The World of Glyconutrients
If you had to name an essential nutrient that is missing from the diet of virtually every man, woman, and child in America, a substance that is absolutely necessary for the body to function properly and one that also plays a major role in chronic infections, aging, arthritis, allergies, and a host of other conditions, what would your choice be? Calcium? Iron? Folic acid? Although all of these nutrients are very important for health, even they depend on the substance we’re looking for: sugar.
That’s right, sugar. No, not the white table sugar in your sugar bowl or the sugar that coats your breakfast cereal or even the high fructose corn syrup that can be found in most refined, processed foods on supermarket shelves—and in your kitchen cabinets. We’re talking about glyconutrients—“glyco” means sugar or sweet—substances known technically as saccharides, carbohydrates, monosaccharides, or polysaccharides, but they all mean basically the same thing: sugar. But although these terms generally refer to sugar, there is something very special about eight of them–eight distinct sugars that are present in every cell in the body and that are essential for disease prevention and overall health.
Before we jump into an in-depth discussion of glyconutrients, let’s shine a light on refined white sugar (sucrose, derived from sugar cane and/or sugar beets), the one we’ve all grown up with and know and love. In fact, Americans’ love sugar so much, eating it has become a major health issue: annual consumption per person of the white stuff ballooned from an average of five pounds in 1900 to 158 pounds in 1999.(1) That’s 158 pounds of empty calories, or 395,000 calories per year! (Picture this: that’s equal to about 1,580 half-cup servings of premium chocolate ice cream.)
Consumption of refined sugar suppresses the immune system, contributes to the development of diabetes and obesity, contributes to bone mineral loss, promotes mood swings, hinders the absorption of various nutrients, increases the risk of gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, accelerates aging of the skin, and is related to a host of other health-damaging consequences. Obviously, you should seriously consider limiting your intake of sucrose.
Sugars In Your Diet:
Sucrose: a disaccharide (two sugars) that consists of equal amounts of glucose and fructose. It is found naturally in sugar cane and sugar beets.
Glucose: a simple sugar that is the main energy source in the body. It is usually found with other sugars in fruits and vegetables. Many foods are converted into glucose in the body.
Fructose: also known as fruit sugar, it is found in fruit, some vegetables, honey, and various plants.
Maltose: malt sugar, found in germinating grains
Lactose: milk sugar, it is composed of galactose and glucose molecules. Millions of people are lactose intolerant, which means they have a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which aids in the digestion of lactose.
What Are Glyconutrients?
On the other side of the sweet aisle are glyconutrients. The word glyconutrients is a general term for biochemicals that contain a sugar molecule. Of the more than 200 sugars that experts have identified thus far, only eight of them have been deemed to be necessary for optimal functioning of the human body and disease prevention. These eight essential sugars are the focus of our discussion.
These sugar molecules have a tendency to attach themselves to other molecules, especially proteins and fats (lipids), and take on critical and specific functions. When the essential eight sugar molecules combine with proteins, they form glycoproteins, while those that bind with lipids form glycolipids. A few examples of glycoproteins can be seen in the sidebar. Glycolipids generally provide energy for the body.
Perhaps the most exciting and critical functions involving the essential eight sugars is cell-to-cell communication. These sugars are the ultimate communicators—they have their PhDs in broadcasting, debate, code breaking, and public relations all rolled up into one. We will discuss this ability to “sweet talk” in much more detail a bit later, but first it’s time to meet the essential eight.
SIDEBAR: Types of Glycoproteins
Glycoproteins are molecules that consist of protein bound to one of the eight essential sugars.(2) Therefore, a deficiency of any of the essential eight sugars means that the structure of glycoproteins is compromised and thus their ability to communicate with other cells and perform their vital functions is weakened. Examples of glycoproteins include the following:
Antibodies: These substances are the immune system’s response to invading, disease-causing elements.
Mucins: The mucus of the respiratory and digestive systems secrete these substances, which are important in the body’s fight against damaging organisms that can invade these critical organ systems (3)
Follicle-stimulating hormone: hormone released by the pituitary in both men and women that is necessary for reproduction
Thyroid-stimulating hormone: hormone that stimulates the thyroid to synthesize and release its hormones
Luteinizing hormone: hormone released by the pituitary in both men and women that is necessary for reproduction
Meet the Essential Eight
Of the eight essential sugars, only two are readily available in the modern American diet. Minute amounts of the other sugars can be found in some common foods, but poor soil conditions, use of pesticides, and nutrient depletion associated with processing, transportation, and storage make even these sources unreliable. Therefore it is best to take a glyconutrient supplement to provide your body with the sugars it needs. First, let’s identify the essential eight.
Glucose. This is one of the sugars readily available in the diet, because it is converted from the fructose, starches, and white sugar found in abundance in popular foods. Glucose is also found in most fruits and vegetables.
Galactose. This is the other sugar readily available in the diet once it is converted from lactose (milk sugar) found in dairy products. However, if you do not eat any dairy products, either because you are lactose intolerant or you choose to avoid them for health or ethical reasons, this essential sugar is likely lacking in your system. Galactose can be found in most fruits (including avocadoes), chestnuts, mushrooms, and many vegetables, such as asparagus, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, green peas, onions, parsnips, and tomatoes.
Fucose (not to be confused with fructose). Breast-fed infants enjoy this glyconutrient, but once breast-feeding ends, so does the supply of fucose. Although this glyconutrient is also found in selected medicinal mushrooms and seaweeds (e.g., kelp, wakame), it is not readily available in other foods. Fucose has the ability to protect against respiratory tract infections, inhibit allergic reactions, impact brain development, and enhance cell communication.
Mannose. This essential sugar is obtained from a type of Indian sumac. Its tasks in the body include assisting with cell communication, helping reduce triglyceride and blood glucose levels in people who have diabetes, lowering cholesterol levels, relieving inflammation, preventing infections, inhibiting tumor growth and development, and treating urinary tract infections. (4) It also has a role in the production of cytokines, which are a type of protein involved in cell communication, among other tasks. Mannose can be found in aloe vera, black and red currants, cabbage, carob gum, eggplant, green beans, kelp, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and turnips.
N-acetylgalactosamine. Although the amount of research associated with this monosaccharide has not been as extensive as that done with the other glyconutrients, experts do know that it is essential for cell-to-cell communication and that it can inhibit the spread of tumors. The fact that some patients with heart disease have lower than normal levels of N-acetylgalactosamine is an area of interest as well. This essential sugar is found in shark and beef cartilage and in a red algae called Dumontiaceae.
N-acetylglucosamine. This glyconutrient may look familiar. That’s because a metabolic product of N-acetylglucasamine is glucosamine, a common and popular supplement used to treat arthritis. Glucosamine helps reduce inflammation and pain, increases range of motion in people with osteoarthritis, and repairs cartilage. You will find this essential sugar in shark and beef cartilage and shiitake mushrooms.
N-acetylneuraminic acid. Breast-feeding infants get the benefits of this glyconutrient, which is key for learning, memory, and brain development. It also has a role in lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and influences blood coagulation. Its ability to modify the viscosity of mucus is important for the immune system, as mucus serves to repel bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing agents. Whey protein concentrate or isolate and chicken eggs are sources of this essential sugar.
Xylose. You may find this glyconutrient listed on the ingredient panel of your chewing gum or toothpaste, as manufacturers sometimes use it instead of table sugar. These items, however, should never be viewed as a source of this essential glyconutrient, as they do not provide you with an adequate amount of the nutrient. Xylose has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and may help prevent cancer of the digestive tract. It also helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract, which is a boon to the immune system. Minute amount of xylose can be found in aloe vera gel, blackberries, cabbage, corn, echinacea, eggplant, green beans, guava, loganberries, okra, psyllium, peas, and pears.
The Essential Eight In Action
What makes these eight glyconutrients so special? The American Cancer Society notes that “there is a wealth of laboratory evidence that glycoproteins are important in communication between cells, and that this in turn may affect body systems such as the immune system.”(5) Experts agree that glyconutrinets excel in these two areas—cell-to-cell communication and the immune system, two areas that encompass a lot of territory. But these glyconutrients are up to the task, if you provide your body with adequate levels of these critical substances.
Whether these essential sugars team up with proteins and/or lipids, or they operate alone, they are involved in a great many critically important functions. For example, glyconutrients can:
Recognize foreign invaders (e.g., pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) and alert the immune system to their presence so action against them can begin as soon as possible. This is important in your efforts to fight everything from the common cold to urinary tract infections to HIV.
Significantly increase the levels of pathogen-fighting cells (e.g., macrophages, natural killer cells) in the immune system. Once your immune system recognizes the enemy, it needs to bring in all the reinforcements it needs to eliminate it. The mighty eight help make that happen.
Enhance the antioxidant abilities of glutathione, which is one of the most potent antioxidants in the body. Research shows that glyconutrient supplementation can increase the level of glutathione by 50 percent and prevent the loss of this important antioxidant from the liver.(6) The ability of glyconutrients to enhance glutathione is important because the liver is the main organ that processes and eliminates toxins and other waste from the body. When this detoxification process is faulty, poor health is not far behind.
Slow the progression of aging. Glyconutrients do this in several ways, one of which is by enhancing the activity of antioxidants, which destroy age-promoting free radicals.
Assist in clotting of blood
Provide structural support (within cell membranes) for the body’s cells
Help prevent development of autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when components of the immune system mistake healthy cells for pathogens and attack them—an example of miscommunication and mistaken identity. Ensuring healthy levels of glyconutrients can help prevent such errors from happening.
Lower cholesterol, decrease body fat, and increase lean muscle mass. All of these benefits are especially helpful if you have or are at risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol, or obesity.
Speed up wound healing, which is especially helpful following surgery or injuries, and if you have diabetes, which is associated with a reduced ability to heal.
Saying that glyconutrients are “involved” in cell-to-cell communication is putting it mildly: saying they are absolutely essential defines it more accurately. Emil I. Mondoa, MD, author of Sugars that Heal, notes that “virtually every change within our multicellualr bodies, from conception until death, is to some degree mediated by this language of sugars.” And because effective cell-to-cell communication is also necessary for proper functioning of every cell, tissue, and organ system in the body, the need to maintain a healthy, balanced glyconutrient population is critical as well. Before we look at what happens when you have deficiencies and/or imbalances of glyconutrients, let’s explore how these sugars are involved in the “sweet talk” that is going on continuously in your body.
The outer surface areas of the body’s cells are a haven for many different substances, and among them are sugar molecules. These molecules transport cellular codes that make it possible for your cells to communicate with each other. When two cells “meet,” for example, the sugar molecules on each cell exchange “sweet talk,” codes that contain critical information which allows the cells to carry out their tasks and processes that are involved in keeping your body healthy. If you have a deficiency of any of the eight essential sugars, the cells’ ability to communicate is compromised, and thus your health is jeopardized as well.
For example, if bacteria attack the immune system and the cells that typically respond cannot communicate properly because they lack the necessary sugar molecules that allow them to pick up signals from other cells (similar to not getting a strong enough signal on your cell phone), the message to fight the bacteria won’t get through. This breakdown in communication may lead to the development of a serious or potentially life-threatening condition, such as pneumonia, HIV, or herpes.
Or let’s say your cells are not as “sweet” as they should be and they begin to send poor or faulty signals, causing your immune system to mistake healthy cells for invasive foreign ones. This communication snafu may prove to be a costly one, and depending on the type of cells the immune system has attacked, the result may be the development of an autoimmune condition such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, or Crohn’s disease. Faulty cell communication can also cause the immune system to not recognize and eliminate mutated cells, which can then result in abnormal cell growth.
Healthy sweet talk is also important to ensure your cells perform other tasks as well. In fact, according to Emil I. Mondoa, MD, these essential sugars “are essential in virtually all intelligent interactions between the cells of the body. . . . glyconutrients affect how our cells form the structure of the body and the daily repair of our tissues.” Clearly, optimal cell-to-cell communication is absolutely essential if you want to help avoid the scores of symptoms, disorders, and diseases that can develop when your body’s cells get their signals crossed. We’ll talk about a few of them here.
Researchers have identified various disorders and diseases that are characterized by a deficiency of one or more of the eight essential sugars. They have also found that supplementing with glyconutrients can be an effective treatment for some of these conditions. Here’s a sample of what the experts know so far.
Allergies. If you suffer with allergies, you probably know that your body releases histamine in response to pollen, mold, cat hair, or whatever substance your immune systems has identified as being undesirable. The release of histamine turns on the sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, and other symptoms characteristic of allergic reactions. A group of researchers has found that the sugar N-acetylneuraminic acid blocks the release of histamine and thus prevents symptoms as well. (7)
Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Although white sugar has been associated with behavioral problems, the essential sugars appear to offer significant help. Several studies show that glyconutritional supplements significantly reduced the number and severity of symptoms in children who had ADHD.(8)
Chronic fatigue. Research conducted at the University of California, Irvine, shows that supplementation with glyconutrients improved the immune system functioning in people with had chronic fatigue syndrome. These sugars increased natural killer cell levels and enhanced the activity of glycoproteins.(9)
Influenza. Fighting the flu is pretty much a yearly event for many people, but there is evidence that one of the essential eight, N-acetylneuraminic acid, is an effective anti-flu agent. Although several studies have pointed out this benefit, a 2006 study made its point in a unique way. The nests of the swiftlet, a bird found in Asia, are edible and valued for their healing powers. Investigators have found that these nests are an excellent source of N-acetylneuraminic acid, as the saliva of the birds is rich in this essential sugar. Thus an extract of edible birds nests has been shown to prevent influenza viruses.(10)
Rheumatoid arthritis. Low levels of fucose and galactose are a feature of this autoimmune disease, according to researcher Doris Lefkowitz, PhD. On the plus side, joint protection is handled by mannose, while N-acetylglucosamine and N-acetylgalactosamine assist in eliminating free radicals that accumulate around inflamed joints.(11)
Urinary tract infections. These annoying and oftentimes serious infections affect millions of people every year and are especially common in women: 20 percent of females experience at least one urinary tract infection during their lifetime.(12) Most urinary tract infections are caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli; these pathogens have sugar molecules on their surface which allow them to attach themselves to cells in the bladder. This feature adds to the difficulty of treating this condition, but research shows that a combination of glucose and mannose can be effective in reducing the severity of the infection within a twenty-four-hour period.(13)
Why Supplementation Matters
As we mentioned previously, only two of the eight essential sugars are typically found in the diet. On the positive side, the human body does have the ability to make some of these sugars. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process is long, complex, and easily disrupted by everyday roadblocks such as stress, food additives, aging, poor nutrition, use of medications, exposure to toxins in the environment, and a lack of the many different enzymes necessary to fuel these processes.
To make matters worse, production of the essential sugars requires a lot of energy, and in today’s high-stress world, you want to conserve your resources, not waste them. If your body needs to call upon its reserves to manufacture essential sugars, it has to divert energy away from your immune system. The best way to help keep your immune system properly fueled, and to conserve your energy and ensure your body gets the essential sugars it needs, is to take a glyconutrient supplement.
In a perfect world, the eight essential sugars would be readily available in your food, but since they are not, we are fortunate to have some excellent supplements on the market. You can buy products that offer just one or two of the essential eight, but your body needs all of these nutrients to keep the sweet talk going and the immune system humming. Therefore, look for supplements that contain all eight as complete saccharides—just like nature provides them—and not just trace elements of these sugars. Also only consider supplements that are standardized and stabilized and that come from a reputable company. Do not hesitate to contact the manufacturer (full contact information, including address and phone number, and preferably a website address should be available on the label or as part of the packaging or website) if you have any questions about the product before you make your purchase. You don’t want a sweet deal to go sour!
Elkins, Rita MH. Miracle Sugars. Pleasant Grove, UT: Woodland Publishing, 2001.
Maeder, Thomas. Sweet medicines. Scientific American July 2002.
Mondoa, Emil I., MD, and Mindy Kitei. Sugars that Heal. New York: Ballantine Publishing, 2001.
Glyconutrients Reference: www.glyconutrientsreference.com
1. Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing USDA figures: http://www.cspinet.org/new/sugar_limit.html
2. Indiana State University: http://web.indstate.edu/thcme/mwking/protein-modifications.html
3. Forstner J. Intestinal mucins in health and disease. Digestion 1978; 17(3): 234-63.
4. Laurance Johnston, PhD. Natural Urinary Tract Health: The D-Mannose Solution. At http://www.healingtherapies.info/Urinary-Tract%20Health.htm
5. American Cancer Society website: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3x_Glyconutrients.asp?sitearea=ETO
6. Busbee D, Barhoumi R, et al. Protection from glutathione depletion by a glyconutritional mixture of saccharides. Age 1999; 22:159-65; Barhoumi R, Burghardt C, Busbee DL, McDaniel HR. Enhancement of glutathione levels and protection from chemically initiated depletion in rat liver cells by glyconutritionals. Proceedings of the Fisher Institute for Medical Research 1997; 1(1):12-16.
7. Matsuda K et al. Inhibitory effects of sialic acid- or N-acetylglucosamine-specific lectins on histamine release induced by compound 48/80, bradykinin and a polyethylenimine in rat peritoneal mast cells. Jpn J Pharmacol 1994 Jan; 64(1):1-8.
8. Dykman K and McKinley R. Effects of glyconutritionals on the severity of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Proceedings of the Fisher Institute for Medical Research November 1997: 24-25; Dykman K and McKinley R. Effect of nutritional supplements on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 1998 Jan-March; 33(1): 49-60.
9. See DM et al. The in vitro immunomodulatory effects of glyconutrients on peripheral blood mononuclear cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 1998 Jul-Sep; 33(3):280-87.
10. Guo CT et al. Edible bird’s nest extract inhibits influenza virus infection. Antiviral Res 2006 Jul; 70(3):140-46.
11. Lefkowitz Doris. Glyconutritionals: Implications for rheumatoid arthritis. Glycoscience and Nutrition, 2000: 1:15.
12. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/utiadult/
13. Michaels E et al. Effect of D-mannose and D-glucose on Escherichia coli bacteriuria in rats. Urol Res 1983; 11(2): 97-102.