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What are beta-glucans?

We all know what’s good for our bodies, but did you know that many foods naturally contain beta-glucans? Beta-glucans (β-glucan) are polysaccharides, a dietary fiber found in natural sources such as yeast, medicinal mushrooms, bacteria, algae, barley, and oats. Due to their supposed health benefits, beta-glucans are now a popular additive for food and dietary supplements.

In this blog post, we’ll find out what beta-glucans are, their types, potential benefits, and how to incorporate them into everyday life.

What Are Beta-Glucans

As mentioned, beta-glucans are a type of dietary fiber. They’re water-soluble polysaccharides and can be obtained from cereal sources (oats and barley) and non-cereal sources like yeast, mushrooms, bacteria, and algae. Regarding its chemical structure, beta-glucans consist of glucose units that make up polysaccharides, a type of carbohydrate.

In cereal-based sources, glucose monomers are linked via beta 1-4 and 1-3 glycosidic bonds. In bacteria and algae, glucose monomers are linked via beta 1-3 glycosidic bonds. For yeast and mushrooms, glucose monomers are linked via beta 1-3 and 1-6 glycosidic bonds.

Beta-glucans obtained from bacteria and algae show a linear structure, while ones from yeast, mushrooms, oats, and barley have a branched structure.

Types and Differences in Beta-Glucans

There are two different types of beta-glucans: cereal and non-cereal sources. They have different chemical structures, which also affect the impact on the human body.

Cereal beta-glucans are found in soluble fibers like oats and barley. They’re known to have several positive effects, such as improvement in glucose response and blood cholesterol levels.

Non-cereal beta-glucans are the fibrous structures found in yeast, fungi, bacteria, and algae. The beneficial properties of this type of beta-glucans are more toward immunomodulatory functions, which is why it’s one of the focuses of immunomodulation and cancer treatment clinical trials.

This is because the gut microbiota ferments dietary fibers, ultimately enhancing immune homeostasis.

The Science Behind Beta-Glucans

Beta-glucans have been extensively researched for some time regarding potential health benefits. This is because of their presence in food ingredients used as traditional medicines and their potentially low risk of adverse side effects. One of the first properties examined are their role as an immunomodulator and its impact on immune function, with over 20,000 published studies.

Beta-glucans are also studied in dermatology, as they can be used to heal wounds by stimulation of macrophages. Their antioxidant properties are also useful in cosmetic formulation and improving skin conditions. Studies concerning other health and potential nutritional benefits soon follow, such as their effects on glucose and cholesterol levels to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

After establishing their potential benefits, researchers have also examined the best mechanism to administer beta-glucans. Previously, orally administered beta-glucans were thought not to show any activity, which was then corrected by later studies.

One of the constraints is that most clinical research is done within a small number of populations with certain conditions, and others are based on animal subjects. There’s also limited knowledge of the precise mechanism of its potential health benefits, which is still unclear.

Further research is needed to determine how to incorporate beta-glucans to fully exploit their supposed benefits.

Potential Benefits of Beta-Glucans

Beta-glucans have several potential benefits, which are as follows.

Immune system support: Beta-glucans help to modulate our immune system by activating the complement system, enhancing macrophages and natural killer cell function against outside infection.

Aside from that, beta-glucans induce “trained immunity,” which is an enhanced response when there are secondary infections. Beta-glucans were also shown to have protective properties in preventing and treating human upper respiratory tract infections.

Potential benefits on cholesterol levels: Another potential benefit is lowering cholesterol levels in our body. Beta-glucans have two forms – soluble and insoluble – and can interact with lipids and biliary salts in your bowel, reducing cholesterol levels.

Blood sugar regulation: Beta-glucans have also been shown to help regulate blood glucose levels. Dietary beta-glucan intake can help control blood glucose in patients with type 2 diabetes. In addition, it also helps alleviate other symptoms, such as controlling lipid levels and reducing hypertension.

Inflammation: Beta-glucans’s anti-inflammatory properties are mediated by regulating inflammatory cytokines and noncytokines mediators, such as nitric oxide, interleukins, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Another research found that it reduced inflammatory markers and recovered signaling pathways in Crohn’s Disease patients.

Mental health: Aside from physical health, beta-glucans can also potentially improve emotional well-being. A study found that beta-glucan consumption can potentially improve mood state and emotional factors. Beta-glucans have also been found to improve cognitive functions by altering gut microbiota, affecting the gut-brain axis.

Cardiovascular health and cholesterol management: Many beta-glucan sources can prevent cardiovascular-related diseases by treating or preventing their risk factors. These risk factors include obesity, diabetes, dyslipidemia, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and oxidative stress.

Incorporating Beta-Glucans in Your Diet

As mentioned earlier, there are several natural sources of beta-glucans that you can easily access through diet. You can incorporate beta-glucans by consuming oats and barley for cereal and mushrooms and algae for non-cereal-based ones.

The recommended daily intake of beta-glucan is 3 grams per day, which you can reach by consuming the proper amount of food. Typically, you want to spread it over 3 servings of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

For example, you can consume cooked pearl barley for breakfast, oatcakes as a snack, and oat bran casseroles for lunch. You can also incorporate edible mushrooms, such as shiitake and oysters, into your meals, known as some of the most important sources of mushroom-based beta-glucans.

Key Takeaways

Beta-glucans have numerous potential benefits, both physically and mentally*. They were shown to improve the immune system, cardiovascular health, and blood glucose levels. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, protective effects on our cognitive functions, and may improve mood.

Beta-Glucans FAQs

What are beta-glucans suitable for?

Beta-glucans have numerous potential benefits, such as improving the immune response, lowering cholesterol levels, regulating blood sugar and anti-inflammatory effects, improving mental health and cognitive functions, and enhancing cardiovascular health to reduce the risk of heart disease*.

What are the side effects of beta-glucans?

There are several potential side effects of beta-glucans: chills, fever, headache, back and joint pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, high or low blood pressure, flushing, rashes, and increased urine. These side effects are only present when beta-glucans are administered through injection, while no side effects are known when taken by mouth.

It’s essential to consume beta-glucans according to the standards and dosage prescribed on its packaging. In addition, consult your healthcare provider before starting on any supplement, especially if you have preexisting conditions or are on medications.

Can beta-glucans help with weight loss?

Yes, beta-glucans might be able to help you with weight loss*. Beta-glucans are a type of dietary fiber that will help you with a feeling of satiety and slow gastric emptying. According to a meta-analysis study, beta-glucan consumption reduces body weight and body mass index (BMI).

How do beta-glucans affect the immune system?

Beta-glucans help our immune system by activating the complement system, enhancing macrophages, and naturally killing cell function. They also improve our immune system by inducing “trained immunity,” where our body can protect against infections when there’s a repeat exposure.

What is the recommended daily dose of beta-glucan?​​

Studies have recommended a daily dose between 100 – 500 mg to stimulate the immune system. In certain circumstances, such as to decrease cholesterol levels, the concentrations might be as high as 3 mg daily. However, you should consult a medical professional if you’re aiming for a specific goal when consuming beta-glucans.

*It is important to note that the benefits of these products have not been conclusively proven. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, and the NHS has not made any guarantees about the efficacy of such products.

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