What is a beta-glucan? β-Glucans are large molecules made out of small sugars like glucose bound to each other in a particular way called a beta glycosidic bond. These basic characteristics leave a lot of variation in size, branching, and sugar composition, leading to great variation in physical properties like solubility, capacity to form gels and films, viscosity, and the physiological effects on animals, including humans.
Figure: beta 1,4 glycosidic linkage in cellulose (by NEUROtiker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
The orientation of a linkage (as alpha or beta) changes the properties of the resulting oligo o polysaccharide. Starch, for example, has glucose monomers linked to each other in alpha linkages. Cellulose (think paper or cotton) has them linked in beta. Humans can digest starch but can’t digest cellulose. Cellulose is a β-glucan, but it’s in a separate class of its own: it is insoluble and behaves in a very different way as other cereal or yeast β-glucans.
The immunomodulation effect of β-glucans may be due to their interactions with macrophage receptors, activating these cells as basic effectors in host defense against bacteria, viruses, parasites, and tumor cells. β-glucans have shown varying activity against sarcomas, mammary cancer, some chemically induced cancers, colon cancer, and some leukemia.
Examples of useful beta-glucans
Aloe Vera – The gel obtained from the Aloe barbadensis plant improves skin hydration, has anti-inflammatory properties, and aids the healing of cuts, grazes, burns, and insect bites. The polysaccharides in this extract include acetylated mannans.
Apple pectin – A complex polysaccharide that contains rhamnose. Fibroblasts contain receptors for rhamnose (more about this later), and binding of rhamnose to the receptor leads to increased synthesis of collagen and strengthened epidermal-dermal junction. Apple pectin helps thicken skin thinned by aging.
Larch arabinogalactans – In native North American Indian tribes, larch was used as a poultice on sores, ulcers, burns and to alleviate itching. When biochemists looked into larch, they found that arabinogalactans stimulate dermal fibroblast activity and proliferation, promote keratinocyte differentiation and the production of keratinocyte growth factor. Note: Dr. Andrew Weil, a proponent of integrative medicine (which incorporates scientifically proven botanicals into the daily practice of medicine) uses this active in his Origins line.
Yeast beta-glucan – The cell wall of yeast is very complex, with a structure that includes beta(1–> 3)-glucan, beta(1–> 6)-glucan, chitin, and mannoprotein. When we come in contact with these special glycans, our immune system is activated so that, when a pathogen is encountered, we are better able to deal with it and stop an infection. Apparently, this response may also prepare us to stop our own “gone bad” cells, those that have lost the capacity to control cell division and have become cancer cells. A great advantage to allergy sufferers: yeast beta-glucan (and that of other fungi) seems to decrease the tendency to allergic responses and inflammation, and as an added bonus it tightens your skin. A recently discovered lectin is dectin-1, a small cell surface protein that recognizes beta 1,3 and beta1,6-glucans and is a source of innate immunity, in other words it does not require previous exposure to pathogen.
Fucoidans are sulfated polysaccharides that when applied to the skin increase the density of collagen bundles, decrease activity of proteases (enzymes that break down dermal proteins), increase scavenging of free radicals, and increase cell proliferation. In addition to helping with healing and collagen synthesis, fucoidan inhibits the replication of many viruses, including herpes, human cytomegalovirus, and HIV-1.
Prickly pear (Opuntia fruit) extract – This beautiful fruit contains methylated rhamnogalacturonans (L-arabinose and D-xylose are also represented), giving this extract medicinal powers in treatment of burns, edema, and asthma.
Beta-glucan (oat) is an excellent anti-inflammatory ingredient for reducing redness, itching, and irritation. Add Beta Glucan Powder to your favorite base cream, serum, cleanser or toner.
At Skin Actives, we plan to add more beta-glucans as their benefits become apparent.
Some Skin Actives products with beta-glucans
…and many more. We like beta-glucans!
Quick Do It Yourself
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Bacha, U., Nasir, M., Iqbal, S., & Anjum, A. A. (2017). Nutraceutical, Anti-Inflammatory, and Immune Modulatory Effects of β-Glucan Isolated from Yeast. BioMed Research International, 2017, 1–14. doi:10.1155/2017/8972678
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Majtan, J., & Jesenak, M. (2018). β-Glucans: Multi-Functional Modulator of Wound Healing. Molecules, 23: 806. doi:10.3390/molecules23040806
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