Beta glucan is a complex sugar called a polysaccharide that is part of the cell wall of plants and fungi. It has been used for many years in Eastern medicine to combat many different disorders. The National Cancer Institute, or NCI, lists beta glucan as a compound that stimulates the immune system and that may have a role in fighting cancer. It indicates that beta glucan binds to certain tumor cells, stimulating immune cells to attack the cancer cells. Beta glucan supplements are available at most health food stores. Consult a doctor to determine if taking beta glucan is appropriate for you.
Several types of mushrooms, such as shiitake mushrooms and some wild mushrooms, are rich in beta glucan. These fungi have been used for centuries in Asia for health purposes. Mushroom-derived beta glucan may help to support the action of the immune system against several diseases. It may also stimulate production of natural factors such as tumor necrosis factor and cytokines that act against bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells.
Yeast is a fungus that is also rich in beta glucan. However, its beta glucan has properties that differ in some ways from beta glucan isolated from mushrooms. Yeast-derived beta glucan may be effective in lowering blood cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease. It also acts on immune cells called macrophages to activate them, making these cells effective against bacteria and helping them to remove dead cells.
Beta glucan is one of the soluble fiber molecules found in oats and barley. It is similar to beta glucan from yeast in its ability to lower the levels of cholesterol in the blood. However, beta glucan from oats or barley also seems to lower blood sugar levels and to improve liver function, explaining its use as a treatment for diabetes and for liver disease in Eastern herbal medicine
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