What in the heck are Lectins? Are they good for us or are they dangerous to our health? Is this topic just another thing to worry about in the food world of “you’re not doing it right” and the endless confusion of what to eat? The word “Lectin” is a new term to me in the last several years and hails from the Latin root words, “to gather or select,” and that clarification is certainly descriptive of what they do. Lectins are a type of protein that can attach to or bind to carbohydrates and potentially cause harm by attaching to cells. They are designed to keep natural enemies like insects or fungi off the plant. An estimated 30 percent of fresh foods contain Lectins; recently, more and more people have been asking about them. Let’s make an attempt at understanding the Lectin challenge. Tomorrow we will tackle simple strategies to navigate them.
Lectins are the natural defense system in plants and even some dairy products. They are part of the plant’s self-defense system against pests but can cause some problems for people. Abundant in raw legumes and grains, they are most commonly found in the part of the seed that becomes the leaves when the plant sprouts. Because we don’t digest them, we can develop antibodies to them. Almost every person has some antibodies to dietary Lectins in their body but the responses vary and they typically cause more complications in people with autoimmune disorders.
An overabundance of Lectins can interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the intestine and be:
1. Proinflammatory: They can trigger chronic inflammation and create “advanced glycation endproducts” also known as AGEs.
2. Neurotoxic and cytotoxic: They can cause the death of good cells. Research is underway to evaluate their effect on cancer cells.
3. Damaging to the GI tract: Lectins can blunt the normal, healthy cell turnover of the digestive tract lining, which contributes to “leaky gut” or increased intestinal permeability. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients and elimination of toxins in the digestive tract.
4. Immunotoxic. Some can even interfere with gene expression, disrupt endocrine function, and increase blood viscosity. Fortunately, it is a matter of amount. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
When Lectins negatively affect the lining of the intestine, a broader immune system response can occur. Symptoms include joint pain, skin rashes, and increased chronic inflammation. Because they are so widely distributed in the food that we commonly consume, I would think that they don’t pose any notable consequence to human health. Nevertheless, it does appear that chronic ingestion of foods high in Lectins needs further deliberate consideration. At this point, I have much to learn about Lectins and totally understanding the Lectin challenge. I’ll be posting more as I find more credible information and tomorrow will discuss solutions to dealing with dietary Lectins. Stay tuned!