What is Beta Glucan?
- A beta glucan molecule is a type of sugar found most commonly in foods like oats, barley, brown rice, baker’s yeast, and medicinal mushrooms (such as shiitake and maitake).
- These sugars are present in bacterial, yeast, and fungal cell walls, too.
- Specifically, beta glucan is a big molecule that combines multiple sugar compounds, which means it’s a “polysaccharide.”
- In the human body, it acts as a soluble fiber or prebiotic to help your gut microbiome operate properly.
- For years, beta glucan has been used in alternative medicine for everything from weight loss to diabetes prevention to lowering cholesterol.
- It has also been used as an alternative treatment for immune-related diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Processed sugar may be bad for you, but there’s one naturally occurring sugar molecule that has promise in alleviating a number of illnesses: beta glucan. Beta glucan benefits the body in many ways, not least of which by supporting the good health of your heart and immune system.
As we begin, I want to be clear: some beta glucan benefits have been thoroughly researched and documented, while others are less certain. We’ll separate the hard science, including human studies, from the less sure experimentation as we find out what exactly beta glucan can do.
So, what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what beta glucan benefits are going to take you by surprise?
5 Beta Glucan Health Benefits Verified by Science
1. Beta glucan can lower LDL cholesterol and reduce your heart disease risk.
Looking to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease? Eating foods high in beta glucan sugars may help. B-glucan foods lower overall LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in people with mild-to-moderate hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol). (1)
The evidence is so strong that this fiber is one of the few natural substances the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) allows manufacturers to make a health claim about. In 1997, they approved a health claim that the beta glucan from oats definitively helps to reduce cholesterol levels and, in turn, reduce the risk of heart disease. Basically, when you consume oats, research suggests your bad cholesterol should go down between 5-7 percent overall. (2)
While beta glucan benefits don’t extend to increasing HDL cholesterol, which is also a good thing for heart health, it’s still a powerful cholesterol-lowering dietary fiber. (3)
Dosage: At least 3 grams daily to reduce LDL cholesterol
2. Beta glucan fiber may improve gut health.
It’s no surprise that a type of soluble fiber like beta glucan would be good for the gut, and research backs this up.
In general, prebiotic supplements and foods, like those containing beta glucan, are beneficial to the health of your gut microbiome. This delicate balance of bacteria is where 70-80 percent of your immune system lives, so keeping it fully operational is a big deal for the health of your entire body.
When volunteers in one study ate high-beta glucan foods, researchers found that they produced more short-chain fatty acids in their digestive system. These fatty acids are a great marker of the health of the intestines, suggesting beta glucan supports digestion. (4)
Then, a 2017 review pitted beta glucan and a few other digestion-promoting nutrients to the test: They gave a mixture to patients with irritable bowel syndrome. This form of inflammatory bowel disease is an incredibly painful and treatment-resistant digestive condition.
While this mixture did not improve every part of IBS, the people who took it had a significant drop in several symptoms over the four-week study period, including: (5)
- Less bloating
- Less flatulence
- Less stomach pain
- Better overall well-being
Two things are important to note here, though. First, while some symptoms improved, this doesn’t mean beta glucan is a cure for irritable bowel syndrome.
Second, this supplement contained inositol and digestive enzymes in addition to beta glucan. Because the beta glucan wasn’t tested on its own, we can’t say for sure how much of the impact was from beta glucan versus the other ingredients.
Dosage: Unclear based on current research
3. A beta glucan gel improves the time wounds take to heal.
Like many substances used in medicine today, various forms of beta glucan were tested in lab and animal studies to find out the extent of its benefits.
One of the most remarkable of these was the way a gel made from beta glucan seemed to speed the healing of wounds. In rats, this nanofiber wound dressing resulted in much faster healing compared to the control group. (6)
Then, the experiment was moved into a human trial. The volunteers had to fit into a very challenging category: they needed to have wounds that, after four weeks, had stopped getting better. Normally, these are the most frustrating wounds for doctors to treat.
But the beta glucan gel did not disappoint. After six months, the patients within the study had experience between two and four times the normal rate of healing after using beta glucan gel.
Plus, researchers noted the faster healing was also extremely beneficial in saving costs for both the doctors and patients. (7)
However, this study, while done well and with a decent number of subjects, still needs to be replicated before we can say for sure the exact effects of beta glucan skin wound healing. Research shows promise so far, but there is no agreed-upon dosage or consistent product known to be effective yet.
4. Beta glucan supplements may reduce the frequency of respiratory infections.
One compound used in beta glucan supplements, Wellmune, has been put through a large number of human clinical trials for its effects on infections of the respiratory tract.
When taken daily, Wellmune seems to significantly reduce the number and severity of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) and common cold in multiple circumstances.
High-Intensity Activity: Taking 250 milligrams per day of Wellmune was found to cause fewer infections and less missed days of training in multiple studies conducted in marathon runners and other hardcore athletes. One reason for this seems to be that beta glucan helps prevent the immune system weakness often seen after hard workouts. (8, 9, 10)
In addition to improving risk for URTIs, beta glucan also helped to improve some psychological markers in marathon runners, like mood, stress, and anger levels. (13)
Firefighters experience high-intensity activity every day. Beta glucan suppressed URTI symptoms in firefighters in one two-week trial and improved their overall quality of health, too. (14)
Normal Stress Levels: It’s impossible to live a life free of stress. However, when we experience chronic stress, it taxes our bodies and immune cells. Stressed-out people typically get sicker more often and have a harder time getting better.
Women undergoing consistent stress were given Wellmune for 12 weeks and found that it decreased their chances for respiratory infections and improved their response to stress. (15) This is interesting in particular because beta glucans are highly present in some medicinal mushrooms that act as adaptogens. Adaptogens are foods that improve your body’s response to stress.
Aging: The older you get, the harder it is for your body to fight off infections. A 90-day clinical trial was done in adults between 50-70 years old and found that Wellmune, derived from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, showed an improved immune response. It seemed to be an effective way to reduce the number and duration of upper respiratory tract infections within the 17 people taking the supplement. (16)
Children: A 12-week study was conducted in 174 children in China to see what effects, if any, beta glucan might have on their risk for infections. With very few side effects, Wellmune helped reduce the number of respiratory infections. (17)
As in some of the other studies, beta glucan was not tested on its own. In this study in China, the beverage given to the children in the study also contained omega-3s, other prebiotics, zinc, vitamin A, and iron. It’s important to be careful, therefore, about how these results are interpreted.
The same study was replicated for 28 weeks in children between the ages of three and four with similar results. Importantly, the kids treated with Wellmune were able to take fewer antibiotics, which is notable in this age of rampant antibiotic resistance. (18)
5. Consuming beta glucan may improve allergies.
Two studies have found improvements in allergy symptoms after supplementing with beta glucan.
In the first, 250 milligrams of Wellmune beta glucan was given for four weeks and resulted in better results all around. Participants not only found they had less severe allergic reactions to ragweed than before but also that they felt less stressed out and more content in life. (21)
Similar beta glucan benefits were found when children between one and three were given beta glucan supplements. (17)
Possible Benefits of Beta Glucan that Need More Research
From this point on, we’ll be looking at some preliminary evidence of beta glucan benefits for a wide range of conditions. Keep in mind that these are not proven effects yet and should be interpreted with caution.
Beta glucan molecules aren’t just helpful in and of themselves — they also serve as transporters for other important cells. (22) Designed properly, it’s thought possible that beta glucans could send anti-cancer nutrients into malignant cells.
In an animal study, beta glucan acted as an antioxidant against the cancer-causing impact of TCDD, an environmental toxin. (23)
Beta glucans, particularly the beta 1, 3-D glucan molecule, have been found to be biological response modifiers. For example, another way beta glucan may be effective against cancer is the way it suppresses some cells that normally encourage cancer growth. These special white blood cells known as “macrophages” are re-polarized by beta glucan, making them much less dangerous to cells than they might be otherwise. This impact has been seen in human cancer cells as well as animal cancer cells. (24, 25, 26)
This same action is what makes some researchers think that beta glucan might be a good way to increase the effectiveness of other cancer treatments.
One lab study found that oat beta-glucan molecules from oats were cytotoxic against multiple cancer cell lines without harming normal cells at all. (27) That kind of result is important for any potential cancer treatment since the main drawback to most conventional cancer therapies is that they kill healthy cells along with cancerous tumor cells.
A human trial was conducted with beta glucans alongside cancer treatments in patients with non-small cell lung cancer. Even though the patients’ cancer was advanced, beta glucan helped improve how effective the cancer treatment was, and it made the treatment more tolerable for patients. (28)
2. Post-Surgery Infection
One of the most problematic results of surgery are infections people get while their immune systems are compromised from surgery. This can sometimes lead to serious infections known as sepsis.
In a lab, scientists have discovered that by binding a beta D glucan to a specific cell receptor, it can help to prevent sepsis. Their results are suggestive that this would be most effective for those at the highest risk of infection, like critically ill trauma patients. (29)
3. Canker Sores
Initial research shows that a small dose of beta glucans each day might help to reduce canker sores.
A Cochrane review looked at this and many other methods people use to shorten canker sore duration and symptoms. Although they found that many of these methods are used frequently, they were unable to tell if beta glucan supplements made a significant difference on their own. (30)
Dosage: 10 milligrams per day for the duration of the canker sore
While some of the significant research on beta glucan benefits for heart disease were conducted in diabetic patients, it’s unclear what impact beta glucan may have on diabetes itself.
Some studies see no result, while others find that beta glucan supplementation can help to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.
Along with exercise, beta glucan seems to be able to improve the metabolic symptoms in diabetes. This has been shown most clearly in animal subjects so far. (31)
Beta glucan does not help children with type 1 diabetes, according to current research.
5. High Blood Pressure
While we know beta glucan is great for heart health in many ways, its influence on blood pressure is not well-understood. For example, oats rich in beta glucans have lowered the blood pressure of both overweight patients and those with mild-to-moderate hypertension. (32, 33)
The main reason scientists haven’t confirmed beta glucan’s benefits for blood pressure is that pure beta glucan supplements haven’t been tested yet.
6. Weight Loss
In animals, beta glucan from oats does seem to effectively reduce body weight. (34) There is also some evidence that eating plenty of beta glucan-rich foods could help to reduce the incidence of metabolic syndrome, one symptom of which is overweight or obesity. (35)
But other research that originally seemed to suggest beta glucan positively influence satiety, or the feeling of being full, is inconclusive. At least two grams of beta glucans in food were required to achieve that “full” feeling in overweight women, according to one clinical trial. (36)
Certain receptors on beta glucan molecules are involved in the body’s natural process of inflammation. Lab studies have found that these receptors can “turn on” defenses against certain disease-causing pathogens. (37, 38)
Essentially, that means that this nutrient can help to mediate the way your body deals with inflammation. A certain amount of inflammation is necessary for proper immune function, so it’s important that the cells in your body have regulators like beta glucan to keep inflammation in check while also using it when it’s beneficial to your defense against bacteria.
Best Sources of Beta Glucan
When looking to get more beta glucan in your diet, there are plenty of options. As I mentioned before, you can find this nutrient in oats, barley, yeasts, and even medicinal mushrooms.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between sources of beta glucan, at least as far as scientific studies have shown.
Some wild-growing mushrooms, including Bracket fungi, have very high levels of beta glucan. (39) Unfortunately, these are hard for most people to grow or purchase. Japanese mushrooms like Shiitake and maitake are easier-to-get mushrooms that also have plenty of beta glucan.
When it comes to flour, using barley flour may give you more beta glucan than wheat. (40)
What About Beta Glucan Supplements?
Since they’re still a relatively new product, beta glucan supplements are a little harder to nail down. One review of these supplements looks at various dosages for specific uses that people tend to use beta glucan. (41)
The best-researched type of beta glucan for medicinal use is probably Wellmune, as it’s backed by several clinical trials that prove its efficacy.
Beta Glucan Side Effects: Are There Any?
In the many human trials of beta glucan, benefits outweigh the infrequent side effects. Some mild adverse effects that may occur with large doses are: (42)
- Upset stomach
For most people, even larger doses of beta glucan (three grams a day) are safe and cause little to no issues.
Due to the limited regulation on dietary supplements, it’s important to stick with reputable brands.
It’s not yet known what impact use of beta glucan may have on pregnancy or nursing.
Beta glucan may interact with or increase the effectiveness of these medications:
- Blood sugar-lowering drugs
If you take any of these medications, talk with your doctor before taking beta glucan.
If you have HIV/AIDS, you may experience thick skin patches on your hands and feet during the first two weeks of a new beta glucan regimen. This is called keratoderma and should go away within 2-4 weeks.
Key Takeaways about Beta Glucan Benefits
Beta glucan is an exciting new area of research for many scientists, as it may improve many systems of the body, from the heart to the digestive system. While the research is still in the beginning stages for many issues, it’s very promising.
Beta glucans are sugars that both influence the way your immune system works and can transport things to and from cells. This makes them uniquely suited for treatment of cancer and immune system issues.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning a new supplement, particularly if you take prescription medications or have any medical conditions.
So far, scientists are confident that beta glucan can:
- Lower LDL cholesterol and reduce your heart disease risk
- Improve gut health
- Speed wound healing
- Reduce the frequency and severity of respiratory infections
- Improve allergies
Other research still needs to be done for these benefits of beta glucan, but they seem promising:
- Post-surgery infection
- Canker sores
- High blood pressure
- Weight loss