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Immune Support Products Ingredients - The Good, the Bad and the Maybes:

immune support products

Over the last several decades, many researchers and clinicians have examined the effects of Beta-1, 3-D glucan on wound repair and other healing processes after injury even surgery. I offer an overview of how the immune system plays such a vital role in rapid recovery from these insults.

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Let's take a look at eight common natural immune support product ingredients so you can see for yourself what constitutes a good product, a bad product or one that's a "maybe"-generally, a product that shows some promise but isn't well studied by scientific research. Remember: Products containing more than one ingredient usually consist of a primary ingredient (one that shows the most promise) and several other ingredients that are less likely to be effective.

Let's first look at the "bad" ones-the immune support products that have almost no scientific support:

Bovine colostrum: This is nothing more than a dried form of the milk that cows produce shortly after giving birth. It provides, among other things, antibodies that temporarily prevent diseases from which the mother cow has already become immune. That's great-if you're a calf. Human diseases and cow diseases are not the same and it's not likely you need immunity from any particular infectious disease that cows get. One disease, however, is shared by both humans and cows. It's called "mad cow disease" or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). This is one very good reason to stay away from any bovine-derived product. Even if a bovine product has been heat-treated to the point of killing the agent that causes BSE, it's likely that antibodies are destroyed as well.

Thymic Protein A: This is supposed to boost T-4 helper white blood cells. The only problem with this product is that science hasn't really caught onto it yet. Research is practically absent and there's every reason to believe that if you still have your thymus gland, you already have all the Thymic Protein A you need.

Transfer factors: This term represents a broad category of low molecular weight molecules extracted from the immune cells of an individual immune to a particular disease or tumor type and given to another who is not immune. There's really no such thing as a "generic" transfer factor that protects one from all immune conditions. So, when you read about the benefit of "transfer factors", be sure to ask, "Which one?" It would be truly amazing to find a collection of transfer factors that actually worked against many significant diseases.

A few popular immune support products actually have scientific potential. There is usually a limited amount of research available and at least one of the three big questions already discussed (effectiveness, purity, mechanism) can be answered.

Uncaria tomentosa (Cat's claw): This is an extract from the bark of a particular South American tree. It's been shown to protect skin from UV radiation by improving DNA repair. It's also felt to have anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, it increases the number of stem cells that make macrophages and neutrophils-both being infection-fighting cells. It doesn't, however, actually improve the numbers of mature neutrophils and one study it was shown that the because of the lack of standardization the effectiveness of Uncaria tomentosa was sacrificed. Perhaps the greatest concern was the finding in another study that extracts of this product actually stimulated the growth of leukemia cells by 96%.

Echinacea: Extracts of this natural product have been widely studied, with results showing some anti-inflammatory effects. One study found that Echinacea extracts were not effective in preventing respiratory infections and that in only nine of 15 comparison studies did it shorten the duration of a cold. In another study, Echinacea was one of a trio of products that collectively shortened the duration of a cold by half a day. Finally, another study felt that Echinacea induced a "nonspecific immune response" in those who take it once they're ill. No specific mechanisms of action, however, were uncovered. Mechanisms of action is defined how a nutrient, drug or supplement works in the body.

Alpha-glucan: This is a polysaccharide extracted from certain mushrooms. It's been difficult to extract and mass-produce but it has been shown to have activity promoting natural killer cell activity in mice. It also appears to prevent the growth of cancer cells. One study, however, found that its anti-cancer properties were only significant if the extract was first chemically-treated to change its molecular properties. More importantly perhaps is the fact that almost all available research on Alpha-glucan are dated more recently than 2004 and often refer to this product as "new" and "promising". Clearly, there hasn't been enough time to clarify this product's properties.

Astragalus membranaceus: This Chinese herb appears to stimulate the bone marrow to make red blood cells. It also appears to promote the maturation of cells that fight infection. It seems to help macrophages work better. Lymphocytes, also important in immune function, mature faster in the presence of this product. Interestingly, it also happens to contain a known immune support product called Beta-glucan-a product you'll soon see has a great deal of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness as an immune support product.

AmbrotoseT and Aloe Vera: These products are put together because they both contain the same glyconutrient properties. Glyconutrients are sugar-based food products that are used to make larger polysaccharides in the body. AmbrotoseT contains eight simple sugars with the most prevalent ones being those also used in aloe vera. Some studies have shown that at least one sugar enhances macrophage activity when added to albumin (a common blood protein). Another study indicated it may improve natural killer cell activity in those with chronic fatigue syndrome. The best study indicated that aloe vera extracts improve the absorption of both Vitamin C and Vitamin E. You'll see (below) that they may have some potential, too. Aloe vera, however, was found to have some genotoxic properties, meaning that it may negatively affect the genetic makeup of cells.

Vitamin C: Surprisingly, the information on Vitamin C is not as promising as one would think. It has anti-oxidant properties and clearly helps in the immune system of severely deficient individuals (such as those in third world countries). It seemed to improve non-specific immune parameters in an animal model. A four-week intervention trial in healthy subjects showed no effect on immune parameters in subjects receiving high dose Vitamin C and E. Another combined Vitamin C and E trial on sick children showed no benefit to the immune system.

Vitamin E: The best effectiveness as an immune support is shown in elderly nursing home patients and in those who were treated with Vitamin E and selenium, too. Vitamin E appeared to enhance the immune function and reduce the rate of respiratory infections in the elderly but the mechanism of this is unknown. It's felt that the elderly are somewhat deficient in Vitamin E, which may account for why it helps them preferentially.

Only one of the common naturally-derived immune support products appears to satisfy the requirements needed to consider it to be "good" for immune support.

Beta-glucan: This is a long-chain polysaccharide isolated from Baker's yeast and other fungi. Research on Beta-glucan dates from almost forty years ago to the present time. It's mechanism of action has been ell documented. Peer reviewed and researched studies shows that it binds to and promotes the function of macrophages (infection-fighting cells) by binding to its dectin-1 receptor. It also binds to the CR3 receptor on neutrophils and enhances their ability to kill tumor cells and pathogens. It stimulates the formation of bone marrow stem cells and promotes their maturation to all types of infection-fighting cells. It appears to be effective against a number of conditions, including radiation injury, infectious diseases and immune-responsive cancers. Patent protected technology exists that can mass-produce Beta-glucan to a purified state of at least 80%. A good provider of Beta-glucan will be able to tell you the purity of their product and provide you with independent studies carried out by well respected labs. The purity level is very important. The market is saturated with inferior products claiming to contain Beta Glucan.

Below is a graph of various popular immune support products. This graph is the result of an independent study that shows the immune response of specific immune support products. The specific response studied was neutrophils phagocytosis.

Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that plays a major role in the body's defense against bacteria, viruses, and fungi

Phagocytosis is defined as the engulfing and ingestion of bacteria or other foreign bodies by phagocytes. It is an important defense against infection and disease.


As you can see, there is a big difference among these products. Some products have almost no scientific support while others, like the high quality Beta-glucan product used in this study, have decades of supportive research and include research into the mechanism of action of the product. As mentioned, you be the judge.

The material used as the control was saline solution, i.e. salt water. The measured amount of each product used was 100 ug. As the results show, most of the products provided about the same immune response as the salt water control, whereas the high quality Beta-Glucan product provided almost a doubling of immune response. To review the independent tests on the top Beta Glucan products click here.

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  2. Lee KY, Jeon YJ. "Macrophage activation by polysaccharide isolated from Astragalus membranaceus." Int Immunopharmacol . 2005 Jul;5(7-8):1225-33.
  3. Yang BH, et al. "Effects of Astragalus membranaceus and Panax notoginseng on the transformation of bone marrow stem cells and proliferation of EPC in vitro." Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2005 Nov;30(22):1761-3.
  4. Unursaikhan S, et al. "Antitumor activities of O-sulfonated derivatives of (1,3) alpha-D-glucan from different Lentinus edodes." Biosci Biotechnol Biochem . 2006 Jan;70(1):38-46.
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  6. Lavi I, et al. "An aqueous polysaccharide extract from the edible mushroom Pleurotus ostreatus induces anti-proliferative and pro-apoptic effects on HT-29 colon cancer cells." J Cancer Lett . 2006 Jan 11.
  7. Goel V, et al. "Proprietary extract from echinacea plant enhances systemic immune response during a common cold." Phytother Res . 2005 Aug;19(8):689-94.
  8. Miller SC. "Echinacea: a miracle herb against aging and cancer? Evidence in vivo in mice." Evid Based Complement Alternat Med . 2005 Sep;2(3):309-14.
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  10. Eberlin S, et al. "Uncaria tomentosa extract increases the number of myeloid progenitor cells in the bone marrow of mice infected with Listeria monocytogenes." Int Immunopharmacol . 2005 Jul;(7-8):1235-46.
  11. Pineda B, et al. "Interstitial transfer factor as adjuvant immunotherapy for experimental glioma." J Exp Clin Canc Res . 2005 Dec;24(4):575-83.
  12. Fabre RA, et al. "Transfer factors as immunotherapy and supplement of chemotherapy in experimental tuberculosis." Clin Exp Immuno l. 2004 May;136(2):215-23.
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