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Can Eating Healthfully Hurt? Oxalate Consumption and Pain

Posted May 28 2013 12:46am

A few weeks ago a client of mine with fibromyalgia asked what I knew about the connection between joint and muscle pain and eating foods high in oxalate. She had read that eating foods high in oxalic acid can trigger fibromyalgia symptoms. She felt discouraged in that she had been making such an effort to eat healthfully to help improve her condition and her overall health. Ironically, many of the nutritious foods she was consuming may have turned out to exacerbate her pain rather than relieve it.

Oxalates are naturally occurring molecules found in some plants. Normally our bodies are able to excrete oxalates in our urine and feces, but if not, oxalate can bind with minerals – especially calcium- and form oxalate crystals, which are sharp, jagged edged objects that can lodge themselves into joints, muscles and mucus membranes and trigger pain and inflammation.

Most people have no problem metabolizing moderate amounts of oxalate in their diet. For those that do accumulate high levels of oxalates in their joints and soft tissue it can be due to:  Hyperoxaluria, a genetic defect which predisposes one to kidney stones; or  the lack of good bacteria in the gut – often resulting from the overuse of antibiotics ); or a vitamin b-6 deficiency; or a deficiency of magnesium  which binds to soluble oxalate and make it insoluble; or a high consumption of oxalate containing foods.Any or all of these causes can result in the accumulation of oxalate crystals in joints and tissues over time and can lead to problems, such as:

In researching the answer to my client’s question, I wondered in the back of my mind whether my lingering hamstring and pelvic pain might be due to my own oxalate consumption which had recently escalated.Six months ago my fiance moved in with me. We eat a lot of salads and he loves beets (very high in oxalates) so I started including them. In addition, as the weather grew warmer I began a nightly ritual of eating frozen blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and sometimes strawberries (all high oxalate) with my lactose-free milk. Because they’re so naturally sweet and delicious, I would often have two or more cups of mixed berries. Turns out, combining the high-oxalate berries with the calcium-loaded milk further encourages the crystallization of the oxalates. And while I’ve used turmeric (also high in oxalates) on my cooked veggies and salads for many years, recently I’d been adding more to my diet thinking it would help the joint and muscle pain I was experiencing because it’s an anti-inflammatory without realizing it was fueling the fire. Furthermore, overconsumption of oxalates (or the inability to excrete them) is often responsible for delayed healing as oxalates more easily bind to injured tissues. This might explain my lingering pain even after pursuing my usual healing modalities, including massage, aquatic therapy, acupuncture and rest.

Figuring out which foods are high in oxalates can be confusing as many of the oxalate food lists on the web offer conflicting information. Oxalate levels can also depend on whether a food is raw or cooked. For example, some vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and especially kale and collard and mustard greens are lower in oxalate the more they are cooked (i.e. boiled verses steamed). Here’s one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources I’ve found.

CAUTION:  If you suspect oxalates may be triggering your pain, don’t eliminate all oxalate-containing foods from your meals in an effort to decrease pain.  There’s something known as “oxalate dumping” that can occur when a person abruptly ceases consumption of high oxalate foods and consequently their body starts to excrete stored oxalates at a rapid rate. This can cause an increase in symptoms.  Instead, cut back gradually starting with foods containing the highest oxalate levels.

Be Well,

Carolyn


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