The Mysterious Case of The Sea Urchin, Lectins and Rheumatoid Arthritis

I love a mystery! While it’s not always necessary to know the root cause of an illness, sometimes it can be fascinating to discover that a seemingly unrelated event might be the trigger for a whole set of symptoms. Read on to learn about the incredible connection between a sea urchin, lectins, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Let me share a little story with you. My client Brian came to me with severe rheumatoid arthritis. He had a very physical job that he loved as a dive master, and he wasn’t able to work anymore because his hands were too swollen and painful.

He had just been diagnosed with RA, and his medical team couldn’t offer anything but symptom relief. Fortunately for Brian, a few of his coworkers knew me and my work! They urged him to schedule an appointment with me, and after feeling frustrated with his other options, he decided to give it a shot.

I did my full, detailed intake with Brian, and we immediately started him on the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol. He stumbled a bit at first, but once he got some easy, delicious recipes down, he got into a groove. Within a week, he started to see a difference in his inflammation.

I created a custom supplement protocol for him, including swapping out some low-quality supplements he’d gotten at the health food store for anti-inflammatory options.

He also started using the infrared sauna at the gym, one of my favorite passive health-boosting practices.

As we went through the elimination diet process and then started reintroductions, he noticed that nightshade vegetables were his biggest pain trigger (super common with RA) and some other foods that contain lectins.

Lectins

Lectins are known as anti-nutrients because they resist our digestive enzymes, which means they cross the gut barrier mostly intact with the potential to damage the intestinal lining. This can lead to increased intestinal permeability, AKA “leaky gut.” They also contribute to an imbalance in our gut microbiome by feeding “bad” bacteria. What’s worse, they can trigger our immune system to create antibodies to the foods that contain them. Obviously, we don’t want antibodies to food! When we develop antibodies to our food, it can lead to sensitivities or even anaphylactic allergies. And every time we eat that food? We have an inflammatory immune response.

If you have the genetic platform for autoimmunity, this immune reaction can go one step further. A mechanism called “molecular mimicry” can trigger autoimmune disease. Molecular mimicry works this way: Because there are only so many possible combinations of amino acids that make up our tissues, some of our food looks similar to these tissues. If our immune system is functioning correctly, it can differentiate between these similar proteins. But, if we have immune dysregulation, our immune system can get confused and create antibodies to our body’s tissues and the food proteins. To note, molecular mimicry can also happen with certain pathogens like parasites and viruses.

For many people, molecular mimicry is the “trigger” that jumpstarts their autoimmune disease.

For Brian, we think it all started with a sea urchin. 

Mystery Solved: Sea Urchin, Lectins, and Rheumatoid Arthritis

When we began the food reintroduction process, we found that lectin-containing foods were big symptom triggers—they made his RA flare like crazy. From his intake session, I remembered that Brian mentioned getting stung by a sea urchin prior to the start of his symptoms. Hmmm.

On a hunch, I looked up the chemical composition of sea urchin toxin and wouldn’t you know—it contains lectins.

The connection between lectins and rheumatoid arthritis? I believe that Brian’s immune system had had such a violent reaction to the sea urchin toxin that it started attacking his joints, and every time he ate lectin-containing foods, his symptoms got worse.

After a few weeks on the elimination protocol, the swelling in Brian’s knuckles was visibly lessened, and even after a couple of months of reintroducing some lectin-free foods, he was able to get back in his scuba gear and get back to the work that he loved.

At his last session, his parents came in with him to thank me for restoring his quality of life—I’m not gonna lie, I might have cried a little!!

We can’t always know the exact trigger for autoimmunity, but it’s definitely a fun Nancy Drew moment for me when I can connect those dots!

If you know that something in your diet is making you feel worse, but you can’t quite figure out what it is, check out The Good Poopers Club™. This group program utilizes the same protocol that I used with Brian. You’ll eliminate the most inflammatory foods for 4 weeks, then start adding things back in one at a time, with all the support you need to isolate your triggering foods!

Lectins and molecular mimicry research: 

  1. In MS: ​​https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13590840500088446
  2. In RA: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10884708/ 
  3. Cell study by Vojdani: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32104714/