You’d be hard pressed walking the streets of Toronto without running into a juice bar that sells fresh pressed, wallet stressed goodness. Are you sick? There’s a juice for that. You tired? There’s a juice for that. You fat? There’s a juice for that. You want to stay young? You get the point.
With our streets becoming ever more liquescent you would guess us urban dwellers to be healthier than ever, but that is not the case.
A patient arrived in clinic the other day with a host of symptoms – terrible fatigue, nausea, weakness, neck pain and a progressive tingling in both arms. Possible neurologic disorder?
She had been worked up elsewhere and bloodwork found her to be recently anemic. No problem, her naturopath loaded her up with iron-building supplements and a strict injunction to consume large amounts of spinach – Popeyeesque consumption of spinach. “ Throw a handful in with your eggs in the morning, a spinach salad for lunch, and toss a couple handfuls in with dinner. Then three-four times a week grab a big bottle of fresh pressed spinach combo juice and in a few weeks you’ll be good as new.”
Her naturopath was correct, if by “good as new” you mean dangerously narcoleptic with pain radiating into both arms and a disturbing cramping during urination.
So what’s the problem here? Other than the scientifically/nutritionally incompetent naturopath. Truth is, the problem isn’t a problem at all. It is the exact opposite of a problem – a solution. And a magnificent one at that.
If you were unfortunate enough to come face to face with an avid carnivorous predator what would you do? Before your slow modern brain cortex kicks in, your sympathetic (flight or fight) nervous system would step into high gear and you’d be running faster than you ever thought humanly possible.
But what happens if you’re a plant? You can’t run and you can’t hide. That’s okay; through the course of evolution you have developed an advanced defense system to ward off would be predators.
The first line of defense any plant has is its Constitutive Defense System. This highly adapted system includes thick cell walls, rigid bark, waxy cuticles and spiky projections (think cactus). These substances protect from invasion and provide strength and rigidity.
On the other hand, Inducible Defenses lie beneath the cell wall waiting patiently to strike. They contain toxic chemicals and pathogen-degrading enzymes tailored to destroy its predator.
Oxalic acid is an alkaloid compound (mostly nitrogen) that gives vegetables a bitter taste. Due to its condensed chemical structure (HOOCCOOH) and strong acidic power it can strip metals from your body with great efficiency. Side note: It’s also darn good at stripping BBQ grease off your backyard deck.
In your gut, Oxalic acid will impair iron absorption and may even cause the formation of kidney stones. The precipitates of those little bits of calcium may also give you some nasty joint pain and nerve issues.
Spinach with every meal is too much. With approximately 1g oxalic acid/100g spinach, you would need to consume 1.5kg of spinach in a single sitting to approach the lower limits of a lethal dose (15-30g). While this may be tough to do, a conscious effort to consume spinach multiple times per day serves no purpose and can be harmful.
Iron is found in two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme iron, the type found in blood and animal tissue is absorbed in the body at a rate of 7-35%. Non-heme iron is the type found in grains and plants and is absorbed at a rate of 2-20%. The large range fluctuations are due to the fact that many co-factors influence iron absorption with current iron levels being a major one. That is how the massive consumption of oxalates causes the Popeye Paradox. Most folks eat large amounts of spinach in hopes of boosting iron levels, unaware that oxalic acid is behind the scenes quietly sucking it from your weakening tissues.
That was the question posed by my progressively anemic patient.