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.

If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thanks so much!  Sandra

Comments

    • says

      You’re welcome, Michael. Thanks for your comment and positive energy. I appreciate it a lot. BTW, I like the name of your blog! Stay well!

  1. drh says

    I get pain in the soft tissue of my right ear when I eat too much high oxalate foods. A few days ago I ate several fistfuls of cashews, and drank apple cider heated with lots of cinnamon. My ear hurt for several hours as a result.

    Drinking lots of water and/or milk, and eating foods like bananas that are high in potassium are supposed to counteract the impacts of eating too many oxalates. I found that out after this last oxalate episode. I’ll remember next time I’m tempted to gorge on nuts and cinnamon-cider.

    • says

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. It really helps to have specific examples of how high oxalates affect you. Thanks too for the tips on drinking plenty of water or eating foods high in potassium. Not sure about how the strategy of drinking milk would work ~ maybe it has to do with the calcium binding the oxalate. I will have to ponder that one. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. says

    Sandra, this was interesting, and I’d also like to see similar posts. There is a lot of misinformation on the net, which is a shame because so many people do online searches. Be well, my friend. Bless you :)

    • says

      Simon,

      I’m glad you found the article useful. I would like to write more posts like this or at least a few from time to time. Thank you for your good wishes. Wishing you well too.

  3. Annie says

    Can you provide me with an accurate list of foods and their oxalate content? I have had problems for a long time and the lists I have vary greatly from low to high for some items. I don’t know how to tell which is more accurate, except by suffering through the wrong choice. Ex. pumpkin and green tea. Thanks.

  4. says

    Hi Annie,

    I know exactly what you mean. I addressed this question in the second part of this series in the article called the Low Oxalate Diet: alwayswellwithin.com/2010/04/30/the-low-oxalate-diet/

    I have found only two reliable sources: The Low Oxalate Diet Cookbook by the Vulvar Pain Foundation and The Trying Low Oxalates Yahoo Group.

    I talk a bit about the challenges of the diet in this article too. It might be a helpful read for you. Good luck to you!

    • Hummingbird says

      For Sandra:
      My daughter suffers from Fibromyalgia, and I have looked at oxalates as a possible trigger. However, most foods high in oxalates are the healthiest foods. Did testing of these foods include/exclude organic without the use of pesticides? What about GMO foods? Nothing in this article or any other I have found mentions these factors.
      To arbitrarily eliminate so many healthy foods, seems extreme. What about probiotics, and natural enzymes that aid in the repair of the gut? No mention of these either.
      This ‘research’ seems rather incomplete to me. So many articles these days are written against organic, non-GMO, because so many huge pharmaceutical companies have the ears of politicians and the media, to the point that they are attacking those who believe that true organic and non-GMO produce is best for consumption.
      This nation is becoming unhealthy due to the multitude of chemicals that are rampant in our food, the lack of nutrients in that same food due to the use of pesticides that contaminate and sterilize the land and water, the use of Genetically modified produce that contain perhaps non-food cells, and even potent pesticides, creating poison in the food itself. Lack of nutrients in food lead us to over-eat to attempt to give our bodies the food value and nutrients it lacks, leading to overweight and obesity, and all the ills that accompany it.
      I would like to see this ‘research’ address these issues before I unilaterally eliminate healthy foods.
      Thank you.
      Carol Lucas
      miraclecows1@msn.com

      • says

        Hi Carol,

        You have mentioned many valid points in your response. Thank you for taking the time. I agree with you fully that environmental chemicals, pesticides, and the genetic alteration of food are serious issues that need to be addressed. Your concerns speak to important contributing factors to our rampant health issues today. In any complex disorder, disease, or syndrome, it’s essential to look at and address the total load > all the factors that are contributing to the distress. Reducing high oxalate foods is just one factor among a menu of others that might help people with fibromyalgia. We can’t necessarily turn back the clock and remove the environmental factors that triggered our illness, but we can address the aftermath by reducing environmental poisons in our food and life and also using other means like the low oxalate diet if we find it to be helpful.

        There is actually quite a lot of research on oxalate that Susan Owens documents on her website although she doesn’t speak specifically about fibromyalgia. She is a researcher herself. If you are interested, please do visit her site mentioned in my article to read this information. The low oxalate diet is a nutritionally balanced diet if you eat a wide range of available foods. There is no need to worry about nutritional deficiencies on the diet. It’s not necessarily the right diet for everyone. We’re all biochemically and genetically different. We each need to tune into our own body and do our own research to find the right treatments for our self. Whatever treatments we choose, they will not necessarily make our illness magically disappear but they may reduce symptoms and that is a welcome relief.

        Thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s an important one.

  5. says

    Thank u so much for all of this helpful information! i was just in the E.R all night last night, with unbararable,and UNCONTRLLABLE INTENSE HIGH PAIN! The cramping the urging to urinate, and etc… It was Horrible, and my SECOND kidney stone, in the past 6 mths! But i’m scared, because, i’m trying to learn about what causes miltilple kidney stones? And it just says ALOT! of different things,foods, and can also cause many different Conditions! (omg!), and that scares me even more.Anyway, if i could just askk u some questions, or write back to you more about my situation?, that would be the greatest!! Or even if u have an e-mail, that i could convientantly talk back an forth with u would be even better. But i will give u mine: leapiros [at] ymail.com, and anytime is great:)
    Thanks for listenting to a lil bit of my problem(s), and hope to hear from u again, soon!! ~Lea~

    • says

      Hello Lea,

      I’m so sorry for your emergency and your pain. I understand why you feel frantic about this. I wish I could help, but I don’t really know anything specific about kidney stones aside from the fact that some of them are calcium oxalate stones. I believe some people have a stronger genetic tendency to have kidney stones than others and thus need to be more aware of the potential contributing factors. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes to get accurate information. Often, we need to be observe to discern what the particular factors are in our own case.

      Here are two places where you might be able to get the information and support that you need.

      Here is the link to the page on the Low Oxalate Info site on kidney stones: http://www.lowoxalate.info/research.html

      This is the link to the Trying Low Oxalates Yahoo Group run by researcher Susan Owen http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/Trying_Low_Oxalates/

      I’ll send you an email note too. I’m wishing you the best. Sandra

  6. says

    Thank you for this post! I appreciate how objectively yet sensitively you address this problem. I wanted to address the concerns raised by hummingbird. I have been diagnosed with vulvar pain syndrome (sometimes called vulvodynia), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS, and Reynauld’s syndrome. I have followed four treatment regimes — the low oxalate diet, tissue stabilization (as outlined on the VP Foundation’s website), a controlled carbohydrate diet, and guafenisin treatment (pioneered by Dr. Paul St. Amand and now believed to cause the break up of oxalate crystals stored in the muscles and joints — what I believe was the cause of my severe fibromyalgia pain.) I am completely free of ALL fibromyalgia symptoms, chronic fatigue symptoms, and intestinal symptoms, and my vulvar pain and urninary symptoms are greatly improved. This treatment really does work for many women, men and children. It is not easy, but I have my life back. In fact, I’m a single mother of twin toddlers, write two blogs, and am a Ph.D. student in environmental economics–something I never dreamed possible 10 years ago when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and living on my parent’s couch. I urge you to visit Dr. St. Amand’s website and the Vulvar Pain Foundation’s website and learn more about oxalates. This may help your daughter the same way I was helped.

  7. says

    Thanks Sandra for this wonderful article, very interesting and informative.

    I was wondering if any links have been found between oxalates and skin disorders?

    I had a kidney stone last fall and have been reducing oxalates in my diet as a result. I’m 33, very lucky to have been in very good health all my life otherwise- not even a broken bone! :)

    When I was in grade school however, I experienced searing, burning pain from pressure, primarily in sporting or athletic activities, not in my joints but rather the skin and especially in my extremities- fingers, hands and feet. For example, if I jumped from too high a height, my feet would burn and ache for a while after, smacking my hand on a table top would cause a delayed burning pain on my palm, but these were always things that didn’t seem to affect other children. It was an extreme sensitivity to what others considered minor impact. Sometimes this would happen simply from long periods of continuous activity. A firm slap on the back from a friend that other children didn’t seem to mind was excruciating.

    Later, in high school I developed pronounced skin rashes, irritation, severe ichy welts. I was diagnosed with dermatagraphism and have been on allergy meds ever since. I only learned of pressure-dermatagraphism later researching online, and the allergy meds seem to help less with this part of the condition than the itching or redness.

    Since I had the kidney stone and began a reduced oxalate diet, I am beginning to suspect that the pressure-induced part of my dermatagraphism has decreased. The itching and redness are still present if I do not take allergy mediciation daily, but the delayed/sustained burning/pain I experienced from sudden pressure or impact do not seem as severe now. I wonder if this is simply coincidental, if the skin disorder is simply changing as I age, or if there may possibly be a link between oxalate and urticaria.

    Thanks again for sharing your insight!

    Dan

    • says

      Hi Dan,

      I don’t know if any links have been found between oxalates and these particular disorders. However, Susan Owens had said that Dr. Solomon believes that excess oxalates may liberate mast cells in susceptible people. Mast cells release histamine and other chemical mediators and are involved with the skin disorders you mention. So the changes you see may be coincidental or there may indeed be a link. It seems no one has proven this link between excess oxalates and mast cell liberation in the research yet so it’s still an uncertain variable. But Susan once shared a case study with me of a cat who had eaten leaves from a difenbachia plant (sorry, I don’t know how to spell it), which are high in oxalates, and had a major gastritis event and had to be put on anti-histamine drugs. So there’s some evidence at least in cats!

      This would be a good question to ask in the Trying Low Oxalates forum mentioned in my articles on oxalates if you are interested in pursuing this further. Susan Owens who moderates the forum is a researcher and she’s very familiar with the research in this area.

      Have you tried a low histamine diet to see if it would your urticaria? Some people find a low histamine diet helps. http://www.urticaria.thunderworksinc.com/pages/lowhistamine.htm I have my own issues in connection with mast cell activation, and I find a low histamine diet helps me.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and bring this possible connection up. The more we share, the more we learn! I’m sorry you have to deal with these uncomfortable skin problems. Wishing you the best!

  8. says

    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

  9. Glenda says

    My fibromyalgia has escalated in the past 11 years to the point I am now on disability retirement and of course, all of my activities are affected. I’m on so many medications for the debilitating pain and the sleep disturbances it causes!

    Common wisdom has it that depression aggravates any pain condition. In a span of 4 months I lost my young son-in-law to an over-night, unexpected death and my father was diagnosed with cancer and I watched helplessly until his death. Up until that point my depressive disorder had been successfully managed with medication. But as things around me became worse I became more and more depressed to a dangerous level. But, ironically, my pain level improved with each passing ‘downer’ day! By accident (?) I ran onto this article and did more research on foods on the high oxalate list. I ate many of them in large amounts daily up until my depression became so severe I almost completely stopped eating. After all, they’re consisidered some of the healthest foods, right?! The only sweets I usually consumed were raw fruits and dark berries. I usually ate over 10 servings a day of raw or lightly steamed, dark vegetables; red bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes, greens, carrots, broccolli, etc. I rounded out my (mostly) vegetarian diet with many varieties of legumes, but chickpeas or black beans always went on my daily, large salads and nuts were my snacks. With the elimination of these foods from my diet I’m at my lowest pain level in literally a decade! Recently my depression has greatly lightened up and my appetite is returning. I’m going to the ‘Low Oxalate Cookbook’ for ideas to replace my former foods that I now believe were a large contributing factor in my fibro pain. Thank you so much for sharing your research!

    • says

      Glenda,

      I am really sorry for all your pain and suffering. This is such an incredible story of how you at your lowest pain level yet by reducing oxalates in your diet. You’re right that we are often encouraged to eat healthy foods that are high in oxalates and some people even juice them. That might be healthy for some but it means pain and suffering for people who have an oxalate challenges. I’m so glad you found this path to far less pain. You have a lot of courage.

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