Beta-Glucan Analysis and the Seven Pillars of Immunity

Date: 02/21/2012 11:44 Posted by Paul Stamets Posted in: Articles by Paul Stamets Mushrooms & Health

Beta-glucan model

3D model of a 1,4 β-glucan. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Q: Why don’t you list beta-glucan content on your products?

A: Because we want to be accurate. The testing methods used to determine beta-glucan content are highly inaccurate.

Over the years, Fungi Perfecti LLC has spent thousands of dollars on product testing for beta-glucan content at various laboratories. The reported beta-glucan values from several independent laboratories vary greatly even though identical assays were performed. The most commonly employed assays for determination of beta-glucan content can only detect soluble beta-glucans; the insoluble beta-glucans remain undetected. Beta-glucans differ in their solubilities depending on their size, functionality, and interaction with other molecules. In agreement with other organic chemists specializing in beta-glucan analysis, we have concluded that the currently employed methods are unreliable! Deciding to place a percentage on our labels gives us sufficient pause, as we know each methodology and each laboratory would yield a different result. There is no standard, accepted,  validated methodology in the industry. This fact makes us reluctant to make any such claims on our product labels, and makes any purported beta glucan levels listed for any mushroom product dubious.

Analytical laboratories have admitted that some mushroom companies use chitinase to convert otherwise water-insoluble sugars (chitin) into beta-glucans so their analyses falsely meet their desired marketing goal; a technique that simply embellishes the beta-glucan content in order to mislead the customer. Another trick some companies employ is to use beta-glucans isolated from yeast, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and list them as ‘mushroom beta-glucans’ on their product label—more than a bit of a stretch of logic, truth and reason. Yeasts are the simplest forms of fungi: many yeasts do not form mycelium and lack the cellular complexity of higher fungi, The other, non-beta-glucan constituents embedded into the cellular architecture of mushroom mycelium distinguishes the immunological activity of mushrooms from yeasts.

Here at Fungi Perfecti, we are addressing this problem. Dr. Regan Nally, who directs our chemical analytical division, is leading this research effort by writing for publication an article for peer-reviewed journal exploring numerous inaccuracies in beta-glucan analyses.

So I ask: what would you do? What is the scientifically accurate and ethical response? If you had one identical product tested at several laboratories but whose results ranged from Non Detectable to 40%, which would you put on the label? This is why Fungi Perfecti is different: if we are not confident in the scientific method being used by the industry, we refuse to pass on what we consider to be misinformation.

The immune system is activated multifactorially by many components in mushrooms. Beta-glucans are just one. Other constituents include but are not limited to alpha-glucans, ergothioneines, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory sterols, lipids, glycosides, and mycoflavonoids—many of which work synergistically to optimize health. The efficacy of a multi-constituent approach has been positively confirmed in the scientific literature. Many of these active ingredients are not water soluble, meaning that they are not pulled out by hot water extraction. The inclusion of these beneficial co-ingredients enhances their protective effects.     These constellations of complementary constituents are the foundation of our Host Defense mushroom product line.

Seven Pillars of Immune Benefits from Mushrooms

Seven primary constituent classes, or “pillars” buttress the immunity enhancing effects of mushrooms.

    1. Polysaccharides (ex. Alpha & Beta-glucans): Immunomodulating

    2. Glycoproteins (ex. PSK): Immunomodulating

    3. Triterpenes (Sterols, ex. sistosterols, stigmasterols, campesterols)

    4. Lipids: Cholesterol modulating

    5. Proteins (Enzymes): Antioxidants

    6. Cyathane Derivatives (ex. erinacines & hericenones, nerve growth stimulant factors)

    7. Secondary Metabolites

Diagram showing generalization of solubilities of mushrooms' active constituent families from a variety of solvents. The darker the color in the outer circle, the more soluble those constituents are from the corresponding solvents within the inner circle.

Mushrooms have approximately 12,000 genes controlling the production of more than 200,000 compounds. Each mushroom species has a unique genetic identity and molecular architecture. This is what defines a species. After thousands of years of experimentation by our ancestors, we now know which are some of the most beneficial of the tens of thousands of mushrooms in existence. From this set, we have selected the best-documented, scientifically-studied and safest functional mushrooms in nature that can be cultivated. We have successfully developed methodologies to sustainably cultivate these species.

We can now benefit from the natural host defenses of not just mushrooms, but also their precursor living mycelium, an opportunity that was not accessible to the ancients. Embedded within this highly integrated molecular matrix of fungal cells are beneficial active ingredients. Our bodies are able to utilize these active ingredients, provided the mycomaterial is pure, genetically potent and bioavailable.

Much has been written about extraction methods for isolating single classes of constituents. Extraction necessarily excludes other derivatives. Hot water, for example, has been used for centuries in teas and soups. Hot water isolates soluble sugars, including certain beta-glucans, glycoproteins and triterpenoids. Alcohol extraction, also proven effective for more than two millennia, on the other hand, can solubize many sterols, ergothioneines, glycosides and flavonoids. Ethyl acetate is yet another solvent often used. Each solvent fractionates out only a few of the Seven Pillars of Immunity from Mushrooms.

By combining water and alcohol extraction methods, and retaining the insoluble matter that precipitates, we benefit from capturing all Seven Pillars. By consuming properly prepared mushroom products, the acids and enzymes of our digestive system carry out the extractions for us, selecting what it needs most from the panoply of constituents. A less comprehensive method of extraction employs a singular solvent, excluding the many benefits of the solvent-insoluble active ingredients. Knowing mushrooms offer a wide range of beneficial compounds, which work together, but whose solubilities greatly differ, choosing one solvent over another becomes difficult.

Simply put, what benefits do you not want?

The classic model of how beta-glucans work is that they are recognized by the immune system as an invasive organism, activating the body’s immune defenses as if to fight an infection. The mushroom mycelium’s ability to defend itself from infectious diseases by staving off invasive organisms can offer us shields of protection not only through direct anti-microbial activity but also from the production of our host-mediated immune cells. Other extracellular compounds, such as antioxidants, have more indirect influences. Antioxidants protect DNA from oxidative stress damage and detoxify the body of free radicals. Mushrooms also modulate the inflammatory response from causing collateral oxidative damage to surrounding healthy tissue. This makes them especially useful as adjunct therapies to conventional medicine. Knowing the particular attributes of each mushroom species provides us with the ability to develop targeted approaches to many categories of disease.

In the view of the FDA, the isolation, concentration, and purification targeting a single active ingredient from mushrooms can designate them as pharmaceuticals. Using the mushrooms and mycelium in their natural forms make them functional foods. With mushrooms, the adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” seems particularly descriptive. For the majority of us, mushrooms are a whole system tonic, benefitting overall human health, fortifying and readying your host defense of immunity.

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Paul Stamets
Director of Research
Fungi Perfecti Laboratories

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