Beta Glucan: The Heart Healthy Fiber

You may have heard that fiber is good for you, but did you know that not all fiber is created equal? There are two main categories of dietary fiber — soluble and insoluble — and there are different types in each category.

Beta glucan is one form of soluble dietary fiber that’s been strongly linked to improving cholesterol and helping to boost heart health. Like many fibers, it’s available in supplement form, but is also found in whole grains, oats, bran, wheat, and barley. Baker’s yeast and some types of fungi, such as maitake and reishi mushrooms, contain beta glucan as well.

Why Do We Need Fiber?

Dietary fiber comes from the plant-based foods we eat. Soluble fibers, like beta glucan, dissolve partially in water, while insoluble fiber does not dissolve at all. Most foods have both, but the amount of each type can vary depending on the food. There are also different kinds of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Fiber supports good health by helping to lower cholesterol and control blood sugar levels. It also helps to reduce constipation and bowel issues, and aids in weight control. The Institute of Medicine recommends that men and women age 50 and under eat 38 grams (g) and 25 grams per day, respectively. Men and women age 51 and over should get 30 g and 21 g per day. Teenagers may need around 30-35 g a day.

What’s so Great About Beta Glucan?

There is solid evidence that beta glucan can boost heart health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a “heart healthy” label for foods that have high amounts of beta glucan based on this evidence. Several studies suggest that beta glucan may be helpful in lowering high cholesterol and triglycerides. One found that eating oats with at least 3 g of beta glucan daily reduced bad cholesterol (LDL) levels between 5-7 percent.

It may also help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and improve blood sugar control for those who already have diabetes.

Can It Fight Off Other Diseases?

Although more research is needed, it’s believed that beta glucan could have some positive effect on the immune system. While most research has been in the form of animal trials, scientists think beta glucan may be able to stimulate the immune system and help the body fight off disease and infection more effectively. However, the human immune system is complicated and researchers are still learning how it works. It may take some time before we know the exact effects beta glucan has and whether or not it can in fact improve immune system function.

How Does It Work?

Because it’s a soluble fiber, beta glucan slows down food transit in the intestines so that food takes longer for the body to digest. Slower digestion means the body doesn’t absorb sugar as quickly, reducing the likelihood of blood sugar spikes and helping keep blood sugar levels regulated. Because it is indigestible, it goes through the whole digestive tract and can take cholesterol out with it, helping to lower cholesterol levels.

Since beta glucan is found naturally in foods, it’s generally considered safe. However, if you choose to use supplements, make sure they’re from a reliable source. Supplement manufacturers are not regulated by the FDA, so there is a possibility of contamination as well as false marketing claims. In order to protect yourself, talk to your doctor first.

People with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease may need to use caution with beta glucan supplements because their immune system is already overactive. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking supplements if you have any chronic health conditions.

Science may not have unlocked all of beta glucan’s potential health benefits, but we do know that it has a role in improving heart health and preventing diabetes. The best way to get fiber is through your diet, so if you haven’t already, think about switching to whole grains.