan in their diet by eating a variety of plant foods. This may be a more beneficial source of beta-glucan than beta-glucan supplements, as some can cause digestive discomfort.
This is particularly true with beta glucan supplements created to enhance dietary fiber. On the other hand, medicinal mushroom supplements contain beta-glucans but are typically not large enough to cause digestive upset. However, these supplements can positively affect immune health and can be beneficial to supplement with.
You should consult your doctor before taking any beta glucan supplement to determine if it is the right supplement.
Are There Any Side Effects to Consuming Beta Glucans?
Beta-glucans are a dietary fiber found in plant foods with many health benefits. However, they have some potential side effects, though these are usually mild. It is possible to experience some gastrointestinal side effects from consuming beta-glucan, including:
- Abdominal cramping
This is also more common with beta glucan supplements than with foods that contain beta-glucan. Beta-glucan supplements may also have adverse effects when combined with other medications—this is why it is essential to consult your doctor, especially if you are taking other medicines like blood pressure, drugs that suppress the immune system, or certain non-steroidal medicines.
Beta-glucan side effects are uncommon. When consumed from whole plant foods, they are unlikely to cause any side effects, and if any do occur, they are usually mild digestive effects like gas or bloating. However, if you are taking other medications, it is a concern to consume beta-glucans. In this case, it is always recommended to talk to your doctor about their safety.
Beta-glucans are a type of fiber found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeast, and certain plants that have been shown to have many benefits to human health. For example, they are powerful immune stimulants and appear very effective at lowering LDL cholesterol. Additionally, they benefit digestive health, bone health, blood pressure, blood glucose, and weight management.
Some top beta glucans foods include mushrooms, oats, wheat, barley, rye, nutritional yeast, seaweed, and algae like spirulina and chlorella.
Overall, beta-glucans are considered to be very safe and beneficial to health. However, when taken as a fiber supplement, beta-glucan may cause mild digestive symptoms in some people. Beta-glucan supplements may also interact with other medications, so it is recommended to consult your doctor before taking a beta-glucan supplement if you are also taking other medications, particularly medications that affect blood pressure or immunity.