Your immune system is the defender of your body against all the germs and microorganisms you encounter every second and every minute of every single day.
Your immune system is everywhere in your body. It’s a complex network made up of cells, tissues, and organs that work together with the sole intention of protecting your from disease and damage.
The immune system provides this protection by generating something called an immune response when it’s needed.
An immune response is a series of steps that attacks and fends off organisms and substances that invade the body and cause disease.
For the most part, your immune system does a fantastic job of defending you against disease-causing microorganisms. Sometimes though, one of those little buggers gets passed your defenses and makes you sick.
Can you do something to decrease the chances of this happening?
Is it possible to boost your immune system to give your body a better chance at avoiding disease and illness?
The short answer is, yes!
There are healthy supplements you can add to your diet that benefit your immune system and disease-fighting ability.
One of these is beta glucans.
Beta glucans have been shown to reduce respiratory tract infections by 23% compared to placebo. This may be in large part due to their ability to boost the immune system.
What are beta glucans?
Beta glucans are a type of sugar molecule found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens, and plants.
They can be chemically extracted from these sources and are available commercially on their own or as components of more generalized supplements.
How do beta glucans boost the immune system?
Beta glucans boost the immune system by giving some of the components of cell-mediated immunity a little more giddy up in their step and by promoting the generation of new immune cells.
Cell-mediated immunity boosting
Cell-mediated immunity is a term meaning the protective action of the immune system is carried out by immune cells.
T-cells are a type of white blood cell.
T-cells are called T-cells because they mature in the thymus (a gland located behind your sternum and between your lungs).
There are many different types of T-cells; each has a different function. There are effector T-cells, helper T-cells, killer T-cells, memory T-cells, regulatory T-cells, natural killer T-cells, mucosal associated invariant T-cells, and gamma delta T-cells. For the purposes of this article, it’s not entirely important that you know what each of these different types does.
Beta glucans activate T-cells, making them better able to protect the body against invading microorganisms by stimulating them to perform their essential immune system function.
Natural killer cells are not the same as natural killer T cells (it’s confusing, but when have biologists ever been concerned about making things easy to understand). These cells are a type of white blood cell known for their rapid response to cells infected with a virus and to tumor formation. Beta glucans activate natural killer cells so they can perform their duties when they need to.
Macrophages are (you guessed it) yet another type of white blood cell. The word macrophage is derived from the Greek words makrós (large) and phageín (to eat). Their name translates to big eaters.
These cells engulf and digest cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that might be lying around.
They play a huge role in the immune response because they eat up invaders and call other white blood cells into action when they detect something is wrong.
Beta glucans activate macrophages to perform more beneficial immunological functions, like phagocytosis and recruiting other white blood cells. Macrophages that perform more of these functions increase your immune defense against invading microorganisms.
New immune cell generation
Beta glucans also stimulate the generation of new immune cells.
New immune cells are generated in the spongy tissue inside bones called bone marrow. Our bone marrow produces red blood cells, platelets, and the white blood cells that we’ve been talking so much about.
The generation of new blood cells is a process called hematopoiesis.
All the blood cells (red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells) come from immature cells called hematopoietic progenitor cells.
Beta glucans can mobilize hematopoietic progenitor cells
Beta glucans stimulate the assembly of immune stem cells from hematopoietic progenitor cells inside the bone marrow, which increases the amount of white blood cells released into blood circulation and increases your defensive immune capacity.
How much beta glucan should you take?
Beta glucans can be taken by mouth and intravenously (injected directly into the blood stream) in healthcare settings.
By mouth, 7.5 grams of beta glucans isolated from yeast twice daily and added to juice has been used in scientific studies and deemed safe. Beta glucans derived from barley have also been studied and deemed safe in doses ranging from 3 to 10 grams per day.
As I mentioned, intravenous injection of beta glucans is only used in healthcare setting for people with HIV infection, to extend the lives of patients with cancer, and to prevent infections in certain patients undergoing surgery.
You probably aren’t thinking about mainlining beta glucans, but if the thought has crossed your mind, leave it to the medical professionals and go for the oral route.
Are beta glucans safe to take?
Medical professionals and scientists who have studied beta glucans generally say beta glucans are safe in the amounts that are commonly found in foods. They’re also safe in supplemental forms at doses within the ranges described in the previous section.
There are some side-effects observed when beta glucans are given intravenously, but we don’t need to get into those here. So far, there are no known side-effects of taken beta glucans by mouth.
That being said, they should be avoided if you are pregnant or breast feeding since it isn’t yet known if beta glucan supplementation has any negative effects on the developing fetus or baby.
Sources and further reading