Q & A Library
Best Bet for Breast Cancer Survivors?
I'm a breast cancer survivor and have been considering taking beta glucan supplements, which I've heard can help support the immune system. Do you think this would be worthwhile and safe?
Answer (Published 1/31/2014)
Originally published July 15, 2003. Updated January 31, 2014.
Beta glucans are a group of naturally occurring polysaccarides (complex sugars) that are a normal constituent of the cell walls of bacteria, yeasts, algae, lichens, fungi and some plants including oats and barley. They are partly responsible for the anti-cancer and immune-boosting effects of medicinal mushrooms, and they are nontoxic.
Oral beta glucan supplements are considered effective to help lower cholesterol. Given intravenously or by injection into muscle, they may have some benefit as a cancer treatment to help boost the immune system. Recent laboratory research sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has shown that beta glucans can increase the activity of the white blood cells that attack cancer cells. They may also potentially increase the effectiveness of monoclonal antibodies used to treat some cancers, the NCI reports on its website.
Beta glucan supplements are widely promoted on the Internet. Some claims hold that these products can be absorbed only if they are "micronized" by a patented process. According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, there is no reliable evidence to support this claim. A review of beta glucan products on the database warns that while they are probably safe for most adults when taken orally, no one should take more than 15 grams a day by mouth or continue taking them for more than eight weeks. Another warning: intravenous solutions containing microparticles are not safe and might cause formation of blood clots, problems with the spleen, and other disorders.
Instead of gambling on the marketing promises of beta glucan supplements, I suggest including traditional mushrooms in your diet as a better way of getting their benefits. I've often recommended certain species of mushrooms to cancer patients and cancer survivors:
These, along with other well-studied medicinal mushrooms, are also available in combination products that probably work better than extracts of any one species.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
"Enhancing Cancer Immunoprevention and Immunotherapy with Naturally Occurring Beta Glucans," National Cancer Institute, Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, accessed November 22, 2013, http://cam.cancer.gov/annualreport/fy09/ar_betaglucans.html
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