Food & Autoimmunity

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Everything hurts, you’re oh-so tired and a little foggy.
Could it be the food you’re eating?

The body has an awesome defense mechanism against any pathogen (AKA viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites) it encounters. We call it an immune system. We get pathogens a few ways:  through the environment (we inhale or touch a toxin) and eating. 

Our body did something super clever: it put our immune system in the same place as our gut since the majority of the time we’re getting a pathogen through eating. The immune system is literally one cell layer away from our gut lining! 

This is the reason why leaky gut is such an important topic. We get leaky gut from huge doses of cortisol being dumped into our systems with each stress response. We also get leaky gut from eating foods that encourage our stomach joints to “open up” and get past the gut barrier and turn on our immune system. 

If you’re sensitive to something that you keep eating again and again, your immune system turns on each time. After a while, the immune system gets confused and stays on, looking for any protein in the body that looks similar to the protein it’s supposed to attack. 

People with thyroid issues almost always have gluten issues because the protein in gluten is nearly bio-identical to the protein our thyroid makes. So, even when you’re not eating a sandwich, your body is attacking the thyroid gland because it looks the same, causing hyper or hypothyroidism. 

 

What lectins have to do with feeling icky

Lectins are a type of protein found in all forms of life, including the food you eat and bind to sugar. They’re sometimes referred to as antinutrients because larger amounts can reduce your body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Lectins are thought to have evolved as a natural defense in plants, essentially as a toxin that deters animals from eating them.

Humans are unable to digest lectins. Lectins “trick” your body into letting the lectin past the gut barrier unchanged, without being broken down by the digestive process. This can wreak havoc in people with existing inflammation (from stress or other pathogens) and autoimmune issues. 

Lectins have been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, but only in those who carry genes that put them at a high risk of the disease. 

 

The 6 surprising “healthy foods” that are high in lectins:

  • Wheat
  • Red kidney beans
  • Soybeans
  • Peanuts
  • Tomatoes 
  • Potatoes

(Tomatoes and potatoes are part of the nightshade family, along with eggplants, bell peppers, jalapenos, goji berries, and huckleberries.)

For years I was heavy, like 60lbs overweight heavy. And I ate like a rabbit. I had “gratitude bowls” filled with barley and farro, beans and tofu. I ate chopped tomato and cucumber salads nightly. I subsisted on handfuls of nuts throughout the day to get me by when I was hungry. Looking back, it was a lectin-filled diet. As soon as I took these items out of my diet, I deflated like a balloon, losing 25lbs within a couple of weeks.

 

The science behind why I was so swollen:

Not all lectins are bad, but some are. A subset of lectins that can be found in large concentrations in the seeds of grasses (that would be grains) and the legume family do have some properties that can make them very problematic for us

They’re hard to digest so the pieces that don’t get digested can overfeed certain gut bacteria and lead to gut dysbiosis. This is linked to a variety of health issues. 

They can interact with the gut barrier and actually damage the cells that form the gut barrier or open up the junctions between those cells (genetic susceptibility plays a role in what extent this happens in your body), contributing to the development of a leaky gut— linked to a variety of health conditions—and can stimulate the immune system.

These two classes of lectins that are known to be problematic for humans: prolamins and agglutinins.

  • Prolamins (gluten is a prolamin), have a high amino acid content.  
  • Agglutinins (wheat germs agglutinin, kidney bean lectin, and soy lectin are examples of agglutinins), have the strong ability to agglutinate, or clump together, red blood cells. They also happen to be rich in proline, or amino acids.

 

How to “disarm” a lectin and eat it anyway

As it turns out, I have multiple autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, which makes me more sensitive to lectins.

The highest concentrations of lectins are found in healthy foods like legumes, grains, and nightshade vegetables. Luckily, there are several ways to reduce the lectin content of these healthy foods to make them safe to eat.

Cooking, sprouting, or fermenting foods that are high in lectins can easily reduce their lectin content to negligible amounts.

For tomatoes, do what the Italian’s have been doing for decades: they par-boil their tomatoes to easily remove the skin and remove the seeds. Now you can eat the best part of the tomato and get all of its rich nutrient benefits, without the lectins!

There’s an easy formula to turning on an autoimmune issue:

This isn’t to say that you will develop an autoimmune issue, but there’s a high likelihood, so it’s good to keep your triggers in check.

If you know you have a genetic factor, just look at your family or get a test like the one from MaxGen Labs, and eat a ton of lectins, you might want to clean up your diet. I’ve been able to manage my autoimmune issues and put them into remission through diet and lifestyle changes and I’m so grateful to have found answers that were missing for so many years.

If you want to know more about lectins, leaky gut or leaky brain, check out this podcast episode with Dr. Gundry on the subject:

Battle “brain fog,” live longer & happier with Dr. Steven Gundry