Since their invention in the 1940s, antibiotics have been a literal lifesaver to millions of people who otherwise might have died from infectious diseases.1
Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics has now become so prevalent that the bacteria these drugs were meant to kill have now mutated to become resistant. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), at least 2 million Americans become infected with drug-resistant antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year from these infections.1
What if there was a better way to not only fight off infections and other diseases once they have developed, but also reduce your chances of getting them by boosting the power of your body’s natural immune system? Some interesting research on beta glucan may point to ways to help the body’s immune system to do the work that antibiotics may not be able to handle as well as they could previously.
What are beta glucans?
Beta glucans are sugars that line the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichen, and certain plants, including oats and barley. It is most often taken as a supplement, but is also used as a form of soluble dietary fiber, particularly if it comes from oats or barley. Beta glucans can also be found in certain foods, such as shitake mushrooms, baker’s yeast, oats, rye, and barley.
What does the research say?
A 1996 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science examined the effects of adding beta glucans to antibiotics to treat rats that had antibiotic-resistant Escherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus.2 The researchers found that the beta glucans actually enhanced the ability of the antibiotics to lower the mortality rate among the rats. They noted: “Prophylaxis with PGG glucan, in combination with antibiotics< provided enhanced protection against lethal challenge with Esherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus, as compared with the use of antibiotics alone.”2
A similar study from the journal Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology examined the effect of beta glucans on a form of Escherichia coli (known to cause traveler’s diarrhea) in piglets.3 The researchers gave three different types of beta glucan to piglets that had just been weaned and had bacterial infections. They found that the piglets which were fed the beta glucans for at least two weeks were less susceptible to infection, measured by a lower incidence of diarrhea, compared to the piglets that were not given beta glucan.
The researchers concluded: “This study showed that beta glucan can protect against an ETEC infection. To our knowledge, this is the first in vivo study, in which the use of beta glucan as feed ingredient for just-weaned piglets was tested for their protective effects against ETEC infection.”3
In comparison to these two animal studies, a 2013 study in the Journal of Dietary Supplements examined the effect of beta glucan in yeast for fighting off cold and flu symptoms after periods of intense exercise, when the immune system is depressed.4 In one experiment, 182 men and women were given either beta glucan supplements or placebos for 28 days after running a marathon.
In the second experiment, changes in salivary immunoglobulin A were measured after 50 minutes of cycling for 60 men and women, who either beta glucan or placebo supplements for 10 days. In the first experiment, the number of cold/flu symptom days reduced by 37 percent among beta glucan subjects compared to placebo.
In the second experiment, immunoglobulin A increased by 32 percent two hours after exercise for subjects taking beta glucan compared to those who took placebo, boosting the immune system.4
Obviously, antibiotics are still the best way to treat severe infections that may be life-threatening. However, beta glucans may make a sensible alternative for minor infections, such as colds or flu.
- Antibiotic/Antimicrobial resistance. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Accessed 8/24/2017.
- Tzianabos AO, Cisneros RL. (1996). Prophylaxis with the immunomodulator PGG glucan enhances antibiotic efficacy in rats infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 25;797, 285-287.
- Stuyven E, Cox E, Vancaeneghem S, et al. (2009). Effect of beta-glucans on an ETEC infection in piglets. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology, 128(1-3), 60-66.
- McFarlin BK, Carpenter KC, Davidson T, & McFarlin MA. (2013). Baker’s yeast beta glucan supplementation increases salivary IgA and decreases cold/flu symptomatic days after intense exercise. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 10(3), 171-183.