Lectins Should Be Avoided in the Autoimmune Diet

In 1988 a hospital launched a “healthy eating day” in its cafeteria at lunchtime. One dish contained red kidney beans, and 31 portions were served. At 3 pm one of the customers, a surgical technician, vomited while assisting in surgery. Over the next four hours 10 more cafeteria customers suffered profuse vomiting, some with diarrhoea. All had recovered by the next day. No bacteria were discovered in the food, but the beans contained an abnormally high concentration of the lectin phytohaemagglutinin.

Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins present in all plants, especially seeds and tubers like grains, large potatoes, peppers, and beans. Until recently their main use was as histology and blood transfusion substance taking part in a chemical reaction, especially one used to detect, measure, or prepare another substance.

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In the past two decades, there has been very little information regarding lectins. Most will refer to the book, “Eat Right For Your Type” which list the lectins that bind to specific blood types. However there are many that bind to “ALL” blood types. It was only recently, we have realized that many lectins are:

(a) Toxic, inflammatory, or both;

(b) Resistant to cooking and digestive enzymes; and

(c) Present in much of all plant based food – organic and conventionally grown; homegrown or farm grown.

It is thus no surprise that they sometimes cause “food poisoning.” But the really disturbing finding came with the discovery in 1989 that some food lectins get past the gut wall and deposit themselves in distant organs.

Lectin sensitivity 2So do they cause real life diseases?

Wheat gliadin, which causes celiac disease, contains a lectin like substance that binds to human intestinal mucosa, and this has been debated as the “celiac disease toxin” for over 20 years. Celiac disease is already managed by gluten avoidance, so nothing would change were the lectin hypothesis proved. There been very little attention given to gluten attacking the brain. 

They say knowledge goes through three phases. First it is ignored and ridiculed. In the second phase it is attacked in an attempt to destroy it. The third phase is where it is accepted as self evident. The acceptance of gluten attacking the brain has reached the third phase with books like the “Grain Brain.” However, lectins are still in the first phase of this process.

How could it be possible that a healthy diet of fruit and vegetables could contribute to Autoimmune Disease? The simple answer is non-seasonal fruits are picked immature and gas ripened by the produce department of the grocery store. Vegetables are picked when they are bolting and going to seed. When fruit is picked immature or vegetable bolt and begin producing seeds, both are high in lectins to protect their next generation. Have you ever noticed that the basil in your herb garden get bitter when it starts to flower? That is the lectins making it taste bad so you do not eat it.  Once in your body lectins that are designed to poison insects will do the same in your body.

If you are following the “Eat Right for Your Type” diet and eating out of season vegetables and fruits, you are consuming large amounts of SOFT or Hard Lectins.

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The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system is the name of the genes that assist the immune system in identifying unhealthy tissue or self from non-self. HLAs have other roles. They are important in disease defense. They are the major cause of organ transplant rejections. They may protect against or fail to protect (if down-regulated by an cytokines or chemokines) against cancers. Mutations in HLA are linked to autoimmune disease (examples: Hashimoto’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Celiac Disease). Of particular interest is the implication for autoimmune diseases. Lectins stimulate class II HLA antigens on cells that do not normally display them, such as pancreatic islet and thyroid cells. Would it be a far stretch to think that if HLAs are responsible for organ rejections that lectin stimulated HLAs could cause an autoimmune response towards an organ?

Is it a Lectin

Among the effects observed in the small intestine is the stripping away of the mucous coat to expose naked mucosa and overgrowth of the mucosa by abnormal bacteria (primarily E. coli) and protozoa. Lectins also cause discharge of histamine from gastric mast cells, which stimulate acid secretion. So the three main pathogenic factors for atrophic gastritis  – acid stimulation, failure of the mucous defence layer, and abnormal bacterial proliferation (E. coli, Helicobacter pylori or oral bacteria) are all theoretically linked to lectin consumption.

The mucus stripping effect of lectins also offers an explanation for the anecdotal finding of many that a “paleo diet,” which eliminates most starchy foods and therefore most lectins, protects against autoimmune flair ups: without lectins in the gastrointestinal tract the mucus lining would be more effective as a barrier to food, bacteria and viruses.

But if we all eat lectins, why don’t we all get insulin dependent diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, IgA nephropathy, and thyroiditis? Partly because of biological variation in our cells and partly because these are protected behind a fine screen of molecules, attached to the glycoprotein tips. We should be safe. But the sialic acid molecules can be stripped off by an enzyme, produced by several micro-organisms such as the flu viruses and bacteria. This may explain why diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis tend to occur after inflammatory reactions to infections. This facilitation of lectins by micro-organisms throws a new light on postinfectious diseases and makes the folklore cure of fasting during a fever seem sensible.

Alternative medicine practitioners are publishing blogs about dietary lectins, often with more enthusiasm than caution, so patients are starting to ask about them and doctors need to be armed with facts. The same comment applies to entrepreneurs at the opposite end of the commercial spectrum. Many lectins are powerful allergens, and prohevein, the principal allergen of rubber latex, is one. It has been engineered into transgenic tomatoes for its fungistatic properties, so we need to consider this when purchasing out-of-season tomatoes.

For more information: Autoimmune Diet Lectin Avoidance Guidelines or 

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