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Often, specific WGPs (Whole-Gluco-Polysaccharides) are referred to by their “generic” name of “beta-glucan.” This can pose a problem for consumers wanting to find the right type of supplement to help prime immune system function, i.e. protection from disease and improvement of vigor and quality-of life. Beta-glucan molecules can be extracted from almost any plant source. Yet, some forms extracted from cereal grains may be quite effective at lowering cholesterol, but have no positive benefit on immune system priming.
The specific type of beta-glucan that I am referring to when I use the term WGP is technically a “beta-1,3/1-6-linked polyglucose” which is a polysaccharide (long chain of sugar molecules) found in the cell walls of yeast cells. Purified beta-glucan has been shown in a wide variety of animal and in vitro studies to have general immuno-priming properties. Among its many beneficial effects are macrophage activation, tumor inhibition, and decreased infection rates. Certain WGPs are patented and protected, by more than 40 U.S. patents or patents pending, for general immune system support as well as for general anti-cancer and specific anti-tumor activity.
Commercial “beta-glucan” products are highly variable in their total content of beta-glucan, ranging from highly purified WGP extracts to less purified “mixed” blends of beta-glucan with other polysaccharides, to completely unknown “generic” versions of beta-glucan with suspect purity or potency.
The body’s first line of defense is the “innate” immune system consisting of soluble blood factors (such as cytokines and complement) and the immune cells (monocytes/macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells) that circulate throughout the body and identify and destroy foreign intruders. WGP has been shown to significantly increase the percent of active (“primed”) immune cells and the level of chemical messengers in the blood that regulate the body’s immune response. Because of its highly purified nature, the WGP form of beta-glucan has also been shown to contain significantly more of the molecular 1,3/1,6 glucose linkages that activate immune cells than any other nutritional supplement on the market.
A series of radioactive labeling studies in humans have shown orally administered WGP to be taken up by gastrointestinal macrophages (immune cells that are the body’s first line of defense), and shuttled to reticulo-endothelial tissues and bone marrow. Within the marrow, the macrophages degrade the WGP particles into smaller fragments that are secreted and eventually bound to specific receptors (CR3) on immune cells, priming their defense mechanisms for immediate action when presented with a pathogen.
In a July 2004 issue of The Journal of Immunology, WGP was shown to prime the immune system with increased plasma cytokines (INF-y and TNF-a), which play an important role in regulating the body’s immune response, but without increase in cytokine IL-1 (which can cause the fever, chills, and muscle aches which have been associated with other immune-enhancing supplements, such as echinacea and arabinogalactan).
Maintaining robust immune system function has emerged as a worldwide health concern – with food, beverage, and supplement manufacturers quick to jump on the bandwagon by touting new products to “boost” or “support” or “stimulate” immune function. Given all the “noise” across the immune support category, the challenge for health professionals and consumers alike lies in evaluating the research behind the increasing number of ingredients and products that claim to enhance immune system function.
Most of the “immune” products on the market are touting immune health claims based on vitamin content. But, just because a product contains some vitamin A or C or E – or minerals such as selenium or zinc (all of which are certainly needed for optimal immune function), it does not mean it has any bearing on whether or not that product would truly “support” immune function, especially when your body might need it most (e.g. following immune suppression by stress, sleep loss, or close contact with sick/infected individuals).
When out of balance (high or low), the immune system not only fails to protect the body from invading pathogens (bacteria and viruses) but can even attack it, the body mistaking its own cells for dangerous pathogens, resulting in autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies can result when the immune system is “overactive” and mistakes an innocuous and harmless particle (such as pollen or cat dander) for an invading pathogen. Another side effect of an out-of-balance immune system is chronic low-grade inflammation, which can increase risks for cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases related to elevated inflammation.
Obviously, having an immune system response that is either under-active or weakened will increase susceptibility to infections and disease. Unfortunately, our immune system is constantly under attack – not only from pathogens, but also from common everyday physical and emotional stress, sleep deprivation, and environmental insults. In attempts to combat these daily “stresses” on the immune system, consumers are bombarded by a dizzying array of pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals sold as immune “boosters” (which are probably not what most people really need, based on the simple fact that keeping the immune system in a constant state of stimulation would be expected to result in the detrimental side effects associated with overstimulation, and possibly allergies and autoimmune/inflammatory diseases. Immune system function needs to be balanced – not boosted or suppressed.
The specific WGP form of beta-glucan is known to activate or “prime” innate immune cells to perform their primary protection function: increased ability of macrophages to phagocytose, i.e. engulf and destroy foreign challenges when present. It is important to note that WGP does not automatically “stimulate” immune activity; it only activates immune function when a pathogen is present (e.g. tumor, anthrax, influenza, etc.). In contrast, certain plant-derived or fungi-derived polysaccharides (e.g. echinacea, arabinogalactan, reishi/maitake/shiitake mushrooms) are known to immediately stimulate immune activity, irrespective of the presence of pathogens – a situation that can result in inappropriate levels of inflammation and cytokine release leading to fever, chills, and general malaise.
A wide range of efficacy studies have been conducted on purified WGP beta-glucan, with results showing convincingly that daily supplements of 250-500mg are able to effectively reduce URTIs (upper respiratory tract infections) and improve mood state (energy/fatigue/vigor) under various conditions of physical and psychological stress. Due to problems with purity and bioactivity, however, it is unlikely that “generic” or “mixed” beta-glucan supplements would generate the same efficacy at such a low daily dose — making it important for consumers and health professionals to look for specific yeast-derived WGP beta-glucans that contain the research-proven “1,3/1,6” branching structure.
Illness and stress impact the immune system in both physical and psychological ways. The ability to naturally prime our immune system function back toward optimal levels of functioning represents both the next frontier of immune system support, and also the next frontier of how we think about our overall wellness and quality of life.