The Hygiene Hypothesis
The hygiene hypothesis, or hormesis, is the idea that our immune system developed over millions of years from eating hard-to-digest foods, antinutrients, and naturally occurring food toxins that may irritate the intestinal lining. The irritation from antinutrients protecting the seed, nut, grain, bean, or fruit provide the gut stimulation. Gut stimulation leads to gut immunity, which makes up 70% of the body’s total immune response.
Emerging science shows removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems. While nightshades and lectins, like gluten, phytic acids, and other antinutrients are irritants and hard to digest, they have also been found to be extremely therapeutic.10
Just taking wheat, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, or fruits out of the diet without addressing the underlying imbalance in digestion that has created the food intolerance is like sweeping the real problem under the rug. The symptoms could return aggressively in the months or years to come.
Naturally Occurring Food Toxins + Their Benefits
In the last 10,000 years, our food has changed dramatically. Just about every food has been domesticated, naturally selected, or hybridized to be tastier, sweeter, easier to eat, or less poisonous. At one time, tomatoes were small like berries! The sweetest fruit was only as sweet as a carrot!
Poisonous nightshades, for example, including potatoes and tomatoes, were farmed to be bigger and sweeter, with less of the lethal chemicals solanine and tomatine. Many common foods we eat today carry small amounts of toxins and poisons that we have adapted to eat, and in some cases, thrive on.
In this article, I will discuss the overwhelming number of food toxins and poisons that are simply impossible to avoid. Many of today’s superfoods are loaded with toxins that, interestingly, have beneficial properties.
The Benefits of Phytates
Phytates or phytic acids are implicated in many food intolerances to wheat, nuts, and grains. Phytates are anti-nutrients that help to block bacterial enzymes from gobbling up the grain while the seed lies dormant, awaiting germination in the spring. The concerns around phytates are that they block the absorption of minerals like iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
One study compared a high-phytate diet (including grains) with a low-phytate diet. After eight weeks, the high-phytate group saw a 41% increase in bioavailability of iron in their blood. This suggests the body may have adapted to foods containing more phytates.3 While some say a high-phytic acid diet is linked to osteoporosis, there are studies that show that a high-phytate diet will increase bone density.
While public opinion mounts against foods that contain phytic acids, numerous studies list profound benefits of a well-rounded diet that includes phytic acid-rich foods.
Benefits of Phytic Acid-Rich Foods
- Lower cholesterol and triglycerides4
- Reduce risk of calcium kidney stones4
- Support a healthy colon4
- Double the production of butyric acid in the gut—a short chain fatty acid linked to overall gut health, the microbiome, and immunity5
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
When we look at a plant as a palate of individual chemicals, instead of looking at the plant as a whole, we will almost always misinterpret the value of the plant. Plant chemistry is complex, and there is usually a reason for every chemical in that plant. As we will see, there are toxins and poisons in just about every food we eat. If we only analyze one chemical or toxin in a vegetable that may cause a concern in one part of the body, we may easily miss the beneficial effects of that same toxin in another part of the body. Often, the benefits outweigh the concerns, as we see with the phytic acids.
Instead of taking more and more foods out of our diet—like wheat, grains, nuts, and seeds—because of one or two chemical constituents, we should consider the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
We RecommendThe Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet
Common Foods Toxins
To avoid eating these foods and food toxins in excess, traditional people would naturally moderate their intake as all foods were seasonal and therefore not available year round. Seasonal eating provided a safe inoculation from the harmful effects of these food toxins while allowing only the benefits in most cases.
While selenium, at the right dose, is a powerful antioxidant, at too high of a dose, it is a nerve toxin that can cause loss of hair and nails, fatigue, diarrhea, and neuropathies.1 Brazil nuts carry the highest concentration of selenium, so be careful with gobbling these: as little as four dozen of these could cause toxicity.
Mercury is a toxicant that has laced our water supplies—mostly from the coal-fired industrial plant plumes that spread across the country. Eating fish, once one of the healthiest foods on the planet, has to be approached with caution these days. Bonito, halibut, mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, and bluefin tuna are the fish commonly found to exceed the FDA mercury limit of 1 ppm.1
Certain foods have been found to contain substances that suppress thyroid function by interfering with the uptake of iodine, an essential nutrient that supports growth, cognition, and hormonal balance. Eating these foods raw and in excess can suppress thyroid function: spinach, cassava, peanuts, soybeans, strawberries, sweet potatoes, peaches, pears, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, canola, cauliflower, mustard greens, and radishes.
Furocoumarins are a family of natural food constituents with phototoxic and photomutagenic properties. They can cause DNA damage and dermatitis when excessive ingestion is combined with sunlight. Furocoumarins are found in citrus fruits, such as lime, grapefruit, orange, lemon, and bergamot, as well as celery, carrots, and parsnips. More than 10 mg of furocoumarins can cause dermatitis. These foods are safe, but not in high quantities.1
Amylase inhibitors are naturally occurring inhibitors of Alpha-amylase (or α-amylase) found in wheat, rye, and white and red kidney beans. These have been found to slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, as well as protect seeds from insect infestation. Foods with amylase inhibitors can cause allergic reactions such as: sneezing, rhinorrhea, oropharyngeal itching, hoarseness, cough, and dyspnea. Baking wheat into bread reduces amylase inhibitors by 80-100%, depending on the grain type. 1
Interestingly, the amylase enzyme is produced in higher quantities in fall and winter, when wheat and beans are harvested.8 The enzyme breaks down undigested gluten so it can support beneficial gut microbes.6, 7
Lectins are a group of glycoproteins present in high levels in legumes, beans, soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans lentils, nuts, seeds, and all grains. 1 Lectins can bind to mucosal cells and interfere with nutrient absorption. It has been hypothesized that lectins facilitate bacterial growth in the GI tract.
There are numerous claims labeling wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) and other lectins as toxic, inflammatory, neurotoxic, cancer-causing, and a reason to avoid all grains. However, some studies are beginning to change our understanding.
For example, one study demonstrates WGA has beneficial effects on immune cells of the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, researchers even suggest WGA should be studied for anti-tumor properties.9
Boiling beans for at least ten minutes has been shown to reduce lectins by 200-fold. As cooking temperatures under 176°F do not destroy lectin, slow cooking and/or crockpot cooking is not advised when cooking beans.1
Thiaminases destroy vitamin B1 in the body. They are naturally occurring enzymes found in fish, crab, clams, and some fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, black currants, red beets, Brussels sprouts, and red cabbage. In humans, thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency may lead to weakness and weight loss. Severe thiamine deficiency produces beriberi, a disease characterized by anorexia, cardiac enlargement, and muscular weakness leading to ataxia. Cooking destroys thiaminases in fish and other sources.1
Oxalates are found in rhubarb, tea, spinach, parsley, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, lettuce, celery, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, peas, coffee, cocoa, beans, potatoes, berries, turmeric, and carrots.
Oxalates can bind to calcium and other minerals, making them insoluble and decreasing their bioavailability. Ingestion of foods containing high concentrations of oxalates may cause decreased bone growth, kidney stones, renal toxicity, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma, and impaired blood clotting. The significant role oxalate plays in kidney stone development is exemplified by the fact that approximately 65% of kidney stones consist of calcium oxalate.1
We Recommend058: The Benefits of Wheat with Dr. Mercola
Clearly, there are an overwhelming number of naturally occurring toxins in the foods we eat and that over the years we have employed them to elicit benefits that are just now beginning to be understood. Just avoiding them will only compromise gut immunity, digestive strength and set us up for more serious health concerns down the road.
Wheat for example, is a major player in the Mediterranean diet which still considered one of the world’s healthiest diets, with volumes of studies supporting its benefits. Whole wheat is just as well-backed by volumes of studies touting its benefits. So, the whole is often larger than the sum of its parts. Don’t simply cut something out of your diet before truly investigating its effect on your body.