Lectins: An inconspicuous culprit to ill health?

Lectins: An inconspicuous culprit to ill health?

by Elaine Conradi

In his book, The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain Dr. Steven Gundry writes that ““I believe lectins are the #1 Biggest Danger in the American Diet.” *  Lectins are common proteins found in many foods such as fruits, vegetables, seafood, dairy, and particularly abundant in grains, beans, and seeds.  Because about 30% of modern diets include lectins (1), many nutritional experts make the incorrect assumption that they are innocuous or rather, do not pose any significant health risk.  Lectins are a defense mechanism on the cell walls of plants much like an antibody though they do not involve an immune system.  They protect the plant against microorganisms and pests, and may also serve to protect a seed while in the intestinal tract of animals to be deposited later for germination. Without getting too technical, the reason that lectins may pose a health risk is that they are indigestible yet capable of attaching themselves to other cell membranes and thus, enter the blood unchanged. Because they are indigestible, our bodies will produce antibodies to them in varying degrees in different people.  Therefore, people will have different reactions and some will have none at all.   Essentially, lectins bind to the sugar or “glyco” portion of glycoconjugates found on cell membranes. ** If the sugars are bound to proteins they are called glycoproteins and, if bound to fats, are called glycolipids. (2)


While lectins in some foods have been shown to slow the progression of colon cancer, and perhaps play a role in immune function, cell growth, and body fat regulation, (3) some (or perhaps too many in the diet), will initiate an allergic reaction in the gut by releasing histamines thereby interfering with digestion and increasing the permeability of the intestinal wall and causing inflammation.  This condition is often referred to as “leaky gut syndrome” and allows the lectins to enter the bloodstream and vital organs. Symptoms can range from moderate such as headaches, bloating, and fatigue after eating, to more serious long-term health issues and conditions.  Because lectins mimic endocrine hormones they can affect the pancreas, muscles, liver, kidney, and thymus. It is furthermore believed that the effects of lectin damage may be cumulative showing up later as “disease” such as Chrone’s disease, eczema, respiratory issues such as asthma, autism, rheumatoid arthritis, gastric reflux, hyperactivity, sinus problems, malignancies, weight gain and an inability to lose weight, autoimmune diseases such as fibromyalgia and lupus, and many other debilitating conditions. (4)


Given the pervasive degenerative disease related to our modern diets, you may be wondering what one can do to stave off such illness.  The most obvious recourse is to cut back on grains, many of which have been modified and do not harbor the same types as ancient grains ingested by our ancestors, and thoroughly cooking beans and legumes to break down the lectins rendering them digestible.  While new evidence suggests that humans have been consuming grains for over 100,000 years (5), it is also true that they did not make up a large portion of human diets nor were they cultivated grains nor manipulated such as more modern GMO grains.  As mentioned above they will bind to sugars, so another strategy is to introduce decoys such as polysaccharides and amino sugars that will bind to the lectins and keep them from sticking to our intestinal cell walls. (6)  One glycoprotein that can be added to our diets to bind with lectins is N-acetylglucosamine (NAG).  D-mannose is another sugar that will bind with lectins on microorganisms thereby relieving its desire to bind with the natural D-mannose tissue in the bladder.  Mucilaginous vegetables such as bladderwrack, okra, figs, agar agar, kelp, chia seeds, flaxseed, fenugreek, marshmallow root, slippery elm, licorice root, plantain, cassava, and natto (fermented soybean) will not only coat and protect cell walls, they will also bind to lectins making one’s gut less vulnerable to attack while also aiding in elimination.  ***

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Research on how lectins work within the body, both good and bad, is fairly new and much more needs to be conducted before drawing hard conclusions to their role in our overall health as well as, degenerative disease.  Research has not yet been conducted on possible contributing factors which may explain why lectins affect some people and not others.   In the meantime, if you are experiencing intestinal and other issues, you may simply try cutting back on grains, making sure beans and legumes are fully cooked, and keeping a food diary to note any problems that may arise after eating certain foods.

* Steven R. Gundry is an American cardiac surgeon and held the Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery title while he was a Professor at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He has patented nine cardiac surgery devices, and authored numerous papers in the field. Gundry graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in 1972 and went on to earn a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia in 1977.

(1)  All about lectins: Here’s what you need to know., Ryan Andrews

**glycoconjugates are a classification for carbohydrates linked with other chemical species in a molecular bond such as proteins, peptides, lipids and saccharides.


(2; 4; 6) Lectin Lock™: Natural Defense Against a Hidden Cause of Digestive Concerns and Weight Gain, Carolyn Pierini, CLS (ASCP), CNC

(3) J Cell Physiology. 2001 Feb;186(2):282-287

(4) Ibid.

(5) “Humans feasting on grains for at least 100,000 years,” by Katherine Harmon Scientific American, 17 Dec. 2009)

(6) Ibid.


***it should be noted that both flaxseed and natto can stimulate immune response and not recommended for those with autoimmune symptoms.  Since mucilage is only partly digested it also can feed harmful bacteria such as C. difficle.  If you have a condition where harmful bacteria are not kept in check with good intestinal flora you may not want to consume mucilaginous vegetables, as well as prebiotics and probiotics.  Always consult with your doctor before taking these measures.

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