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Beta glucans and the immune system

Beta glucans derived from plants such as oats help our metabolic system by improving cholesterol. In contrast, beta-(1,3/1,6)- D-glucans, from yeast and mushrooms, improve immunity. We are going to take a closer look at how these ones may support immunity.

The immune system in the human body functions like an army, defending against invading pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. There are two parts: the innate immune system operates as our first internal line of defence and the adaptive immune system acts as a second, more specialised and targeted defence. Billions of macrophages, the big guns of the innate system, patrol our body looking for intruders, sending out signals for reinforcements when there is an invasion and holding back the attack until help arrives. The cells that respond are more specialised immune cells, they make antibodies specifically able to tag invaders for destruction. The macrophages are then able to engulf and destroy invading pathogens. It is a very complex system involving many different types of immune cells but this is what happens in basic terms.

Beta glucans help the immune system by priming it for action. They are taken up by immune cells in the gut and then transported round the body. Macrophages digest the beta glucans, thereby enhancing the macrophages’ antimicrobial ability. The macrophages also spit out tiny fragments of beta glucans that, in turn, are picked up by other immune cells called neutrophils. These fragments prime the neutrophils so that they are more prepared to mount a defence if needed.

Recent research in human trials has demonstrated the immune boosting effectiveness of beta glucans. During the cold and flu season they have been shown to reduce the incidence of infections compared to placebo groups. Beta glucans may also help improve quality of life for hay fever sufferers, as well as reducing the severity of symptoms. Finally, studies have demonstrated immune support for people training for marathons. The immune system is impacted by intense exercise and takes 24 hours to recover; beta glucans help protect during this window of weakened immunity and have shown a reduction in upper respiratory tract infections.

The great benefit of beta glucans, compared to other immune boosting nutrients, is that they regulate the immune system but do not over stimulate it, which can cause harm. Thus, they can be safely taken for as long as you need them.