My entire world just got turned upside down. Many of the foods I have believed are healthy have actually been hurting me.
Many of the foods that are considered healthy, all of the plant foods that are considered to have quality nutrition in them, all have high levels of oxalates. Why? Because oxalates are bound to the nutrition in the food. For years now, I’ve eaten almonds, kale, spinach, chard, beets, asparagus, very dark chocolate, quinoa, chia, soaked grains, sweet potatoes and more. All are foods that are considered to be highly nutritious for plant sources and some are considered super foods. And I won’t even go into the list of supplements that contain oxalate. It’s quite depressing.
However, if you have a damaged gut, you might be doing more harm than good. When your gut is leaky, oxalates can enter your bloodstream through gaps in the intestinal mucosa that aren’t supposed to be there and wreak havoc on your body. When your gut is damaged, the beneficial bacteria you should have in your gut meant to break down oxalates might not be present. You might have oxalate crystals stored in various areas of your body, causing many problems. Your supplements, your herbs and your food may be contributing. Oxalates in your body tissues are a huge roadblock to healing. I’m now beginning to see that this might be why I haven’t fully healed.
The problem is that there is such an emphasis on the Bristol Stool Scale as a measure of gut health, yet I’m learning that the bristol stool scale isn’t the end-all and be-all for gut health. For years, I’ve heard about the importance of where you fall on the scale as a measure of gut health. However, I have consistently registered where I should on that scale for years (between a 3 and a 4), yet I still have a leaky gut as evidenced by me having an oxalate problem. So if your poop can’t tell you if you have leaky gut, how do you know? I’d say based on my experience that many people probably have leaky gut and think their digestion is healed when it is not. You can still have leaky gut without having any gut symptoms. If you have a health problem, it’s possible you might have a leaky gut and you might be having oxalates get into your bloodstream, causing problems for you.
If you don’t have leaky gut, you don’t have an oxalate problem. If your digestion is doing as it should, oxalate can’t enter the bloodstream except in very small quantities. You can consume high oxalate foods in reasonable quantities. However, even with a healthy gut, if you consume huge amounts of high oxalate foods, like almonds, chocolate or spinach, on a daily basis, you can still cause yourself harm as some of it is being absorbed. People who consume grain-free baked goods that are made with almond flour daily or eat large spinach salads regularly can hit upon problems despite a lack of leaky gut. Just one leaf of spinach has more oxalate in it than what a person on a low-oxalate diet can consume and excrete in one day.
What are oxalates?
Oxalate is a plant poison. It is a natrually-occuring anti-nutrient in plants that acts as a defense mechanism. If the plant causes pain, inflammation and other bad side effects for the creature that eats it, that creature is unlikely to try to eat another plant like it.
If you have a healthy gut, your body will likely only absorb a very small amount of oxalate, around 2-3% of what you consume. At that level, your kidneys are likely able to excrete it- your body has a set limit of how much oxalate it can excrete through the kidneys in one day. Oxalate is, by and large, meant to stay in the bowel, exit the body and never enter the bloodstream. If you don’t have a healthy gut, then your body can absorb large amounts, around 50% of what you eat, and your body can even manufacture oxalates under certain conditions. The oxalate enters the bloodstream via the gaps between the intestinal cells that aren’t supposed to be there and lodges in any tissues that the blood can reach- in other words, oxalate can lodge anywhere in the body.
Health issues connected to oxalate intake include:
- Kidney stones
- Irritable bowel syndrome or leaky gut, consistenyl abnormal bowel movements
- Arthritis, joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Burning, inflammation or pain anywhere or in any organ in the body, including the eyes, mouth and skin
- Urinary pain, urethra problems, cloudy urine, repeated UTIs that do not resolve, interstitial cystitis
- Thyroid and hormonal disorders
- Genital pain, pain from intercourse
- Joint pain
- Lichen sclerosus and Lichen planus
- Asthma, COPD
- Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue
- Cystic fibrosis
- Eye pain
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Sensitivity to salicylates
- And many more
My symptom that is on the list above is eye pain. I don’t have pain anywhere else in the body. In just going off of chocolate, I’ve seen my eye pain improve, only to see it return within a few hours of eating almonds. I’ve had worsening eye issues since this Summer, including pain, burning, blurry vision, eye dryness and even some blind spots. If my eyes have improved with just going off of chocolate and lessening almond, I hope that some of the problems I am experiencing with my vision will continue to improve as I go through more oxalate removal from my tissues with the low-oxalate diet. While the pain and burning problems are directly connected to oxalates, I’m not sure about the other issues. We will have to see.
When oxalates hit your blood stream, they can be excreted by your skin, lungs or kidneys. However, there is a limit to the amount of oxalate a person can excrete in one day, healthy or not. The rest gets stored somewhere in your tissues. When you go low-oxalate, they can then dislodge themselves, enter circulation and can be eliminated. This results in cycles where you see symptoms come out, the oxalates clear through your system, and you feel better for a while before it starts again. I expect that I will soon enter this cycle as I slowly reduce my intake.
Then there’s this little gem. A study done in 2002 showed that while almost all children have Oxalobacter formigenes, the beneficial bacteria that breaks down oxalate, in their guts, only 60-80% of adults do, and most people with an inflammatory bowel disease don’t have it. Celiac is classified as an inflammatory bowel disease. And Oxalabactor is very sensitive to certain commonly-prescribed antibiotiocs. Antibiotics that I know I took before I turned to natural medicine in 2002.
Currently, if you kill off the Oxalobacter in your gut, there’s no known way to get it back, as Oxalobacter is an obligate anaerobe- it dies very easily in the presence of oxygen. Currently, there are no commercially-available supplements that contain it on the market, as it is extremely difficult to produce these types of probiotics and have them remain viable until ingestion. However, the people in studies who have been given Oxalobacter have shown colonization (it stayed in their guts and took up residence) for months after a single dose, with improvements in their health and a drop in the amount of oxalates they were excreting, showing that the Oxalobacter is doing its job of breaking down the oxalate in the gut.
Which Foods Have Oxalate?
If its a plant, chances are it has at least some oxalate in it. The foods known to be highest in oxalates include:
- Chocolate and Carob
- Almonds and other nuts
- Tea and coffee
- Grains and most starches used for baking
- Chia seed
- Sweet potatoes and potatoes
- Leafy greens
- Many spices and herbs, especially seed, bark or root-based
In addition, your body can produce oxalates in the liver in response to certain diseases or nutrient deficiencies. Oxalates can also bind to heavy metals in the body, making them even more dangerous. I went through chelation in 2009-2010 and have had heavy metal problems in the past.
Yes, I am frustrated. My ‘healthy’ diet has been contributing to me feeling worse, not better. And I’d bet there are at least a few readers who are frustrated that their health isn’t improving despite hard work, so I’m writing this in an attempt to reach those readers. If you aren’t healing despite normal stools or new problems are developing, please consider that oxalates might be part of the problem.
Surf around a little and you’ll find conflicting info on how much oxalate different foods contain. In fact, much of the info out there is old or outdated. Testing methods have improved in recent years. The best help I have found so far is in the Trying Low Oxalates Yahoo Group. This group is testing foods to determine oxalate levels and has the most up-to-date listing of the oxalate content of food that I’ve been able to find. They’re also full of support on how to transition onto a low oxalate diet (LOD). The LOD is where I’m headed right now.
When beginning the diet, it is important to very slowly reduce your oxalate intake. A sudden drop, especially if you’ve been eating a lot of the ‘highly nutritious’ foods listed above, can bring on nasty symptoms and possibly kidney stones. As your intake decreases, the body begins to release the oxalate it has stored, which puts it back into circulation. From there, your kidneys must deal with it in order to get it out of the blood and out of your body. Your kidneys can only filter so much at one time, and excess circulating will only cause pain and misery for you.
In the coming weeks, as I learn more, I will blog about my findings, more about the above topics I’m just glancing on today and how I am progressing on the diet and what I am (and am not) eating. If you have a leaky gut, I would urge you to read up on the low-oxalate diet, consider if it is possibly a problem for you, and maybe even try reducing your oxalates to see how you feel or if they might be an issue for you. If you’re consuming a lot of high oxalate foods, I would encourage you to cut back on them in order to prevent problems if one hasn’t yet developed.
Duncan SH, Richardson AJ, Kaul P, et al. Oxalobacter formigenes and its potential role in human health. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Aug 2002: 3841-3847.
Photo: Calcium Oxalate crystals by Sedimento 13 on Flickr
Angela England says
Wow – that is really fascinating. I wonder if there’s a way to tell if your intestines are properly colonized via test or what not. Very interesting.
Angela, I haven’t yet found commercially available tests for it. In fact, I haven’t found any commercially available stool test for oxalates at all so far. Only urine tests done over a 24 hour period, and blood tests to diagnose. I’m still researching.
It just goes to show one man’s food is another man’s poison is really true. Fermented foods also sworn to be a miracle make me sick as a dog with migraines etc. the best foods to eat? The ones that make you thrive.
I’m running into the same problem with my diabetes. It’s a condition that I FULLY believe can be controlled by diet alone. However, in my quest to be as all natural as possible, I ended up eating a lot of things that I told myself were okay for me, but they weren’t. Such as sourdough bread or homemade lemonade (using as little maple syrup as possible rather than any other sugar because I react less to it). I’ve found that after several years eating as healthy as possible – keep in mind that for me, this means low carb and very little to no sugar – about 80-90% of the time, I STILL have high blood sugar on average. So, for a few months, I dedicated myself to cutting out all carbs except the occasional snack nut and/or veggie with dinner. I kept tabs of all my blood sugar numbers after eating, and found that I have a real conundrum on my hands. Unless I eat bacon with EVERYTHING! I end up with high blood sugar. Yes, sugary or grainy thing makes the number much worse, but still, eating nothing but meat will make my numbers go higher than they should. So I have a clear choice. Never eat carbs again and restrict my protein so that the bulk of my diet is straight fat OR continue to eat my sauerkraut and Kombucha and apples (all of which make me feel good and healthy but raise my sugar pretty high) and just pray that the good they do me never turns out horribly bad. The strangest part of all is that if I didn’t know I was diabetic, I would not suspect. On a real food diet, I don’t feel diabetic even though the numbers clearly say that I am, sigh…
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Thank you for this blog I will be sharing with others. I have had a “stomach ulcer” for a few months now that gets set off once I have certain foods and it wipes me out for half a day in the worst pain ever. The Dr tested for stomach ulcer but it came back negative but has kept me on medication for it and after reading a few things I am starting to think I might have leaky gut. This all came about after taking strong painkillers and antibiotics for a wisdom tooth infection.
Thank you again for all the info
Summer, you are welcome. Good luck to you.
It is so hard to wrap your head around the idea of these “healthy” foods not being so great for you to eat. We certainly had some mourning in my home over losing the high oxalate foods but when the symptoms went too it made it all worth it. The worst thing is how long it takes. Hang in there! You will get there over time and as time goes along dumping gets to be less and less. The first few months can be pretty intense.
It is a mystery to me why one child has a clear issue with oxalates (as do I) and her sister (with more risk factors) does not. Thankfully the low oxalate meals that I make for the family are not lacking in nutrition or flavor so there is no risk to us from going LOD.
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I’ve been wondering about my kids. I’m sure as this journey goes, I’ll be working through them as well. My Dad has kidney stones and I’m sure at least some of this is hereditary.
Perfectly timed artcle.
YES! This is exactly what we found out six months ago. The GAPS diet was doing nothing for our youngest son who continued to be in constant, awful pain. I ran across the Low Oxalate Diet on a GAPS forum and finally checked it out. It was and still is *amazing*. He’s a different person. Completely and utterly. We are finally learning who this wonderful eight-year-old boy is. We have to be super extreme (10 mg per meal of oxalate or less) or we lose him for three days. Many of our GAPS staples such as navy beans and carrots that we eat daily were way too high in even small doses for him to handle. No wonder!!
I’ve told so many people with gut issues to just check into this. I’m so glad you found it as well and hope it helps. He’s had bouts of “dumping” the oxalates that are just awful but overall he’s improving day after day.
(We had to go off GAPS because of it, however, as it moved to way too low carb for us to function. We may be able to handle GAPS in the future but for now we’re working on detox of heavy metals and getting those pockets of oxalates out of his system!)
Malenksha, I’ve wondering that about myself. Perhaps I should just go low-oxalate and let the other things I’ve cut out that are low-oxalate slide for now. I’m still mulling it over, trying to make a decision. Has his gut continued to improve despite not staying on GAPS?
We have seen improvements in his gut since going off GAPS. In fact, we saw no benefit from a year long GAPS diet for him at all *because* we were eating a ton of high oxalate foods. (We didn’t know about them; we weren’t trying to be mean!)
He actually was losing weight on GAPS and we were struggling to figure out how/why he was doing so poorly. He started growing and gaining weight and the weird rashes on his elbows and cheeks went away after we eased off the oxalates.
We did take a few months to really ramp it down but eliminating the highest oxalate foods right at first showed an immediate improvement. It was obvious within 72 hours that this was finally what was and had been going on all along.
Jennifer G says
Kerry, thanks so much for posting this and looking into it!! I’ve been reading here and there about oxalates… and I didn’t know what to do with the information. On the one hand, it was making me scared to eat anything… on the other, I wondered if it applied to me at all. Well… maybe now I know why I get wheezy when I eat dark chocolate. eek! Thanks for your hard work!
Thank you, Jennifer. I’ll blog more as I uncover more information and go through more of the oxalate elimination process.
I just wanted to let you know that, as discouraging as this has all been for you, I am really encouraged to find someone else dealing with the same food restrictions. It is so overwhelming at first, and isolating when everyone around you has a normal ‘healthy’ diet. God is using you to help me (and many others) – so be encouraged!
Thank you, Elizabeth. I need the encouragement right now!
Thanks for this great (albeit depressing!) article. We’ve been on GAPS one year. Overall, we’ve had a lot of improvement and healing. I have seen things here and there about oxalates but in all seriousness – in dealing with GAPS too – I have avoided it (that, and the whole MTHFR thing!). Now I think I need to take a closer look. We all have leaky gut in our house – two of us on GAPS, more to follow – it is incredible that those bacteria never recolonize. And with our antibiotic history, I would imagine this would affect us all as well. So, this is nothing that GAPS can heal? Once affected always affected? 🙁 Sigh. I love chocolate, and those doggoned good Honey Patties have saved the day with my three year old more than once. Thanks again and have a good week-
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Heather, I believe GAPS is only a piece of the puzzle if you’re dealing with an oxalate problem. I believe you need both GAPS and the LOD in order to help heal in that case. I’m still researching and talking to some folks with experience in both. I’ll post as I find more.
I’m avoiding MTHFR, too! One thing at a time, once I’m on my feet with this, I can tackle something else.
How did you determine that the oxalates are problematic for you? Was there some kind of test you took or did a medical practitioner advise you of such based on your symptoms?
Mara, I had the Organic Acid Profile test from Great Plains Laboratory. IIRC, it was a blood test. It tests for oxalates, yeast metabolites and many other things.
I’m pretty sure it is a urine test. 🙂
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Is it? I had so many tests done at one time that I can’t keep them all straight! Thanks for the clarification!
Jennifer R says
Do you know if the oxalate levels go down if the greens are cooked? i thought I heard that somewhere before.
Jennifer, cooking methods do change oxalate amounts. For example, if you boil a vegetable, some of the oxalates will move out of the veggie and into the cooking water, which you need to discard. Unfortunately, there are some greens, like spinach, where you can’t boil them enough to get it down to an acceptable level.
Do you know if there is any research supporting fecal transplant to repopulate Oxalobacter bacteria? I know fecal transplants have shown amazing benefits to individuals lacking other types of beneficial gut bacteria…
Christel, I’ve been looking into that. I’ll post when I have the information pulled together.
Kristi Cooke, NTP says
KerryAnn and those of you interested, I did not read all the comments here, but there is a test to check your oxylate levels. It’s an organic acid test. I had mine checked by a functional MD and I am in the same boat. I have a couple of the symptoms of oxylate poisoning and I, too, have been fighting yeast overgrowth and heavy metal poisoning. I have cut out many (but not all, by any means, b/c it is so hard…) high oxylate containing foods, have been working hard to detox and my symptoms have improved greatly, so there is hope.
It helps to cook your veggies, which removes some of the oxylates, but not all. Calcium taken with meals helps bind to oxylates and carry them out before they can be absorbed. People used to call me the “salad queen.” I ate raw veggies and leafy greens twice a day on average. We NEED those veggies for proper nutrition, so now I have more cooked veggies and less raw, have salads much less often and try to avoid the high-containing oxylate foods. I will get re-tested by my functional MD in a few months to see where my levels are at, but symptoms are improving.
I appreciate this article! 🙂
Kristi Cooke, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner
Kristi, I had that OAT test done by Great Plains. I’d encourage you to look at the group Trying Low Oxalates for the most up-to-date information on how to heal while on a LOD. Until you can remove your body burdern and not just drop the amounts you are eating, you won’t totally heal and it will take a very long time. I personally thought I was much better, but I found out that I am not, even though my digestion is in great shape.
Kristi Cooke, NTP says
Thank you KerryAnn. Through my nutritional therapy practice I find that everyone is different. I have greatly improved by lowering my body burden of several toxins, including oxylates. As I chelate the heavy metals to remove them, and bind the oxylates with calcium, watch my diet, and also deal with some tissue virus, body functions are slowly normalizing. I believe the yeast will not go away until I’ve removed some of the other toxins. Same with oxylates. I verify this with energy testing in my practice, backed up by lab tests, and I have an experienced practitioner who works with me (besides my functional MD, which I only use for lab tests). I am intesrested in the Low Oxylate Group, however. There are soooooooo many foods that are high in oxylates. Many you would not expect!
Kristi, yeast and metals bind with oxalates. I’m finding a lot of evidence that you can’t effectively deal with either without going low-oxalate and dealing with your oxalate body burden first. Once the oxalate issue is under control, then you can effectively treat heavy metals and candida. I’ll be posting more as I learn more.
Kristi Cooke, NTP says
Yes, you are right, but it appears my oxalate issue is improving. I am dealing with all of it right now and it seems to be working. Just so you know, I have dumped a TON of mercury and feel soooo much better, even with the oxylate issue (maybe mine is not so bad???), so the protocol I’m doing right now is well worth it. I will get retested soon and will keep you posted, if you are interested. I appreciate your info as well.
If you take calcium citrate (and sometimes magnesium citrate works) with food it will absorb the oxylates so the body does not absorb them. Like you said, oxylates are in almost all veggies, but it is not good to avoid them for long, nutritionally.
We are all so toxic – aren’t we lucky to know enough to work on dealing with the toxins, rather than dealing with the symptoms of disease!
I went through The Cutler Protocol in 2009-2010 to chelate mercury. It helped a lot, but it didn’t solve everything. I think the oxalate issue is the missing piece of the puzzle, since oxalate binds tightly to mercury and can keep it from being removed despite chelation.
The Trying Low Oxalates group has the most current research on oxalate levels in foods. There are a number of vegetable options that are lower in oxalates and plenty can be consumed on a LOD if you know which ones to lean towards since the calcium citrate trick doesn’t handle the problem, it’s just a stop gap that reduces absorption somewhat. I value the ability to detox oxalates more than I value being able to consume particular vegetables at this point, and some veggies such as spinach will likely never make it back onto my menu as a precaution, even after I’m healed. I’d encourage you to join Trying Low Oxalates and take a look at their testing results and oxalate level charts. It’s very helpful for knowing exactly what to eat and what to avoid.
The more I research “healthy” and “bad” foods, the more confusing it gets. I guess what we really need to remember is to keep everything in balance. My gut isn’t healthy. I’ve had Crohn’s Disease for my entire life (58 years). But I find that if I just keep my weekly diet well-rounded and eat everything with some control, things are good; or at least okay. And sometimes, with a disease like Crohn’s, okay is fantastic
Is there a way to reduce or eliminate oxalate’s in foods? Like you can with phytates? It seems to me like cooking might affect the oxalate level.
Cooking can concentrate the oxalates if you roast, but it can remove some small amount of it if you boil it and discard the boiling liquid. However, for many veggies, even boiling doesn’t reduce the oxalates enough to make it edible for people with a problem with oxalates. Spinach is a good example of that- boiling it for long period of time still doesn’t reduce it to anything near within the safe range.
I have Fibromyalgia and Vulvadynia. I think I better get tested for oxalates. I have read about oxalates effects on Vulvadynia. I didn’t think I could give up whole wheat and so many other foods that have oxalates. Chocolate causes me to have the worse fare ups.I will be sure to read your blogs about this subject. I’ll pray for you to be able to stick to the diet and find healing.
The first time I ever heard about oxalates was from a woman who had vulvadynia. The test is called the Organic Acids Profile and it’s from Great Plains Laboratory. You can order it without a doctor on their website.