Lectins – fine for most, but life destroying for some?
The removal of most of these glycoproteins from my diet ended the reign of the horrible autoimmune disease colitis, which progressively made my life miserable, and eventually unbearable, during my teens and early 20s. In this article and video I’m going to tell you why I think lectins are the likely culprit for many skin, digestive, and autoimmune conditions which elude solid diagnoses, and who I think should avoid them.
What Lectins Do To The Lectin Sensitive
The routine aftermath of eating lectin-rich food is well known to me. It starts with a mild skin itch that no amount of scratching can defeat. Next comes the digestive problems; if I’m lucky, it’ll just be a large amount of gas and cramping and a bit of pus in my stool. If I’m not, or I push things too far by eating too many of the foods I know I should avoid, there might be blood in the toilet bowl too, and eventually really bad constipation that lasts for days or bouts of diarrhea.
Mild rashes often come next. If they appear, they usually don’t last for more than an hour or so, but might repeatedly appear and rapidly vanish again over the next few days. Finally, once all the rest of the symptoms have faded away, bits of acne will pepper my face, and usually stays around for about a week.
For two years after I ditched my colitis with a fruit-based raw food diet in 2005, I periodically experimented with eating different cooked foods to see if there was some way I could eat some of them without feeling like crap. While the severity of the negative reactions various cooked foods brought on varied, it always caused some degree of discomfort and dysfunction. After that I swore off cooked foods and stayed away from them for almost a decade – I just valued my health too much to screw it up.
In 2015 I did a two week experiment with eating cooked food after years of avoidance, only to find that nothing had changed. Things like steamed greens and some types of starches weren’t too bad, but grains caused a lot of problems, potatoes and other nightshade vegetables killed me, and beans were hugely problematic. I ended that experiment feeling worse than I had in years, and desperate to get back to my raw fruits and veggies.
What’s So Special About Not Heating Food?
Why do strict raw food diets work so well for me and many others suffering from digestive and autoimmune conditions?
Most raw food advocates like to tout the “rawness” of the diet to explain its effectiveness against theautoimmune and other conditions that respond well to it. They’ll talk about heat-damaged enzymes, the denaturement of protein, and the carcinogenation of fats.
Personally, despite thriving on a raw food diet, I’m skeptical that a lack of cooking adequately explains why it works so well for these conditions. I’m more inclined to believe the foods people eat on smart raw food diets are simply lower in several nutritional factors that cause a minority of people significant problems.
What makes me think this?
My dietary experimentation and my experience working with coaching clients suffering from digestive and autoimmune conditions has demonstrated that there’s no clear line in the sand created by cooking.
Take the nightshade family of plants, for instance, which probably causes me more digestion and skin problems than anything else save beans.
Tomatoes are often eaten raw, and many people on raw food diets chow down on tons of them; I love them, and I wish I could too. But they – along with tomatillos, tamarillos, peppers, and other members of the family- cause big problems for me. If I cook members of the nightshade family like potatoes and eggplants, I still have problems.
Another good example is nuts and seeds, which almost universally bother me. Many raw foodists love them, but they cause skin problems for me when eaten cooked or raw.
But might there be a connection between, seeds, nightshades, and other trigger foods that we can identify?
Lectins In Action
Dietary lectins come from a variety of plants, but are particularly concentrated in seeds of all types (grains, nuts, seeds, beans). Plants use them as defense mechanisms against predators, other plants, and fungi. Lectins are actually proteins that have the ability to bind to virtually all cell types and cause significant damage, and so are widely recognized as anti-nutrients within food1.
Even in healthy people without any notable genetic susceptibility to lectins, eating enough lectin-rich food can cause food poisoning. But most disturbing is their ability to penetrate the walls of the gut and attack distant organ systems2
How can they do this?
Lectins can actually strip the protective layer of mucous off our gut walls3, which opens them up for direct contact with lectins.
Without our mucous barrier, lectins actually kill our intestinal cells, impede their repair, and – because our intestinal villi are damaged – our ability to absorb nutrients is compromised 4.
With our intestines breached, lectins (and other possibly harmful substances, like partially-digested food) can enter the bloodstream, causing what’s known as leaky gut syndrome. From our blood stream, lectins can bind to any tissue they come across, including the thyroid, kidneys, or pancreas.
Here’s where our autoimmune system comes into play to save us…only it makes a mistake. It attacks not only the invading particles, but also the perfectly health tissue its attached to.
When scientists give lectins from wheat to lab animals, they observe that their intestines and pancreas swell, and their thymuses atrophy5.
Recently, dietary lectins have been pegged as likely contributor to Parkinson’s Disease in some susceptible people8.
They are also connected with a number of mental diseases 9, which is likely why so many of my coaching clients claim to feel far more collected and calm when eating a fruit-based raw diet. A number of years back I wrote up an interview with Victoria Everett, who finds that her Schizophrenia gets much worse when she eats bread.
Quite a bit more research needs to be done, but there’s clearly a link between lectins and a wide variety of “mystery” health problems.
Why The Lectin-Sensitive Suffer
We all eat lectins, but not all of us suffer. Why might this be?
There’s a great deal of biological variation in the glycoconjugates that coat our cells, and these differences appear to make some of us susceptible while sparing others. 10.
Our immune system did evolve to be able to create antibodies that can compete with lectins, but it seems that we’re not all equally equipped with them. This may be why I suffer with horrible digestive problems after eating a tomato, while for others they’re just a delicious treat11
If you’re suffering from what seems like an incurable autoimmune condition or a mystery ailment, such as the colitis I was suffering from, it usually makes sense to go without food and drink only water for awhile to give your gut a chance to heal. This is called fasting. I suggest medically-supervised water fasting, as it is the safest option.
There are numerous studies and case reports published in peer-reviewed medical journals showing that fasting diminishes disease symptoms in autoimmune and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, eczema, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease121314.
When you stop eating potentially-damaging food and give your intestines an opportunity to heal in an environment free of digestive stress, good things tend to happen.
Yet when researchers break a patient’s fast -even with a vegetarian or vegan diet – they often note a total or partial return of symptoms. Why?
Many of these diets bring back the very anti nutrients that caused the conditions in the first place. My own experience is that my symptoms actually got worse when I adopted a whole foods vegan diet and upped my lectin intake considerably with grains, beans, and other starches.
Raw Food Diets To The Rescue?
I believe the reason my raw food diet has served me so well was that it’s basically an extremely low-lectin diet.
Although some botanically-classified fruits, including tomatoes, peppers, and tamarillos, are really high in lectins, the vast majority have very low levels when they’re ripe. Even the leafy greens I eat a ton of, such as romaine lettuce, are mostly very low in lectins.
When people suffering from digestive complaints like IBS, colitis, and Crohn’s disease adopt the raw food elimination diet I lay out in The Raw Food Digestive Tune-Up, the vast majority make recoveries over the course of a month or two.
If lectins are really the culprit behind the grains, nightshades, legumes, and other foods I’ve observed bringing on my colitis symptoms, then I should be able to prove this to myself via experimentation.
By consuming the moderate and high-lectin foods that normally bring on my symptoms after using scientifically-supported methods to reduce their lectin content dramatically, I should be able to ramp down my symptoms dramatically.
Over the course of the last nine months I’ve been conducting a series of n=1 experiments to examine this idea fully, and this article serves as the background information for explaining the rationale behind them as I start talking about my experiments over the course of the next few months.
Stay tuned for more.
Punder, Karin. Pruimboom, Leo. The Dietary Intake of Wheat and other Cereal Grains and Their Role in Inflammation. Nutrients. 2013 Mar; 5(3): 771–787.↩
Freed, David L. Do dietary lectins cause disease? The evidence is suggestive—and raises interesting possibilities for treatment BMJ. 1999 Apr 17; 318(7190): 1023–1024.↩
Freed DLJ, Buckley CH. Mucotractive effect of lectin. Lancet. 1978;i:585–586↩
Miyake K, Tanaka T, McNeil PL (2007) Lectin-Based Food Poisoning: A New Mechanism of Protein Toxicity. PLoS ONE 2(8): e687↩
Pusztai A., et al. Antinutritive effects of wheat-germ agglutinin and other N-acetylglucosamine-specific lectins. Br. J. Nutr. 1993;70:313–321. doi: 10.1079/BJN19930124↩
Hollander D, et al. Increased intestinal permeability in patients with Crohn’s disease and their relatives. A possible etiologic factor. Ann Intern Med 1986;105:883-885.↩
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Zheng J. Et al. Dietary Plant Lectins Appear to Be Transported from the Gut to Gain Access to and Alter Dopaminergic Neurons of Caenorhabditis elegans, a Potential Etiology of Parkinson’s Disease. Front Nutr. 2016 Mar 7;3:7.↩
Bressan, P. Kramer, P. Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016 Mar 29;10:130 ↩
Uchigata Y, et al. Pancreatic islet cell surface glycoproteins containing Gal β(1-4)GNAc-R identified by cytotoxic monoclonal antibodies. J Exp Med. 1987;165:124–139.↩
Varki A, Cummings RD, Esko JD, et al., editors. Essentials of Glycobiology. 2nd edition. Chapter 45: Antibodies and Lectins in Glycan Analysis. Cold Spring Harbor (NY): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; 2009.↩
Lithell, H. Et al. A fasting and vegetarian diet treatment trial on chronic inflammatory disorders. Acta Derm Venereol. 1983;63(5):397-403.↩
Palmblad J, Hafstrom I, Ringertz B. Antirheumatic effects of fasting. Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 1991;17(2):351-362.↩
Peltonen R, Kjeldsen-Kragh J, Haugen M, et al. Changes of faecal flora in rheumatoid arthritis during fasting and one-year vegetarian diet. Br J Rheumatol. 1994;33(7):638-643.↩