The Trouble with Wheat #3: Lectins and the Stealth Insulin Effect

January 02, 2012

The Trouble with Wheat #3: Lectins and the Stealth Insulin Effect 

 Reference:Wikipedia, Various Internet Sites, British Medical Journal 

 Ever heard of “lectins”?  You must not have been cruising the obscure corners of the metabolic research libraries.  Scientists have been talking about them for over a century but only recently has the bigger picture started to coalesce about the role they might be playing.  Here is a primer for you that fits in this series on wheat. In essence, lectins are proteins that attach to a specific sugar and latch on tight – like a lock on a key.  In that regard, the bacteria E. coli uses a specific surface lectin to attach to mannose, a sugar molecule on your bladder wall.  Plants have lots of lectins in them where they are thought to play a role in inhibiting bacterial invasion.  Sort of a plant-based anti-biotic.  They are also thought to be the means by which plants can keep animals from eating them.  Animals that grow up in an ecosystem of plants get used to those lectins.  Wheat is new to humans and we haven't had time to develop tolerance or even benefit from wheat's lectins. 

If that’s all they did, we would likely be fine.  The problem is that we eat plants.  And the chemicals and compounds in those plants, lectins for one, don’t always just turn into calories and food.  Lectins do a bunch of funny things that weren’t “on the menu”, so to speak.  For one, they bind to quite a few cells in the small bowel wall and are thought to cause “leaky gut”, allowing other chemicals to leak in.  Secondly, they get absorbed and find their way into our organs where their ability to set off chemical cascades sets them apart.  

 One of the cascades they can set off is the “complement” system.  This isn’t a social nicety.  The “complement system” is a cascade of inflammation that is usually set off by an antibody and antigen reacting together that signals danger and calls for an immune response.  It shouldn’t be called complement, it should be called the “defend and attack back” system, because that is what it does.  Lectins can set that off, without a real enemy being around. 

 Another system they set off is the insulin receptor system.  The problem here is that lectins attach and don’t let go.  Insulin tells a cell to take up glucose and then it falls off the receptor when its deed is done.  Lectins attach and stay there, making the cell continue to take up glucose, and take it up, and take it up, and take it up.  Can you see the problem with that?  Lectins force you to keep storing sugar as fat, way beyond any normal feedback loop.  Your blood sugar falls too far!  You feel hungry!  You eat more!  You store more calories! (Does this strike you as a big problem?) Where do we find lectins?  

Wheat is a big source.  Beans are too.  Most grains have them.  Soy, peanuts, legumes have them.  They are present in all foods.  They are probably higher in GMO foods.  Modern dwarf

wheat has had its chromosome number tripled and many genes inserted into it.  It appears extra lectins came along for the ride.  Pasteurizing milk inactivates the natural antibodies that bind lectins… You can block or wash out lectins by sprouting grains or soaking beans.  Eating some sugars, like mannose and fucose act like decoys and block the binding sites.  Glucosamine seems to also be a specific lectin blocker.  Maybe that’s how it helps joints – reducing the attendant inflammation. 

 WWW.  What will work for me?  I’m not sure we know this whole story.  But there are marketers out there selling you products to protect you from lectins.  On your doorstep and in your mailbox this year, you will likely get a mailing on “miracle cure for……yada, yada, yada.  There may be a tiny bit of truth in their claims, but maybe not as much as the mailing claims.  The research isn’t in yet.  But our current level of knowledge is still in its infancy compared to how complex our bodies really are.  This may be why low-carb diets work, at least in part.  If lectins bind to insulin receptors and make you store calories as fat, we do have a problem.   With GMO wheat in every product we eat and every meal of every day, having extra lectins that act like insulin, in addition to our own insulin may doom us to storing all our calories as fat, unless we try and avoid wheat.  That’s problem #3.  Stay tuned. 

Pop Quiz

1.   Wheat contains many lectins.  What are lectins?                    Answer: chemicals that inhibit animals from ingesting the plant, or bacteria from invading, or insects from munching....

2.   What do the lectins do inside of humans?              Answer: We know they make for leaky gut as well as activating insulin receptors to increase the fat storage of calories instead of burning.

3.   What other food groups have lots of lectins in them?                   Answer:  Legumes and new world nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, chilis, peppers, corn, squash, cucumbers)

4.   How do you stay away from lectins?            Answer: you might just have to avoid them altogether to escape their effect.   There are now tests you can get to find out what foods you are sensitive to.

 Written by John Whitcomb, MD  Brookfield Longevity and Healthy Living Clinic,  17585 W North Ave, Suite # 160  Brookfield WI 53045  262-784-5300   Archives at    Please Visit