It might be hard to believe that such an obscure word can represent something so important. Yet in fact, improving the health of the glycocalyx has been associated with a significant decrease in all cause mortality.
So what is the glycocalyx, and how is it possible that keeping it healthy can protect against many diverse potential causes of illness and death?
What the Glycocalyx Is
The glycocalyx is like a furry coat worn by each of your cells, made of sugars with proteins and fats attached to them. The word actually means “sugar coat”. The purpose of this “sugar coat” is many and varied, and depends upon the type of cell in question.
Trapped inside the “fur” are many other types of important cells, too. These include cytokines, or messengers from the immune system, albumin for stability, as well as the powerful antioxidant superoxide dismutase (SOD).
The Glycocalyx and Cardiovascular Health
The glycocalyx also lines the inside of the blood vessels, and performs a number of functions to protect the vasculature from damage. The extra layer protects the sensitive endothelial lining from shearing force from the blood pressure itself, but it does much more than just this.
The glycocalyx is protective against inflammation—to a point. Too much inflammation can cause the glycocalyx to break down, which renders the cell more susceptible to inflammation in the future.
It regulates vascular permeability, acting as a gatekeeper that decides what gets to come in and what has to stay on the outside. Since plaque formation typically occurs when foreign cells are absorbed into the intima (the inside coating of the endothelium), this is a very important function for protecting against heart disease.
The glycocalyx inside the blood vessels also helps to mediate release of nitric oxide, which regulates blood pressure and vascular flexibility.
Healthy Circulation = Healthier Everything Else
Given the above effects, a healthy glycocalyx will result in better circulation, particularly to the extremities fed by tiny capillaries. Better circulation generally means more nutrient supply, and faster metabolic waste elimination. To put it simply: healing is in the blood.
By contrast, when the glycocalyx is unhealthy, capillaries are vulnerable to damage, which means the tissues they supply won’t get the nourishing blood flow they need. This means those tissues and organs starve. Poor blood flow has been connected with a number of chronic diseases, some of which cause poor blood flow (such as diabetes and heart disease) and others which may result at least in part from poor blood low, including inflammation and cancer.
With respect to cancer, healthy cellular glycocalyces actively help to prevent cancer cell growth as well.
How the Glycocalyx Gets Damaged
Like everything else, cellular glycocalyces are subject to entropy, and degrade over time even if there aren’t any other specific insults. But the usual suspects are also involved in accelerating the damage, including a high sugar/simple carb diet, smoking, hypertension, high cortisol from stress, and chronic inflammation generally.
With respect to diet, this study showed that high blood sugar for only 6 hours reduces the volume of the glycocalyx by 50%! As mentioned above, the glycocalyx also contains an antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD), which serves to convert free radicals to H2O2. Without this free radical-quenching enzyme, a cycle of oxidative stress and inflammation ensues in the vasculature.
Because of this process, adding in antioxidant support can be helpful in treating high glucose as well, in order to prevent vascular complications. (The naturopathic philosophy always involves removing the obstacle to cure, and when relevant, giving the body the building blocks necessary to help it heal.)
How to Support Your Glycocalyx
In addition to avoiding the stressors that tend to damage the glycocalyx, you can also directly help it heal by taking supplements of the proteins of which it’s made, at least in theory. These include the common joint supplements glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid. It would also include fixing the cause of low albumin if present, since that too is a structural component of the glycocalyx.
This study found that those taking glucosamine and chondroitin had a 39% reduction in all cause mortality, and a 65% reduction in cardiovascular mortality—so clearly they are doing more than just supporting joint health. Presumably this dramatic finding is due to the glycocalyx effect. This study on chondroitin echoed this finding.