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 generally not good. For example, about 5 and 6 years ago, the Nobel prize was awarded for research on 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, test, and treat a disease without fully understanding why the disease occurs. It became the “But why Mommy?” syndrome as she would finally reply, “Because I said so.” 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 seeds. During the 100,000 years that modern humans have been alive, and I assume horses, we have learned to live with certain plants willing to become our food without becoming sick or dying.
Remember, in a past blog (Doughnut Hole) I said that anything you place into your mouth and swallow is NOT inside you. I further noted 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). So when something new is introduced to our GIT, such as a foreign protein of new food (a lectin), an alert is sent 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 escorts them out of the GIT without damage. But when there are 1) a lot of these lectins and 2) a lot of dead bacteria, damage to the gut lining is soon to occur. The result is a leaking gut.
Many have heard of leaking gut syndrome but let me explain. The GIT has a skin modified from the skin you see on the back of your hand. The transition occurs at your lips and anus and is called the gut mucosa. It is primarily made of ONE cell layer called the endothelium and backed by a thicker group of cells ready to replace this endothelium when it dies. The purpose of the endothelium is to prevent harmful molecules from getting in while allowing good molecules to pass easily. Pretty simple. You and your horse have been doing this for millions of years.
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. Interestingly, no bone osteoarthritis was 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 new foods such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and others from the family called nightshades and these lectins are particularly destructive. Only 500 years ago, the introduction of nightshade lectins and their associated destruction came to our gut naive bacteria.
The damage caused by the invading foreign proteins creates a space between the endothelium cells where more lectins can walk right into our body – hence the name leaking gut. The damage leads to more foreign invaders, more inflammatory immune response, more disease and ultimately, fewer animals eating the plant and, therefore, a better chance for the plant to survive.
The popular and pervasive feeding of grains to all horses is about 50 years old in horses. In 1973 as a stall mucker, I would go to the railroad yard with the other workers and unload a box car full of racehorse oats. A tough day and certainly harder than your ability 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. Reading the vet texts written in the late 1800’s you will find little of what we see today. The 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 hypothesis based on human research, but for me, it explains why so many horses removed from grain show such positive results.
What about whole grains like the racehorse oats we fed 45 years ago? I’m just guessing, but wheat middling, I assume, is loaded with WGA, which may be at the root of insulin resistance. While a no-grain approach is the safest for the horse, if you can’t stop feeding grain, try the no-grain approach for at least six weeks to fully heal the gut endothelium. Then, if you want something to add, go with the whole grains, especially in horses over 30 years with weight loss or severe winter weather approaching. In my experience, 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 from doing its job (insulin resistance) and why horses on a no-grain diet lose 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 information is new and 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 fascinating.