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What is Fermentation? An Essential Guide

What is Fermentation? An Essential Guide

BY SUMMER BOCK

Guest Blogger, Summer Bock

As a fermentationist who trains people on functional ferments, the creator of my own course on fermentation —  The Fermentationist™ Certification Program — and Happy Gut Life’s guest content contributor for the month of September, it’s no surprise that I get asked “What is fermentation?” all the time.

It’s also probably no surprise that I could write an encyclopedia just to answer this one, seemingly simple, question.

If you’re surprised that fermentation could be that complex, you’re not alone. The Wikipedia summary of the science and history of fermentation is watered-down at best. Most educational resources on fermentation fail to grasp the magic we all experience the first time you chop up vegetables, stuff them into a jar, let them bubble at room temperature on your countertop, and then consumed the final product — filled with living organisms, enzymes, organic acids, bioactive metabolites, and activated vitamins.

And so, this week — the first of a 3-part series on fermentation — I’m going to teach you all about fermentation, what it really is, what it means to me, and what it can mean to you and your health.

A Background on Fermentation

Our ancestors depended on fermented foods to survive. Sauerkraut used to be an essential source of vitamin C, and Captain James Cook received the Great Copley Medal for his observation that sauerkraut was an effective preventative food for scurvy by providing vitamin C to sailors who previously died from the “plague of the sea.”

(It’s actually the second oldest food preservation method and there’s evidence of fermentation from over 10,000 years ago.) Dairy kefir dates back many centuries to the shepherds of the Caucasus mountains. They discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally ferment into an effervescent beverage that was preserved much longer than fresh milk.

Fermentation was originally developed as a way to preserve food using beneficial bacteria.

Clearly, fermentation has a long, rich role in human history. And these days, fermentation is still a huge deal. Decades after we no longer needed it for food preservation purposes — or for preventing the severe vitamin C deficiency in sailors — fermentation is still all around us. Clearly, something must be special about fermentation for this technique to be protected and passed down by generations, cherished by families, and praised by health experts across the globe for its health benefits.

Personally, I wasn’t always this passionate about fermented foods and the little microbes that inhabit them. You see, I used to be very sick.

“I struggled with rashes, fatigue, anxiety, bloating, IBS, food intolerances, adn panic attacks.”

I was a barely-functioning hot mess. I spent my childhood popping antibiotics a few times every year for strep throat and when I was 20 years old, it got to the point where I could only eat about 30 foods without a reaction. (This is back before you could Google gut health and find Dr. Pedre’s website.) One of the many doctors along my path recommended probiotics, which I hadn’t heard of before.

Then, I started taking the probiotics and everything changed.

My food was fully digested, my bloated belly calmed down, and I started going to the bathroom 2 to 3 times per day like clockwork.  As a trained herbalist, I asked myself: I knew they weren’t popping white capsules of powder made in a lab. 

Around the same time, I lived with a Korean family in San Francisco that always had two, 5-gallon buckets of kimchi — a traditional Korean food made of fermented cabbage and radish — in their fridge. All of a sudden, I had my answer.

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods were the whole food version of probiotic supplements.

The only problem was that at the time, fermented foods were not available in many grocery stores. If I wanted the health benefits of fermented foods, I had to learn to make them myself. And that’s when I began to understand what fermentation really is.

What is Fermentation?

More than its role in food preservation history,

fermentation is really about the ability to create your own living medicine.

Normally, you eat food and it breaks down into nutrients that your body either absorbs or passes through your system and out of your body. But with fermentation, there are an extra few steps in between. The invisible microbes in fermented foods and the many beneficial bacteria already living in your gut — called probiotics(from the Greek “pro” meaning “for” and “biotic” meaning “life” — also break down the fiber in the food that you eat. And when the bacteria break down these fibers, they release byproducts that the body needs to function optimally.

As you can see, having plenty of beneficial bacteria in the gut is a great way to support optimal health and digestion — and fermentation is how you safeguard your gut ecosystem.

As I researched fermented foods, I quickly learned that the basic formula to create fermentation is simple:

Food + cultures (microbes) + time = fermentation

Fermentation CrockFor example, to make sauerkraut you chop cabbage (which has naturally occurring bacteria on the leaves), add salt, and tamp it down into a crock to create an anaerobic environment, which allows the naturally occuring bacteria to start fermenting. Within a short period of time, you have sauerkraut.

A crock is the most widely-used, as well as common term, for the stoneware or ceramic vessel we ferment foods in.

What amazes me is that during this process, multiple strains of probiotic bacteria are growing and multiplying invisibly in the crock. The finished product of raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut contains around 13 different kinds of friendly bacteria. One example is Lactobacillus plantarum, which is renowned for its ability to keep pathogenic bacteria at bay. It also breaks down histamine, which is great for allergy-sufferers.

Some fermented foods require starter cultures in order to transform them.

Kombucha, water kefir, dairy kefir, and red wine vinegar are examples of fermented foods that use starter cultures, which are called a Symbiotic Community Of Bacteria and Yeasts (or SCOBYs).

SCOBY’s cannot be created by humans. We discovered them and subsequently handed them down for thousands of years. For example, Kefir SCOBYs were passed down from generation to generation among the tribes of Caucasus and considered a source of family wealth. Other examples of SCOBYs include the kombucha mother or the vinegar pellicle, which most people get from a friend or family member because it’s been passed down, hand to hand, for generations until it got to you.

Delicious Functional Ferments

We’ve mentioned Kefir and sauerkraut already, but there are a ton of delicious functional ferments that you can experiment with, including:

Lacto-Ferments

Kimchi

Kvass

Pickles

Sauerkraut

Pickled Carrots

Dilly Beans

Yogurt

Legume Ferments

Tempeh

Miso

Tamari

Soy sauce

Idlis
(A fermented rice and bean paste that’s turned into a fermented biscuit)

Grains Ferments

Idlis

Injera
(An Ethiopian flatbread)

Sourdough

Fermented Beverages

Kombucha

Coconut kefir

Water Kefir

Dairy Kefir

Kvass
(A fermented Slavic and Baltic beverage commonly made from rye bread.)

Incorporating these foods into your diet, whether you make them at home or buy them, is a great way to make sure that your gut ecosystem is fully supported with beneficial bacteria.

Microbes and Humans: An Invisible Friendship

In order to understand how the ferments above impact human health, let’s take this conversation out of the microscopic realm and talk about something we can see…wolves. An unexpected result occurred in Yellowstone National Park when the once-endangered wolves were reintroduced to the forest. Prior to the reintroduction of wolves, the deer population had overtaken the park.

Due to the overpopulation of deer in the park, rivers and creek banks were eroding, because the animals were over-grazing the grass. Turns out the grass roots hold the soil in place. As a result, the rivers were getting wider and wider, as the soil was displaced downstream, and beavers no longer were able to build dams. Basically, removing the one predator — wolves — had caused a massive shift in the balance that kept the Yellowstone ecosystem in harmony.

Shortly after the wolves were released back into the wild, the rivers changed. The erosion reversed. All because the wolves were keeping the deer population under control, and the beavers came back.

Probiotics are like wolves. They keep the other organisms in check. In the gut, certain bacteria (like the deer) are normal inhabitants of the gut, but if left unchecked, they can grow out of control and cause problems. For example, Lactobacillus plantarum, one of the important strains of bacteria found in raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut, is one of the wolves of the gut…keeping “deer-like bacteria” E. coli and Candida albicans under control.

Human Gut Ecosystem Comparison

Your gut is basically an ecosystem that functions symbiotically in much the same way as bigger ecosystems do.

You will never be able to fully see the magic that is happening inside your gut when you eat fermented food. But I’m going to do my best to help you appreciate the magic and wonder of it all this month. Through knowledge of the invisible world of bacteria in our food, Fermentationists learn to appreciate the magic of the relationships that humans have with microbes.

In part two of this series, I’ll break the fundamental rule of magic and pull back the curtain to let you see exactly how the trick is done. Next week, you will learn the benefits of fermentation, which ferments are best for you and which ones you might want to limit or avoid altogether. 

And if you can’t wait to start fermenting foods so you can improve your gut health, alongside the Happy Gut® Programs Dr. Pedre has put together to restore the gut microbiome and reverse leaky gut, then you can get started right away!

Get the Lacto-Ferment Module

You can also learn more about The Fermentationist™ Certification Program to go to the next level when ready.

Edward Farnworth, the author of a book titled The Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods, put it best when he wrote that “Fermentation consists of the transformation of simple raw materials into a range of value-added products by utilizing the phenomena of the growth of microorganisms and their activities on various substrates. This means that knowledge of microorganisms is essential to understand the process of fermentation.”

How amazing we can take the process of food spoiling and use it to our advantage for its incredible health benefits! Stay tuned to learn more in the next blog post.

Savor ‘El Sabor Cubano’

Remember the days when the smell of spices would float from the kitchen and fill the air of your childhood home. 

Our sense of smell carries memories of the past, people, and places more vividly than any other sense. Often overlooked, it is the sense we take for granted, except when it’s absent. Like many things in life, we don’t appreciate their role in our lives until they are gone.

Digestion actually first begins with your sense of smell.

Without it, food would be tasteless and lack sabor(flavor). Smell enhances the flavor of food in the same way that acoustics round out the sound of an orchestra in a concert hall. It gives it body and texture beyond what your taste buds can discern.

I remember one time walking down the streets of Venice (Italy), when I caught a whiff of freshly baked bread that took me back to my childhood — and it instantly whipped up an image of my grandmother cooking in the kitchen.

Both of my grandmothers were raised in Cuba. And one of the things I loved most about them was that they cooked with so much love you could feel it in their recipes.

That couldn’t be more true than in this family recipe for Frijoles Negros Cubanos (Cuban Black Beans). The aroma would fill the house with the scent of onion, garlic, pepper, and that ‘smell of home’ you knew would land ever-so-happily in your gut.

The Lectin Paradox (Part 1/3)

As we conclude The Lectin Paradox and move into September, where we’ll be talking about fermentation, with my favorite fermentationist Summer Bock, I wanted to share a recipe that showcases the incredible flavors lectin-containing foods can offer.

And at the same time, show you how to prepare this family recipe in a ‘gut-friendly way’ that reduces the lectin content — to enjoy black beans in a flavorful, multi-sensory way.

FRIJOLES NEGROS

This Frijoles Negros Cubanos (Cuban Black Beans) recipe is traditionally enjoyed with white rice — and to convert it’s starch into a resistant starch (a prebiotic that feeds the friendly gut flora), I cool the rice before serving. 

Trust me, you’ll be the hit of any Labor Day picnic or gathering if you bring along these flavorful black beans! They are a great complement to any salad, tacos, and/or rice dish.

And the best part…

Everyone will wonder the secret to making beans that don’t leave you with a bloated, sad gut.

Enjoy the aromas of my Cuban kitchen this weekend.

And get ready for a month of Fermentation, as I team up with Summer Bock to break down fermentation into easily digestible morsels, ending with practical ways to start fermenting this month.

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

The Lectin Paradox (Part 3/3)

The Lectin Paradox (Part 3/3)

Myth #3: A Lectin-Free Diet is the Only Solution.

Last week, we learned that the status of your gut health is a major factor in your ability to tolerate lectins. But is a lectin-free diet the only solution to healing lectin issues and your gut?

Considering all of the uncomfortable side effects of lectins — like nausea, bloating, and abdominal pain — you might wonder whether avoiding lectins altogether is, in fact, the ONLY answer to lectin intolerance. But in my mind, this is not necessarily true. In fact, I could go as far as to say this is an unsustainable and even narrow-minded solution.

So, this week, I’ll be debunking our third and final lectin myth for August: The myth that a lectin-free diet is the only solution to lectin intolerance.

Why we shouldn’t take an “all or nothing” approach to lectins

Many people think that lectin issues can only be solved by following a very restrictive diet, but the truth is, the research just doesn’t support that conclusion. As the authors of a paper published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology wrote “As a result of their potential for toxicity and their ‘anti-nutritional effects’ it is almost inevitable that lectin exclusion could well become a big food fad.” And just as they predicted, lectin-free diets have become increasingly popular and trendy. However, the researchers also write that: “Consequently, now is the time to resume research on this ubiquitous family of proteins so that we fully understand their role in health and disease.” 34

In other words, we need more human studies on lectins before we can say that lectins should be completely avoided. Most of the research on lectins is relatively old, and most are animal studies, which means the results of those studies will not necessarily apply to humans. 35 Additionally, most animal studies used very large amounts of lectins — much more than you or I would actually eat in a single sitting or even one day.

And as we learned when we debunked Myth #1 that “all lectin-containing foods are bad for you,” the concentration of lectins in food matters, as does the type. For example, in most of these studies the animals received lectins from raw legumes, which are the most irritating type of lectins and a type of lectin that I can safely say that humans should never eat raw.

In addition, some foods high in lectins also contain other plant compounds that can irritate the gut. For example, peanuts are high in lectins, but they may also be contaminated with aflatoxin, a mold that can potentially be a liver carcinogen in animals and even humans. 37 Likewise, wheat is not only lectin-rich, but also contains gluten, which the research of Dr. Alessio Fasano shows can contribute to a leaky gut, inflammation, autoimmune disease, and more. In other words, it isn’t just the lectins in wheat that are problematic. The picture is much more complex than what it may seem to us if we’re looking for a simple explanation.

And even if you do ingest lectins and other irritating ingredients, if you have a healthy gut, you may still be able to tolerate them just fine.

Why a lectin-elimination diet is smarter than a lectin-free diet

Research shows that those with a healthy gut microbiota — a gut with a healthy balance of the right gut bacteria — are capable of eliminating problematic substances such as, lectins, gliadins from wheat, mycotoxins from peanuts, and other common gut irritants. 39 Problems occur, however, when a patient has an unhealthy gut (we learned all about this last week when we debunked lectin myth #2 — “everyone has a lectin issue”).

When someone with a lack of adequate digestive enzymes eats too many lectins, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies, poor digestion, gut damage, and more. 40 For example, if you have underlying digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome, you might be more sensitive to lectins and have side effects. 44 For those patients, the body eventually makes antibodies against lectin, 41 which can lead to autoimmune diseases due to shared similarities between the lectin amino acid sequences and body tissues. 42 For people with gut problems, eating too many lectins can also impact the microbiome, further augmenting and contributing to any underlying dysbiosis or other gut imbalances. 43

However, the way this cycle plays out can vary greatly from patient to patient, and therefore, you never know exactly how you’ll react to different types of lectins. Some patients, for instance, have trouble with nightshade vegetables, which can cause inflammation in patients with underlying inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis. 46 These vegetables, which include eggplant, produce alkaloids. For most people, they aren’t a problem but for people with inflammatory conditions, even tiny amounts of nightshades can activate the immune system and increase inflammation and pain in the body.

For sensitive individuals, instead of eliminating all lectins for good, I often use an elimination diet to determine which lectin-containing foods are creating the real trouble 45

Almost everyone benefits from eliminating other lectin-containing foods and a lectin-free diet does provide some benefits. It might lower gut inflammation, for instance, which will decrease the body-wide inflammation that contributes to most diseases. 47 However, in my opinion, it is just a path to healing the true underlying issue — your imbalanced gut health.
In other words, I don’t believe that everyone needs to follow a lectin-free diet forever to be healthy. A lectin-free diet can feel incredibly restrictive, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. You’ll miss out on all the other nutrients that lectin-containing fruits and vegetables provide, including dietary fiber. 48 Dietary fibers in these foods feed your good gut bugs, increasing their number and diversity and creating a stronger gut wall. Meanwhile, a healthier gut wall lowers inflammation, protects against obesity, and so much more. 49

Blue Zones of the World - Map

Click to enlarge

In addition, as I said before, lectin-containing diets have often been characteristic of the Blue Zones, where people live to 100 years old and above. How do you explain that?

Any health practitioners saying that lectins are the sole culprit and that they should be avoided completely are doing you a disservice.

They are also failing to mention the very important fact that how you prepare lectin-containing foods matters.

Because as it turns out, there are ways to prepare lectins that make them easier to digest and less harmful for your body.

How to make lectins less harmful to your body

If you eat lectin-containing foods, such as legumes, uncooked, they can cause an upset stomach. That explains why you may have felt sick if you’ve ever eaten beans that aren’t fully cooked. 13 But throughout the ages, traditional food preparation techniques have evolved to minimize the lectin content of certain foods and therefore, minimize their harmful impact on humans and their guts.

For example, cooking legumes partially neutralizes the lectins. 36 This works, because when you cook a plant food, heat breaks down the starch into smaller carbohydrates that are easier to digest. When lectins attach to these smaller carbohydrates, the body can more easily remove them. 51 The same process will occur in other non-heat methods, too. Listed below are my top five favorite ways to do just that.

5 Ways to Make Lectin-Containing Foods More Gut-Friendly

…So You Can Enjoy Lectin-Containing Foods Again

Peeling & Deseeding Eggplant

Peeling & Deseeding

This comes as a surprise to many, but the part of the plant with the highest lectin content is the seed or peel. That’s why it’s imperative that when you cook lectin-rich foods like eggplant or squash, you take the seeds out and peel them. You can use a knife or a traditional peeler for this; or for some foods, like tomatoes, boiling them for a few minutes can make the skin easy to remove.

Soaking

One great way to reduce the lectin content of foods is to soak them overnight. For example, you can soak beans overnight by placing them in a container and adding baking soda and water. Then, drain, rinse, and cook the beans like you normally would. 53

Soaking Legumes
Sprouted Grains

Sprouting

To sprout grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, simply soak them overnight. Then, keep them in a sprouting jar to drain. Rinse two to three times daily. They will be ready in two to four days when the sprout becomes about one-fourth of an inch. Dry completely and you can store in your refrigerator for about three days. 54

Pressure Cooking

It’s time to grab that InstantPot you’ve been meaning to use! Pressure cooking is a great option because it’s fast; for example, you only need to cook beans on high heat in a pressure cooker for about 10 minutes before they are safer to eat. Depending on the specific bean, you can cook them in minutes.

Pressure Cooking
Fermenting Food - Sauerkraut

Fermenting

Fermenting is a great way to reduce lectin content for a dual benefit, because beneficial bacteria break down lectins and other irritating components in food, while helping seed your gut with healthy flora. It won’t make the lectin content zero, but it can help keep it under a certain threshold so that you don’t experience symptoms; plus, fermented foods also inoculate your gut with more good bacteria. You can buy fermented foods or learn to do it yourself. If you want to start fermenting foods, check out my friend Summer Bock’s course on fermentation here.

Carefully preparing and cooking lectin-containing foods can reduce their negative impacts. For someone with a healthy gut, the concentration of lectins in foods prepared in these ways would be far too low to create problems. 55

The bottom line on lectin issues

Like with many debates in the nutrition world, when it comes to lectins, we have to challenge existing beliefs: Are all lectins REALLY bad? Does everyone have a lectin issue? Is a lectin-free diet the ONLY solution? As it turns out, these are all myths — the lectin issue is much more nuanced than we’ve given it credit for.

We simply cannot demonize a food group solely based on animal and in vitro studies, without looking at the human gut terrain.

Based on my experience as a functional gut specialist, I have found that an unhealthy gut and imbalanced microflora, with its health consequences, including a leaky gut, is what really makes people susceptible to the ill-effects of lectins. A lectin-free diet is not a permanent solution; it’s merely a bandaid for the real problem — a disordered gut microbiome and damaged gut lining.

HAPPY GUT - 28-Day Cleanse Bundle

The real path to healing from lectin issues is healing the gut, not following a lectin-free diet permanently. Luckily, that is what I set out to help you do through my Gut C.A.R.E. Program — the very program that led me to heal my gut as well as enjoy once more, some of my favorite lectin-containing foods. And you can do this too, today, by taking that very first step to cleansing and healing your gut with the HAPPY GUT® REBOOT: 28-Day Cleanse, powered by my Gut C.A.R.E. Program.

The Lectin paradox (Part 2 of 3)

The Lectin Paradox (Part 2/3)

Myth #2: Everyone Has a Lectin Issue.

Are you enjoying the abundance and diversity of produce available in August? This time of year I look forward to my weekly trips to the farmer’s market. And yet, what good would it be if you can’t eat the foods you most enjoy? Last week, we debunked the pervasive myth that all lectin-containing foods are bad when we learned that lectins come in different forms and that some may even have health benefits.

But before you go stocking your reusable shopping bags with tomatoes, peppers, and black beans, we have to face the reality that even though not all lectins are equally bad, many of us still experience extremely unforgettable symptoms — like bloating, gas, headaches, and even vomiting — after eating them. What gives? 

Answering this question forces me to challenge yet another extremely common lectin myth, which is that everyone has a lectin issue. Does everyone REALLY have a lectin issue? And if so, why has this become a problem recently when it seemingly hasn’t been in the past?

The simple fact that not everyone experiences side effects from lectins should be the first big hint that ‘No, we don’t all have a lectin issue.’

I’ve long suspected there’s another unseen factor working behind the scenes and causing some to develop an intolerance to lectins, whereas others do not. 

But what is this factor? 

This week, we’re diving into what I believe is the true root cause of so-called lectin issues. And surprise! It doesn’t have much to do with lectins at all, even though lectins can contribute to the problem. 

In my practice, I’ve seen dozens of patients go from being lectin intolerant to lectin tolerant by healing their gut, which I believe is the underlying factor in many lectin issues.

Understanding the Gut-Lectin Connection

I’ve observed firsthand what a huge role your gut plays in how damaging lectins can be. You see, your gut harbors about a hundred trillion microbes, which include up to a thousand different species of bacteria, a few dozen types of yeasts and fungi, an unknown number of viruses, and an occasional worm. Collectively, these are called the “gut microbiome.”

Our understanding of the human gut microbiome is still in its infancy, but newer research shows that it can impact human health and illness in many different ways, including affects our mood, immune systems, energy levels, and our ability to tolerate various foods, including lectins. 

In a healthy gut, everything functions optimally and there is a healthy balance between beneficial bacteria. On a day-to-day level, this means the gut houses a world of friendly, diverse good bacteria that help us digest our food, produce vitamins, and keep unfriendly gut organisms in check. 

When the gut is healthy, it also: 

  • Tells you when you’re full. A healthy gut sends accurate signals to the brain when you are full so that you do not overeat, which means you feel satiated but not overly full after meals. Check out last week’s blog to learn about the connection between leptin and lectin intolerance. 
  • Helps you break down food into absorbable nutrients. A healthy gut secretes just the right amount of digestive juices at the right time, which means that all your food is digested into its component parts. This includes the ability to break down and digest foods rich in lectins. 
  • Supports a healthy gut barrier. A healthy gut has a discerning gut barrier, which means the gut wall allows nutrients to be absorbed but is able to block bacteria, yeast, and other ingredients from entering the bloodstream and causing damage. 

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have a healthy gut. If your gut is unhealthy, you will inevitably suffer from dysbiosis—an imbalance between good and bad bugs in the gut. You may not even know you have a dysbiosis, but what you do know is you feel bloated, icky, tired, mentally foggy, and achy all over. 

But what causes an unhealthy gut in the first place? There are certain lifestyle factors that can impact the health status of our guts. For example, how often you have bowel movements and the medications you take can impact the growth of gut bugs. In fact, antibiotics are probably the number one worldwide culprit for dysbiosis, because while they do the important job of killing harmful bacteria in the body, it can also wipe out the beneficial ones. As you might already guess, what you eat also has a massive influence on your microbiome 16; some foods — like healthy fats and fiber — are great for your microbiome health and other foods, like processed sugars, raw cruciferous vegetables and lectins can irritate the gut and either cause or exacerbate an existing gut issue. I talk about gut-friendly and gut-harming foods extensively in my book, Happy Gut.

Leaky gut and lectin intolerance

If your lifestyle doesn’t support your gut health, you will develop dysbiosis, which will create the ideal environment for another common gut condition, called leaky gut.

Illustration of Normal vs. Leaky Gut

Leaky gut is characterized by a “hyperpermeability” of the gut wall, which exposes your body to partially digested protein molecules from food and toxins.

Think about it like this: Your gut lining acts like a security guard that determines who can come in and who stays out of your bloodstream. When you have a leaky gut, it’s like that security guard has nodded off and anyone can come and go as they please, including lectins. And while that doesn’t sound like the end of the world at first glance, when lectins and other toxins and molecules from food enter the bloodstream, the immune system does not recognize them so it attacks — and that is what causes the terrible symptoms like gut pain, nausea, and bloating. 

The trickiest part is that you may not even be aware of these sensitivities. Food sensitivities don’t always manifest as digestive distress; in fact, they can cause seemingly unrelated body symptoms, such as hives, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, and migraines without any abdominal pain, bloating, or bowel movement problems, and only eventually become the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s my belief that lectins often get the blame for problems that really should be blamed on leaky gut. A healthy gut, which includes a healthy balance of gut flora and a strong gut wall, can handle lectin-containing foods better and prevent this immune system attack.

If your lifestyle doesn’t support your gut health, you will develop dysbiosis, which will create the ideal environment for another common gut condition, called leaky gut. Leaky gut is characterized by a “hyperpermeability” of the gut wall, which exposes your body to partially digested protein molecules from food and toxins. Think about it like this: Your gut lining acts like a security guard that determines who can come in and who stays out of your bloodstream. When you have a leaky gut, it’s like that security guard has nodded off and anyone can come and go as they please, including lectins. And while that doesn’t sound like the end of the world at first glance, when lectins and other toxins and molecules from food enter the bloodstream, the immune system does not recognize them so it attacks — and that is what causes the terrible symptoms like gut pain, nausea, and bloating. 

The trickiest part is that you may not even be aware of these sensitivities. Food sensitivities don’t always manifest as digestive distress; in fact, they can cause seemingly unrelated body symptoms, such as hives, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, and migraines without any abdominal pain, bloating, or bowel movement problems, and only eventually become the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s my belief that lectins often get the blame for problems that really should be blamed on leaky gut. A healthy gut, which includes a healthy balance of gut flora and a strong gut wall, can handle lectin-containing foods better and prevent this immune system attack.

Revealing the true problem with lectins

As a doctor who specializes in gut health, I’ve observed that if you have a healthy gut with balanced gut flora, the amount of lectins that could create issues is far higher than what most people would eat. That’s because a healthy gut lining produces digestive enzymes that break down lectins and lectins are not allowed to slip through into the blood stream. 19

In other words, while lectins get associated with autoimmune disease and gut imbalances. It’s the other way around!
I’ve found that gut imbalances are often the problem, not just lectins.

As we learned last week, some lectins damage the gut more than others. Kidney bean lectins, for instance, can especially damage the cells within your gut wall, cause bacterial overgrowth, and create nutritional deficiencies. 21 Meanwhile, in people with a healthy gut, some lectin-containing foods such as tomatoes and other fruits are healthy. 18 Clearly, classifying all lectins as “harmful” oversimplifies this broad group of foods.

To be fair, lectins do create problems for patients who have dysbiosis. For these people, lectins can:

  • Interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption
  • Adversely impact the immune system within your digestive tract 22
  • Affect the health of cells in the gut and its ability to heal itself

These issues should not be ignored or underestimated. Let’s say you eat legumes, for example. The lectins in those legumes will resist being broken down in your gut, because they can withstand the acidic environment of your stomach. 23 They end up binding to cells within the gut wall lining.24 If you eat large amounts of them, they can irritate the gut wall, creating symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, and exacerbating leaky gut, which allows them to slip through the gut all and enter your bloodstream. This sets off the inflammatory response that has a domino effect, resulting in a host of problems. Basically, when you are internally inflamed, more of the calories that you eat are stored as fat and weight gain happens right before your eyes. In addition, an irritated and inflamed gut lining may also interfere with the absorption of other important nutrients. 25

Over time, as lectins get through the gut wall, they can bind to all sorts of tissues in your body, including brain, thyroid, liver, and pancreas, even possibly leading to autoimmune disease. This is the fuel to the fire of autoimmunity. Inflammation leads to a wide range of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. 26 I call this phenomenon the lectin-autoimmune connection. But as you can see, this is a complex and multifaceted issue. Blaming lectins and lectins alone for all these problems dramatically oversimplifies the issue at hand.

In my practice I find that my patients with lectin intolerance typically start out with a damaged gut.

And while eating lectins may have worsened their condition once the gut became damaged, those lectins alone didn’t actually create the damage in the first place.

Healing lectin intolerance by healing the gut

When lectins attach to the gut lining, they can contribute to leaky gut. 20 That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you fix your leaky gut and rebalance your gut microbiome, you can better tolerate lectin-containing foods (especially when prepared the right way), many of which can be considered a healthy part of a balanced diet. 

So how do you fix leaky gut and rebalance the gut microbiome? You’ll be surprised, the remedy is not all about what you eat, but also about how you live.

7 Steps To Heal Your Leaky Gut

…So You Can Enjoy Lectin-Containing Foods Again

Refined Sugar

Cut down on processed and refined sugar

Eating too much sugar can set you up for dysbiosis by allowing sugar-eating gut bacteria and yeast to grow out of control. This can crowd out beneficial bacteria — the kind you need to make sure lectins aren’t causing uncomfortable symptoms. If you’re craving sugar, try opting for dark chocolate, herbal tea, or a piece of fruit instead.

Move your body every day

There’s an established link between the gut microbiome and physical fitness. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a six-pack or run a marathon to have a healthy gut. Instead, focus on moving your body every single day in some way, which could mean anything from dancing to tennis to a 15-minute jog.

Move your body every day
Make Sleep a Priority

Make sleep a priority

This might come as a surprise, but your gut bacteria are also affected by your sleep schedule. The best way to get better sleep is by establishing a nighttime routine. This doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, it could be as simple as putting your phone away an hour before bed, having a cup of chamomile tea, dimming the lights and reading your favorite novel.

Find a stress management tool that works for you

Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, stretching, and journaling are all science-backed tools that help you cope with life’s many challenges and the daily ups and downs. And while you might expect it at first glance, psychological stress is a major risk factor for dysbiosis.

Find a stress management tool that works for you
Only take medications when you actually need them

Only take medications when you actually need them

There’s a time and place for prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications but unfortunately, especially in America, we often overuse these drugs and it sets us up for dysbiosis AND leaky gut. If you want to prioritize your gut health, make sure you’re only taking medications like antibiotics, steroids, and over-the-counter pain relievers if you really need them. Even seemingly benign OTC drugs like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen can lead to leaky gut and dysbiosis when overused. And if you do, try to only take them for a short period of time.

Opt for healthier household products

By switching to green cleaning products, cosmetics, and beauty products, you can decrease the number and amount of chemicals your gut has to process each day. This will help protect the diversity of your gut microbiome and heal your gut.

Opt for healthier household products
ollow a lectin-limited diet COMBINED WITH a gut-healing program

Follow a lectin-limited diet COMBINED WITH a gut-healing program

To truly heal the root cause of the problem, you not only need to take away the offender (i.e. lectins), but you also have to heal the gut lining. The best way to do this is in an integrated gut-healing program with an elimination diet that not only cuts out most high-lectin foods, but also eliminates dairy, gluten, corn, sugar, alcohol, and coffee. This is what the Happy Gut Reboot: 28-Day Cleanse is all about.

As you can see, there are a ton of steps you can take to heal the gut and reverse a lectin intolerance before you think you have been sentenced to a lectin-free diet for the rest of your life. I mean, in all honesty can anyone do that? 

The truth is to simply cut lectins out of your diet for good is missing a big part of the whole picture. They say you can’t see the frame if you’re in the picture. Well, in this case, gut health is the framework for enjoying the bounty of delicious, lectin-rich foods in the ideal picture of summer. At the end of the day, if you don’t turn your attention towards healing the gut, you are missing the root cause of many health problems, including lectin intolerance. And that’s why I called this series The Lectin Paradox.