Can Vitamin C Supplements Help with Lead Poisoning?

“Even if a nutritional manipulation is proven effective in reducing blood lead levels, reliance on such an intervention places most of the burden for prevention on those most affected and least responsible for the underlying environmental causes of lead toxicity. Nutritional interventions, therefore, must never substitute for efforts to reduce lead exposure to safe levels. On the other hand, when used as an adjunct to environmental measures, some nutritional changes may prove to have benefits beyond any impact on lead toxicity.” For example, consumption of vitamin C-rich foods may help with “blood pressure, blood lipid profiles, and respiratory symptoms,” in addition to perhaps influencing “lead toxicity through an influence on absorption of lead, elimination of lead, transport within the body, tissue binding, or secondary mechanisms of toxicity,” that is, even just helping ameliorate some of the damage. But what is this based on?

In 1939, a remarkable study was published, entitled “Vitamin C treatment in lead poisoning,” in which 17 lead industry workers were given 100 mg of vitamin C a day, the amount found in one or two oranges, and “with practically all of them there was a marked gain in vigor, color of skin, cheerfulness, blood picture, appetite and ability to sleep well.” The 17 workers were chosen because they seemed to be in pretty bad shape and possibly even had scurvy, so it’s no wonder a little vitamin C helped. But vitamin C is an antioxidant, and oxidation is “an important mechanism underlying lead toxicity,” so it’s conceivable that it may have mediated some of the harm. But, the vitamin C didn’t appear to just reduce the damage from the lead—it also reduced the lead itself. As you can see from 1:43 in my video Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?, the amount of lead in a painter’s urine over a period of a month after starting 200 mg of vitamin C a day exhibited a five-fold drop, suggesting he was absorbing less of the lead into his body. He was one of three painters researchers tried this on, and evidently all three painters’ levels dropped. The researchers concluded that those “exposed to lead…should be advised to include in their diet plenty of such rich sources of vitamin C as tomatoes (fresh or canned), raw cabbage, oranges or grapefruit, raw spinach (or even cooked, in very little water), raw turnips, green bell peppers, cantaloupe, etc.”

Now, this drop in lead in the subjects’ urine was seen with only three painters, and the study didn’t have a control group of painters who didn’t take vitamin C, so perhaps everyone’s lead levels would have dropped for some other reason or perhaps it was just a coincidence. You don’t know…until you put it to the test.

Those original data were so compelling that others were inspired to try to replicate them. I mean, if it actually worked, if vitamin C could help with lead poisoning, grapefruits could be handed out at the factory door! The earlier study didn’t have a good control group, but the researchers weren’t going to make that same mistake this time. In this study, half of the group got 100 mg of vitamin C a day—not just for a month but for a year—and the other group got nothing. The result? “Careful study of a large group of lead workers failed to reveal any effect of ascorbic acid vitamin C…on the lead concentration in the blood…or urine” (emphasis added). There was no difference in their physical condition and no changes in their blood work, so “no reason has been found for recommending the use of ascorbic acid vitamin C to minimize effects of lead absorption.” What a disappointment. It looked so promising!

Whenever I study a topic, I try to read the research chronologically so I can experience the discoveries as they happened throughout history. At this point, though, I was so tempted to jump to a recent review to see what had happened in the intervening 74 years since that first study was published, but I didn’t want to spoiler alert! myself, so I kept reading the papers sequentially. There were in vitro studies where researchers dripped antioxidants on lead exposed cells and it seemed to help, so they jumped on the cantaloupe bandwagon, too, but these were test tube studies.

The first population study was published in 1999, and, as you can see at 4:02 in my video, researchers did find that those with high vitamin C levels in their blood tended to have lower lead levels. Youths with the highest vitamin C levels had a nearly 90 percent lower prevalence of elevated blood lead levels compared to those with the lowest vitamin C levels. Now, this was a cross-sectional study, just a snapshot in time, so we don’t know if the vitamin C caused a drop in lead or if perhaps the lead caused a drop in vitamin C. Lead is a pro-oxidant, so maybe it ate up the vitamin C. And who has higher vitamin C levels? Those who can afford to have higher vitamin C levels and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. “It is also possible that higher ascorbic acid levels may represent healthier lifestyles or greater socio-economic status.” Indeed, maybe lower vitamin C levels are just a proxy for being poor, and that’s the real reason for higher lead levels.

There are lots of good reasons to be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we should be eating more spinach regardless, but it would be nice to know if vitamin C actually helps with lead poisoning. And, to know that, we need to put it to the test.

Unfortunately, most of the published interventions are not very helpful, with such titles as “Effects of dietary vitamin C supplementation on lead-treated sea cucumbers,….”  And, there is a surprising number of articles on the effects of vitamin C supplementation on mouse testicles. Why? Because lead may impair male fertility. Indeed, lead workers appear to have a reduced likelihood of fathering children, but this may in part be due to oxidative stress. In that case, how about giving an antioxidant, like vitamin C, and putting it to the test(es)? No, I’m not talking about rat testes or suggesting frog testes. Neither am I proposing crab testes. (I didn’t even know crabs had testicles!) Finally, here’s one to discuss: “Clinical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men.” A study of human men, which I will cover in Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?.

I’m always conflicted about writing these kinds of blogs and producing videos like Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?. I can imagine some just want “the answer,” but those with vested and commercial interests often exploit that natural impulse. This is problem with science in general, but perhaps particularly in nutrition. When it comes to something as life-or-death important as what to feed ourselves and our families we shouldn’t just follow someone’s opinions or beliefs on the matter. We should demand to see the science. That’s what I try to do: Present the available data as fairly and even-handedly as possible, and let you make up your own mind. You can imagine how easily someone could cherry-pick just one or two studies and present a distorted but compelling case for or against, in this case, vitamin C supplements. That’s why I feel it’s important to present each study in their historical context. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility & Lead Poisoning?.


 For those of you who are thinking, Why should I care about lead? I don’t eat paint chips or use leaded gasoline. Anyway, what’s the big deal?, check out my full series of lead videos for information on how we got into this mess and some of the ways we can dig ourselves out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Garlic Powder to Lower Lead Levels

There are so-called chelation drugs that can be taken for acute, life-threatening lead poisoning—for instance if your two-year-old swallowed one of the little lead weights her grandma was using while sewing curtains and the doctor happened to miss it on x-ray, so it stayed lodged inside her until she died with a blood lead level of 283 mcg/dcl, a case I discuss in my video Best Foods for Lead Poisoning: Chlorella, Cilantro, Tomatoes, Moringa?.

However, for lower grade, chronic lead poisoning, such as at levels under 45 mg/dL, there were no clear guidance as to whether these chelation drugs were effective. When they were put to the test, the drugs failed to bring down lead levels long term. Even when they worked initially, in dose after dose, the lead apparently continued to seep from the patients’ bones, and, by the end of the year, they ended up with the same lead levels as the sugar pill placebo group, as you can see at 0:50 in my video. It was no surprise, then, that even though blood lead levels dipped at the beginning, researchers found no improvements in cognitive function or development.

Since much of lead poisoning is preventable and the drugs don’t seem to work in most cases, that just underscores the need “to protect children from exposure to lead in the first place.” Despite the medical profession’s “best intentions to do something to help these kids…drug therapy is not the answer.” Yes, we need to redouble efforts to prevent lead poisoning in the first place, but what can we do for the kids who’ve already been exposed?

The currently approved method, these chelating drugs that bind and remove lead from our tissues, “lack[s]…safety and efficacy when conventional chelating agents are used.” So, what about dietary approaches? Plants produce phytochelatins. All higher plants possess the capacity to synthesize compounds that bind up heavy metals to protect themselves from the harmful effects, so what if we ate the plants? “Unlike other forms of treatment (e.g., pharmacotherapy with drugs), nutritional strategies carry the promise of a natural form of therapy that would presumably be cheap and with few to no side effects.” Yes, but would it work when the drugs didn’t?

We had learned that a meal could considerably cut down on lead absorption, but “the particular components of food intake that so dramatically reduce lead absorption” were uncertain at the time. Although the calcium content of the meal appeared to be part of it, milk didn’t seem to help and even made things worse. What about calcium supplements? Some assert that calcium supplements may help in reducing lead absorption in children, but “recommendations…must be based on evidence rather than conviction.” What’s more, those assertions are based in part on studies on rodents, and differences in calcium absorption and balance between rats and humans make extrapolation tricky. What you have to do is put it to the test. Researchers found that even an extra whopping 1,800 mg of calcium per day had no effect on blood lead levels. Therefore, the evidence doesn’t support conclusions that calcium supplements help.

What about whole foods? Reviews of dietary strategies to treat lead toxicity say to eat lots of tomatoes, berries, onions, garlic, and grapes, as they are natural antagonists to lead toxicity and therefore should be consumed on a regular basis. Remember those phytochelatins? Perhaps eating plants might help detoxify the lead in our own bodies or the bodies of those we eat.

These natural phytochelatin compounds work so well that we can use them to clean up pollution. For example, the green algae chlorella can suck up lead and hold onto it, so what if we ate it? If it can clean up polluted bodies of water, might it clean up our own polluted bodies? We don’t know, because we only have studies on mice, not men and women.

So, when you hear how chlorella detoxifies, they’re talking about the detoxification of rat testicles. Yes, a little sprinkle of chlorella might help your pet rat, or perhaps you could give them some black cumin seeds or give them a sprig of cilantro, but when you hear how cilantro detoxifies against heavy metals, I presume you don’t expect the researchers to be talking about studies in rodents. If we’re interested in science protecting our children, not just their pets, we’re out of luck.

The same is true with moringa, tomatoes, flaxseed oil, and sesame seed oil, as well as black grapes, and black, white, green, and red tea. There are simply no human studies to guide us.

Dietary strategies for the treatment of lead toxicity are often based on rodent studies, but, for tofu, at least, there was a population study of people that showed lower lead levels in men and women who ate more tofu. The researchers controlled for a whole bunch of factors, so it’s not as if tofu lovers were protected just because they smoked less or ate less meat, but you can’t control for everything.

Ideally, we’d have a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Researchers would take a group of people exposed to lead, split them into two groups, with half given food and the other half given some kind of identical placebo food, and see what happens. It’s easy to do this with drugs because you just use look-alike sugar pills as placebos so people don’t know which group they’re in, but how do you make placebo food? One way to do disguised food interventions is to use foods that are so potent they can be stuffed into a pill—like garlic. There had been various studies measuring the effects of garlic in rats and looking at garlic as a potential antidote for lead intoxication distributed among different mouse organs, but who eats mouse organs? One animal study did have some direct human relevance, though, looking at the effect of garlic on lead content in chicken tissues. The purpose was to “explore the possible use of garlic to clean up lead contents in chickens which”—like all of us on planet Earth—“had been exposed to lead pollution and consequently help to minimize the hazard” of lead-polluted chicken meat.

And…it worked! As you can see at 1:59 in my video Best Food for Lead Poisoning: Garlic, feeding garlic to chickens reduced lead levels in the “edible mass of chicken” by up to 75 percent or more. Because we live in a polluted world, even if you don’t give the chickens lead and raise them on distilled water, they still end up with some lead in their meat and giblets. But, if you actively feed them lead for a week, the levels get really high. When you give them the same amount of lead with a little garlic added, however, much less lead accumulates in their bodies.

What’s even more astonishing is that when researchers gave them the same amount of lead—but this time waited a week before giving them the garlic—it worked even better. “The value of garlic in reducing lead concentrations…was more pronounced when garlic was given as a post-treatment following the cessation of lead administration”—that is, after the lead was stopped and had already built up in their tissues. We used to think that “the beneficial effect of garlic against lead toxicity was primarily due to a reaction between lead and sulfur compounds in garlic” that would glom on to lead in the intestinal tract and flush it out of the body. But, what the study showed is that garlic appears to contain compounds that can actually pull lead not only out of the intestinal contents, but also out of the tissues of the body. So, the “results indicate that garlic contain chelating compounds capable of enhancing elimination of lead,” and “garlic feeding can be exploited to safeguard human consumers by minimizing lead concentrations in meat….”

If garlic is so effective at pulling lead out of chickens’ bodies, why not more directly exploit “garlic feeding” by eating it ourselves? Well, there had never been a study on the ability of garlic to help lead-exposed humans until…2012? (Actually, I’m embarrassed to say I missed it when the study was first published. That was back when I was just getting NutritionFacts.org up and running. Now that we have staff and a whole research team, hopefully important studies like this won’t slip through the cracks in the future.)

The study was a head-to-head comparison of the therapeutic effects of garlic versus a chelation therapy drug called D-penicillamine. One hundred and seventeen workers exposed to lead in the car battery industry were randomly assigned into one of two groups and, three times a day for one month, either got the drug or an eighth of a teaspoon of garlic powder compressed into a tablet, which is about the equivalent of two cloves of fresh garlic a day. As expected, the chelation drug reduced blood lead levels by about 20 percent—but so did the garlic. The garlic worked just as well as the drug and, of course, had fewer side effects. “Thus, garlic seems safer clinically and as effective,” but saying something is as effective as chelation therapy isn’t saying much. Remember how chelation drugs can lower blood levels in chronic lead poisoning, but they don’t actually improve neurological function?

Well, after treatment with garlic, significant clinical improvements were seen, including less irritability, fewer headaches, and improvements in reflexes and blood pressure, but these improvements were not seen in the drug group. They weren’t seen after treatment with the chelation therapy drug. So, garlic was safer and more effective. “Therefore, garlic can be recommended for the treatment of mild-to-moderate lead poisoning.


 There are also some human studieson vitamin C. Check out Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?.

For even more lead videos, see:

To learn more about chlorella, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Eating to Block Lead Absorption

Intake of certain nutrients has been associated with lower lead levels in the body. For example, women with higher intake of thiamine, also called vitamin B1, tended to have lower blood lead levels, and the same was found for lead-exposed steel workers—and not just with thiamine, as “content of dietary fiber, iron, or thiamine intake each correlated inversely with blood lead concentrations in workers…” The thinking is that the fiber might glom onto the lead and flush it out of the body, the iron would inhibit the lead absorption, and the thiamine may accelerate lead removal through the bile. So, researchers suggest that eating lots of iron, fiber and especially thiamine-rich foods “may induce rapid removal and excretion of the lead from the tissues.” But thiamine’s never been put to the test by giving it to people to see if their lead levels drop. The closest I could find is a thiamine intervention for lead-intoxicated goats.
 

And much of the fiber data are just from test tube studies. In one, for example, researchers used simulated intestinal conditions, complete with “flasks” of feces, and both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber were able to bind up large amounts of mercury, cadmium, and lead to such an extent that they may have been able to block absorption in the small intestine. But, when our good gut flora then eat the fiber, some of the heavy metals may be re-released down in the colon, so it’s not completely fail safe. And, as with thiamine, there haven’t been controlled human studies.

But where is thiamine found? At 1:47 in my video How to Lower Lead Levels with Diet: Thiamine, Fiber, Iron, Fat, Fasting?, I feature a list of some of the healthiest sources of thiamine-rich foods that also contain fiber, which include highly concentrated, super healthy foods like beans and greens—foods we should all be eating anyway. So, even if thiamine- and fiber-rich foods don’t actually lower lead levels, we’ll still end up healthier.

What happened when iron was put to the test? It failed to improve the cognitive performance of lead-exposed children and failed to improve behavior or ADH symptoms, which is no surprise, because it also failed to bring down lead levels, as did zinc supplementation. It turns out that while iron may limit the absorption of lead, “it may also inhibit excretion of previously absorbed lead” that’s already in your body. What’s more, iron may not even inhibit lead absorption in the first place. That was based on rodent studies, and it turns out we’re not rodents.

We get the same story with zinc. It may have helped to protect rat testicles, but didn’t seem to help human children. “Nevertheless, iron is routinely prescribed in children with lead poisoning.” But, “given the lack of scientific evidence supporting the use of iron [supplementation] in…children with lead poisoning, its routine use should be re-examined.” Though, obviously, supplementation may help if you have an iron deficiency.

High fat intake has been identified as a nutritional condition that makes things worse for lead-exposed children. In fact, dietary fat has been associated with higher lead levels in cross-sectional, snapshot-in-time type studies, and there is a plausible biological mechanism: Dietary fat may boost lead absorption by stimulating extra bile, which in turn may contribute to lead absorption, but you really don’t know until you put it to the test.

In addition to testing iron, researchers also tested fat. They gave a group of intrepid volunteers a cocktail of radioactive lead and then, with a Geiger counter, measured how much radiation the subjects retained in their bodies. Drinking the lead with iron or zinc didn’t change anything, but adding about two teaspoons of vegetable oil boosted lead absorption into the body from about 60 percent up to around 75 percent, as you can see at 4:17 in my video.

The only thing that seemed to help, dropping lead absorption down to about 40 percent, was eating a light meal with the lead drink. What was the meal? Coffee and a donut. I think this is the first donut intervention I’ve ever seen with a positive outcome! Could it have been the coffee? Unlikely, because if anything, coffee drinking has been associated with a tiny increase in blood lead levels. If fat makes things worse, and the one sugar they tried didn’t help, the researchers figured that what made the difference was just eating food—any food—and not taking in lead on an empty stomach. And, indeed, if you repeat the study with a whole meal, lead absorption doesn’t just drop from 60 percent to 40 percent—it drops all the way down to just 4 percent! That’s extraordinary. That means it’s 15 times worse to ingest lead on an empty stomach.

Lead given 12 hours before a meal was absorbed at about 60 percent, so most of it was absorbed. When the same amount of lead was given three hours after a meal and also seven hours after a meal, most of it was absorbed at those times, too. But, if you get some food in your stomach within a few hours of lead exposure, you can suppress the absorption of some or nearly all of the lead you ingested, which you can see at 0:11 in my video How to Lower Lead Levels with Diet: Breakfast, Whole Grains, Milk, Tofu?.

This is why it’s critical to get the lead out of our tap water. Although it’s estimated that most of our lead exposure comes from food, rather than water, it’s not what we eat that matters, but what we absorb. If 90 percent of the lead in food is blocked from absorption by the very fact that it’s in food, 10 to 20 times more lead could be absorbed into your bloodstream simply by consuming the same amount of lead in water drank on an empty stomach.

And, since children empty their stomachs faster than adults because kids “have more rapid gastric emptying times,” the timing of meals may be even more important. With little tummies emptying in as few as two hours after a meal, offering midmorning and midafternoon snacks in addition to breakfast and regular meals may cut down on lead absorption in a contaminated environment. And, of course, we should ensure that children wash their hands prior to eating.

So, do preschoolers who eat breakfast have lower levels of lead in their blood? In the first study of its kind, researchers found that, indeed, children who ate breakfast regularly did appear to have lower lead levels, supporting recommendations to provide regular meals and snacks to young children at risk for lead exposure.

Is there anything in food that’s particularly protective? Researchers tested all sorts of foods to find out, and it turns out the “effect of a meal was probably largely due to its content of calcium and phosphate salts but lead uptake was probably further reduced by phytate which is plentiful in whole cereals,” but if calcium and phosphates are protective, you’d think dairy would work wonders. And, indeed, they started giving milk “to workers to prevent lead exposure” ever since calcium was shown to inhibit lead absorption in rats. But, in humans, there’s something in milk that appeared to increase lead uptake, and it wasn’t the fat because they found the same problem with skim milk.

“For over a century milk was recommended unreservedly to counteract lead poisoning in industry,” but this practice was abandoned in the middle of the last century once we learned that milk’s “overall effect is to promote the absorption of lead from the intestinal tract.” What’s the agent in milk that promotes the absorption of lead from the gut? It may be the milk sugar, lactose, though the “mechanism by which lactose enhances lead absorption is not clear.”

The bottom line? “In the past…milk was used as a prophylactic agent to protect workers in the lead industry. Recent studies, however, suggest that this practice is unjustified and may even be harmful.” So, giving people whole grains may offer greater protection against lead uptake.

However, the most potently calcium and phytate-rich food would be tofu. Isolated soy phytonutrients may have a neuroprotective effect, at least this was the case in petri dish-type studies. As you can see at 3:45 in my video, if you add a little lead to nerve cells, you can kill off about 40 percent of them, but if you then give more and more soy phytonutrients, you can ameliorate some of the damage. This is thought to be an antioxidant effect. If you add lead to nerve cells, you can get a big burst of free radicals, but less and less as you drip on more soy compounds.

Nevertheless, even if this worked outside of a lab, cutting down on the toxic effects of lead is nice, but cutting down on the levels of lead in your body is even better. “Because tofu has high content of both calcium and phytic acid phytate…it is biologically plausible that tofu may inhibit lead absorption and retention, thus reducing blood lead levels.” But you don’t know, until you put it to the test.

Tofu consumption and blood lead levels were determined for about a thousand men and women in China. For every nine or so ounces of tofu consumed a week, there appeared to be about four percent less lead in their bloodstream. Those who ate up to two and a half ounces a day had only half the odds of having elevated lead levels, compared to those eating less than about nine ounces a week. Those consuming nearly four ounces a day appeared to cut their odds by more than 80 percent. This was just a cross-sectional study, or snapshot in time, so it can’t prove cause and effect. What you need is an interventional study where you randomize people into two groups, giving half of them some food to see if it drives down lead levels. I cover this in my video Best Food for Lead Poisoning: Chlorella, Cilantro, Tomatoes, Moringa?.


Where does all this lead exposure come from anyway? Check out the first five videos on this series:

For more about blocking lead absorption, as well as what to eat to help rid yourself of the lead you’ve already built up, see:

Or, even better, don’t get exposed in the first place. Find out more in these videos:

Some of my other videos on lead include:

And what about lead levels in women? See:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: