Here is a new word for many of you but we have known about them for a while. A lectin is a protein made by plants. OK so far?
The things I will be writing about here are mind blowing – and very new. I am excited about this information for a lot of reasons. The most important reason for horse owners is that lectins are in general not good. For example, about 5 and 6 years ago the Nobel prize was awarded for research of lectins as a cause for making insulin ineffective. Can anyone say insulin resistance?
As a scientist (a veterinarian is a scientist), I was becoming frustrated by our profession’s quickness to diagnose and test and treat a disease without fully understanding why the diseases was occurring. It became the “But why Mommy?” syndrome as she would finally reply “Because I said so.” Let me start by telling you what lectins do.
We all know about the immune system within ourselves that defend against attacks by bacteria, viruses and other bugs trying to take over our bodies but did you know that plants also have a system to prevent attacks? Further, did you know that many plants do not want to be eaten? This especially applies to their “babies” or what we call seeds. During the 100,000 years humans have been alive, and I assume horses too, we have learned to live with certain plants willing to become our food without becoming sick or dying from them.
Remember in a past blog (Doughnut Hole) I said that anything you place into your mouth and swallow is NOT inside of you. I further said that the food you eat is there to feed the bacteria living in your Gastro-Intestinal Tract (GIT) and in turn, they feed us (Symbiosis). When something new is introduced to our GIT such as a foreign protein of a new food (a lectin), an alert is sent out to our immune system. The first line of defense is the mucous covering our food and gut lining which binds to these foreign proteins and escort them out of the GIT without damage. But when there are 1) a lot of these lectins and 2) a lot of dead good bacteria then damage to the gut lining is soon to occur. The end result is a leaking gut.
Many have heard of leaking gut syndrome but let me explain. The GIT has a skin that is modified from the skin you see on the back of your hand. The transition occurs at your lips and your anus and is called the gut mucosa. It is primarily made of ONE cell layer called the endothelium and is backed by a thicker group of cells ready to replace this endothelium when it dies. The purpose of the endothelium is to prevent bad molecules from getting in while allowing good molecules to pass with ease. Pretty simple, right? You and your horse have been doing this for tens of thousands of years or more.
Then humans decided to make things better. We found that we could grow grains and store them making them available for use in winter when food was scarce. It is interesting to note that there is no osteoarthritis in bones found in archeological sites until the Egyptians and the Pharos. And guess who ate more grains than any other human on Earth? Yup – the Egyptians. The lectins of wheat are now well known including the common gluten and the more destructive cousin Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA). Then explorers such as Columbus brought back with him new foods such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and others from the family called nightshades and these lectins are particularly destructive. Yes, only 500 years ago our gut bacteria were introduced to nightshade lectins and their associated destruction.
The damage caused by the invading foreign proteins create a space between the endothelium cells where more lectins can walk right into our body – hence the name leaking gut. The more damage, the more foreign invaders, the more inflammatory immune response, the more disease and ultimately, the fewer number of these animals eating the plant and therefore the better chance for the plant to survive.
In horses, the introduction of grains as a popular feed for all horses everywhere is only at most 50 years old. In 1973 as a stall mucker I would go to the railroad yard with the other workers and unload a box car full of race horse oats. A tough day and certainly harder than the ability of you to pick up the phone and order a few bags of that fancy feed with the pretty pictures, catchy name and a back panel filled with unpronounceable words – and STACKED IN YOUR FEED ROOM by the strong delivery person!
Guess what? Most of the diseases so popular today in horses were uncommon back then. In fact, reading the vet texts written in the late 1800’s you will find little of what we see today. While not the only changes, the most common and persuasive change seen throughout this country in the care of the horse is the introduction of abundant and readily available grain with their associated foreign lectin proteins. Please understand that this is only a hypotheses based on human research but for me, it explains why so many horses that are removed from grain show such positive results.
What about whole grains like the race horse oats we fed 45 years ago? I’m just guessing but there is wheat middlings everywhere and that is loaded with WGA which may be at the root of insulin resistance. While a no-grain approach is the safest, if you just can’t stop feeding grain, first go no-grain for at least 6 weeks to allow the full healing of the gut endothelium. Then, if you are looking for something to add, go with the whole grains. In my experience though the results from a no grain diet will stop you from ever feeding grain. (See the article in “The Horse” titled Racing Standardbreds on an all forage diet)
Enough? Don’t worry because in future blogs I will explain why WGA is a lectin that mimics insulin and prevents insulin for doing it’s job (insulin resistance), why horses off grain loose fat exposing the existing chronic muscle starvation (a common reason owners put the horse back on grain), why hard keepers start to gain weight once off of grain and more. This is all new stuff and is exciting for all horse owners everywhere. If you want to read a great book on this subject, pick up a copy of “The Plant Paradox” by Steven R Gundry, MD. It is absolutely fascinating.