Glyconutrients: Essential Sugars That Boost Immune Function

If the communication between cells is impaired, cellular malfunction occurs. A healthy cell could be misidentified as a foreign body, thereby triggering the immune system to attack it. This could ultimately lead to an autoimmune response as in the case of lupus, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. A breakdown in cellular communication may also lead to proliferation of cancerous cells throughout the body.

Essential glyconutrients can improve cellular communication and function by correcting an overactive immune system (evident in autoimmune diseases), stimulate an underactive immune system, and keep various immune responses in optimal shape for overall disease prevention. Glyconutrients have been proven to: stimulate T-cell activity only when foreign antigens are present; significantly increase natural killer cells and macrophages; demonstrate antioxidant capabilities, thereby fighting the effects of free radicals and reducing stress on the body and its immune defenses; optimize the communication between cells, which is crucial for normal immune function; aid in the reduction of inflammation.

Below are some facts linking essential-sugar deficiencies to various autoimmune diseases, which are typically characterized by the body's own immune cells, such as killer and T cells attacking healthy and otherwise friendly cells:

Lupus: Deficiencies of mannose-binding proteins have been linked to lupus, an autoimmune condition that is often very serious. A 1996 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatism concluded that inadequate levels of these proteins can indeed raise one's risk of developing lupus.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: This form of arthritis is characterized by inflammation and pain in the joints due to the body's own defense cells attacking healthy cells in the joint areas. Interestingly, there are several studies showing that low levels of the saccharide, fucose, are linked to even the most severe forms of rheumatism. It’s interesting to note another glyconutrient, n-acetyl-glucosamine, can be very helpful in reducing swelling in joints and regenerating cartilage.

Dermatomyositis: This arthritis-like disease is characterized by the presence of sugars whose structural makeups have been altered after a parasitic infection, thereby rendering them useless and possibly even dangerous.

Cancer: There is a growing body of evidence that points to deficiencies of and abnormalities in different saccharides being intimately linked to stomach, colon and breast cancer. Research published in Cancer Research showed that deformed or absent sugars have been specifically linked to the formation of stomach cancer. Most of the known polysaccharides, or glyconutrients, have been shown to either fight cancer.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Though the exact causes of this disease still are not understood, it is often characterized by the presence of autoimmune dysfunction. In one recent study involving chronic fatigue patients, the addition of supplemental polysaccharides increased levels of natural killer cells, stopped premature cell death and increased other general indicators of improved immune function.

Candidiasis: There is a promising study published showing that the polysaccharide mannose quickens the destruction of yeast organisms. Researchers at the University of Kuwait found that the sugars mannose and N-acetyl-glucosamine were very effective in preventing the formation of yeast in the digestive tracts of mice.

Fibromyalgia: Like chronic fatigue syndrome, doctors and health experts do not understand what causes this disease, which is characterized by chronic muscle and tissue tenderness, fatigue, disruptive sleep patterns and various other symptoms. Some research points to low levels of serotonin. Glyconutrients can have tremendous impact on the brain and its chemical production. Recent research shows that when several polysaccharides aren't properly interacting with certain brain chemicals, their uptake by surrounding cells is decreased. A study conducted in 2002 showed that individuals with fibromyalgia who took a combination of different supplements, including essential sugars, experienced significant improvement in their symptoms.


Fucose: This saccharide is not readily available in food. However, it is abundant in breast milk and plays a vital role in developing a healthy immune response in infants. It is also found in medicinal mushrooms such as maitake.

Galactose: This sugar is commonly found in most diets, with its primary sources being dairy foods (converted from milk sugar, called lactose).

Mannose: This is another powerful health-promoting glyconutrient. It is vital to proper cellular function and can positively affect the body's immune response to pathogens. Research also suggests mannose may have anti-inflammatory and blood sugar-lowering capabilities.

Xylose: Not available in most diets, xylose is commonly used to help sweeten sugarless gum. It is interesting to note that although it has a sweet taste, it does not adversely affect the enamel of the tooth. Like other essential saccharides, xylose helps fights microbial invaders such as fungus and bacteria and may also fight cancer. It has been featured in allergy nasal spray products due to its ability to discourage the binding of allergens to mucous membranes.

N-acetyl-galactosamine: Not readily available in our diet, this essential sugar plays an important role in promoting proper function of and communication between cells. There is mounting evidence that it can help fight the growth of some cancers.

N-acetyl-glucosamine: This glyconutrient can be very helpful for the proper maintenance of joints, and can reverse (or prevent) cartilage and joint damage/inflammation. The popular supplement glucosamine, which is now widely recognized for its abilities to fight arthritic conditions, is derived from n-acetyl-glucosamine.

N-acetyl-neuramic acid: Like other essential saccharides, this is also abundantly found in breast milk and can have a significantly healthy effect on the immune and nervous systems of infants.

Arabinogalactan: This sugar has demonstrated a wide variety of health-promoting effects, including the ability to fight specific cancers, hepatitis B and C, chronic fatigue and infections.

Excerpted and edited with permission from the new book “20 Essential Supplements” from the Editors at Woodland Publishing © 2003. All rights reserved. For more info, please visit