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:


How to Lower Your Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio

The potassium content in greens is one of two ways they can improve artery function within minutes of consumption.

More than a thousand years ago, for the treatment of hypertension, an ancient Persian medical text advised lifestyle interventions, such as avoiding meat and pastries, and recommended eating spinach. A thousand years later, researchers discovered that a single meal containing spinach could indeed reduce blood pressure, thanks to its nitrate content. All green leafy vegetables are packed with nitrate, which our body can use to create nitric oxide that improves the flexibility and function of our arteries. This may be why eating our greens may be one of the most powerful things we can do to reduce our chronic disease risk.

As you can see at 0:54 in my video Lowering Our Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio to Reduce Stroke Risk, just switching from low-nitrate vegetables to high-nitrate vegetables for a week can lower blood pressure by about 4 points, and the higher the blood pressure people started out with, the greater benefit they got. Four points might not sound like a lot, but even a 2-point drop in blood pressure could prevent more than 10,000 fatal strokes every year in the United States.

Potassium-rich foods may also act via a similar mechanism. If we get even just the minimum recommended daily intake of potassium, we might prevent 150,000 strokes every year. Why? Potassium appears to increase the release of nitric oxide. One week of eating two bananas and a large baked potato every day significantly improved arterial function. Even a single high-potassium meal, containing the equivalent of two to three bananas’ worth of potassium, can improve the function of our arteries, whereas a high-sodium meal—that is, a meal with the amount of salt most people eat—can impair arterial function within 30 minutes. While potassium increases nitric oxide release, sodium reduces nitric oxide release. So, the health of our arteries may be determined by our sodium-to-potassium ratio.

As you can see at 2:30 in my video, after two bacon slices’ worth of sodium, our arteries take a significant hit within 30 minutes. However, if you add three bananas’ worth of potassium, you can counteract the effects of the sodium. As I show at 2:48 in my video, when we evolved, we were eating ten times more potassium than sodium. Now, the ratio is reversed, as we consume more sodium than potassium. These kinds of studies “provide additional evidence that increases in dietary potassium should be encouraged,” but what does that mean? We should eat more beans, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens, the latter of which is like giving you a double whammy, as they are high in potassium and nitrates. The recommendation from a thousand years ago to eat spinach is pretty impressive, though bloodletting and abstaining from sex were also encouraged, so we should probably take ancient wisdom with a grain of salt—but our meals should be added-salt free.

Why might abstaining from sex not be the best idea for cardiovascular health? Because the opposite may actually be true. See my video Do Men Who Have More Sex Live Longer?.

What else can we do about stroke risk? Check out:

For more on potassium, see in Potassium and Autoimmune Disease and 98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient.

Interested in learning more about the dangers of sodium? See:

Sodium isn’t just bad for our arteries. Check out How to Treat Asthma with a Low-Salt Diet and Sodium and Autoimmune Disease: Rubbing Salt in the Wound?.

I further explore the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables in:

Sweet potatoes are an excellent high-potassium, low-sodium choice, but what’s the best way to prepare them? Check out The Best Way to Cook Sweet Potatoes.

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:


What Happens if You Have Red Wine or Avocados with a Meal?

Whole plant sources of sugar and fat can ameliorate some of the postprandial (after meal) inflammation caused by the consumption of refined carbohydrates and meat.

Studies have shown how adding even steamed skinless chicken breast can exacerbate the insulin spike from white rice, but fish may be worse. At 0:18 in my video The Effects of Avocados and Red Wine on Meal-Induced Inflammation, you can see how the insulin scores of a low-carbohydrate plant food, peanuts, is lower compared to common low-carb animal foods—eggs, cheese, and beef. Fish was even worse, with an insulin score closer to doughnut territory.

At 0:36 in my video, you can see the insulin spike when people are fed mashed white potatoes. What do you think happens when they’re also given tuna fish? Twice the insulin spike. The same is seen with white flour spaghetti versus white flour spaghetti with meat. The addition of animal protein may make the pancreas work twice as hard.

You can do it with straight sugar water, too. If you perform a glucose challenge to test for diabetes, drinking a certain amount of sugar, at 1:10 in my video, you can see the kind of spike in insulin you get. But, if you take in the exact same amount of sugar but with some meat added, you get a higher spike. And, as you can see at 1:25 in my video, the more meat you add, the worse it gets. Just adding a little meat to carbs doesn’t seem to do much, but once you get up to around a third of a chicken’s breast worth, you can elicit a significantly increased surge of insulin.

So, a chicken sandwich may aggravate the metabolic harm of the refined carb white bread it’s on, but what about a PB&J? At 1:49 in my video, you can see that adding nuts to Wonder Bread actually calms the insulin and blood sugar response. What if, instead of nuts, you smeared on an all fruit strawberry jam? Berries, which have even more antioxidants than nuts, can squelch the oxidation of cholesterol in response to a typical American breakfast and even reduce the amount of fat in your blood after the meal. And, with less oxidation, there is less inflammation when berries are added to a meal.

So, a whole plant food source of sugar can decrease inflammation in response to an “inflammatory stressor” meal, but what about a whole plant food source of fat? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, within hours of eating a burger topped with half an avocado, the level of an inflammatory biomarker goes up in your blood, but not as high as eating the burger without the avocado. This may be because all whole plant foods contain antioxidants, which decrease inflammation, and also contain fiber, which is one reason even high fat whole plant foods like nuts can lower cholesterol. And, the same could be said for avocados. At 3:12 in my video, you can see avocado causing a significant drop in cholesterol levels, especially in those with high cholesterol, with even a drop in triglycerides.

If eating berries with a meal decreases inflammation, what about drinking berries? Sipping wine with your white bread significantly blunts the blood sugar spike from the bread, but the alcohol increases the fat in the blood by about the same amount. As you can see at 3:40 in my video, you’ll get a triglycerides bump when you eat some cheese and crackers, but if you sip some wine with the same snack, triglycerides shoot through the roof. How do we know it was the alcohol? Because if you use dealcoholized red wine, the same wine but with the alcohol removed, you don’t get the same reaction. This has been shown in about a half dozen other studies, along with an increase in inflammatory markers. So, the dealcoholized red wine helps in some ways but not others.

A similar paradoxical effect was found with exercise. If people cycle at high intensity for about an hour a half-day before drinking a milkshake, the triglycerides response is less than without the prior exercise, yet the inflammatory response to the meal appeared worse, as you can see at 4:18 in my video. The bottom line is not to avoid exercise but to avoid milkshakes.

The healthiest approach is a whole food, plant-based diet, but there are “promising pharmacologic approaches to the normalization” of high blood sugars and fat by taking medications. “However, resorting to drug therapy for an epidemic caused by a maladaptive diet is less rational than simply realigning our eating habits with our physiological needs.”

Protein from meat can cause more of an insulin spike than pure table sugar. See the comparisons in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

Interested in more information on the almond butter study I mentioned? I discuss it further in How to Prevent Blood Sugar and Triglyceride Spikes After Meals.

Berries have their own sugar, so how can eating berries lower the blood sugar spike after a meal? Find out in If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit?

For more on avocados, check out:

And here are more videos on red wine:

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: