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Nutrient - The Magic of Mushrooms

By Holly Taylor BSc (Hons) DipCNM MBANT

In recent years, the oyster mushroom has been cultivated around the world as a food. However, this particular mushroom has been part of Eastern culture for centuries, where it is revered for its immune-supporting properties. This is due to a special component found in the cell wall of oyster mushrooms called beta-(1,3/1,6)-D-glucan.

Beta-glucans are actually indigestible, fibre-like molecules and it is this digestive resilience that is the secret to their success. It allows them to travel all the way through the digestive system to the small intestine where their intact natural structure helps to trigger an immune response. 

Often, the small intestine is thought of purely as an organ of absorption, assisting all the nutrients in our food to get into the bloodstream. What is less generally known is that it also plays a very important role in immune health. At a number of points along the wall of the small intestine, there are small areas of immune tissue called Peyer’s patches. These contain a high concentration of immune cells, which help to alert the body to potential threats that have entered through the digestive system. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that beta-glucans can also elicit an immune response in the Peyer’s patches and can, therefore, help to support a healthy immune response during an infection. 

Macrophages are one type of immune cell present in the Peyer’s patches and they are particularly sensitive to beta-glucans because of a specific receptor they carry on their outer surface. Macrophages play a pivotal role in the initiation and maintenance of the immune response. Once activated, not only can macrophages recognise and kill foreign invaders themselves, they are also able to produce a number of special chemicals called cytokines, that stimulate other branches of the immune system, too. Macrophages are often the body’s first line of immune defence when faced with an infection. 

In a normal healthy immune system, macrophages can easily detect foreign invaders and launch the required immune reaction. However, in certain situations, the immune system may not work at its optimum. This commonly occurs as the body ages because the immune system is often too busy dealing with chronic problems like arthritis to manage day-to-day pathogens. Poor nutrition, stress or excessive physical activity can also reduce immunity. That’s why people often get ill after a stressful experience or sporting event. 

Under these influences, the number of macrophages available are actually reduced and this means the usual pathways of immune activation are compromised. Ensuring a regular dose of beta-(1,3/1,6)-D-glucans at times of challenge can help to counter these negative effects and support a healthy immune system.    

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