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Lectins and Inflammation-Why You Want To Avoid Them If You Are Autoimmune

Updated October 5th 2023

Every bit of life has a defense mechanism; lions have their claws and teeth, squids have ink and humans have their tools. A lot of people forget (or don’t realize) that plants also have their own defense mechanisms to protect them from predators. Lectins are Plants answer to being eaten by animals and humans.

Lectins and Inflammation-Why You Want To Avoid Them If You Are Autoimmune 1

What are Lectins?

Lectins can be found in both humans and plants, and they are a protein that binds carbohydrates together. (4)

They are sticky molecules that help bind sugars and cause functional shifts in the body, while also protecting plants and supporting immunological function within their species. (5)

How do lectins protect the plants, you ask?
Lectins have been reported to damage the gastrointestinal lining and create states of chronic systemic inflammation, helping to stop animals from eating them again. (6)

Here is a video I did recently that explains more about lectins, autoimmune disease and low Thyroid disease here

What Foods Are High in Lectins

  • Whole Grains
  • Nuts
  • Legumes (especially soy)
  • Dairy
  • Corn
  • Nightshade plants
    • (eggplant, tomato, potato and pepper)
  • Wheat gliadin (protein found in Wheat, Rye, Barley)
  • Goji berries
  • Quinoa

The lectins found in these plants can cause digestive problems, leaky gut syndrome and chronic inflammation when ingested regularly. (1, 2, 3)

Lectins and the Digestive Tract

Lectins have been shown to bind with intestinal lining, especially the villis. Villi are pockets in the small intestine that nutrients enter before moving into the bloodstream.

When the lectins bind with, and damage, these pockets, the body has trouble moving nutrients into the bloodstream, and can cause aggressive inflammation, leading to dysbiotic gut flora, encouraging parasites and other pathogenic organisms to move in. (7)

Lectins and Inflammation-Why You Want To Avoid Them If You Are Autoimmune 5

The end result is leaky gut syndrome, meaning the intestinal lining has open gaps that allow lectins and other particles, and pathogenetic organisms into the bloodstream.

Lectins that are in the bloodstream are attracted to the insulin and leptin receptors, desensitizing the receptors, creating insulin and leptin resistence. (8) This is also the way that lectins can lead to weight gain and fat loss resistence.

whole and refined grain

Lectins and Chronic Inflammationfood can either be medicine or poison

The body begins to tag lectins as antigens as they begin to build up in the body, creating an immune response to the particles. This leads to an auto-immune reaction, causing the immune system to attack whatever the lectins are attached to. (9)

As the body becomes more sensitive to the lectins, the body will quickly become inflamed after ingesting high-lectin foods.

Lectins and Autoimmunity

lectins and autoimmunity is an increasing topic. Given that we know that lectins increase intestinal permeability aka leaky gut, what role might lectins play when it comes to autoimmune disease?

Animal and cell studies have found that active lectins can interfere with the absorption of minerals, especially calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. (some important minerals when it comes to maintaining gut barrier integrity- especially Zinc)

Lectins as I have mentioned earlier bind to cells lining the digestive tract. In some individuals, this can not only disrupt the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, but it can alter the intestinal gut microbiome. Because lectin proteins bind to cells for long periods of time, they can potentially cause an autoimmune response and are theorized to play a role in inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. [2,3]

Consider this snippet from the 2020; 2020: 1438957.

“In addition to molecular mimicry, food components such as lectins and agglutinins may contribute to autoimmune diseases by directly binding to human tissue and components of the gut microbiome []. Lectins/agglutinins are ubiquitous carbohydrate-binding proteins that are found in animals, plants, and microorganisms. They perform recognition functions on many biological levels. In animals, they regulate cell adhesion, glycoprotein synthesis, and blood protein levels, and play important roles in the innate immune system, mediating the first line of defense against invading microorganisms. They play a role in nonself recognition and are probably also involved in inflammatory and autoreactive processes []. Unfortunately, undigested food lectins that manage to penetrate the barriers can have devastating consequences for the host. Both gut bacteria and epithelial cells carry receptors for different lectins. This enables lectins to bind to gut bacteria, gut epithelial cells, or both. The binding of lectins to epithelial cells may cause inflammation, damage to the tight junctions, and leaky gut, which has been proposed as the gateway to autoimmunity []. Dietary lectins may also induce the release of endotoxins such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which increase gut permeability, thus allowing the entry of lectins, food antigens, and bacterial toxins into the circulatory system. Furthermore, a large number of human tissues express molecules that act as lectin receptors. Lectins can home into these receptors and bind to this diverse group of multiple target tissues, which includes connective tissue, the liver, pancreas, thyroid, cardiac muscle, prostrate, breast, and brain []. This binding of lectins to different tissue antigens can activate cellular and humoral responses against both lectins and the specific tissues to which the lectins manage to bind.

Gluten Sensitivity and Lectins

People with gluten sensitivity can have quite a few of the same symptoms and problems as those suffering a high-lectin intake. This stems from wheat, whose lectins are called wheat germ aggluten (WGA).

A lot of people have a high sensitivity to WGA, which in turn is confused with gluten sensitivity. (10) This leads to plenty of negative gluten sensitivity tests and a heap of confusion, because WGA, and not gluten, is the cause of their inflammatory problems.

Does Boiling and Heat Remove Lectins?

It is widely believed that lectins can be removed by boiling, soaking or sprouting our grains, nuts, legumes, and so on. In fact a simple google search on how to remove lectins from foods and you will the information regurgitated over and over again on multiple sites.

From the studies I have read (see below), boiling, heating, soaking, sprouting DOES NOT remove lectins.

Therefore, before Lectins can be used safely, legume-based food/ feeds usually require thorough and expensive heat processing to inactivate anti-nutritive components. Indeed, dry or moist heating of seeds at 70°C for several hours has little or no effect on their lectin activity (Fig. 1) and treatment at much higher temperatures is needed to inactivate the biological and anti-nutritional effects of legume lectins (1, 2).

While soaking seeds, nuts, beans, legumes does help to reduce the phytic acid levels, the lectin concentration is NOT reduced to an appreciable amount. Lectins are also resistant to gut digestive enzymatic activity, which explains the difficulty in digesting them both in raw and soaked state.

People attempting to eat a healthy diet often consume high amounts of unsoaked and unrefined nuts, beans, seeds. This is especially true with Vegans and Vegetarians. This leads to digestive trouble due to the high lectin volume. This might be the reasons why their “healthy diet” makes them feel worse, rather than better. You will have to decide for yourself.

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