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The term “beta-glucan” refers to a class of soluble fibers found in many plant sources. The best documented use of beta-glucan involves improving heart health; the evidence for benefit is strong enough that the FDA has allowed a “heart healthy” label claim for food products containing substantial amounts of beta-glucan. 1 Much weaker evidence supports the potential use of certain beta-glucan products for modifying the activity of the immune system.
A substantial, if not entirely consistent, body of evidence indicates that beta-glucan, or foods containing it (especially oats), can modestly improve cholesterol profile . 2 The most reliable benefits have been seen regarding levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Modest improvements of up to 10% have been seen in studies. Possible improvements in HDL (“good”) cholesterol have only been seen inconsistently. It is thought that beta-glucan reduces cholesterol levels by increasing excretion of cholesterol from the digestive tract. This affects two forms of cholesterol: cholesterol from food, and, more importantly, cholesterol from the blood “recycled” by the liver through the intestines. However, virtually all studies involved oats and were conducted by...
Beta-glucan, as a substance widely present in foods, is thought to have a high margin of safety. However, if it really does activate the immune system, harmful effects are at least theoretically possible in people with conditions where the immune system is overactive. These include multiple sclerosis , lupus , rheumatoid arthritis , asthma , inflammatory bowel disease , and hundreds of others conditions. In addition, people taking immunosuppressant drugs following organ transplantation surgery could, in theory, increase their risk of organ rejection. However, there are no reports as yet to indicate that any of these hypothetical problems have actually occurred. Maximum safe doses in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney...