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High Oxalate Foods Can Trigger Pain and Inflammation

Foods high in oxalate may cause or increase inflammation, pain, and burning, irritate tissues and mucous membranes, and contribute to the formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. Oxalate is found in varying degrees primarily in plant foods including vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, spices, herbs, and almost all nuts and seeds.

When too much oxalate is absorbed into the bloodstream via the gut, it can team up with calcium to form sharp calcium-oxalate crystals.  These crystals can then wedge themselves into tissue almost anywhere in the body causing damage and/or exacerbating pain and inflammation.  Excess oxalate can also lead to oxidative damage and the depletion of glutathione.  The latter is essential for metabolizing many toxic environmental chemicals that enter the body.

How do high oxalate foods cause problems?

Most people are able to safely metabolize and process oxalate out of the gut through the stool. According to researcher Susan Owens, M.A., Director of the Autism Oxalate Project, a problem occurs when excess oxalate is absorbed through the gut due to intestinal permeability, poor fat digestion, inflammation, or prolonged diarrhea or constipation.  Overuse of antibiotics may also pose a problem since this can reduce or eliminate the oxalate-degrading bacteria in the intestines. In her overview of the scientific research, Owens says there may be a link between excess oxalate in the body and the following conditions:

  • Thyroid disease
  • Vulvodynia
  • Calcium-oxalate Kidney Stones
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Autism

Excess oxalate may be one among several factors like genetics and environmental triggers that contribute to these disorders and to other conditions reported by members of the Trying Low Oxalates Yahoo forum, started by Owens.

Oxalate and the Pain Project

Taking a slightly different twist, Clive Solomons, Ph.D., former director of research at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, has explored the connection between excess oxalate, pain, and weakened connective tissue in his research, which is aptly called the Pain Project.   In addition to a low-oxalate diet, he recommends that a graded program of connective tissue stabilization, using a small number of supplements, also be employed to gain relief from symptoms and provide longer-term healing of connective tissue.  People who have participated in the Pain Project have reported recovery or improvement from a variety of painful conditions including:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Vulvodynia (vulvar pain)
  • Vulvar vestibulitis
  • Lichen sclerosus
  • Lichen planus
  • Dyspareunia (painful sex)
  • Nonbacterial prostatitis
  • Urethral syndrome
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction

Solomons has observed that almost every participant in the Pain Project with these diagnosis' reveal periodic hyperoxaluria upon testing.  The term hyperoxaluria refers to excreting greater than normal amounts of oxalate via the urine at certain times of the day, but normal amounts at other times.

The Low Oxalate Cookbook, which explains Solomon's research underscores:

"It is important to understand that the metabolic abnormality that causes pain is internal.  The amount of oxalate that appears in urine is determined not only by dietary intake of oxalate (food), but also by intestinal bacteria that are able to degrade oxalate, intestinal permeability (how easily the intestinal wall lets substances like oxalate pass through it into the body's tissues), endogenous (internal) synthesis of oxalate within the body, and the handling of oxalate by the kidneys.

Foods and beverages high in oxalate content merely add fuel to the flame.  In addition, tissues are affected by exposure to chemicals in the environment such as chlorine and formaldehyde.

Although reducing dietary oxalate may only have a partial effect, any reduction in pain is a good thing.  Over 70% of patients in the Pain Project, who utilize connective tissue stabilization supplements in addition to the low-oxalate diet, have reported significant improvements or complete recovery.

If you have any of the above conditions, you may want to explore the potential benefits of trying a low-oxalate diet, after consultation with a medical professional.  Be forewarned that there is a great deal of incomplete and incorrect information about the low-oxalate diet on the internet.

Read Part 2 of this series on the Low-Oxalate Diet and resources for reliable information.

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The Low Oxalate Diet

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