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A substantial, if not entirely consistent, body of evidence indicates that beta-glucan, or foods containing it (especially oats), can modestly improve cholesterol profile . 1 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 manufacturers of oat products; independent confirmation remains minimal. 2 Beta-glucan may also modestly improve blood pressure levels , 3 though not all studies agree. 4 In addition, beta-glucan may help limit the rise in blood sugar that occurs after a meal. This could, in theory, offer heart-healthy benefits, especially in people with diabetes. 5 6 7 8 The other primary proposed use of beta-glucan products involves effects on the immune system. Test-tube , animal , and a few controlled studies in humans suggest that beta-glucans can alter various measurements of immune function. In the alternative medicine literature, these effects are commonly summarized as indicating that beta-glucan is an “immune stimulant.” This description, however, is an oversimplification. The immune system is extraordinarily complicated and, as yet, incompletely understood. At the current level of scientific understanding it is not possible to characterize the effects of beta-glucan more specifically than to say that it has “immunomodulatory” actions, or that it is a “biological response modifier.” These intentionally unsensational terms indicate that we merely know beta-glucan affects (modulates) immune function, not that it improves immune function.
Some of the immune-related effects seen in studies include alterations in the activity of certain white blood cells and changes in the levels or actions of substances, called cytokines, that modulate immune function.
Based on these largely theoretical findings, as well a small number of very preliminary human trials, 9 10 various beta-glucan products have been advocated for the treatment of conditions as diverse as allergic rhinitis , cancer , infections, and sepsis (overwhelming infection following major trauma, illness, or surgery). However, the evidence for actual clinical benefit remains highly preliminary.
One study failed to find that beta-1,3-glucan (in topical gel form) helpful for treatment of actinic keratosis, a form of sun-induced precancerous changes seen in aging skin . 11 Another study found that it had no significant effect on periodontal disease (gingivitis), an inflammation of the gums caused by bacteria found in dental plaques. 12
- Behall KM, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch J. Effect of beta-glucan level in oat fiber extracts on blood lipids in men and women. J Am Coll Nutr. 16(1):46-51.
- Kelly SA, Summerbell CD, Brynes A, Whittaker V, Frost G. Wholegrain cereals for coronary heart disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2):CD005051.
- Keenan JM, Pins JJ, Frazel C, Moran A, Turnquist L. Oat ingestion reduces systolic and diastolic blood pressure in patients with mild or borderline hypertension: a pilot trial. J Fam Pract. 51(4):369.
- Davy BM, Melby CL, Beske SD, Ho RC, Davrath LR, Davy KP. Oat consumption does not affect resting casual and ambulatory 24-h arterial blood pressure in men with high-normal blood pressure to stage I hypertension. J Nutr. 132(3):394-8.
- Braaten JT, Scott FW, Wood PJ, Riedel KD, Wolynetz MS, Brulé D, Collins MW. High beta-glucan oat bran and oat gum reduce postprandial blood glucose and insulin in subjects with and without type 2 diabetes. Diabet Med. 11(3):312-8.
- Bourdon I, Yokoyama W, Davis P, Hudson C, Backus R, Richter D, Knuckles B, Schneeman BO. Postprandial lipid, glucose, insulin, and cholecystokinin responses in men fed barley pasta enriched with beta-glucan. Am J Clin Nutr. 69(1):55-63.
- Jenkins AL, Jenkins DJ, Zdravkovic U, Würsch P, Vuksan V. Depression of the glycemic index by high levels of beta-glucan fiber in two functional foods tested in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 56(7):622-8.
- Pick ME, Hawrysh ZJ, Gee MI, Toth E, Garg ML, Hardin RT. Oat bran concentrate bread products improve long-term control of diabetes: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc. 96(12):1254-61.
- de Felippe Júnior J, da Rocha e Silva Júnior M, Maciel FM, Soares Ade M, Mendes NF. Infection prevention in patients with severe multiple trauma with the immunomodulator beta 1-3 polyglucose (glucan). Surg Gynecol Obstet. 177(4):383-8.
- Nakano H, Namatame K, Nemoto H, Motohashi H, Nishiyama K, Kumada K. A multi-institutional prospective study of lentinan in advanced gastric cancer patients with unresectable and recurrent diseases: effect on prolongation of survival and improvement of quality of life. Kanagawa Lentinan Research Group. Hepatogastroenterology. 46(28):2662-8.
- Tong DW, Barnetson RS. Beta-1,3-D-glucan gel in the treatment of solar keratoses. Australas J Dermatol. 37(3):137-8.
- Preus HR, Aass AM, Hansen BF, Moe B, Gjermo P. A randomized, single-blind, parallel-group clinical study to evaluate the effect of soluble beta-1,3/1,6-glucan on experimental gingivitis in man. J Clin Periodontol. 35(3):236-41.