In our modern era, our surroundings are kept excessively clean, leading to a detrimental effect on our immune systems. A robust immune system is vital for maintaining good health. Unfortunately, since the 1960s and 70s, there has been a surge in ailments related to the immune system, such as allergies, asthma, conjunctivitis, dermatitis, and acidophilic gastrointestinal disorders. Upon examining the evidence, it appears that we have caused harm to specific components of our immune system through our own actions.
The hygiene hypothesis, formulated in 1989 by D.P Strachan, then working in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Sciences at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, offers some explanation, but a recent discovery reveals that a significant portion of the problem stems from the over-sanitation of the food supply. Fascinating compounds, known as “one, three, one, six beta glucans”, have been meticulously eliminated from our diets.
What are beta glucans?
Have you heard of beta-glucans? They are intricate fibers made up of polysaccharides found in oats, barley, and some medicinal mushrooms. These incredible compounds come in various forms, but the beta-glucans found in certain mushrooms and baker’s yeast are immune system powerhouses. Some notable examples include lentinan and AHCC from shiitake mushrooms, PSK and PSP from turkey tail mushrooms, ganoderan from reishi mushrooms, and HEP3 from lion’s mane mushrooms.
Researchers like Simona Esposito and Licia Iacovello from the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention, IRCCS NEUROMED, 86077 Pozzilli in Italy are currently investigating the potential of beta-glucans from mushrooms and yeasts as potent immune stimulants.
Beta glucans in our food chain
Once upon a time, one three one six beta glucans were a staple of fermented foods like bread and beer, but as technology advanced, we lost touch with these vital compounds. Nowadays, we find them in unassuming places like the blemishes on our apples and pears. Sadly, even these sources are dwindling due to the widespread use of fungicide to protect crops. It’s a necessary measure, but what we’ve come to realise is that those very blemishes are crucial to our health because they harbour these essential compounds.
We now know that one three one six beta glucans play a crucial role in preparing the macrophages, neutrophil granulocytes, tumour side of granulocytes, and other components of the innate immune system. By reintroducing these beta glucans back into our food chain, we can reset our immune system, restoring it to its natural state. This breakthrough means we can improve our resistance to infection, reduce allergies, and normalise immune function through the power of nutrition.
Beta glucans in Oats
In the world of nutrition, beta-glucans from cereals, especially from oats, are lauded for their ability to combat cardiovascular disease. However, over the past three decades of studying beta-glucans, the majority of research has been focused on their impact on the immune system. These complex fibres are composed of glucose molecules linked together by beta-compounds in various ways, with one such compound being the beta-1,3 chain.
It’s important to note that beta glucans only have an immunomodulating effect if they have side chains branching off the beta one three chain at the one, six position. These branches are composed of glucose molecules, much like the main chain, and this particular type of beta glucan is known as one, three, one, six beta-d-glucose, or beta glucan one, three, one, six.
Besides this, beta-1,4, beta-1,6 and beta-3,6 compounds can also exist. Again, in beta-1,3/1,6-glucan there is a basic chain with beta-1,3-compounds, whereas the side chains form via beta-1,6. Lentinan from shiitake mushrooms consists exclusively of beta-1,3/1,6-glucans. A high number of 1,3-1,6 compounds within the beta-glucan chains is necessary to ensure immune stimulation. Other compounds, such as 2,3 and 3,6 are ineffective and only contribute to the fibre content. To ensure good efficacy, beta-1,3/1,6 glucan molecules must also be free of fats, proteins, mannans and other impurities.
Beta-glucans belong to the group of prebiotics which stimulate the growth and activity of the natural intestinal microbiota, at the same time they inhibit the growth of pathogens. They play an important role in the proper functioning of the gastrointestinal tract to prevent inflammation as well as colon cancer. Beta-glucans are acid-resistant and can pass through the stomach almost without damage. The large beta-glucan molecules are absorbed by the macrophages in the intestinal wall. This activates them and they move back to the lymph nodes and bone marrow. In the bone marrow, beta-glucans break down into smaller glucan fragments, which then bind to specific receptors on immune cells (neutrophils and eosinophils) in the bone marrow. Beta-glucans are relatively large molecules, but lentinans from shiitake mushrooms are particularly large, which limits their oral bioavailability.
After oral ingestion, both large and small beta-glucan fragments can be detected in the blood, which means that absorption via the gastrointestinal tract takes place in any case.
Beta glucan benefits
Beta-1,3/1,6-glucans increase a non-specific immune response, with the most significant effect being the stimulation of macrophages and neutrophils, which are cells that belong to the first line of defense of the immune system. Macrophages are large white blood cells that specialize in engulfing and digesting cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, and cancer cells. They are an important part of the innate immune system and play a key role in activating the adaptive immune response. Neutrophils, on the other hand, are a type of white blood cell that are the first responders to infection or injury. They are highly mobile and can quickly move to the site of infection or injury to engulf and destroy invading pathogens.
Beta-1,3/1,6-glucans improve all important macrophage functions, including their ability to engulf and destroy pathogens, and produce important cytokines such as IL-1 (interleukin-1), IL-6, and TNF-alpha, which are at the root of a chain reaction that can also kick-start the humoral immune system. The humoral immune system is a part of the adaptive immune system that involves the production of antibodies by B cells to fight specific pathogens. Antibodies are specialized proteins that recognize and neutralize pathogens by binding to them and marking them for destruction by other cells in the immune system. Beta-1,3/1,6-glucans can help stimulate the production of antibodies, thus improving the ability of the body to fight infections.
After administering a single dose, studies show that the effect of beta-1,3/1,6-glucans on macrophage function is at its maximum after 72 hours. Neutrophil granulocytes are also important cells within the immune system. Like macrophages, they contain specific receptors (CR3 receptors) for the beta-glucan macromolecule. Binding to these receptors enhances the destructive potential of these neutrophils and improves their ability to move or migrate to the site of infection or inflammation. Special proteins in the blood (chemokines) direct neutrophils to the site of infection and are among the first immune cells to respond to that infection or injury.
Treatment with beta glucans
Beta-glucan are effective in all therapeutic applications where immunomodulation is beneficial, as well as, for example, post-operatively to prevent possible infection. The use of beta-glucan can also be useful in elderly people, in whom the function of the immune system often declines
Side effects of beta-1,3/1,6-glucans
There are no known negative side effects of beta-1,3/1,6-glucan.