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  • Betty Wedman-St Louis, PhD, RD
    Betty Wedman-St Louis, PhD, RD

    Lectins Are Toxins

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Summer 2015 Issue - Originally published July 16, 2015


    Caption: Image: CC--pawel pacholec

    Celiac.com 12/01/2015 - Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins which promote inflammatory responses like Crohn's disease, systemic lupus, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. They were discovered over 100 years ago and cause leaky gut and gastrointestinal dysbiosis yet the push for a plant-based diet focusing on legumes as meat alternatives has overlooked the damage lectins cause to the gut. Legumes offer inferior nutrition compared to animal proteins so toxicity needs to be considered when recommending food choices.

    As carbohydrate binding proteins, lectins are difficult to digest and irritate the brush border of the small intestine. Consequently, the tight junctions of the microvilli are damaged by prolamin and agglutinins which can lead to numerous disorders of the gastrointestinal tract and autoimmune diseases. Lectins are also a major contributor to leptin resistance which contributes to obesity.

    As described in The Handbook of Plant Lectins: Properties and Biomedical Applications (John Wiley, 1998), foods that contain these toxic lectins are members of the pea family and include peanuts, pigeon peas, soybeans, kidney beans, mung beans, lima beans, lentils, fava beans, chickpeas, carob, green and yellow peas. Green beans, snow peas and snap peas are usually well tolerated once the gut has been healed since they are immature protein sources with minor amounts of lectins.

    Lectins are found in other foods including grains and pseudo-grains. Grains are seeds from grasses—barley, oats, rice, rye, millet, wheat, teff, corn, kamut, spelt and possibly wild rice. Many gastroenterologists believe that the detrimental affects of lectins in grains are a factor in the development of celiac disease. Genetics and frequent consumption possibly play a critical role in the severity of sensitivities to these foods.

    Pseudo-grains are seeds from broadleafed plants—amaranth, buckwheat, chia, and quinoa. These seed products were geographically limited to specific populations and only available on a limited basis seasonally. But modern agriculture has greatly increased the consumption of these pseudo-grains because they can be labeled “gluten-free” because US standards allow any grain with less than 20 ppm gluten to be called gluten-free.

    Omitting toxic lectins—prolamins and agglutinins—from the diet is critical for gut health. Prolamins are predominately found in the seeds of plants. Gluten is the most widely known source of prolamins. They get their name from the high content of the amino acid proline. Research studies have shown that the prolamins in quinoa, corn and oats can cause damage to the digestive tract in people with celiac disease, yet these grains are frequently included in a gluten-free diet.

    Aggltinins are named for their ability to cause clumping of red blood cells. The most recent example of how this toxic lectin works is the bioterrorism threat caused from ricin. Ricin is the compound in castor beans that is so toxic that only tiny amounts are needed to cause death. Agglutinins are found on the seed coatings of grains and pseudo-grains and serve to protect the seed from fungus growth. Genetically modified crops—wheat, corn, soybeans—have higher amounts of agglutinins to insure higher yields.

    A leaky gut is harmful to the innate and adaptive immune systems. Toxic lectins cause inflammation and induce cytokine production. As few as five soaked, uncooked kidney beans can lead to gut distress for the raw foodies while 1 tablespoon of peanut butter leads to peanut agglutinins entering the bloodstream soon after consumption.

    Paolo Zatto and Pamela Zambenedetti from Padova, Italy studied lectins, microglia and Alzheimer's Disease (AD) as reported in Lectins and Pathology, 2000. The microglia of 10 AD brains stained intensely for agglutinins. Their research concluded that the glycation reaction seen in AD from lectins may serve as a significant factor in amyloid plaque development and disease progression.

    Bacteria overgrowth in the gut is associated with a wide variety of diseases- septicemia, pulmonary infections, enteropathies. Adhesion of pathogenic bacteria to epithelial cells in the gut can be a critical first stage in the infectious disease process. Michele Mouricout and Bruno Vedrine of Limoges, France described how lectins cause adhesion of numerous bacterial strains to intestines, brain tissues, urinary tract, lung and corneal cells. Their research is reported in Lectins and Pathology, 2000 illustrates the mosiac effect of how agglutinins cause tissue damage.

    Even though lectins have been identified for decades, little interest has been shown by biological and medical science. Since they are so widely distributed in foods consumed daily, lectins may finally become recognized as partners in the pathogenesis of diseases like cancer. Galectin-3 (gal 3) galactoside-binding lectin is found on the surface of most cancer cells and has been reported to promote angiogenesis. Lectins are not oncogenes but they help in cancer progression once initiated. Some are implicated in adhesion while others cause metatasis.

    Isn't it about time that nutrition science took a closer look at the lectin levels in foods consumed daily and customize the diet for lectin sensitivity to better manage inflammation and auto immune diseases? The higher intact of GMO food in the diet, the more lectins are consumed. Without food labeling of GMOs, consumers will continue to be misled and many will remain sick.


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    I am very disappointed that this blog, which used to be evidence-based, is now spouting pseudo-science. "Leaky gut syndrome" and the "toxicity" of lectins are hypotheses that have been around for a long time (more than two decades), but are not supported by any evidence in vivo. Legumes, consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, are a good source of folate (an reasonably OK source of other B vitamins), zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium, and fiber. Legumes are a staple in the so-called "blue zones" (areas of longevity).

     

    Food options are already severely limited for celiacs because so many things contain gluten. Aiming to exclude another major group of ingredients for no good reason would just degrade the quality of life and the enjoyment derived from eating and sharing meals for celiac patients even further.

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    I am very disappointed that this blog, which used to be evidence-based, is now spouting pseudo-science. "Leaky gut syndrome" and the "toxicity" of lectins are hypotheses that have been around for a long time (more than two decades), but are not supported by any evidence in vivo. Legumes, consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, are a good source of folate (an reasonably OK source of other B vitamins), zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium, and fiber. Legumes are a staple in the so-called "blue zones" (areas of longevity).

     

    Food options are already severely limited for celiacs because so many things contain gluten. Aiming to exclude another major group of ingredients for no good reason would just degrade the quality of life and the enjoyment derived from eating and sharing meals for celiac patients even further.

    Leaky gut syndrome isn't pseudo-science, just do a search of medline, you will find many scientific papers that discuss it, for example:

    http://reference.medscape.com/medline/abstract/22179430

     

    The toxicity of lectins is also not in doubt:

    http://search.medscape.com/medline-search?newSearch=1&queryText=lectins+toxicity

     

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    This is the first time I have read anything about lectins in relationship to leaky gut and celiac disease. I am 64 and have had gut issues all my life. In my 40's I was tested and results indicated severe leaky gut syndrome. I also have two copies of HLA DQ-8. Giving up gluten only moderately improved how I felt. On my own, using a food diary, I figured out that soy, lentils, peanuts, cashews, dried peas, navy beans, small white beans, etc. had to be eliminated from my diet to improve my gut health. Interestingly, the joint pain I had endured all my life is gone. I still eat oats, rice, and gluten-free bread in moderation and don't have negative gut or joint effects. I'm very active, working out, doing sprint triathlons, long distance bike rides and suffer no ill effects. Thank you for this informative article! Keep the information coming, please.

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    Thank you for this informative article. I was not aware of the damage that can be caused by eating lectin-containing products. I am a very sensitive celiac and in the past noted that when I ate certain foods (containing lectin) that I did not feel well. Peanuts, kidney beans, rice, and quinoa, buckwheat and chia all give me symptoms ranging from bloating to stomach pains, tiredness, and mild chest tightness which I notice when I hike. Eliminating these items from my diet has also eliminated these symptoms. I am hoping that continued abstinence will rid me of a persistent skin rash as well.

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    Leaky gut syndrome isn't pseudo-science, just do a search of medline, you will find many scientific papers that discuss it, for example:

    http://reference.medscape.com/medline/abstract/22179430

     

    The toxicity of lectins is also not in doubt:

    http://search.medscape.com/medline-search?newSearch=1&queryText=lectins+toxicity

    Well let's see...diagnosed with celiac 12 years ago, no gluten, okay a little adjustment and I was on my way. After reading your article it appears just about everything I enjoy and eat on a regular basis I should be eliminated or drastically reduced. As a flexitarian I enjoy everything (in moderation). No problems with digestion, GI tract etc. If you are having problems you should look at eliminating those foods they may be the cause, but I would caution those who are gluten-free and are healthy not to change a thing and enjoy your journey...

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    Well the first five years of being gluten free I got food poisoning symptoms and was violently ill three or four times. Each time I had consumed beans, field peas, black eyed peas, etc. I went to the allergist and was tested specifically for black eyed peas because that was the last incidence and I had eaten at home. Tests were negative for allergies.

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    I too needed to read this as a reminder that I must leave all seeds, nuts, and grains alone. I have increasingly noticed that when I stay away from those in my diet, the arthritis is gone in 3-4 weeks and my guts feel normal. My diet once again will only be the leaves and stems and tubers of vegetables with all the seeds removed, greens, eggs, and lean organic range fed bison and chicken. Seafood has become problematic for me also.  :(  We have really messed up our earth. 

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  • About Me

    Betty Wedman-St Louis, PhD, RD is Assistant Professor, NY Chiropractic College, MS Clinical Nutrition Program Nutrition Assessment Course & Food Science Course.  She is author of the following books:

    • Fast and Simple Diabetes Menus, McGraw Hill Companies
    • Diabetes Meals on the Run, Contemporary Books
    • Living With Food Allergies, Contemporary Books
    • Diabetic Desserts, Contemporary Books
    • Quick & Easy Diabetes Menus Cookbook, Contemporary Books
    • American Diabetes Association Holiday Cookbook and Parties & Special Celebrations Cookbook, Prentice Hall Books

     

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