There’s a new experiment happening at our house. As usual. But this one is big.
At the Ancestral Health Symposium in Seattle last month, I attended a compelling presentation by Sally K. Norton. The symptoms of oxalate toxicity she described included nausea, one of the mysterious undiagnosed health issues that Matthew has been experiencing for the past four years.
I skyped Matthew right away and he started researching. When I got home, I started researching too.
We uncovered even more symptoms that fit perfectly, and he started removing high-oxalate foods from his diet soon after that.
This post contains some of what we’ve learned.
What is oxalate?
Our bodies make oxalate. As do all plants, including the plants we eat.
Oxalate is a salt made from oxalic acid bound to a mineral, like calcium.
We are designed to process our own oxalate as well as a moderate amount of oxalate from plant foods, but sometimes our processing capacity gets damaged.
When our ability to process oxalates is impaired, a few different disease pathways can develop. These fall under the umbrella term 'hyperoxaluria'.
Hyperoxaluria can cause diverse and seemingly unrelated symptoms.
When everything is working as it should, our bodies process oxalate through the kidneys and get rid of it in urine.
When oxalate isn’t being processed properly, problems begin.
Kidney stones are one sign of excess oxalate or an impaired oxalate processing system. Kidney stones are primarily made from calcium oxalate.
But not everyone with an oxalate processing problem ends up with kidney stones.
Your Body as an Oxalate Warehouse
One strategy the body uses to deal with excess oxalate is to stash it.
These oxalate deposits cause problems wherever they end up:
- In the heart, they can trigger arrhythmias, palpitations, fainting and difficulty breathing.
- In the retina, they cause vision impairment.
- If they accumulate in the spine, they can initiate Spinal Stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that causes pain and neurological problems including numbness, paraesthesia, and motor impairment.
- If they end up in the joints they cause joint pain. One form of joint pain is Oxalate Arthropathy, an under-diagnosed form of arthritis caused by oxalate crystals that migrate to the synovial fluid after getting sequestered in bones, tendons and cartilage. Oxalate tends to prefer previously damaged joints.
- In the genitals, oxalates cause pain and skin involvement. More on that in an upcoming post. We now think that Matthew’s genital psoriasis may have been oxalate-related from the beginning.
It has been suggested in some of the literature that oxalates may also cause changes in gene expression and can provoke cell proliferation, but I have not had a chance to investigate those studies yet.
Oxalate binds with calcium, magnesium and other minerals in the body, causing mineral deficiencies. Mineral deficiencies are known to be a factor in the development of autoimmune disease.
One Root Cause
Over time, we can end up with mineral deficiencies and oxalate deposits in multiple locations, resulting in an array of seemingly-unrelated symptoms that actually share one root cause: excessive oxalate and/or an impaired oxalate processing system.
Toxic. For Everyone.
Although we all vary in our ability to process oxalate, nobody is immune to the toxic effects of oxalates.
Oxalates are fatal at high concentrations.
It takes 4-15 grams of oxalate to kill an adult. One man died after eating 6-8 grams of oxalate in soup made with 500g (just over a pound) of sorrel.
Large quantities of high-oxalate foods, like rhubarb, star fruit or sorrel, can seriously damage the kidneys.
Varying Oxalate levels in foods
Do a quick search on the oxalate content of food and one of the first things you’ll notice is that the lists of oxalate levels in food vary enormously.
Some foods are listed as high-oxalate on one list, medium on another, and low-oxalate on a third.
The lack of consistent information about oxalate content makes it challenging to estimate the oxalate content of any given meal.
Why the variability?
The lists vary because the oxalate content of plants depends on growing conditions and other factors, including:
- The plant part. The leaves, seeds, stalks, roots, skin and flesh from the same plant typically contain different levels of oxalate. Gazelles have been observed to selectively eat the lowest oxalate parts of their preferred food plants.
- How mature the plant is. Generally, more mature plants contain more oxalate.
- How much calcium is present in the soil. The more calcium, the more oxalate. Oxalate increases in the plant structure have been observed within 30 minutes of introducing calcium in soil.
- The time of year the plant is harvested.
- How dry it is. Drier conditions result in more oxalates.
- The cultivar. Different strains of the same species have different levels of oxalate. For example, 15 different types of star fruit were found to have as much as a 10-fold difference in oxalate levels.
- How stressed the plant is. Plants in an overgrazed area have been found to have more oxalates than those from an area where little grazing occurs.
- How the plant is processed. Dried vegetables tend to have more oxalates than fresh ones.
Also, measures of oxalate levels can vary depend on the methods that are used in testing.
All these factors make it really difficult to create a definitive list of high-oxalate foods to avoid when running a low-oxalate n=1 experiment.
There are some foods that almost always make it onto the ‘high’ list. Some of them have ‘superfood’ status and are therefore consumed in high quantities by health-conscious people (including us, until recently).
High-oxalate foods* include:
- Kiwi fruit
- Swiss chard
- Black tea
*Please note: This is not a definitive list.
The n=1 Experiment
Matthew started his low-oxalate experiment four weeks ago.
Anecdotal reports from other people who had tried a low-oxalate diet advised that he could expect a ‘honeymoon period’ of a few days to a week in which he was no longer adding excess dietary oxalate, followed by the oxalate ‘dumping’ phase when his body would start pulling stored oxalate from his tissues and putting it back into solution.
That’s exactly what happened.
He felt better than he had in years for a week and he’s been deep in a very unpleasant detox ever since.
He is supplementing with calcium and magnesium and drinking 3 litres of mineral water a day.
And watching a lot of Netflix.
We’ll keep you posted.
Read the four month update post here.
The Autoimmune Healing n=1 Workbook Kit
We keep experimenting. Because we want to get tho the root cause. And because we want results.
We designed the Autoimmune Healing n=1 Workbook Kit to help other people run self-experiments for healing, safely and effectively.
If you are looking for the root cause, the Autoimmune Healing n=1 Workbook Kit can help. Starting wherever you are right now.