Background: A large body of literature suggests that certain polysaccharides affect immune system function. Much of this literature, however, consists of in vitro studies or studies in which polysaccharides were injected. Their immunologic effects following oral administration is less clear. The purpose of this systematic review was to consolidate and evaluate the available data regarding the specific immunologic effects of dietary polysaccharides.
Methods: Studies were identified by conducting PubMed and Google Scholar electronic searches and through reviews of polysaccharide article bibliographies. Only articles published in English were included in this review. Two researchers reviewed data on study design, control, sample size, results, and nature of outcome measures. Subsequent searches were conducted to gather information about polysaccharide safety, structure and composition, and disposition.
Results: We found 62 publications reporting statistically significant effects of orally ingested glucans, pectins, heteroglycans, glucomannans, fucoidans, galactomannans, arabinogalactans and mixed polysaccharide products in rodents. Fifteen controlled human studies reported that oral glucans, arabinogalactans, heteroglycans, and fucoidans exerted significant effects. Although some studies investigated anti-inflammatory effects, most studies investigated the ability of oral polysaccharides to stimulate the immune system. These studies, as well as safety and toxicity studies, suggest that these polysaccharide products appear to be largely well-tolerated.
Conclusions: Taken as a whole, the oral polysaccharide literature is highly heterogenous and is not sufficient to support broad product structure/function generalizations. Numerous dietary polysaccharides, particularly glucans, appear to elicit diverse immunomodulatory effects in numerous animal tissues, including the blood, GI tract and spleen. Glucan extracts from the Trametes versicolor mushroom improved survival and immune function in human RCTs of cancer patients; glucans, arabinogalactans and fucoidans elicited immunomodulatory effects in controlled studies of healthy adults and patients with canker sores and seasonal allergies. This review provides a foundation that can serve to guide future research on immune modulation by well-characterized polysaccharide compounds.