By Dr Harold Gunatillake
Lectins are proteins that can easily bind with sugar – referred to as glycoproteins and get attached to the inner lining cells of the gut. They are abundant in raw legumes and grains, and mainly found in the seed that becomes the leaves when the plant sprouts and also on the outer coat.
They are also found in dairy products and some vegetables. Genetic alterations fluctuates these proteins.
In plants they defend against pests and insects, like resveratrol in grape vines. Lectins are resistant to digestion in the gut and are absorbed into our blood stream unchanged. Lectins are supposed to play a role in immune functions, cell growth, and cell death and body fat regulation.
Because we don't digest lectins, we often produce antibodies to them. Almost everyone has antibodies to some dietary lectins in their body. This means that we may be allergic to certain foods containing lectins due to the presence of antibodies.
There are some lectins that no one should consume. Ever wonder why you don't see sprouted red kidney beans?
It's due to phytohaemagglutinin – a lectin that can cause red kidney bean poisoning. The poisoning is usually caused by the ingestion of raw, soaked kidney beans. As few as four or five raw beans can trigger symptoms.Peanuts and soybeans are also high in lectins.
Raw kidney beans contain from 20,000 to 70,000 lectin units, while fully cooked beans usually contain between 200 and 400 units.
While many types of lectins cause negative reactions in the body, there are also health promoting lectins that can decrease incidence of certain diseases.
Injesting food containing lectins can cause flatulence, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. In most situations, it is presumed that food poisoning is due to the lectins in that food. Lectins tend to damage the inner lining of the gut.
As food passes through the gut, it causes very minor damage to the lining of the GI tract. Normally the cells repair this damage rapidly.
Since the purpose of the gut lining is to let the good stuff past and keep the bad stuff contained, it's important for the cellular repair system to be running at full efficiency.
Lectins cause immune responses due to the formation of antibodies. Symptoms can include skin rashes, joint pain, and general inflammation. Other chronic disorders may be correlated with leaky gut — for example; researchers have even noted that children with autism have very high rates of leaky gut and similar inflammatory GI tract diseases.
Lectins are involved in food allergies, inflammation and autoimmune disease, and may be linked to celiac disease. Even weight gain and low energy can be linked to lectins. People who eat grains and nuts daily can put on weight.
Cow's milk, nightshade vegetables (like potatoes and tomatoes) and some seafood also contain fairly high amounts of lectin. In fact, estimates are that about 30% of our foods contain lectins, and about 5% of the lectins we eat will enter our circulation.
Being sticky molecules they bind to the linings of the gut as mentioned before, especially intestinal cells. In so doing, they disable cells in the GI tract, keeping them from repairing and rebuilding.1 Therefore, lectins can contribute to eroding your intestinal barrier (leaky gut).
Because the lectins also circulate throughout the bloodstream they can bind to any tissue in the body — thyroid, pancreas, collagen in joints, etc. This binding can disrupt the function of that tissue and cause white blood cells to attack the lectin-bound tissue, destroying it. This is an autoimmune response. The lectins in wheat for example, are specifically known to be involved in rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammation of the thyroid gland (Thyroiditis).
Many people do not get any reaction to the lectins in food. This is due to the balance of gut flora and a person's immune system.But importantly, beneficial flora is needed to keep the production going in the intestines of two lectin-protective substances, mucin and secretory IgA.
Mucin, like lectin, is a glycoprotein in the mucous lining of the intestines. When lectins travel through the intestines, they should have mucin to bind to, rather than intestinal cells. But if mucin is missing, lectins will bind to intestinal cells instead. Secretory IgA also binds to lectins, preventing them from causing damage
If you have any lectin related issues like arthritis, bowel symptoms or autoimmune disease, it is advisable to reduce your intake of lectins, especially from wheat. Your tolerance to lectins will improve also by taking probiotics to stimulate adequate mucin and IgA. Lectins may be found in fresh and processed foods, including such common foods as salad, fruits, spices, dry cereals and roasted nuts. Dry heat may not destroy lectins when nuts are roasted.
Next time, when you develop a rash or bowel disturbance, or when having arthritic pains, remember that lectins in food may be a factor. You may evaluate food items one by one and check for the culprit.
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