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Beta-Glucan

What You Need to Know About Beta-Glucan

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Updated July 16, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Beta-glucan is a substance found naturally in several foods, including oats, barley, and certain mushrooms. Also found in yeasts, beta-glucan is classified as a polysaccharide (a large molecule made up of multiple sugar molecules). There's some evidence that beta-glucan may offer a number of health benefits, such as stimulation of the immune system.

Benefits of Beta-Glucan

Here's a look at some key study findings on the possible health benefits of beta-glucan:

1) Cholesterol

The beta-glucan found in oats may help keep cholesterol in check, according to a 2011 report from Nutrition Reviews. Looking at studies conducted over the previous 13 years, the report's authors determined that oat-derived beta-glucan may significantly reduce levels of total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. On average, the authors note, daily oat consumption is associated with 5 percent and 7 percent reductions in total and LDL cholesterol levels, respectively.

2) Diabetes

Beta-glucan may help manage diabetes, a 2008 research review from Vascular Health and Risk Management suggests. Analyzing previous research on beta-glucan and diabetes, the review's authors found that dietary intake of beta-glucan may help protect against diabetes-related complications by controlling blood sugar levels, lowering cholesterol, and keeping blood pressure in check.

3) Cancer

Preliminary research indicates that beta-glucan may activate a number of cells and proteins that fight cancer (such as T-cells and natural killer cells). What's more, tests on animals have shown that beta-glucan may inhibit the spread of cancer cells. However, a 2009 report in the Journal of Hematology and Oncology cautions that there are "no good quality clinical trial data" for the effectiveness of beta-glucan in treating cancer.

4) Immunity

Currently, there is a lack of clinical trials supporting the claim that beta-glucan can rev up the immune system and stave off colds, flu, and other types of infection. However, some preliminary research suggests that beta-glucan may strengthen the immune system and knock out viruses.

In a 2004 study from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, for instance, tests on mice revealed that beta-glucan may offset the negative effects of exercise-induced stress and increase the immune system's defense against upper respiratory tract infections.

Uses for Beta-Glucan

In addition to being available in foods, beta-glucan is sold in supplement form. Proponents claim that beta-glucan supplements can help with the following health problems:

  • allergies
  • asthma
  • Crohn's disease
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • diabetes
  • fibromyalgia
  • high cholesterol
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • ulcerative colitis

Beta-glucan is also purported to strengthen the immune system and, in turn, fend off colds, flu, and even cancer. Additionally, beta-glucan is said to increase the body's defense against the harmful effects of stress.

Where to Find Beta-Glucan Supplements

Beta-glucan supplements are widely available for purchase online, and are also sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Many beta-glucan supplements source their beta-glucan from substances like baker's yeast. Others contain medicinal mushrooms like shiitake and maitake (both found to be rich in beta-glucan). While research on the health effects of medicinal mushroom supplements is somewhat limited, a number of studies suggest that they can help boost immunity.

Safety

Although beta-glucan is generally considered safe, there's some concern that it may lower blood sugar. Therefore, people with hypoglycemia (or anyone taking medications to reduce blood sugar) should consult a physician before using beta-glucan.

Using Beta-Glucan Supplements for Health

Although it's too soon to recommend beta-glucan supplements for health purposes, increasing your beta-glucan intake (by including oats, barley, and medicinal mushrooms in your diet) may help enhance your overall health.

If you're considering the use of beta-glucan supplements in treatment of a chronic condition, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting your supplement regimen.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. "Maitake Mushrooms." November 2008.

Chan GC, Chan WK, Sze DM. "The effects of beta-glucan on human immune and cancer cells." J Hematol Oncol. 2009 Jun 10;2:25.

Chen J, Raymond K. "Beta-glucans in the treatment of diabetes and associated cardiovascular risks." Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2008;4(6):1265-72.

Davis JM, Murphy EA, Brown AS, Carmichael MD, Ghaffar A, Mayer EP. "Effects of oat beta-glucan on innate immunity and infection after exercise stress." Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Aug;36(8):1321-7.

Othman RA, Moghadasian MH, Jones PJ. "Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan." Nutr Rev. 2011 Jun;69(6):299-309. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00401.x.

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