From Kidney Stones to Gut Health: Exploring the Far-Reaching Effects of Oxalates on Your Overall Well-being

In the vast tapestry of nutrition and well-being, a captivating element has piqued the curiosity of experts and health enthusiasts alike: oxalates.

These puzzling compounds, naturally present in an array of foods, possess the power to influence our health profoundly. From their involvement in forming kidney stones to their sway over our gut health and nutrient absorption, understanding the essence of oxalates becomes paramount in shaping our dietary choices and lifestyle decisions.

We will journey through the origin of oxalates, unravel their web of potential health implications, and equip you with practical insights for effectively managing your oxalate intake.

 

vegetables

What are oxalates?

Oxalates, also known as oxalic acid or oxalate salts, are naturally occurring organic acids found in various plants, vegetables, fruits, and grains.[1]

In plants, oxalates are a defense mechanism against herbivores and predators, causing irritation or a burning sensation in the mouth and digestive tract when eaten. This unpleasant sensation is a deterrent, discouraging further consumption and protecting the plant from being eaten. Some plants, such as spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, Swiss chard, and cocoa, as well as smaller amounts found in nuts, seeds, berries, and some grains, have higher levels of oxalates.

While oxalates are naturally occurring and generally safe for most people, they can pose potential health concerns for individuals prone to forming kidney stones, who have genetic variants, or who have certain medical conditions.

 

cooking healthy food

How are we exposed to oxalic acid?

We are exposed to oxalic acid through various sources. Here are some common ways we can come into contact with oxalic acid:

  • Dietary Sources: Many plant-based foods naturally contain oxalic acid; when we consume these foods, we expose ourselves to oxalic acid.
  • Cooking and Food Preparation: Cooking methods like boiling, steaming, and blanching vegetables can help reduce oxalic acid content versus eating foods high in oxalic acid raw.[2]
  • Oxalate Supplements: Some supplements that promote kidney health or manage specific medical conditions may contain oxalic acid or oxalate salts.[3]
  • Occupational Exposure: Some industries, such as metal cleaning and polishing, use oxalic acid for various purposes. Workers in these industries may come into contact with oxalic acid through direct contact or inhalation.
  • Household Products: Household cleaning products, including rust removers, wood bleachers, or cleaning agents, sometimes contain oxalic acid.
  • Fungal infections or Mold Exposure: Ongoing research suggests that fungal infections or colonization or mold exposure may lead to increased oxalic acid production in the body.

Even though oxalic acid is naturally occurring and generally safe in moderate amounts, excessive or prolonged exposure to high levels of oxalic acid can be harmful.

 

How Do Oxalates Impact Your Health

The impact of oxalates on your health can be profound and multifaceted. On the one hand, oxalates play a role in normal physiological processes and contribute to the formation of calcium oxalate, a substance involved in forming strong bones and teeth. On the other hand, elevated levels of oxalates can lead to the development of kidney stones and even the deposition of oxalate crystals elsewhere in the body, causing intense pain and discomfort.

Oxalates can also interfere with nutrient absorption, particularly calcium and magnesium, potentially leading to deficiencies. And emerging research suggests a connection between oxalates and gut health.

Understanding the impact of oxalates on our health is critical for making informed decisions about our diet and lifestyle, ultimately promoting overall well-being.

 

model of the kidney

Symptoms and Conditions Associated with Oxalates

Oxalates are associated with various symptoms and conditions, particularly when levels are elevated or if you’re sensitive to their effects. Some common symptoms and conditions associated with oxalates include:

  • Kidney Stones: High levels of oxalates in the urine can contribute to the formation of kidney stones.[4] These stones can cause severe pain, blood in the urine, and discomfort in the lower back or abdomen.
  • Urinary Tract Issues: Oxalates can irritate the urinary tract and potentially contribute to urinary tract infections or inflammation.[5]
  • Gastrointestinal Symptoms: Some people may experience GI symptoms related to oxalate consumption, such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, or changes in bowel movements.[6]
  • Nutrient Deficiencies: Oxalates can bind to minerals like calcium and magnesium, hindering their absorption.[7] [8] This can lead to deficiencies if dietary intake is not correctly balanced.
  • Vulvodynia: In some cases, oxalates have been associated with vulvodynia, characterized by chronic pain, discomfort, or burning in the vulva area.[9]
  • Joint and Muscle Pain: People with specific metabolic disorders that affect oxalate metabolism commonly experience joint and muscle pain.[10]
  • Hyperoxaluria: This condition is characterized by excessive oxalate production or impaired oxalate metabolism, leading to elevated levels of oxalates in the body.[11] This can increase the risk of kidney stones and other related complications.

Some people may be more sensitive to oxalates than others, and the severity and presence of symptoms may vary. If you suspect oxalate-related issues, talk with your healthcare provider, who can evaluate your symptoms, conduct appropriate tests, and provide personalized guidance and treatment options based on your situation.

 

The Connection Between Oxalates and Gut Health

The connection between oxalates and gut health is an area of growing interest and research. Oxalates can interact with the gut in several ways, including:

  • Oxalate Metabolism: Gut bacteria metabolize oxalates from food, breaking them down into harmless byproducts or converting them for absorption. Dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut bacteria, can disrupt this process, impacting how the body handles oxalates.[12]
  • Oxalate Absorption: A healthy gut usually results in poor oxalate absorption and excretion in stool. But changes in gut microbiota or intestinal health can enhance oxalate absorption, causing high levels.
  • Gut Irritation and Inflammation: In some people, high levels of oxalates in the gut can contribute to gut irritation and inflammation, which can result in bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or changes in bowel movements.
  • Impact on Nutrient Absorption: Oxalates can bind to minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, forming insoluble compounds. This can interfere with the absorption of these essential minerals in the gut.

Some people may be more sensitive to oxalate-related gut issues, while others may tolerate them. Managing oxalate intake, promoting a healthy gut microbiota, and addressing any underlying gut issues are potential strategies for supporting gut health in relation to oxalates.

 

Oxalates

Foods High in Oxalates

While most people can easily excrete oxalates found in food, individuals sensitive to oxalates may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, muscle weakness, and tingling or burning sensations in the mouth and throat. Minimizing your consumption of high-oxalate foods may be wise if you have a history of kidney stones or oxalate-related issues.

Some examples of common high-oxalate foods include: [13]

  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Berries
  • Black pepper
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Chocolate
  • Chard
  • Oranges
  • Kale
  • Nuts
  • Spinach
  • Radishes
  • Rhubarb
  • Tofu

On the other hand, including low-oxalate foods in your diet can be beneficial. Here are some examples of low-oxalate foods:

  • Fruits like apples, bananas, grapes, melons, and pears
  • Many vegetables, including cucumbers, mushrooms, bell peppers, carrots, celery, lettuce, onions, and zucchini
  • Most grains, including rice, oats, quinoa, and barley
  • Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Animal-based protein sources like chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and fish
  • Fats and oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and butter

 

Testing for Oxalates

Testing for oxalates is done through a urine test, but it may not accurately reflect the overall oxalate burden in the body. Here’s why:

  • Timing and variability: Oxalate levels in urine can vary throughout the day and from day to day.
  • Dietary influence: Recent intake of high-oxalate foods can affect urine oxalate levels.
  • Absorption and excretion: Factors like gut health and metabolism impact how oxalates are absorbed and utilized.
  • Tissue deposition: Urine oxalate levels may not reflect oxalate accumulation in tissues.

Your healthcare provider must interpret your oxalate test results in the context of your symptoms, medical history, and overall health so that you can receive personalized guidance and treatment options.

 

Oxalates supplements

Treatment for Elevated Oxalate Levels

The treatment for elevated oxalate levels depends on the underlying cause and the specific health condition. Here are some general approaches to consider:

  • Dietary Modifications: Adjusting your diet to reduce oxalate intake can help manage elevated oxalate levels. This should be done by slowly reducing high-oxalate foods to avoid oxalate dumping and worsening of symptoms. Read more about a low oxalate diet in Sally K. Norton’s book, “Toxic Superfoods.”
  • Calcium and Vitamin B6 Supplementation: When taken with meals, calcium supplements or calcium-rich foods can bind to the digestive tract’s oxalates and reduce their absorption.[14] Vitamin B6 may also be recommended, as it plays a role in oxalate metabolism.[15]
  • Gut Health Optimization: Supporting a healthy gut microbiome through a balanced diet, probiotics, and prebiotic-rich foods can enhance oxalate metabolism and reduce oxalate-related issues.
  • Medications: If you have specific underlying medical conditions that cause elevated oxalate levels, your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce oxalate production or enhance oxalate breakdown.

Work with your healthcare provider to help determine your underlying cause of oxalate issues and develop a tailored treatment and monitoring plan.

 

spring flowers

Empower Your Health

The intricate relationship between oxalates and our health is a truly fascinating topic!

If you suspect that oxalate issues may be contributing to your health concerns or if you’ve experienced symptoms associated with high oxalate levels, it’s time to take proactive steps toward optimal wellness.

Dr. Kelly and the team at the Spring Center specialize in oxalate-related conditions. And we can provide you with a comprehensive assessment, personalized advice, and tailored treatment options that will help address your specific needs.

Remember, your health is your greatest asset, and seeking professional guidance can empower you on your journey toward wellness. Take charge of your health today by completing our New Patient Inquiry Form.

Together, you can uncover the mysteries surrounding oxalates and pave the way to a healthier, happier future.

 

Resources

  1. “Oxalate content of foods and its effect on humans – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24393738/. Accessed 14 Jun. 2023.
  2. “Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15826055/. Accessed 14 Jun. 2023.
  3. “Determination of Oxalate Content in Herbal Remedies and Dietary ….” 15 Dec. 2015, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26670692/. Accessed 14 Jun. 2023.
  4. “Dietary oxalate and kidney stone formation – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6459305/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  5. “Oxalate Alters Cellular Bioenergetics, Redox Homeostasis … – NCBI.” 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8566947/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  6. “Dietary Oxalate Intake and Kidney Outcomes – PMC – NCBI.” 2 Sep. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551439/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  7. “Importance of magnesium in absorption and excretion of oxalate.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15812215/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  8. “Dependence of oxalate absorption on the daily calcium intake.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15153567/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  9. “Urinary oxalate excretion and its role in vulvar pain syndrome.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9322615/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  10. “Update on Oxalate Crystal Disease – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710657/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  11. “Primary and secondary hyperoxaluria: Understanding the enigma.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4419133/. Accessed 15 Jun. 2023.
  12. “Metabolism of Oxalate in Humans: A Potential Role Kynurenine ….” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30907303/. Accessed 16 Jun. 2023.
  13. “Oxalate content of foods and its effect on humans – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24393738/. Accessed 16 Jun. 2023.
  14. “Schedule of taking calcium supplement and the risk of nephrolithiasis.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0085253815499168. Accessed 16 Jun. 2023.
  15. “Vitamin B6 Intake and the Risk of Incident Kidney Stones – PMC – NCBI.” 3 Jul. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5752631/. Accessed 16 Jun. 2023.