You’re encouraged to eat a healthy diet, so you make sure you get your seven-a-day portions of goodness, often blending vegetables and fruits into a green juice drink. Yet despite all your healthy eating, you continue to feel diffuse pain, are fatigued, and generally spaced out. Or maybe you experience other symptoms, such as terrible aching in your joints, painful bladder conditions, or feel as if you’re always suffering from some variety of gum disease. Perhaps you’ve been given a mysterious diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a meaningless name that’s used to describe people who have muscles that hurt, or have sleep and fatigue issues, along with other symptoms resulting from diffuse inflammation of undetermined origin.
Unfortunately, a high vegetable or specific carbohydrate diet, while frequently touted as being healthy, may be making your chronic condition worse. Certain vegetables and fruits contain oxalates, which are naturally occurring compounds that comprise part of their natural defense system. Oxalates are believed to create bitter tastes that prevent them from being eaten by animals in the wild. Oxalates are found in large quantities in a plant’s roots and leaves, the part of the plant that’s essential for it to survive. For many people, a plant-based, vegetarian type, high-oxalate diet isn’t a cause for concern, but it can seriously exacerbate kidney stones, digestive issues, mineral absorption, and diffuse unexplained symptoms for those that experience oxalate sensitivity. We also produce small amounts of oxalates ourselves within our cell’s mitochondria, as part of the Krebs cycle. Some individuals with genetic polymorphisms will produce larger amounts of oxalates endogenously that the body is unable to clear, which result in subsequent health issues.
However, it is possible to break free from the effects of oxalate on the body, be tested for high oxalate levels, and treat the condition with the correct diet and with supplements.
What is oxalate?
Oxalate is a fascinating compound that your body commonly absorbs as a result of the consumption of plant-based food. Oxalate is a very simple compound that comprises two carbon and four oxygen atoms, along with two negative charges that seek out positively charged molecules, such as minerals, that are necessary for metabolism. Oxalate prefers calcium to other minerals but also searches for and binds other toxic metals and minerals, (the list appears below). Certain plants create oxalate as a tool to store calcium deposits. This is similar to how vertebrates use bone to store and sequester calcium that can be used later. Oxalates also create insoluble crystals that absorb light, which is essential for photosynthesis. These crystals can be the source of severe pain, acting almost like tiny razor blades or shards of glass on susceptible tissue like mucosal membranes. Oxalates even deter animals from grazing on their leaves, creating pain and toxicity when the animals eat these in large quantities.
Your body also creates oxalate when breaking down vitamin C. In this case, oxalate is a toxic end product that needs to be removed from your body as waste. Humans are unable to digest oxalate, so if your health is optimal, it’s processed from your body via the gut. Specifically, your gut microbiome digests the oxalates. The ‘good’ bacteria in your gut produce enzymes, which work to disintegrate oxalate. The remaining waste products are then removed from the body within your stool.
When fat maldigestion occurs due to lowered bile production, our dietary fats aren’t emulsified and broken up, resulting in these fats binding to dietary minerals that are excreted in the stool, along with the fats. When this process occurs, the uptake of dietary oxalates by our gut is significantly increased.
Oxalate can also act as an antinutrient as it binds to trace minerals and nutrients, preventing your body from absorbing the mineral.
Oxalate can bind to:
High oxalate levels in the body can thus lead to malnutrition, but they’re also the leading culprits behind the formation of kidney stones, as oxalate prefers to bind to calcium. In fact, 80 percent of all kidney stones are caused by calcium oxalate. Your body can only flush out the calcium oxalate, not destroy it, so your gut acts as an extrarenal pathway to transfer this into your kidneys then into your urine. Unfortunately, as these crystals build up in the kidneys or bladder, they bind together, creating painful kidney stones that are difficult to pass. However, only about one percent of people with high levels of oxalates will go on to develop calcium oxalate kidney stones. In some cases, these oxalate crystals are extremely small, almost nanoparticle in size, binding to sulfate receptors in your body and undetected by normal medical imaging techniques. Connective tissue, fascia, and joints are very high in sulfate receptors and therefore the oxalates can bind to these tissues, causing joint or soft tissue tendon or muscle pain.
You may think that the easiest way to solve this issue would be to stop eating food that contains calcium. Unfortunately, reducing your calcium intake is unlikely to ‘fix’ the kidney stones or prevent your body from holding on to oxalate. Eating sufficient calcium creates the insoluble form of calcium oxalate, which is passed through your bowel and bladder. If your body doesn’t receive enough calcium, the oxalate becomes soluble and is then easily passed into the bloodstream. This means the oxalate circulates through your body, which is unable to remove it all.
If you have a gastrointestinal condition, such as leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), or Crohn’s disease, you may also be unknowingly dealing with high levels of oxalate. While kidney stones are a severe indicator of excess oxalate, there are other, and often more insidious, symptoms to watch for.
What do high oxalate symptoms look like?
Oxalate sensitivity or high levels of oxalate in the body don’t always manifest similarly between patients. If you have an oxalate issue, it may develop in a part of the body you least suspect, particularly if you also struggle with intestinal permeability or what’s commonly known as leaky gut. This is a disorder in which your intestinal barrier is altered, resulting in your gut wall becoming unable to adequately filter the gut’s contents. Harmful particles slip through the wall and into your bloodstream. If oxalate slips through, this can lead to consequences in the rest of your body.
High oxalate symptoms may include:
- Recurring kidney stones
- Grainy-looking stools
- Cloudy urine
- Gum inflammation
- Swollen, achy joints
- Mottled skin
- Poor circulation
- Bone pain
- Irregular heartbeat
There may also be symptoms commonly associated with urinary tract infections or UTI, including pain during urination, pelvic pain, and the need to urinate frequently. Symptoms related to multiple sclerosis may also occur, including fatigue, pain, numbness and tingling, brain fog, and muscle weakness.
Some of these symptoms may have been misdiagnosed at some point along your health journey, as oxalate levels aren’t usually examined during routine tests. However, it’s clear that oxalate sensitivity can have a severe impact on your health and the way you live your life.
What health conditions are associated with high oxalate levels?
1. Oxalate arthritis. With this condition crystals collect inside the synovial fluid of knee, hip, wrist, and shoulder joints. Normally, this fluid keeps your joints lubricated while acting as a shock absorber, protecting your cartilage from wear and tear and filtering nutrients into the joint. A build-up of oxalate results in swelling, joint pain, and lack of movement of the joint.
2. Vulvodynia/interstitial cystitis and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). Both these conditions cause chronic pain in the vulva, which can be unbearable for female patients that are afflicted. Vulvodynia is a misunderstood disease, which was linked to oxalate by the late Dr. Clive C. Solomons. He identified that high levels of oxalate can irritate the epithelium of the vulva and cause pain if there was prior trauma in the area. Oxalate aggravates a pre-existing condition, but also irritates the glycosaminoglycan layer in the bladder.
3. Cystic fibrosis. In cases of cystic fibrosis(CF), high levels of calcium oxalate in the urine of patients with the condition indicate a fat malabsorption issue within the gut. In patients with CF, oxalate is unable to bind with calcium. Instead, the oxalate binds with sodium and other minerals and is able to travel around the body via the bloodstream.
4. COPD. Oxalate has been found in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and breath of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This indicates that a build-up of oxalate around the lungs can trigger inflammation in the surrounding tissues, with resultant pulmonary fibrosis.
5. Fibromyalgia. As oxalate can travel throughout the body through the bloodstream, it seems highly likely that the extreme aches and pains experienced by fibromyalgia patients may be due to high concentrations of oxalate. In the United Kingdom, Dr. Clare Morrison improved her fibromyalgia by means of a low-oxalate diet and encourages fibromyalgia patients to follow her example.
6. Hashimotos thyroiditis. This is a common cause of hypothyroidism. The symptoms of thyroid disorders can be exacerbated by an inflammatory response to the build-up of oxalate crystals in the thyroid. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis has been associated with high oxalates.
7. ADD. Many children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) require a higher supplement of magnesium in order to reduce their condition’s symptoms. High levels of oxalate can impede magnesium absorption, so there may be a link between extreme ADD behavior and oxalates.
8. Autistic spectrum disorders. Studies have indicated that children with autistic spectrum disorders have high levels of oxalates in their urine. Reduction in oxalate intake through changes in diet can often improve autistic symptoms.
9. Inflammatory bowel disease. The role played by oxalates in the gut also needs to be considered. There’s a connection between the health of the digestive system and where and how oxalate travels around and out of the body. High oxalate levels have also been linked with several gastrointestinal conditions, including Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease, and intestinal permeability or leaky gut, which leads to greatly increased levels of absorbed oxalates.
10. Antibiotics. High levels of antibiotic use can also lead to imbalanced gut microbiome, with resulting oxalate issues. When your gut microbiome isn’t functioning at full capacity,oxalobacter formigenes is unable to metabolize oxalate, causing a build-up of crystals. This can often occur after taking a course of antibiotics, which can kill off your ‘good’ bacteria. Probiotics are often recommended as a defense against recurring kidney stones.
11. Intestinal permeability. In the case of leaky gut, when your intestinal permeability is damaged, your gut wall is unable to be as discerning as it once was, resulting in larger molecules, food debris, and toxins entering the bloodstream. Oxalate is also able to slip through the gaps in the gut lining, bypassing important safeguards and becoming more mobile throughout your body.
12. Mold toxicity. Mold toxicity or chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS) is covered in my essay here. Aspergillus mold species will produce oxalates during their fermentation process. In fact, if I discover high levels of oxalates in a patient’s urine samples, I always look for mold species first and then treat mold as an initial step.
13. Anemia. Oxalates can bind to iron and subsequently lead to chronic anemia. The most common cause of unexplained anemia in women is the loss of menstrual blood due to heavy periods, but high oxalates may be something else to consider regarding unexplained iron or ferritin deficiency with anemia, low hemoglobin, or low hematocrit. If patients begin excreting oxalates bound to iron, they may discover that their urine is rust-colored due to the iron/oxalate deposits.
14. Mitochondrial disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome. In these conditions, oxalates can destroy mitochondrial membranes and lead to vitamin B1 and antioxidant deficiencies.
15. Eye conditions. Cataracts, styes, and blepharitis are all eye conditions that may also be linked to oxalates.
16. Heavy metals. These are similarly associated with oxalates, as high levels may act as a binder, holding on to metals such as mercury.
17. Other conditions. A variety of medical conditions in the literature associated with high oxalate levels include diverticulitis, breast cancer, sarcoidosis, osteopenia, osteoporosis, vertigo, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.
Dr. Bruce Hoffman, MSc, MBChB, FAARM, IFMCP is a Calgary-based Integrative and Functional medicine practitioner. He is the medical director at the Hoffman Centre for Integrative Medicine and The Brain Centre of Alberta specializing in complex medical conditions. He was born in South Africa and obtained his medical degree from the University of Cape Town. He is a certified Functional Medicine Practitioner (IFM), is board certified with a fellowship in anti-aging (hormones) and regenerative medicine (A4M), a certified Shoemaker Mold Treatment Protocol Practitioner (CIRS) and ILADS trained in the treatment of Lyme disease and co-infections. He is the co-author of a recent paper published by Dr. Afrin’s group: Diagnosis of mast cell activation syndrome: a global “consensus-2”. Read more about Dr. Bruce Hoffman.