Is your Green Smoothie Making You Sick?

This is a perfect example of a phrase we like to use: 

“One man’s food is another man’s poison”!!!!

If you went paleo and felt that it didn’t give you the health boost you needed, heck, if you’re eating any healthy protocol and you can’t figure out why you still don’t feel well, oxalates may be a contributing factor.

At PHW a primary part of any healing protocol involves removing inflammatory foods.  We talk about avoiding soy, corn, dairy, sugar, processed carbs, gluten and sometimes even all grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. This often leaves folks overwhelmed and wondering what to eat.  Trust me, I am not trying to add to the list of what not to eat!!!  But, this information, which is relatively new in the field of nutrition science, is important to pass along.  Each individual should consider their own health status when determining whether or not this information applies to you.

That all being said, the popular media really pushes some of these high oxalate containing foods as health food when, in fact, oxalates can be very toxic to some if they are over consumed.

Note that there are some individuals who are more susceptible to problems if they over consume oxalates than others.  Those who have had gastric bypass surgery and have recently been on antibiotics or who have kidney issues need to be more careful than others regarding the over-consumption of oxalates.

OK… enough of  the preamble….What are oxalates you ask?  They are tiny compounds that are pro-oxidants, meaning they promote oxidation, which we don’t want – it’s bad for tissues, cell membranes and the mitochondria.  They are shaped like needles that are pointy on both ends and group together into bundles of 200 or more – creating little molecules that cause abrasions as they circulate through our body.  These molecules can get lodged in the tissue of our thymus, kidney, blood vessels, testicles, brain, eyes, thyroid and breast.

Oxalate Crystal (image from sallyknorton.com)

These compounds are produced by plants as defense mechanisms against their predators.  They are concentrated in the seeds of plants, to protect the seed – the plant’s means of reproducing – from degeneration, as well as from predators.  They are a combination of oxalic acid bound to calcium or magnesium.  They are meant to irritate the mucous membrane of the predators that eat the plant – they can kill caterpillars and bugs.  If these plant molecules can kill caterpillars and other bugs, what might their impact be on humans? The answer is, If humans are eating large quantities of foods that contain oxalates, and are eating them often, these oxalate containing foods can truly do a number on our digestive tract, as well as other organ systems.

What are symptoms that might be indicative of oxalate toxicity?

If you’ve had kidney stones and experience 3 or more from this list, reducing oxalate foods may be beneficial for you:

  • Kidney infections
  • GI problems
  • Reflux problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain that comes and goes for no apparent reason, and isn’t in one consistent place
  • Pain or weakness in arms, hands, legs or feet
  • Back stiffness or pain
  • Urine is cloudy or hazy
  • Poor sleep/fatigue
  • Brain fog/cognitive loss, word finding issues/word confusion mental fatigue
  • Conventional AND alternative therapies haven’t been successful
  • You eat one or more of the following foods daily.

So what foods are highest in oxalates?

  • Beans – especially white beans & black beans
  • Grains – especially the bran & germ
  • Sesame and other seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Almonds – and other nuts
  • Swiss chard – and beets (chard is actually the beet green)
  • Potatoes – white & sweet
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb
  • Spinach 
  • Chaga mushrooms (chaga mushroom powder)
  • Figs
  • Kiwi
  • Star fruit
  • Sorrel
  • Blackberries
  • Black pepper
  • Cumin
  • Turmeric

Low Oxalate foods – good substitutes:

  • Meats
  • Dairy
  • Animal fats & good quality oils (coconut, olive, avocado)
  • Other non-plant foods
  • Arugula
  • Avocado
  • Bok choy
  • Black eyed peas, green peas and chickpeas have oxalates but are better choices
  • Endive
  • Watercress
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Cilantro
  • Cucumber
  • Garlic
  • Kohlrabi
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Mustard greens
  • Green peas
  • Watercress

Again, I’m not suggesting that the foods in the high oxalate group should never be eaten, but, what I want to make clear is that these foods can be very damaging.  And while they are more damaging to some than they are to others, they are foods that should not be eaten day in and day out.  Please use the list of low oxalate foods as substitutes for high oxalate foods on most days, so that high oxalate foods are never over consumed.

As a side note, there is an awful lot of evidence that we can become reactive to foods that we eat everyday, so it is actually very beneficial to rotate through all the foods we eat, not really consuming any of the same foods day in and day out, regardless of the food, not just focusing on rotating high oxalate foods.

What Exactly Are Oxalates doing to my Insides? 

With all that being said, let’s take a deep dive and look at how oxalates are damaging and what organ systems might be involved.

Oxalate toxicity can be an aggravator in several chronic health issues:

  • Kidney stones – 75% of kidney stones are made from calcium oxalate
  • Digestive health
  • Bone density
  • Neurotoxicity (sleep/brain function)
  • Cardiovascular – arrhythmia, blood pressure changes
  • Inflammation
    • Arthritis/gout
    • connective tissue issues
  • Constipation or spastic colon
  • Mast cell activation – rashes, itching, headaches
  • Uterine fibroids/endometriosis
  • HypoThyroidism
  • Under functioning of adrenal glands/testes which produce sex hormones
  • Vulvodynia

This is how oxalates are involved in these health conditions:

  • Oxalates (remember they are sharp needle tipped bundles), are not digested, they must be excreted.
    • In a health body, they are processed through the kidney and are excreted in urine
    • Regardless of the health of an individual, because of the shape of oxalate molecules, they can be corrosive to the lining of the digestive tract
    • If there is already some type of inflammation occurring in the body, due to diabetes, autoimmune conditions, etc. these tight junctions can be fairly wide open, and oxalates (sometimes large ones) are able to flow through into the bloodstream
      • Damage cell membranes, mitochondria in the process
      • Engage the immune system (body considers the oxalate a foreign body and attacks it)
    • The blood flows through the liver for processing (this is a normal process)
      • Liver, to protect itself from the oxalates, uses up a lot of its glutathione
        • Glutathione is needed by the liver to detoxify chemicals found in the blood so ‘scrubbing’ of the blood doesn’t happen as it should
        • From the liver, the blood, which is now NOT as clean as it should be – containing oxalates and other toxins flows up to the heart (normal circulatory process)
        • From the heart the blood flows to the lungs, back through the heart again and then through your whole body.
        • Oxalates are a binder of minerals like calcium and magnesium, disrupting our electrolyte balance
          • Contributing to arrhythmia, blood pressure changes, heart rate changes and other effects on the heart and vascular muscle function
    • In its movement through the body oxalates can destroy connective tissue

I could go on for quite some time describing the ways in which oxalates are involved in damaging the human body as they travel through our circulatory system trying to find a way to be excreted.  Suffice it to say, this star shaped, sharp as glass, molecule wreaks havoc on the organs and vasculature it encounters as it ping pongs through our system. You can see why it’s important to keep oxalate levels low in the body, regardless of your health status.

Truth be told, the human body does produce some of its own oxalates as a waste product when it is breaking down the amino acids glycine and hydroxyproline and a molecule called glyoxalate.  In this process, the glyoxalate pathway, we produce about 10-30mg per day.  Just as a point of reference, a green smoothie that contains, spinach, almond milk, blackberries and turmeric can have around 1,000mg of oxalates.  5,000mg of oxalates can be extremely dangerous to consume.

So Why is This a Problem Today – I’ve never heard of it before?

Part of the reason that we see an increase in the involvement of oxalate toxicity in chronic health conditions is due to certain foods being labeled as health foods, or super foods, by popular media. Another contributing factor is the year round access to these foods due to the globalization of the food industry.  In eras gone by, we simply would have eaten foods that were available seasonally, from what we grew in our gardens, or from what was available from local farms.  The ability to buy spinach and swiss chard deep in the winter months to make ‘healthy’ green smoothies is a contributing factor to our ability to over eat these foods.  The demand for new food products and dairy alternatives is also a contributing factor.  Let’s face it, would you use almond milk daily if it didn’t come in a convenient box from the grocery store?

How do I know if I have Oxalate Toxicity, and what do I do about it?

Oxalates, when the the body is overwhelmed by them, can build up in tissues.  It is very difficult to accurately test if your symptoms are as a result of an oxalate build up.  The Great Plains Lab Organic Acid Test does have a section on oxalate metabolites which can give some insight into whether or not oxalate build up is contributing to your chronic symptoms.  A simple experiment of eliminating high oxalate foods for 3 – 5 days and observing your symptoms can also give you an indication if oxalate build up is contributing to your chronic symptoms.

Because oxalates bind to minerals – stealing them from other processes that need them – contributing to symptom expression, supplementing with minerals can be helpful.  These vitamins and minerals can also help in allowing the body to release oxalates.

  • Potassium citrate
  • Calcium – (take it away from vitamin D)
  • Magnesium
  • B vitamins

We want to reiterate that we are not suggesting that these foods be completely eliminated from any diet – unless you have a known oxalate toxicity situation going on.  What we are promoting is getting to know what foods are high in oxalates and paying attention to how many high oxalate foods are consumed – not by eliminating them completely, but, by reducing the amount consumed and the frequency in which they are consumed.  

Remember, our body’s can become reactive to any food that we eat all of the time, day in and day out, regardless of its oxalate content.  So, we recommend eating all foods on a rotational basis and being aware of not eating too many oxalate high foods in one day.  Never overwhelming the body with any one food can help the body naturally have time to processes and eliminate oxalates, reducing inflammation and accumulation.

Written by Marna Belfance

Categories Body

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