Lectins are a variety of protein that is present in all life forms, which also includes the food we consume.
When consumed in small quantities, lectins provide us with several health benefits, but consuming them in large amounts usually diminishes the ability of our body to take up nutrients from the ingested foods.
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Sometimes lectins are also known as anti-nutrients. Some studies undertaken on animals suggest that specific lectins possess the ability to reduce the body's capability of absorbing nutrients from ingested foods. It is believed that lectins have evolved in plants as a natural defence, particularly in the form of a toxin that discourages animals from eating those plants that contain this anti-nutrient.
Both plant- and animal-based foods contain lectins, but only 30 percent of the foods we consume actually contain significant amount of this anti-nutrient.
Since humans cannot digest lectins, they pass through our digestive system totally unchanged.
Scientists are yet to ascertain the manner in which lectins work. As a result, how lectins work in the body continues to be a mystery. However, animal studies have shown that specific types of lectins attach to the cells on our gut wall, enabling them to communicate with the cells of our body and activate a response.
Animal lectins have several vital roles in many bodily processes, which include functioning of their immune system as well as cell growth. Findings of studies hint that plant lectins may even have a role in treating cancer.
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Nevertheless, consuming large amounts of specific types of lectins can possibly cause harm to the gut wall. This results in irritation, which may lead to symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Moreover, excessive amounts of the lectins in the gut may prevent the body from properly absorbing the nutrients from ingested foods.
It is interesting to note that healthy foods such as grains, legumes and nightshade vegetables contain the highest concentration of this anti-nutrient. However, you can reduce the concentration of lectins in these foods in several ways and make them safe for consumption.
Findings of some studies have shown that the high concentration of lectins can be reduced by cooking, fermenting or sprouting them. When you do this, the concentration of lectins is reduced to insignificant levels.
Lectins are of many different varieties. Some of them are harmless for the health of the humans, while there are others like ricin, which can prove to be fatal even when consumed in very small amounts.
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The impact of lectins on our health can be in various different ways. They may vary from the risks of developing digestive or chronic ailments, studies have also revealed that they are responsible for clustering in red blood cells.
Red kidney beans contain a type of lectin that is known as phytohaemagglutinin. Red kidney bean poisoning is attributed to this type of lectin. It is worth mentioning here that red kidney bean poisoning occurs when one consumes raw or undercooked kidney beans. In fact, eating just four raw kidney beans may result in symptoms like vomiting, severe nausea and diarrhea.
If a person suffers from dysfunctional enzymes, eating excessive lectins may result in deficiency of various nutrients. At the same time, they may also suffer from digestive disorders. This happens because our body is unable to break down lectins. Instead the lectins bind to the cells on the gastrointestinal tract and the nutrients making it difficult for our body to absorb the nutrients we have consumed.
Nevertheless, often lectins bind to carbohydrates and exit from the body even before there can be any harmful effects of consuming them. The action of lectins on carbohydrates has prompted some scientists to undertake test tube studies. These studies have suggested that lectins may have an effect on the growth of cancer cells in our body.
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In fact, several nutrients accompany lectins in plant-based foods are also essential for the health of our body. Getting rid of them from our diet completely may have harmful consequences.
During digestion, plant lectins attach to carbohydrates thereby inhibiting or preventing the metabolism of carbs. In this way, plant lectins reduce glycemic consequences of the food. Many people claim that lectins are responsible for "disrupting digestion", but this is a misleading claim. On the other hand, this action of lectin is actually an anti-diabetic and pro-weight loss effect of these beans and other plant foods.
One variety of lectin is commonly found in mushrooms and, in vitro studies have shown that this particular lectin works to slow down the proliferation of carcinogenic cells. In fact, mushrooms are a type of food that offers strong protection against cancer. However, mushrooms are not the only such foods. Scientists have found that other foods like soybeans, fava beans, bananas, wheat, jackfruit and buckwheat also offer the same benefits. Currently, scientists are studying some of these lectins as potential cancer therapies. In addition, specific plant food lectins may also be useful in preventing development of cancer as they work to block the actions of angiogenesis-promoting lectins on human cells.
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Findings of various studies have strongly hinted that consumption of high amounts of lectins may result in a number of health problems in some people who are genetically sensitive to them. What is of concern that most people are not aware of their genetic makeup and, as a result, they only endure the health issues related to consumption of high amounts of lectins. This often happens to people who suffer from gut problems, have low levels of energy or endure brain fog, but physicians never consider asking them to undergo tests of histamine intolerance.
After consuming lectins, they attach to our cell membranes, especially those that form the lining of the digestive tract and are known as gut mucosal cells or gut epithelial. Such attachment or binding may result in the death of the gut cells or make them lose their functioning. In addition, lectins can also cluster the microbes in the gut together, thereby upsetting the healthy gut biota.
Lectins also affect the metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins. When consumed in small amounts, lectins may also offer a number of health benefits, but consuming them in large amounts are sure to result in health disorders.
However, all lectins are not harmful. The problem, however, is that most people in the West consume too much of high-lectin foods and this causes health issues.
In case you suffer from gastrointestinal distress or inflammation on a regular basis, you need to eliminate foods containing lectins and see if your condition improves. On the other hand, if your gut mucosa has already been damaged, eliminating or reducing intake of lectins will not be of any good overnight. In fact, you will not experience any positive result immediately after eliminating lectins from your diet. In such instances, your body needs more time to heal. So, you need to avoid lectins for a prolonged period to heal your body.
If you are contemplating to eliminate or reduce the amount of lectins in your diet, there are scientific reasons for doing so.
Often, scientists refer to lectins as "anti-nutirents" - which are chemical compounds that get in the way with the body's capability to digest ingested foods or utilize the other nutrients present in the ingested foods. Lectins, especially, prevent the body from absorbing nutrients like iron, calcium, zinc and phosphorus. All these are essential minerals and needed by our body to carry out different functions.
If you consume beans, which have high amounts of lectins, along with other foods that contain iron or zinc, or you take your daily multivitamin along with lectin-rich foods, it is very likely that your gut will not be able to take up these essential minerals properly. When you are aware of this fact, you should consume these essential minerals or multivitamins during a meal, which includes foods that do not contain lectins.
Findings of several studies have shown that lectins are responsible for swelling and redness in our body by triggering pro-inflammatory pathways. In other words, lectins cause inflammation in the body. When this happens, it affects the functioning of your immune system. Moreover, lectins encourage the body to create antibodies, much in the same way our body creates antibodies against alien substance, like virus, invading the body.
Consuming lectins in excessive amounts causes inflammation and this may result in autoimmune diseases like celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Especially people who have dysfunctional digestive enzymes are more vulnerable to such conditions. When your body suffers from prolonged inflammation, it may augment the risks of developing cancer and heart disease.
In addition, sometimes lectins stimulate a sequence of biochemical reactions that affect the pancreas and islet cells negatively. This makes the body susceptible to diabetes as well as any autoimmune attack. In fact, gluten encloses lectin and this is the reason why some people enduring gluten-sensitivity are particularly advised to either completely eliminate or cut on their intake of lectins.
Consuming too much lectins may also harm the epithelium or the intestinal wall. When there is a small amount of damage to the gut, the gut itself can repair the damage. But when you consume too much lectins, it could result in a leaky gut.
On the other hand, a leaky gut has damaged "tight junctions" that enable food molecules, toxins and pathogens as well as lectins to pass through.
Here is a word of advice. Never consume raw or uncooked legumes as they may prove to be toxic. Once a hospital served the patients red kidney beans on the occasion of a "healthy eating day", many of those who consumed the food experienced diarrhea and severe vomiting. While there were no pathogens in the red kidney beans served to the patients, they did contain elevated levels of phytohaemagglutinin - which is a type of lectin that has been responsible for "food poisoning" in many other cases.
When you cook beans at high temperature in a pressure cooker or boil them on the stove for no less than 10 minutes, it helps to rob the lectins of their "anti-nutrient" nature and makes the food, in this case beans, safer for consumption.