Aluminum has only recently been considered a problem mineral. Though it is not very toxic in normal levels, neither has it been found to be essential. Aluminum is very abundant in the earth and in the sea. It is present in only small amounts in animal and plant tissues. However, it is commonly ingested in foods and in medicines, such as antacids, and is used in cosmetics. Many scientists feel that, because of its prevalence in the earth and its common uses, it is not actually very toxic.
Aluminum is not really a heavy metal-that is, it is low (number 13 on the “periodic” table of elements) in molecular weight-so it does behave differently from metals such as lead or mercury. Recent investigations, however, implicate aluminum toxicity in Alzheimer’s disease and other brain and senility syndromes. The evidence of aluminum’s toxicity or essentiality is not conclusive as yet.
The amount of aluminum in the human body ranges between 50 and 150 mg., with an average of about 65 mg. Most of this mineral is found in the lungs, brain, kidneys, liver, and thyroid. Our daily intake of aluminum may range from 10-110 mg., but the body will eliminate most of this in the feces and urine and some in the sweat. With decreased kidney function, more aluminum will be stored, particularly in the bones.
Sources: For most people, the greatest aluminum intake comes from food additives. Sodium aluminum phosphate is an emulsifier in processed cheese, potassium alum is used to whiten flour, and sodium silicoaluminate and/or aluminum calcium silicate are added to common table salt to help it run freely and not cake. In the average diet, 40-50 mg. a day may come from foods.
With use of aluminum pots and pans and aluminum foil, some aluminum leaches into food, especially with acid foods such as tomatoes or rhubarb. Cooking with fluoridated water in aluminum cookware increases the aluminum in the water and the food; still, the amounts we obtain in this manner are small in comparison with those from additives. Aluminum salts used in antiperspirants are not a major contaminant either, unless these products are overused. (Aerosol sprays, however, should be avoided for environmental toxicity reasons.) Antacids containing aluminum hydroxide can be a big source if they are taken regularly or abused, as antacids sometimes are. Some children’s aspirins have been found to contain aluminum as well.
Methods of toxicity: Aluminum is probably the least toxic of the minerals discussed in this section, although the concern is that it has become so pervasive and is now found in higher levels in human tissues. It is not clear how aluminum functions or interferes with activities in the human body, possibly through some magnesium functions. It may reduce vitamin levels or bind to DNA, and it has been correlated with weakened tissue of the gastrointestinal tract. In Alzheimer’s disease, there are increased aluminum levels in the brain tissue and an increase in what are called “neurofibrillary tangles,” which tend to reduce nerve synapses and conduction.
Oral aluminum, as obtained from antacids, can bind pepsin and weaken protein digestion. It also has astringent qualities, and thus can dry the tissues and mucous linings and contribute to constipation. Regular use of aluminum-containing deodorants may contribute to the clogging of underarm lymphatics and then to breast problems such as cystic disease. Ann Louise Gittleman, a prominent nutritionist, calls aluminum a “detrimental protoplasmic poison.”
Symptoms of toxicity: Acute aluminum poisoning has been associated with constipation, colicky pain, anorexia, nausea and gastrointestinal irritation, skin problems, and lack of energy. Slower and longer-term increases in body aluminum may create muscle twitching, numbness, paralysis, and fatty degeneration of the liver and kidney.
Aluminum toxicity has been fairly recently described. It is worse with reduced renal function. Aluminum may reduce the absorption of selenium and phosphorus from the gastrointestinal tract. The loss of bone matrix from aluminum toxicity can lead to osteomalacia, a softening of the bone. Skin rashes have occurred with local irritation from aluminum antiperspirants.
Aluminum toxicity has been implicated in the brain aging disorders. Alzheimer’s disease and parkinsonism have both become more prevalent as the incidence of aluminum toxicity has increased. Areas with high amounts of aluminum in the drinking water are showing an increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease (alum and aluminum sulfate are used to treat water in many cities). Nearly 100,000 people of the 1.5-2 million people with Alzheimer’s are dying each year. Although increased aluminum has been measured in the brain and other body tissues in Alzheimer’s diseases, other factors may be contributing as well. There seems to be a weakening of the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s disease, and this may allow a variety of brain toxins to reach the central nervous system. What is causing this breakdown of the barrier between the brain and the rest of the body is not yet clear. It is also important to examine aluminum toxicity in children with hyperactivity and learning disorders, as it has been implicated in these problems.
Amounts leading to toxicity: It is not known exactly what levels of aluminum or what other factors cause it to become a problem. With blood and hair analysis, normal ranges of aluminum may vary from lab to lab. Hair analysis is probably one of the better ways to measure body aluminum. The mineral analysis laboratory that I use, Doctor’s Data in Chicago, suggests that a reading under 15-20 ppm in hair is considered normal, but less than that, say under 10-15 ppm, is probably ideal.
Who is susceptible? Everyone has contact with aluminum; it is present in most diets. However, why and how aluminum becomes a problem, if it truly does, we do not yet know. It appears that the elderly may have more of a problem with aluminum, if indeed it is a cause or part of the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain syndromes. Those who eat refined foods, refined flours, baked goods, processed cheeses, and common table salt are more likely to have higher aluminum levels in their bodies. Those who use antacids or antiperspirants that contain aluminum, or who cook with aluminum foil or kitchenware, will also have more contact with this potentially toxic mineral.
Treatment of toxicity: Decreasing contact with and use of aluminum-containing substances will reduce intake and allow more aluminum to leave the body. Oral chelating agents will also help clear aluminum more rapidly. Tetracycline is actually a mild chelator for aluminum. Calcium disodium edetate (EDTA) binds and clears aluminum from the body; this substance is fairly nontoxic and is used as the agent for “chelation therapy,” an intravenous treatment used to pull metals such as lead from the body, and more recently used in the treatment of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. Deferoxamine, an iron chelator, also binds aluminum. In a study with Alzheimer’s patients, nearly 40 percent of the patients showed an improvement in symptoms with deferoxamine treatment. There is some evidence that intravenous chelation with EDTA helps Alzheimer’s patients. More research is needed to evaluate aluminum’s involvement with this disease.
To evaluate toxic states of aluminum, the best testing we have is hair analysis, ideally used along with blood and urine analysis. The values can be followed during treatment by a doctor to see whether higher amounts are being eliminated and lesser amounts retained in body tissues.
Prevention: The best way to prevent aluminum buildup is to avoid the sources of aluminum. Eliminating foods that have aluminum additives is probably healthier overall. Not using common table salt is a positive health step as well. Some tap waters contain aluminum; this can be checked. Avoiding aluminum cookware and replacing it with stainless steel, ceramic, or glass is a good idea. Blocking skin and sweat pores with aluminum antiperspirants has always seemed strange to me; I would think it would be better to cleanse regularly, reduce stress, balance weight, and eat a wholesome diet that creates sweat that smells more like roses.