By now, you know about oxalates: plant compounds that bind with minerals like calcium and magnesium and form crystals. These crystals deposit in joints, kidneys, prostates, bladders, thyroids, the synovial fluid, and other tissues to cause pain, inflammation, and damage. Oxalate crystals have been linked to issues like kidney stones and arthritis. Many people who are experimenting with the carnivore diet are doing so at least in part to eliminate or reduce oxalates from their diet.
You might read about oxalates, say to yourself “I have some of those issues,” and start eliminating or reducing oxalate content in your diet by eating less (or zero) spinach, sweet potatoes, raspberries, beets, and other high-oxalate foods. But then something happens:
You get joint pain. You get fatigue. Your teeth start developing plaque. You feel stiff and achy and less mobile overall. Urination and defecation are painful, even “grainy.”
Everything was supposed to be better. These are the symptoms avoiding oxalates was supposed to improve. What’s going on?
Are You Experiencing “Oxalate Dumping?”
According to the prevailing conventional alternative oxalate wisdom, you’re oxalate dumping. You stopped eating oxalates and your body responded by “dumping” all the stored oxalate from the past years of oxalate consumption. And because the oxalate was stored throughout your entire body, all your tissues are expressing them, triggering all sorts of oxalate-related symptoms. The biggest proponents of the oxalate dumping idea say that the dumping process can even be dangerous to your health and last for months or even years.
To deal with the oxalate dumping, they say you should slowly titrate down your oxalate intake rather than do a cold-turkey full elimination. Eating small to moderate amounts of oxalate-rich foods as you taper off oxalates is supposed to slow the dumping process and allow you to safely and comfortably eliminate oxalates over time.
Oxalate dumping has always stumped me, if I’m being honest. It doesn’t make intuitive sense. Why does the body immediately start “dumping” oxalate just because you stop eating any exogenous sources of it? Why does it stop dumping oxalate when you start eating more of it? What’s the mechanism here?
I’m not discounting it or saying it’s a myth. There are enough anecdotes from generally trustworthy people who say that going on a low oxalate diet caused them to start getting symptoms of what felt like oxalate excretion:
Oxalate crystals showing up on the teeth as plaque.
Oxalate crystals appearing in the joints and feet.
Oxalate crystals dispersing through various orifices of the body.
You can look at plenty of anti-oxalate Instagram accounts with photographic evidence of some of these oxalate crystals people are apparently dumping. Sally Norton is one. I can’t verify these are accurate, but I also can’t say they’re all wrong or confused.
I place heavy emphasis on anecdotes. After all, everything you experience and can personally verify is an “anecdote.” There is real value there. We move through the world using our own “anecdotes” as guidance.
You get enough anecdotes together and have an outside party analyze and record them, and you’ve got yourself some data. But nothing qualitatively changed between the creation of the anecdote and its verification. It’s as true as it ever was. It was data before; it just wasn’t recognized as such.
But the lack of elegance of the oxalate dump theory bugs me. I need to know why it’s happening (if it’s indeed happening that way). And while I don’t have a definite answer, I have some ideas for some other things that could be happening to make the problem worse.
You might be making more oxalate.
Not all oxalate comes from exogenous sources. A large amount of oxalate production—according to some sources, the majority of all oxalate we encounter—happens in the liver, and many nutrients and physiological states help determine how much oxalate we make (or don’t). After all, when someone eliminates oxalates from their diet, many other things change, too. They end up eating more of something else, or changing their diet entirely. Oftentimes they’re going carnivore and eliminating entire food groups. All of these and more can affect the rate of endogenous oxalate synthesis.
Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is an important nutrient for oxalate metabolism. Without adequate thiamine, we make more of and have trouble dealing with the toxin glyoxal. If we can’t metabolize enough glyoxal, much of it turns into oxalate.1
Many diets are low in thiamine. Carnivores who eat exclusively beef, even grass-fed organic beef, and ignore all other animal foods are missing out on two of the best thiamine sources: pork and salmon.
Many common inputs lower thiamine—or, more accurately, deplete thiamine—like caffeine and alcohol.
If any of this sounds familiar, thiamine might be a good supplement for anyone suffering from oxalate dumping symptoms.
Magnesium chloride has been shown to reduce urinary oxalates via at least two pathways: reducing endogenous formation of oxalates and inhibiting intestinal absorption.2 All in all, it will reduce the overall oxalate load in the body.
Taking some magnesium chloride in your water, taking magnesium chloride baths, and/or applying magnesium chloride oil to your skin are probably good ideas for anyone worried about oxalate dumping. At the worst it can’t hurt and will probably help you in other areas, since magnesium is such an important mineral.
Increased Oxidative Stress and Reduced Glutathione
Depleting glutathione stores in an experimental setting raises glyoxal levels and thus oxalate levels.3 Simply put, without enough glutathione, you can’t counter the oxidative stress that’s producing glyoxal. Enough glyoxal hangs around and a bunch of it turns into oxalate.
Oxidative stress is everywhere, of course. It’s in the sleep we don’t get, the circadian rhythm we don’t honor, the exercise we don’t do, the excessive exercise we do, the polyphenols we don’t consume. So take care of those and you should reduce the amount of oxalate you produce in-house.
Fat malabsorption has the tendency to cause saponification of calcium in the digestive tract, preventing it from binding to dietary oxalates and increasing the absorption of oxalates from the diet.4 If you suddenly increase your fat intake to extreme levels without adaptation, you may have trouble digesting all of it and create “fat malabsorption” conditions in your gut that leave you open to increased oxalate absorption—or “oxalate sensitivity.”
This is just speculation, of course, but it’s plausible. If you ate less oxalate but became far better at absorbing what little you ate, it could lead to a higher net absorption.
I’d like to get to the bottom of this issue, but there aren’t any specific studies looking at oxalate dumping. There’s clearly something going on here, and I hope we get more data (or at least any data) soon.
Until then, try the things I suggested, as well as the common advice of slowly rather than rapidly lowering oxalate intake.
Take care, everyone, and be sure to let me know down below your experiences with oxalates and oxalate dumping.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.