How beta glucans prime the immune system

Learning lessons from the Victorians – their immune systems were better at fighting infections

In a recent series of articles published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Paul Clayton revealed fascinating facts about the health and life expectancy of the mid-Victorians. They lived just as long as we do today, and were stronger and healthier – so they lived disease-free for longer. And part of the reason was that their immune systems were better at fighting infection.

Of course that seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t our life expectancy now better than it was then?
Not if we count life expectancy from age 5. It’s true that the average age at death of the population as a whole is going up. But that’s because infant mortality has decreased by a factor of 15 since 1900. If we measure life expectancy from age 5 onwards, it has hardly changed.

[To convince yourself of that, take the following simplistic example. Suppose the entire population were just three people. One dies at birth and the other two die at 80. The average (mean) age at death is just 53! Add the ages at death together: 0 + 80 + 80 = 160. Divide by 3. The average is 53. So a high number of infant deaths hugely reduces the average overall age at death.]

The truth is if you made it through early life in Victorian times the chances are you lived longer and with fewer of the chronic illnesses we suffer in old age today. Illnesses like cancer and heart disease were at only one fifth of the rates they are currently. Their healthy life expectancy was better than ours is today.

It’s true that the Victorians ate a lot more fresh vegetables and fruits than we do now – and no highly processed foods at all. But they had another dietary element that allowed them to survive dangerous infections in a time before you could get vaccinated for most contagious diseases.

That element was baker’s or brewer’s yeast. Victorian food contained far more yeast than today. It was clearly in bread and beer, but it also contaminated a large proportion of the other foods they ate.

There are compounds in yeasts and fungi that naturally ‘prime’ your immune system to be in a high state of readiness to seek out and destroy invading pathogens. Unfortunately, these compounds, 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans, are now far less prevalent in our diets, due to food refinement techniques, over-processing and an excessive focus on kitchen hygiene.

Long before we evolved, all higher life forms were so surrounded by yeasts and fungi that our immune system evolved to combat the threat, so much so that it cannot work effectively without that stimulus!

So just how do beta glucans prime your immune system?

Your innate immune system has three main elements:

1. Neutrophils, the most abundant type of innate immune cell in your body. Their role is to attack bacteria and viruses.

However, to kill a pathogen effectively, a neutrophil must first be primed by a 1-3, 1-6 beta glucan. Yeasts can prime neutrophils, because they naturally contain these beta glucans. Once primed, the neutrophils are better at seeking and killing invading pathogens.

2. Macrophages. From the Greek words macro meaning big, and phagein meaning to eat, many macrophages guard the walls of your intestines. If a disease microbe threatens, a macrophage will gobble it up and digest it to render it harmless. A small piece of that disabled microbe is then used by your acquired immune system, so it can make antibodies against future attacks.

However, a macrophage also needs to be primed before it becomes fully active, in the same way that a neutrophil needs priming. Your macrophages, like your neutrophils, contain a specific receptor for 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans, just as a lock needs a key to open it.

In addition, beta glucans don’t just prime macrophages and neutrophils to be more active, they also stimulate an increase in their numbers.

3. Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK cells are a type of lymphocyte (a white blood cell), which respond to virally infected cells and tumour formation, taking about three days to act after infection. NK cells have the ability to recognise stressed cells in the absence of antibodies. NK cells are activated in response to interferons or cytokines derived from macrophages. So 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans indirectly stimulate NK cells by helping improve the effectiveness of macrophages.

By deliberately putting back a measured quantity of 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans into your diet, you are therefore acting to increase the effectiveness of your immune system.

Which are the most effective 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans?
The American bio-tech company Biothera has spent some $300 million in developing and researching the ingredient Wellmune WGP – a natural 1-3, 1-6 beta glucan derived from the cell walls of a highly purified, proprietary baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The patented ingredient
is the subject of published, peer-reviewed research.

The body's immune system

Once swallowed, immune cells in Peyer’s Patches in the gastrointestinal tract take up the beta glucans and transport them to immune organs like lymph nodes and thymus throughout the body.

Macrophages then digest the beta glucans into smaller fragments and slowly release them over a number of days. The fragments bind to neutrophils via a special receptor called CR3. Activated by the beta glucans, the neutrophils are now primed for activity.

Unlike other immune health ingredients, the beta glucans support immune function without over-stimulating the immune system, which may be harmful. Echinacea, in contrast, can over-stimulate the immune system, which is why use is not recommended for more than a week or two.

Research studies on Wellmune WGP 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans
The following studies show beta glucans can reduce upper respiratory tract infections, reduce immune suppression, reduce the duration of cold and flu symptoms, reduce allergy symptoms, reduce fatigue in runners, reduce down-time through illness and even reduce stress levels.

1. Texas Marathon: Physical Stress Health Effects. Published Journal of Dietary Supplements 2013
2. Exercise Stress Biomarkers. Published British Journal of Nutrition 2012
3. Medical Students: Physical/Lifestyle Stress. Published Nutrition 2012
4. Lifestyle Stress Health Effects: 90-day. Published Journal of American College of Nutrition 2013
5. Lifestyle Stress Health Effects: 28-day. Published Agro Foods Industry Hi-Tech 2010
6. Allergic Rhinitis Health Effects. Published Food Science & Nutrition 2012
7. California Marathon: Physical Stress Health Effects. Published Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 2009
8. Colds and Flu. Published: Journal of Applied Research 2009
9. Firefighters: Physical Stress Health Effects. Presented at American Society of Sports Medicine Conference 2008

Myra L Patchen MD and others at the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute conducted a number of studies on 1-3, 1-6 beta glucan’s ability to resist radioactivity damage. It was highly effective. The Canadian Armed Forces then tested over 100 compounds to see if they could reduce radioactive damage. Wellmune beta glucan came out as number 1 for effectiveness.

Dr Nicholas DiLuzio PhD is the man credited with the original discovery of the activating power of beta 1,3 glucan in the 1960s. Dr DiLuzio says in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Science: “The broad spectrum of immuno-pharmacological activities of glucan includes not only the modification of certain bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections, but also inhibition of tumor growth.”

In a 1980s study at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, at the University of Louisville, researchers discovered beta glucans increase the production of stem cells, promoting white blood cell recovery in bone marrow injury and repair.

A further report published in Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics states, “Glucans decreased pneumonia and sepsis to a significantly lower level…”.


Carpenter, K.C., Breslin, W.L., Davidson, T., Adams, A., McFarlin, B.K. 2012.
“Baker’s Yeast ß-glucan Supplementation Increases Monocytes and Cytokines Post-Exercise: Implications for Infection Risk?” British Journal of Nutrition. May 10:1-9.

Feldman, S., Schwartz, H., Kalman, D., Mayers, A., Kohrman, H., Clemens, R. and Krieger, D. 2009. Randomized Phase II Clinical Trials of Wellmune WGP® for Immune Support During Cold and Flu Season. The Journal of Applied Research. 9:20-42.

Fuller, R., Butt, H., Noakes, P., Kenyon, J., Yam, T.S., Calder, P., 2012. Influence of yeast-derived 1,3/1,6 glucopolysaccharide on circulating cytokines and chemokines with respect to upper respiratory tract infections. Nutrition 28: 665–669.

Harger-Domitrovich, S. G.; Domitrovich, J. W.; Ruby, B. C. 2008. Effects of an immunomodulating supplement on upper respiratory tract infection symptoms in wildland firefighters. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 40(5):S353.

McFarlin, B., Carpenter, K., Davidson, T., McFarlin, M., “Baker’s Yeast Beta Glucan Supplementation Increases Salivary IgA and Decreases Cold/Flu Symptomatic Days After Intense Exercise.” Journal of Dietary Supplements, Early Online:1–13, 2013. Available online at
DOI: 10.3109/19390211.2013.820248.

Talbott, S., Talbott, J., Talbott, T., Dingler, E. 2012. ß-Glucan supplementation, allergy symptoms, and quality of life in self-described ragweed allergy suffer¬ers. Food Science & Nutrition .doi: 10.1002/fsn3.11.

Talbott, S., Talbott, J. 2012. Baker’s Yeast Beta-Glucan Supplement Reduces Upper Respiratory Symptoms and Improves Mood State in Stressed Women. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, August 2012, vol 31, no. 4, 295- 300.

Talbott S., Talbott J. 2010. Beta 1,3/1,6 Glucan Decreases Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Symptoms and Improves Psychological Well-being in Moder¬ate to Highly-Stressed Subjects. Agro Food Industry Hi-Tech. 21:21-24.

Talbott S., Talbott J. 2009. Effect of Beta 1, 3/1, 6 Glucan on Upper Respira¬tory Tract Infection Symptoms and Mood State in Marathon Athletes. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 8:509-515.