A growing body of research is teaching us about the importance of the immune system to our general health, mental health and quality of life. We’re also learning more about the role of nutrition in supporting it and the mechanism of action of particular substances. Immunomodulators – which can modify the immune system’s response to threats – are a particularly interesting area.
A recent review of clinical studies indicated beta glucan may be an immunomodulator which can ‘train’ the body’s immune cells to react more quickly when a pathogen is detected. This newly recognised phenomenon occurs when innate immune cells encounter specific pieces of microbes (living or non-living), causing the cells to adopt a more effective response to future threats. In essence, this means that innate immune cells, after experiencing one of these training stimuli, retain a 'memory' of the experience which allows them to respond more quickly and effectively when they encounter another pathogen.
Although it’s not yet an established scientific fact, research over the past decade supports the case that some yeast beta glucans could offer an effective training stimulus for the immune system. However, the key word here is 'some.' Baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast are two strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that both produce beta 1,3/1,6 glucans, but not all yeast beta glucans from the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae are the same: those extracted from the cell walls of baker’s yeast have a different molecular structure from those extracted from brewer’s yeast.
An example of a beta glucan with immune-modulating properties is Wellmune®, a proprietary baker’s yeast beta 1,3/1,6 glucan with a history of research demonstrating efficacy. Observations from studies investigating its mechanism of action are consistent with what we know about how an innate immune trainer acts. This is an active area of research and one we are likely to learn much more about in the coming years.
Another important point is that extraction processes can affect the structure of yeast beta glucans. Since it is well documented that molecular structure influences the beta glucans’ immune-modulating properties, their source matters. Because of this, it is important to consider research specifically conducted on the beta glucan of interest. Results from studies carried out on specific baker’s yeast-derived beta glucan cannot be attributed to any other type of yeast-derived beta glucan, such as brewer’s yeast, or baker’s yeast beta glucan purified with different manufacturing processes.
When choosing an immune health ingredient, the focus of manufacturers should therefore be on the quality of the ingredient. This comes down to three things: the extraction process, consistency in the manufacturing process, and how well-substantiated the benefits are. Wellmune is extracted from the cell wall of a strain of baker’s yeast and purified using a proprietary process that has been refined for over 15 years. As highlighted in the recent beta glucan review, it has been the subject of over a dozen human clinical trials . They have demonstrated its efficacy in supporting the human immune system among a range of different populations, including children, athletes and people with mild allergies.1
The portfolio of human clinical research demonstrating the efficacy of yeast beta glucans, such as Wellmune, has made them a ‘hero ingredient’ for immune support. We believe further research demonstrating a role as immune 'trainers' will further increase their appeal to consumers.
 De Marco, E., Calder, P. C. & Roche, H. M. ‘β‐1,3/1,6‐Glucans and Immunity: State of the Art and Future Directions’ Molecular Nutrition & Food Research (2020)