Medicinal mushrooms continue to gain popularity in the health and wellness industry. With many brands on the market sharing the immune-boosting benefits of beta-glucans, we wanted to explain what beta-glucans are, what they actually do in the body and how they activate your immune system.
What are beta-glucans?
Beta-glucans are complex polysaccharides that are found in the cell walls of bacteria, yeast, fungi, algae and plants such as oats and barley. In medicinal mushrooms, beta-glucans are the primary active compounds responsible for the immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects associated with their medical benefits.
How do beta-glucans activate the immune system?
Beta-glucans in medicinal mushrooms activate the immune system by binding to specific receptors on immune cells and trigger a cascade of events that lead to the activation of immune cells, such as macrophages and natural killer cells. Activated macrophages and natural killer cells then release various cytokines and chemokines, which attract other immune cells to the site of infection or inflammation.
These immune cells work together to eliminate pathogens and damaged cells and help to restore homeostasis within the body.
Beta-glucans have also been shown to stimulate the production of antibodies and enhance the activity of white blood cells which further strengthen the immune response and enhance the body’s ability to fight off infections and maintain overall health and vitality.
Beta-glucans have also been found to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. When the body is constantly in a state of inflammation, it can interfere with the immune system's ability to fight off infections and illnesses, the anti-inflammatory effects of beta-glucans can reduce chronic inflammation in the body. The beta-glucans in medicinal mushrooms have also been shown to exhibit antimicrobial effects, which can help to inhibit the growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, making them useful in the treatment of infectious diseases.
In addition to the general immune-boosting effects of beta-glucans, research has shown that they can also enhance the adaptive immune response. The adaptive immune system is responsible for identifying and eliminating specific pathogens and is crucial in the development of immunity after exposure to a particular pathogen. Beta-glucans have been shown to activate dendritic cells, which are essential for initiating the adaptive immune response. Dendritic cells process and present antigens to T cells, which are key players in the adaptive immune response.
When dendritic cells are exposed to beta-glucans, they undergo maturation and become better at presenting antigens to T cells. This results in the activation of T cells, which then coordinate the adaptive immune response against the specific pathogen. The enhanced adaptive immune response provided by beta-glucans can help to improve the body's ability to fight off infections and reduce the risk of developing chronic illnesses.
The structural characteristics of beta-glucans are also crucial to their immune-boosting effects. The size, shape, and branching of the beta-glucan molecules influence their ability to interact with immune cells and activate immune responses. For example, research has shown that beta-glucans with higher molecular weights are more effective at activating immune cells and eliciting an immune response than those with lower molecular weights. Medicinal mushrooms are a rich source of beta-glucans, with some containing up to 50% beta-glucans by weight. Some of the most commonly used medicinal mushrooms that contain beta-glucans include reishi, shiitake, turkey tail, chaga and cordyceps.
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