Decades before COVID-19, health conscious consumers knew the value of food products and supplements that could improve immunity and protect against pathogens, environmental threats and cancer.
Once the pandemic struck, this interest exploded, with a huge spike in the sale of supplements aimed at boosting the immune system.
The choice of products is wide, but there’s one that stands out from the crowd. It’s called beta glucan.
The immune system has two distinct but interconnected parts, the innate immune system and the acquired immune system. Beta glucan supports them both. To understand the benefits, you’ve got to understand your immune system.
Your immune “army” at work
The innate immune system is your first line of defense against illness. It deploys a variety of “troops,” or immune cells, such as macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells and dendritic cells to protect you against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.
Meanwhile, the acquired immune system learns to recognize an enemy only after exposure. At first exposure, the acquired immune system is slow to respond and may not be strong enough to wipe out the threat. However, the second time around it can generate a response that’s highly specific to that invader, which is why it would be unusual to catch measles twice.
What weakens your immune system?
The immune system can be weakened in many ways. These include a poor diet, micronutrient depletion, lack of sleep, chronic stress and certain medications, such as steroids.
In addition, your immunity may be weaker than in the recent past because it’s no longer challenged on a regular basis by pathogens in our “sanitized” environment. Especially in the age of COVID, we’ve gone overboard with sterilizing everything.
But the problem existed long before. For example, widespread use of pesticides, antiseptics, and disinfectants as well as the overuse of antibiotics, means that daily challenges to our immune system have been minimized. We’re not making it do any work, and its “muscles” have become weak.
A number of health experts believe that our sanitized environment might be one of the reasons why cancer cases are on the rise. A baby born today has a nearly one in two chance of being diagnosed with cancer at some point during his or her lifetime.
But that’s not the only health implication. Some experts believe in the “hygiene hypothesis” to explain why we are more and more likely to have allergic reactions to pollen, foods and other usually harmless substances.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution.
Boost your immune system
the way nature intended
Beta glucan is a type of complex carbohydrate found in the cell walls of mushrooms, grains and in microorganisms including yeast and algae.
Beta glucan’s health benefits have been known for more than half a century. For example, since the 1960s, beta glucan from oats has been used to lower blood cholesterol. Researchers point to its chemical structure that they’ve called 1-3, 1-4, which has positive effects on blood cholesterol levels.
They also discovered other chemical structures called 1-3, 1-6 in beta glucan derived from yeast. Extensive studies confirm this type of beta glucan offers the greatest immune boosting response without overstimulating the immune system, which can create problems in and of itself.
Since traces of yeast, molds and fungus would have been ubiquitous in the diet before widespread use of pesticides and fungicides, the innate immune system would have learned to recognize the beta glucan inside as a signal of these potential threats and boost immune response.
Not only did innate immune cells come to recognize beta glucan, but in the course of evolution they developed their own receptors for it, such as receptor 3 (CR3) and Dectin-1, to optimize the body’s immune response.
The research suggests that the immune system has developed to be more responsive to fungal threats than anything else; more so than to bacteria or viruses. Now, however, with the plunge in yeasts and other fungi in our diet, and the loss of the beta glucan they contain, our immunity doesn’t have the strength it once had.
Beta glucan affects the whole body
When 1-3, 1-6 beta glucan is swallowed it passes through the stomach and into the small intestine, where it’s taken up by lymphatic tissue called Peyers Patches and is then transported to immune organs throughout the body.
This has been confirmed by attaching a dye to 1-3, 1-6 beta glucan before giving it orally. Researchers watched as it “lit up” in the liver, spleen, bone marrow etc., confirming that it passes through the gut wall successfully, and is taken up by the various immune cells throughout the body.
Beta glucan is an immunomodulator, a substance that can interact with the immune system to upregulate or downregulate specific parts of the immune response.
The immunomodulatory functions induced by beta glucan involve not only the innate immune system but extend to the adaptive immune system’s T and B cells. It can also trigger immune cells to release a cascade of cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha and various types of interleukins which are important in resisting infections and cancer.
The top immunomodulator
Beta glucan is not the only natural immunomodulator. There are many. Researchers from the University of Louisville decided to compare eleven of the most commonly used ones, monitoring their effects on the most important reactions covering both branches of the immune response.
Beta glucan outperformed resveratrol, curcumin, pterostilbene, astragalus, ellagic acid, echinacea, chlorella, cat’s claw, ginseng and vitamin C.
The researchers wrote that beta glucan showed itself to be “consistently the most active molecule strongly stimulating every reaction evaluated.
“These data were also confirmed using a Lewis lung cancer model, where only glucan and resveratrol lowered the number of metastases.”
Researchers have published over 20,000 studies on beta glucan, so its ability to protect against infection is well established. It also shows remarkable activity against a wide variety of tumors in lab research.
Boosts immunotherapy in mice
In Japan, a form of beta glucan derived from the turkey tail mushroom called PSK Krestin has been used clinically for the treatment of postoperative cancer patients since 1983. Turkey tail is the common name for the Coriolusversicolor species.
Various trials have shown patients do better when PSK is added to conventional treatments. Those with gastric and colorectal cancer were less likely to have recurrent cancer and lived longer. Lung cancer patients lived longer with improved quality of life.
A challenge in treating cancer is that the immune system often does not recognize a cancer cell as being different from a normal cell and therefore doesn’t mount an immune response.
But once researchers realized that proteins on the surface of a cancer cell can be differentiated from normal cells, they were able to create antibodies for these proteins which would attack and destroy them. This is called monoclonal antibody therapy, one of the modern forms of cancer immunotherapy.
When beta glucan occupies immune cell receptors it can help them recognize the cancer cell as foreign and wage an attack upon it, thereby supporting monoclonal antibody therapy.
Another study by the University of Louisville demonstrated that yeast-derived beta glucan in combination with a targeted monoclonal antibody drug resulted in significantly smaller tumor burdens in mice and achieved greater long-term survival compared to the monoclonal antibody alone.
In fact, the results were dramatic. Only ten percent of mice survived 100 days with the drug compared to 90 percent of mice that took the drug in combination with beta glucan.
Best of all, there are already promising results in people.
Doubles immune response
in human cancer patients
Researchers developed an intravenous form of beta glucan called Imprime PGG, which is being used with one or more targeted monoclonal antibody drugs in human trials.
It was developed by Biothera Pharmaceuticals and is described as “an immunological ‘ignition switch’ that triggers a cascade of activating events throughout the innate immune system that culminate in T cell activation and cancer cell killing.”
One study in metastatic colorectal cancer patients saw a doubling of overall immune response in patients given Imprime PGG with their standard drug therapy compared to those patients who received standard drug therapy alone. Researchers found similar findings in a trial of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.
Data presented in April at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Virtual Annual Meeting showed that patients with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer taking a combination regimen of drug therapy and Imprime PGG had an overall survival of 16.9 months compared to nine months for those taking the drug alone.
Trials are currently in progress using Imprime PGG in nine different forms of cancer at leading American cancer centers such as the Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloane-Kettering, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Taking beta glucan supplements
While shiitake, maitake and oyster mushrooms are good sources of 1-3,1-6 beta glucan, to maintain a regular fungal challenge to your immune system and fill those immune cell receptors, you really need to take a supplement.
An effective supplement is not determined by volume or dose, but by how well it can activate an immune response.
Vaclav Vetvicka, professor of pathology at the University of Louisville, has conducted three separate comparisons over six years on the immunological effects of various commercially available brands of beta glucan.
He found huge differences between them. Some had very little biological activity. For instance, one product might be good at stimulating antibody secretion but showed no activity on tumor suppression.
A product called 1-3D Beta Glucan by Transfer Point was the consistent top performer in Prof. Vetvicka’s research. The formulator of the product, A.J. Lanigan, said in an interview that 1-3D Beta Glucan should be taken each day for three days to reach maximum effectiveness. Since immune activity in the body drops slowly, taking a full dose every other day is still very effective after the three-day “warm-up” – good to know if cost is an issue.