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Nutrition

What Should We Do to Lower Lead Levels in Breast Milk?

What are t he effects of sodium and calcium intake on blood lead levels in pregnant and breastfeeding women ?  

Although our skeleton “has predominantly been  considered  a storage site for sequestering absorbed lead, bone is not simply an inert storage site. Once deposited in bone, lead can be remobilized from bone” back into the bloodstream if , for example,  we lose bone due to  osteoporosis . Even normal menopause can do it, raising lead levels as our bones start to lose their integrity , b ut  the biggest concern is  the  “m obilization  of long-term stores of lead from the maternal skeleton during pregnancy and lactation.   In order  to maintain maternal lead levels as low as possible during this critical period, we need to minimize bone loss.   

How do we do that?   As I discuss  in  my video  Should Pregnant Women Take Calcium Supplements to Lower Lead Levels? , “habitual excessive  NaCl  [ salt ]  intake could be a factor in  promoting  bone loss.” So, is there a relationship between maternal sodium intake and blood lead levels during pregnancy?  Researchers  found  that higher salt intake was  associated  with higher lead levels, but only for women who were getting less than 840mg of calcium a day.  Th e findings… suggest that adequate  Ca [ calcium ]  with  low  Na [ sodium ]  intake may play a beneficial role in decreasing the blood  Pb [ lead ]  concentration in pregnant women.”   

Higher calcium intake has been  associated  with lower blood lead concentrations during pregnancy, but you don’t know if it’s cause and effect unless you put it to the test.    

What if you  gave  women calcium supplements?  I’ve previously   explored  how milk may actually make things worse but what about just straight calcium, especially for women with low calcium intake ?   Study participants,  African women  who had been  getting  only 350mg of calcium a day,  which is only  35  percent  of the  1000mg  RDA , were  give n  a whopping 1 , 500 mg  of  daily  calcium. That will protect their bones , right? As you can see at 2:00 in my  video , w ithout the calcium,  when the women were  getting  only  350mg of calcium a day in their diet, they lost some bone in their spine and hip . How did they do when researchers gave them  1 , 500mg of calcium a day ? They  lost even  more  bone .  The women who had received the calcium supplements had a significantly  lower  bone mineral density at the hip and greater bone loss in the spine and wrists.  

What happened? It looks like  the researchers  messed up the  women’s  body’s natural adaptation.  At the start of the study, t hey  had  only  been   eating  350mg of calcium a day Because our body  isn’t  stupid , they were  maximizing absorption  and  minimizing loss . T hen , the researchers  step ped  in with calcium pills and undermine d  the whole process, turn ing  off those adaptations  and  leav ing  their body thinking they were always going to get th o se massive  calcium  doses.  W hen the study stopped, the  women  went into major calcium deficit and had to steal more from their bones. The researchers went back later  on and found that although  the women  who had been  in the placebo group bounced back, those given the extra calcium continued to suffer the effects , as you can see at 3:0 4  in my  video .  

What about in Western women  who are  already taking in  more than   1 , 000mg of calcium  a day? Would  giving  them an extra 1 , 200mg a day cut down on some of that bone flux? Yes, it did seem to cut down on bone resorption by about 16  percent and ,  thus, may constitute a practical intervention to prevent the transient skeletal loss associated with childbearing ,”  which could release any lead trapped there, but you don’t know until you put it to the test.  

In  a different paper from the same study , the  researchers  measured  what was happening to  the women’s  lead levels . T hat  drop in  bone borrowing led to a drop in lead release . As such, it  may  help  lower  lead  exposure to  both  the fetus  and  the infant, as the benefits continue through breastfeeding.  Okay, b ut  the women  in this study  were   living  in Mexico City,  where they  may have been exposed to lead-glazed ceramics with lead levels approaching 10  ug/dL . What about women with lead levels closer to the current U.S. average under 5  ug/dL  

Researchers randomized h alf the breastfeeding women  in their study  to  take  500mg of extra calcium a day.  As you can see at 4:25 in my  video , t he lead levels  of both groups  started  out the same during pregnancy . In the non-supplemented group, those levels  shot up during breastfeeding, as presumably some of the lead was released from their bones. In the group g etting  the  daily  500 mg  calcium supplement,  however,  there was  no  spike in lead in their bloodstream, providing  evidence that calcium supplementation during  lactation  [breastfeeding] may be effective in limiting mobilization of lead from bone stores, thus reducing the risk of lead transfer to the nursing infant through  mother’s  [breast] milk.    

Regardless , breast is still best. Supplementation or not,  the risks are  outweighed  by the  benefits  of breast  milk consumption ,  but calcium supplementation may help  reduce  any risk even further. Of course,  it’s  better  not  to build up lead in your bones in the first place. As a famous occupational medicine paper  put  it  half century ago,  there are  all methods of dietary interventions, but there is only one way to  prevent  lead poisoning:  D on’t get poisoned in the first place A nything else just diverts attention from treating the underlying cause.  

For other toxic heavy metals,  such as  mercury, for example,  women are   advised  to avoid the consumption of  predatory  fish —that is, fish -that-eat-other-fish during  pregnancy  and when breastfeeding to decrease  MeHg  [ mercury ] exposure .  In fact,  they should start  even before pregnancy . Indeed, “ women of child bearing age  and nursing mothers should avoid consuming piscivorous  [fish-eating]  fish”   to avoid  build ing  up the mercury in  the  body in the first place.  And, f or lead, that means not living next to a smelter plant and avoiding smoking.   

T here  i s one other way to detox your body of lead to protect some of your future children, but it’s not ideal. Remember that menopause study, where postmenopausal women had higher blood lead levels than premenopausal women? Well, even higher still were postmenopausal women who  had  never had children.  As you can see at 6:00 in my  video “The postmenopausal  increase  in lead levels was less in women with prior pregnancies,” presumably because they had already detoxed some of their lead into their children.  

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Lead, once deposited in bone, can flood back into our bloodstream when bone is lost, for example, due to osteoporosis, menopause, pregnancy, and lactation.
  • Researchers found that higher intake of salt was associated with higher levels of lead for women getting less than 840 mg of daily calcium and suggest that adequate calcium intake with low sodium consumption may be beneficial in decreasing blood lead levels in women during pregnancy.
  • When African women who had been getting 350 mg of daily calcium from their diet (just 35 percent of the RDA) were given 1,500 mg a day via supplement, they lost even more bone. It appears their natural adaptation was disrupted and their body expected the massive calcium influx such that they went into major deficit when the study concluded and the supplement was no longer taken so more calcium was taken from the stores in their bones.
  • Researchers randomized breastfeeding women to take an extra 500 mg of daily calcium and found that the lead levels in the non-supplemented group increased during breastfeeding, likely due to some lead being released from their bones, whereas there was no spike in blood lead levels in the group taking 500 mg of calcium a day, suggesting that calcium supplementation during lactation may limit lead mobilization from bone stores and reduce transfer risk to nursing infants.
  • Breastmilk is still preferred, but calcium supplementation may be reduce further risk.
  • Preventing lead poisoning is important, just as avoiding other toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, found in many fish.

In case you missed  the last video The Rise in Blood Lead Levels at Pregnancy and Menopause   offers some background  on this issue .  

The  video I mention about  milk   making   things   worse is  How to Lower Lead Levels with Diet: Breakfast, Whole Grains, Milk, Tofu? .

Note  that  whole food sources of calcium may be preferable, as I document in my video  Are Calcium Supplements  Safe? .  

For m ore on pregnancy detox , see :  

  • Lead Contamination  of  Tea  
  • Flame Retardant Pollutants and Child Development  
  • How Long to Detox  f rom Fish Before Pregnancy?  
  • Meat Fumes: Dietary Secondhand Smoke  
  • The Effect of Animal Protein on Stress Hormones, Testosterone, and Pregnancy  
  • Avoiding Fish for 5 Years Before Pregnancy  
  • The Wrong Way to Detox

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:  

  • 2019:  Evidence-Based Weight Loss  
  • 2016:  How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers  
  • 2015:  Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet  
  • 2014:  From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food  
  • 2013:  More Than an Apple a Day  
  • 2012:  Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death  


This post originally appeared on Nutrition Facts.

I Got Control of My Health Thanks to This Weird Japanese Breakfast Tonic


Check Out This Unusual Japanese Tonic From the Healthiest Island in the World Now!