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Glyconutrients - Quintessential Cell Communicators

by Gill Jacobs(more info)

listed in nutraceuticals, originally published in issue 130 - December 2006

Illustration of Glycoprotein Synthesis

When we supplement the nutrition that we no longer get from the soil and our food, we may be ignoring one important factor: glyconutrients. Their prime role is to facilitate communication between cells. If we are working to an end with a group of people, ‘doing our own thing’ does not get results. We have to work as a team and communicate. So too with the body. And the group of foods that do the job for us, it has recently been discovered, are glyconutrients.

Carbohydrates as Biological Sugars

Another word for carbohydrates is biological sugars, and glyco-science is the study of carbohydrates/biological sugars, and how they work. It may seem strange to think that sugars could be vital for health, if you only think of sucrose, or table sugar. But there are eight sugars, or saccharides, that are required for cellular communication, and knowing about them, could provide another clue to the mystery of how we thrive, or degenerate into disease and ill-health.

Carbohydrates are the most complex in the four major classes of biomolecules, which also include proteins, nucleic acids and fats. For a long time researchers concentrated on the key role of protein and amino acids, ignoring carbohydrates because of their complexity. But, prompted by the wonderful properties of aloe vera, researchers were forced to look at the role of glyconutrients in human health, and their life-giving potential.[1]

Glyconutrients – Supplements to the Rescue?

If you read the few articles and books on glyconutrients you will be told that this is the latest buzz word. But the dearth of information on the subject, apart from academic research and emailed testimonials, perhaps reflects the fact that you have to hunt hard to find glyconutritionals, usually within the multi-level marketing system, apart from sourcing glyconutrients from food, or herbal medicine. We are told that our diets no longer supply enough glyconutrients.[2] Although the body can manufacture some of the sugars not available from our diets, the energy consumed to perform this task, and the depletion of enzymes caused by the process, points to long-term supplementation as an alternative. This is especially the case when there are liver problems or depleted energy reserves.

But is there another way? If the body is capable of producing essential glyconutrients, how can we support those abilities, rather than assume we should by-pass them entirely? We will come back to this question, after examining in more depth the source of glyconutrients, and how they work.

Wired for Action

A glyconutrient is a biochemical that contains a sugar molecule. Thus glycoproteins have a sugar molecule attached to the protein, and glycolipids have a sugar molecule attached to fat.

Glyconutrients are the ‘good’ sugars that attach themselves to cell molecules, allowing cells to communicate with each other. Every system in the body needs such communication, especially the immune system, when trying to maintain equilibrium.

Grasping the distinction between good sugars and bad sugars is important. The ‘bad’ sugar, sucrose, has been highly processed, has scant nutritional value, and artificially boosts energy levels by causing a rush of insulin to be followed pretty soon by a corresponding drop. The treadmill of sugar cravings to keep that energy up is set in motion.

Good sugars, monosaccharides or glyconutrients, are an entirely different matter. There are eight: glucose, galactose, fucose, mannose, xylose, N-acetlygalatosamine, N-acetylglucosamine and N-acetylineuraminic acid. The following analogy provides an understanding of how they facilitate communication. Without the correct combination, communication between cells is disrupted with consequences that are detrimental to health.

Glucose is converted from white sugar, fructose and starchy foods such as rice, corn, potatoes and wheat. It is not hard to conclude, therefore, that the average western diet of high sugar consumption and carbohydrates ensures plentiful supplies of glucose.
Galactose is obtained from the conversion of lactose (milk sugar) and from dairy products. Apart from dairy products, galactose is also found in figs, grapes, peas, tomatoes, hazelnuts, beans and fruit with high pectin content, such as apples, as well as many other fruit and vegetables.
Fucose is found in breast milk, along with four other essential sugars, and in many medicinal mushrooms. It enhances brain development and memory function, prevents respiratory tract infections,[3] and inhibits allergic reactions.
Mannose is one of the most important glyconutrients because of its central role in cellular communication and healing. It also controls tumour growth, and inhibits bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal infections. It plays a part in producing cytokines (the chemicals which help to fight invaders, and cause us to feel achy when we have flu), reduces inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, and lowers blood sugar in diabetics. Mannose is a major constituent of the aloe vera plant,[4] and is not readily available in our diets.
Xylose is not readily available in our diets. It is antibacterial and antifungal, and also plays a role in cellular communication. Intestinal disorders can disrupt its absorption.
N-acetlygalactosamine is not well-researched, and is not readily available from our diet. We do know that tumour spread is contained, and that cellular communication is helped.
N-acetylglucosamine has numerous benefits, including immune modulation, anticancer effects, repair of the mucosal lining in the digestive tract, and support for the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Glucosamine, the metabolic product of N-acetylglucosamine is found in highly concentrated amounts in the joints of mammals. Its primary purpose is to stimulate the production of cartilage compounds and components necessary for joint function and constant repair. To this end, it contributes to the production of connective tissue, which is the main constituent of cartilage and tendons, and which also forms the matrix of bone. You could describe it as the glue which holds us together.[5] Its use for joint repair in osteoarthritis is well documented.[6] Research sponsored by the nutritional company Health Perception has shown that glucosamine prevents dehydration of cartilage, decreasing normal spinal shrinkage as we get older.[7]
N-acetylineuraminic acid is found in human breast milk, and is particularly important for brain development and learning. It also aids immune function, influences blood coagulation, and lowers cholesterol.

Herbal and Dietary Sources of Glyconutritients

Folk wisdom can provide us with much useful information about the benefits of glyconutrients. Customs evolve in certain ways because they work. It is only later that science digs deep to find out why.

Aloe Vera and Mushrooms

I have a friend who lives in a village in Rajasthan, India, who farms fruit and vegetables organically. Apart from accessing the wisdom of his nomadic forebears, he is also a qualified agronomist and plantsman. Aloe vera had been used for hundreds of years in his region because of its remarkable healing properties. Unusually, the local variety can be used fresh as salad with the whole leaf, as well as dried. In the village it is given to women post delivery (in milk from a silver cup) to rebuild broken blood vessels, and for those complaining of ulcers, digestive disorders, asthma (with ginger juice and cooked in ghee), liver damage from excess alcohol, rheumatic pains (the gel is cooked), for hormone balance, and skin conditions. For general maintenance of good health, once a year one teaspoon a day in milk is taken for a month. Oxen and horses are given aloe vera for skin suppleness and shiny coats, and goats being made ready for market are given it to boost their condition! The glyconutrient in aloe vera is mannose. Aloe vera also prevents bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal infections.

It is interesting that these villagers sometimes combine aloe vera with milk. The aloe vera when taken with raw milk makes the digestion of lactose easier in order to create galactose. Another source of glyconutrients is mushrooms. We can learn a lot from traditional Chinese herbal medicine about the best way to use them to maximize the release of glyconutrients. Organic mushrooms are better because mushrooms concentrate heavy metals from their growth medium. They should be cooked, rather than raw, because raw ones have fewer benefits. Best of all, as in Chinese medicine, is to make a tea with dried mushrooms, and drink the liquid. Dried mushrooms conserve most of the nutrients. The best mushrooms are shiitake, maitake and oyster, and each variety has different benefits and sugar combinations. Some mushrooms thin the blood, as do pectins, so do not take with blood-thinning drugs or aspirin.


One of the essential sugars, N-acetylglucosamine is found in the shells of crustaceans, including shrimp, krill and crabs. In some parts of Africa crushed chitin (the polysaccharide derived from N-acetylglucosamine) from shrimp shells is used as a condiment.[8] Chitin is also the tough material found in nails. No folk culture, I assume, uses crushed nails as a condiment, but eating crushed shrimp shells could improve nail strength!

Glyconutrient-Rich Foods

What is there in our own western food culture to guide us towards a glyconutrient rich diet? Eating slow-cooked porridge isn’t a bad start, because oat bran is a good source of glyocnutrients. My grandmother ate a raw onion every day, and had remarkably few health problems until she died from an accident at the age of 83. By eating the onion raw she was ensuring an adequate intake of enzymes, as well as glyconutrients. Other staples in the traditional English diet are also recommended: leeks, broccoli, parsnips, carrots, celery, peas, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, pears and plums, and the pectin from tomatoes and apples. Now that we have extended our food choices, many of us regularly use garlic, and can include coconut flesh, figs and mangoes, also excellent sources of glyconutrients, especially galactose.

Causes of Glyconutrient Depletion

Even if your diet is plentifully supplied with an adequate intake of glyconutrient rich foods, from fruit, vegetables and starchy grains, your liver may not be up to the job of converting some of the sugars into those that are missing. Without enough raw food to balance the loss of enzymes from cooking food, you may be depleted in the enzymes needed for the conversion process. You may also be struggling with mercury toxicity from filled teeth and general chemical overload from our toxic environment.[9] All these deplete the enzymes essential for detoxification and the conversion process. Moreover, according to Australian naturopath and herbalist, Glen Gillard, many people in the west have fatty livers and congestion in the hepatic ducts. They need lipotropic nutrients and sulphur containing amino acids, such as methionine to break down the fat surplus and congestion. They also need bitter herbs to stimulate bile from the gall bladder. Without this, and good hydration, it can take a long time to rebuild liver function. And without optimum liver function you will not be able to maximize your own ability to convert the basic building blocks into useable glyconutrients.

One solution is to take a qualitiy glyconutrient supplement to support many aspects of the health of the gut, and prevent an overload of endotoxins being produced and absorbed. The natural vegetable fibres in plant foods contain the soluble fibres and lignans that help to regulate and maintain gut health. Whole foods of this nature can prevent putrifaction, and remove toxic metabolites of hormones and various other morbid wastes from the system.

Case Study

Glen Gillard put together a wholefood glyconutrient combination, with herbs containing mucilage for a patient who had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. She was grossly underweight and had constant diarrhoea. It helped to stop the wasting, and normalized her bowel movements in less than a week.

Clinical Benefits of Glyconutrients

Wholesome glyconutrients contain antioxidant enzymes to detox the system and liver, such as Super Oxide Dismutase. They also provide the amino acids for the production of Glutathione, necessary for the conjugation of poisons in the liver to render them harmless. Once the liver is running well it can convert all, and more of the sugars the body needs, from just one sugar molecule – glucose.

The most important and therapeutic factor in products where the sugars are isolated are the mannose and N-acetylglucosamine, as these are mucopolysacharides, and help gut repair. Glucosamine rehydrates cartilage and prevents metastasis. Glutamine provides the colonosites with fuel to rebuild the villi in the intestines.

There is no doubt that glyconutrients are a powerful tool in the armoury of aids to get well from a wide variety of health problems. But it would make sense, with the help of your practitioner, to focus primarily on liver function before considering isolated sugar supplements. Long-term use may be necessary if you do not ‘clean up’ the liver as part of the treatment. Looking for underlying causes of health problems should also not be ruled out (such as mercury amalgam toxicity and organophosphate poisoning). In addition, ensuring that absorbability is maximized by having a good balance of healthy gut bacteria.

For specific problems, consider supplements with isolated glyconutrients, such as aloe vera for gut problems and glucosamine for joint problems. Alternatively, consult a Chinese medical herbalist for individually formulated herbal teas based on your particular needs, which includes glyconutrients from mushrooms.

Those of us who find the solution to long-term health problems in just one product are very fortunate. For most of us, it is a more complex journey, involving a broad-spectrum nutritional approach, and underlying interventions elsewhere as well, e.g. photons of light from low level laser energy, which also enhances cell-to-cell communication.

Glyconutrients may not be the cure all some would have us believe, but with their potential to get our cells talking, as part of a broader package, they are capable of helping to create change, supporting the wider quest for balance and wellbeing.


1.    Gallaway S. Health Sciences Institute UK Members’ Alert. Agora Lifestyles Limited. Vol: No 9. September 2002. Tel: 0207 447 4018.
2.    Smith FP and Ramsey K. Glyconutrients – The Missing Link. Positive Health. February 2002.
3.    American Journal of Respir Crit Care Med. 155: 2102-4. 1997.
4.    Reginster JY, Deroisy R, Rovati LC et al. Long-term effects of glucosamine sulphate on osteoarthritis progression: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Lancet. 357 (9252): 247-248. 2001.
5.    Elkins R. Glucosamine Sulphate. Woodland Series. 1997.
6.    Atherton P Dr. The Essential Aloe Vera. Positive Health. Issue 20. June/July 1997.
7.    Swindells R and McCarthy PW. Effects of glucosamine sulphate on spinal height: a randomized double-blinded, placebo-controlled pilot study. European Journal of Chiropractic. 50. 2002.
8.    Mondoa E and Kitei M. Sugars that Heal. Ballantine Books. p79. 2002.
9.    Jacobs G. Heavy Metals and Candida Overgrowth. Foods Matter. 8-9. July 2004

Further Reading

Emil I. Mondoa MD and Mindy Kitei. Sugars That Heal. Ballantine Books. 2002.
Rita Elkins. Miracle Sugars. Woodland Health Series. 2002.
Dr Peter Atherton. The Essential Aloe Vera. Mill Enterprises, Thornborough Mill. Buckingham MK18 2ED. £6.00 incl. p&p.


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About Gill Jacobs

Gill Jacobs MSc Dip Clin Hyp NLP Coach GQHP M.AMT is a Health Writer, and blogger, trained in Hypnotherapy and EFT. She also runs a business in Low Level Laser Light. She discovered the power of concentrated light when searching for help for her mother's symptoms from MS, and set up Light for Health in order to change attitudes to light and its ability to heal, through product sales and education. She is excited by the potential of low level laser energy to bridge the gap between complementary/alternative and conventional drug-based medicine. To this end she promotes the work of Dr Nicholas Wise DC, who uses light on the cranium, for addictions and emotional issues, as well as structural problems. As a pioneering Health Writer on medical conditions which were initially misunderstood and ignored by mainstream medicine (Candidiasis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), she is now even more passionate about the role of food in health. For this she thanks the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation and its promotion of healthy fats, grass fed meat, healthy soil, fermented foods and raw milk.  After introducing fermented foods into her diet, and seeing the difference in her health, Gill now puts on workshops on fermented foods, at her home in North London, and elsewhere when invited.

Gill set up her blog as a way to inspire others to take up habits for health as we grow older. Having to hold back with friends who were getting sick, but who were resistant to food based solutions, and natural health, was the impetus she needed to ‘write it down’, even if they choose not to read/follow it. In the end, her philosophy is founded on a view that health is our birth right, along with good genes. Maintaining it should not be an effort to ‘do it all’ but an integral and effortless part of life, involving how we nourish ourselves, our bodies and our minds.

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