What are β-glucans?
Dietary beta glucans (β-glucans) are a type of soluble fibre found in the cell walls of certain mushrooms (e.g. reishi, shiitake, maitake), cereals (e.g. oats, barley) yeasts, seaweed and algae.
Researchers are particularly interested in β-glucans because more and more studies are identifying their significant impact on health, such as lowering insulin resistance, blood cholesterol, obesity prevention and immune boosting properties including fighting cancer.
Ancient Remedies Backed by Science
β-glucans are nothing new, in fact traditional Chinese medicine has been using β-glucan rich mushrooms for centuries. According to a Chinese physician of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Wu Juei, mushrooms preserve health, improve stamina and circulation, and cure colds.
More recent research has identified β-glucans exhibit antitumor, antibiotic, antiviral, and hypoglycaemic properties. In a review on medicinal mushrooms, researchers identified direct antitumor activity against allogeneic and syngeneic tumours, and prevention of tumour metastasis. So much so that many cancer clinics will use medicinal mushrooms in conjunction with chemotherapy treatment.
With obesity on the rise, one of the most interesting discoveries is that β-glucans have been shown to reduce obesity. The exact mechanisms are still being identified, however they have been shown to increase feelings of satiety, regulate blood glucose and blood lipid levels. In one study, overweight men who consumed 7g/day of β-glucans for 12 weeks experienced a significant reduction in body mass, waist circumference, and belly fat, compared to the placebo group.
What are some of the benefits of β-glucans?
• Boosts immune system: through antibacterial and antiviral properties. Perfect for cold and flu season.
• Obesity management: lowering insulin resistance, managing blood lipid and glucose levels, and improving satiety. Important for anyone who struggles with their weight.
• Lower blood cholesterol levels: between 5-8% and works better on those with higher cholesterol. Useful for people with high cholesterol or a family history.
• Reduces tumour activity: Which has benefited some types of cancer and research is still being conducted to see if it can prevent tumour growth not just reduce it. Whilst it can’t be said β-glucans prevent cancer, robust research suggests it can aid in treatment.
Can we take β-glucans as a Pill?
As with many nutrients, extracting them from their natural source or synthesising can often reduce the potency, sometimes eliminating most health benefits. For example PSK (protein-bound polysaccharides which have been approved for the treatment of cancer), when separated from the protein they are bound to and purified have been shown to act differently than their original food form.
Therefore where possible β-glucans should be taken in their natural form, such as by eating fresh or dried mushrooms on most days. If you’ve ever walked into a traditional Chinese medicine centre you may have seen jars of dried herbs and mushrooms, waiting to be prescribed. It’s refreshing to see that science is finally catching up and supporting remedies that have been used for centuries.
Amelia Phillips is a nutritionist, exercise scientist and online health coach who has helped thousands live a healthier life through optimised nutrition and targeted supplementation.