And You Thought Gluten Was Bad? Meet Lectin.

lectins in wheat field

Oh hey Lectin! (AKA.: Gluten’s nefarious cousin lurking in the corner.)

Lectins are a protein found in plants. They function as a part of the plant’s natural defense system. They’re particularly concentrated in grains (primarily wheat, but also rye and barley). They also reside in legumes and tubers such as potatoes, beans, and soy. Lectins are notably resilient to cooking and digestive enzymes. No avoiding these little buggers.

A lectin’s sole purpose is to destroy you. Kind of.

The word lectin comes from the Latin word legere, meaning “to select.” Lectins are particularly “sticky” proteins which bind to sugar molecules to ward off invaders. If a bacteria, virus, or fungus comes around, the toxic lectins “select” and attach to its sugary membrane in order to deter and destroy it.

However, if you ingest lectins, they don’t lose their stickiness. A person’s intestinal wall is composed of epithelial cells containing sugars. Lectins attach to the intestinal wall and can cause intestinal damage, leading to an array of nasty problems (indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, etc.). They strip away the protective mucous layer in the stomach and intestines,  stimulate acid secretion, bind to immune cells, and inhibit repair of damaged cells. Lectins can do all of this damage directly to cells and tissue: no prior allergy, intolerance, or autoimmune condition required!

Lectins are also considered “anti-nutrients” because, in binding to everything, they prevent absorption of actual nutrients. So not only do lectins wreak havoc of their own accord, they also prevent the body from receiving the nutrients needed to deal with the madness in the first place. Lectins attack offensively, while shattering the body’s defense.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, lectins can permeate the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream, binding to anything and everything, while leeching minerals and creating systemic inflammation. These holes created in the digestive track can allow bacteria and bits of food to enter the bloodstream, creating the condition known as Leaky Gut. When the body senses foreign invaders in the bloodstream, it creates antibodies and mounts an immune response. In doing so, the body often injures itself in the process of attacking the lectin-clad cells. Oh hey autoimmune problems! This can also lead to a slew of issues, including allergies, fatigue, skin rashes, arthritis, and Celiac disease.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that lectins are linked to metabolic syndrome, obesity, arthritis, joint problems, and many other chronic diseases. Lectins can also bind to thyroid nodules, as well as cross the blood-brain barrier and cause inflammation in the brain, leading to neurological diseases.

Take for instance one particularly nasty and abundant lectin: Wheat Germ Agglutinin.

Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) is found in wheat (shocker), and actually gives gluten some lectin activity. WGA is so efficient at destroying invaders, that wheat is currently being engineered to increase WGA content in order to function as a “natural” pesticide. Of course, this means there’s more WGA to go around in your system once you eat the wheat. In clinical trials, WGA has been shown to bind to the cells of the small intestine, interfere with the gut, alter metabolism, permeate the gut wall into circulation, integrate into walls of blood vessels, bind to immune cells, instigate pro-inflammatory cytokines, cause atrophy of the thymus, inhibit nuclear DNA replication, bind to nerve fibers, and affect the Central Nervous System. (I’m not making this stuff up.)

And like lectins in general, WGA can do direct harm to cells even if the person is neither allergic nor sensitive to wheat. So unfortunately the whole “but I’m fine with gluten!” thing may not cut it.

Not that I encourage scare tactics! This is just food for thought next time you’re munching on a piece of “healthy” whole grain bread. {sigh}




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