Arsenic Exposure on a Gluten-Free Diet

Arsenic exposure and subsequent toxicity is a health problem affecting millions of people worldwide. But why is arsenic exposure relevant to people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity? The relationship is stronger than you might think. Read on to answer the following questions:

  • What are the sources of arsenic?
  • Why might you be at a high risk of arsenic exposure?
  • Why is arsenic dangerous?
  • What are the symptoms of arsenic exposure?
  • How is arsenic eliminated from the body?

Sources of Arsenic 

Exposure to arsenic comes from several sources, including well water (arsenic occurs naturally in some geological formations), contamination from mining and ore smelting, seafood (a less toxic organic form of arsenic), grains (and grain-based products), bottled water, coffee, processed juice, and beer. 

According to an investigation from Consumer Health Reports, the highest levels of this toxic metal are found in rice (especially brown rice) and rice gluten. (Note: If you aren’t up to speed on rice gluten and the potential danger it poses to those with gluten sensitivity, I highly encourage you to watch this video.)

Increased Arsenic Exposure on a Gluten Free Diet

Since most gluten-free products are made from either corn or rice, those who follow a gluten free diet may be at a higher risk of arsenic exposure. 

Those going gluten free initially tend to gravitate toward high levels of processed rice-based substitutes like bread, pasta, cereals, etc. But even people who avoid more processed foods and believe that they are eating healthfully by choosing “whole grain” products like brown rice, are unfortunately being exposed to arsenic.

So who is at the greatest risk of arsenic exposure?

  1. Infants – oftentimes infants are fed excessive rice-based cereals, formulas, and cracker products. This is especially the case for infants who tend to suffer from allergies to milk, soy, and corn. Even beyond the arsenic danger, many infants have severe reactions to rice products. This condition is known as FPIES (food protein-induced enterocolitis) and is a serious problem. You can read more about this in my book, No Grain No Pain on pages 183 and 184.
  2. Gluten Free Newbies – These individuals are typically already very sick with autoimmune diseases and suffer from malnutrition. When going gluten-free initially, these are the people who rely largely on rice-based products for simplification reasons. It is a lot to adopt a new diet, and processed gluten free foods make it easier to transition for gluten free newbies. Because they are already sick, they are more susceptible to arsenic exposure especially if they have pre-existing liver or kidney issues.

Why Is Arsenic Dangerous?

Arsenic was popularized as a murder weapon in the movie Arsenic and Old Lace. It is tasteless, odorless, and looks like sugar crystals. In large enough doses, arsenic is deadly, though most of my experience deals with chronic low dose arsenic exposure creating chronic health issues. Let’s differentiate the fact that arsenic comes in two flavors:

  1. Organic (arsenobetaine and arsenocholine) – these forms are relatively nontoxic and prominently found in seafood. They are excreted from the body via the kidneys.
  2. Inorganic arsenic (Trivalent or As III) – This form of arsenic is the real danger, and it is the form commonly found in rice-based products. It exerts damage by interfering with at least 200 different enzyme systems in the body. Many of these are critical in producing energy and regulating DNA. It is also a known human carcinogen (causes cancer). Chronic exposure to even low levels of arsenic can cause systemic multi-organ disease and damage including the liver, kidney, heart, lung, muscles, nervous system, and GI tract. Exposure to inorganic arsenic comes from rice (especially brown rice), contaminated drinking water, pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. It is important to note that even organically grown rice can contain high levels of arsenic because it can be found at high levels in soil depending on where it is grown.

Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning

Many of the symptoms linked to arsenic exposure overlap the symptoms that can be caused by gluten. That is why it is important to know them, especially if you are one of the “gluten-free newbies” relying heavily on rice products as a staple in your diet. 

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include: neuropathy, epileptic seizures, cardiomyopathy (heart damage), abdominal pain, nausea, severe diarrhea, skin rashes, and white bands across the fingernails (Mee’s lines – see picture on the right).

How is Arsenic Eliminated From The Body?

If you have a history of eating copious amounts of rice, you may be wondering:

  1. Do I have high levels of arsenic?
  2. What are the symptoms of arsenic toxicity?
  3. How do I get arsenic out of my body?

You can ask your doctor to perform testing to determine whether or not you have elevated levels of arsenic. The symptoms of chronic arsenic exposure can include muscle weakness, muscle pain, nervous system dysfunction, hair loss, skin rash, and even cancer.  These symptoms can also be caused by gluten exposure.

You can help support your body’s ability to eliminate arsenic naturally. Inorganic arsenic has to go through a methylation reaction in the liver before it is excreted by the kidneys. This means that those people who have genetic methylation problems are at greater risk for arsenic toxicity.  A healthy methylation process combined with adequate protein intake, and antioxidants should be part of your strategy.

Healthy methylation can be supported by making sure you eat foods rich in B vitamins, methionine, cysteine, and choline. These can all be found in animal proteins. You may also consider supplementing:

It is also important to support liver and kidney function as these organs are necessary to assist your body in neutralizing and excreting arsenic from your body.  There are a number of healthy foods that contain compounds that nourish the liver and kidney. These include garlic, cilantro, parsley, broccoli, eggs, cabbage, and onion.

The Bottom Line 

The more gluten free rice products you eat, the more arsenic exposure you have, and higher the disease risk you face. If you know you eat a lot of rice products, consider scaling back (and eventually eliminating them), while supporting your body’s natural ability to eliminate arsenic from the body.

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