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How aluminum harms our health — and our exposure is high

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

How antiperspirant and other sources of aluminum cause fatigue and even Alzheimer's

Back in the late 1990s, a girlfriend forwarded me an email chain letter warning that women who used antiperspirants increased their risk of breast cancer. As a runner and workout fanatic — and, yes, I'm a woman who sweats — I could not imagine my life without antiperspirant. I shrugged off that letter as hyperbole and continued using my favorite commercial brand of antiperspirant. As it turns out, that chain letter had merit.

Aluminum found in the human breast may be linked to the topical application of aluminum salts as antiperspirants, according to a recent review about aluminum and breast cancer in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. Shaving your underarms and multiple applications of antiperspirant on a daily basis can potentially increase the absorption of aluminum.

In a 2004 clinical case study, symptoms of aluminum toxicity were documented in a 43-year-old woman, who had been using an antiperspirant containing aluminum chlorohydrate for four years and was experiencing bone pain and fatigue. Her blood plasma reflected an elevated — and potentially toxic — level of aluminum. When she stopped using the antiperspirant, her aluminum levels fell back into the normal range — and her bone pain and fatigue disappeared.

Are women more susceptible to being overexposed to aluminum?

"While we can't give a definitive answer either way, recent data suggests that sweating is an important route for removing aluminum from the body. Since women 'naturally' sweat less than men, this may mean that they are less able to remove aluminum from their body," says Chris Exley, a professor of bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University and co-founder of the Birchall Centre, the Bioinorganic Chemistry of Aluminum and Silicon research group, in Staffordshire, UK.

Our body burden

Aluminum is the third most abundant element in Earth's crust. However, Exley notes: "Neither humans or any living organism have any requirement for aluminum, a metal that has no demonstrable benefit in the body."

Yet, our current exposure to aluminum has increased significantly over the last six decades. In 1950, our exposure to aluminum would have been 1 milligram per day. Today, it is 30 milligrams per day. And, by 2050, our predicted exposure to aluminum will have risen to 100 milligrams per day.

Significant sources of exposure include:

Inhalation

  • Industrial workplace exposure and air pollution
  • Smoking — cigarettes and marijuana
  • Cocaine and heroine
  • Aerosol antiperspirants

Ingestion

  • Commercial brands of infant formulas (powdered and ready-made liquid formulas based on cow's milk or soy)
  • Foods made with aluminized baking powder, self-rising flour and salt, including coffee creamers, doughnuts, flour tortillas, muffins, brownie mixes, dipping batter for fried foods, etc.
  • Cookware
  • Dietary supplements (e.g., vitamins)
  • Medications, such as prescription and over-the-counter drugs, like antacid and buffered aspirin.

Injection

  • Vaccines and allergy treatments

Absorption

  • Topically applied cosmetics
  • Skin, hair and hygiene products
  • Sunscreens and sunblocks
  • Antiperspirants

Top of mind: Aluminum as a neurotoxin

Although at high levels, aluminum is a known neurotoxin (a substance that alters normal activities of the nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord of the central nervous system and the branching nerves of the peripheral nervous system), a "safe" level of human exposure to aluminum has not yet been established.

The presence of aluminum can inhibit the absorption of essential minerals such as magnesium, calcium and iron, and any excess aluminum (not excreted in the urine or through sweat) is deposited in various tissues, including the nerves, brain, bone, liver, heart, spleen and muscle.

According to Exley, "the research linking exposure to aluminum with Alzheimer’s disease is unequivocal." Although aluminum is not necessarily the cause of Alzheimer’s, he says, "the presence of aluminum in the brain contributes to Alzheimer’s, triggering an earlier onset or by making the disease more aggressive."

Exley maintains that once aluminum reaches a potentially toxic threshold, other factors come into play that may tip aluminum into the neurotoxic range. For example, it may not be the absolute brain aluminum content which predicts the onset of Alzheimer’s, but the ratio of copper to aluminum in the tissue.

Aluminum is also a potential contributor to other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis (MS), influencing the onset, progression and aggressiveness of these conditions.

Vaccines and autism

The role of aluminum has also been implicated in autism. In a study published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, co-authors Chris Shaw — a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, the experimental medicine program and the neuroscience graduate program at the University of British Columbia; and Lucija Tomljenovic ask the question: Do aluminum vaccine adjuvants contribute to the rising prevalence of autism?

An adjuvant is a substance that is added to the vaccine to increase the body's immune response to the vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aluminum gels or salts are the only vaccine adjuvants currently licensed for use in the United States. Aluminum salts, such as aluminum hydroxide, aluminum phosphate and aluminum potassium sulfate have been used in vaccines for more than 70 years.

During prenatal and early postal development, the brain is especially vulnerable — these are sensitive periods of brain development and because the blood brain barrier (BBB) is incomplete, it is more permeable to toxic substances.

The study points out that by the time children are 4-6 years old, they will have received a total of 23-32 vaccines, many with aluminum adjuvants through routine pediatric vaccine schedules. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, safety assessments for vaccines have often not included appropriate toxicity studies because vaccines have not been viewed as inherently toxic.

Shaw and Tomljenovic note that with the increase of vaccinations from 10 in the late 1970s to 32 in 2010 (18 of which contain aluminum adjuvants), the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the U.S. also increased by as much as 2,000 percent. Shaw and Tomljenovic's data also show that the correlation between ASD prevalence and aluminum adjuvant exposure appears to be highest at three to four months of age, and that children from countries with the highest ASD prevalence (the UK and U.S., followed by Canada and Australia) appear to have a much higher exposure to aluminum from vaccines, particularly at two months of age. The period between two and four months is one of major developmental transition with regard to sleep, temperature regulation, respiration and brain wave patterns — aspects of brain function that are impaired in autism.

Tomljenovic and Shaw state: "To the best of our knowledge, these results are the first to show that aluminum, a highly neurotoxic metal and the most commonly used vaccine adjuvant, may be a significant contributing factor to the rising prevalence of ASD in the Western world."

How to reduce your exposure to aluminum:

  • Limit your consumption of all processed food and drink.
  • Read labels on personal care products — and choose with care.
  • Switch to an all-natural, non-aluminum containing deodorant (not antiperspirant) or make your own.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Abstain from recreational drug use.
  • Swap out aluminum cookware for stainless steel or enamel cast iron.
  • Research has shown that aluminum is released from aluminum foil and foil products: Avoid using aluminum foil when cooking dishes with acidic foods, such as tomatoes, apples, citrus fruits, rhubarb, asparagus, sauerkraut, etc. And, aluminum foil should not have direct contact with food during cooking, says Exley.
  • Exley also recommends drinking 1 liter of silicon-rich mineral water daily. Any mineral water where the silicon content (usually listed as 'silica') is greater than 30 milligrams per liter will help. Some brands of water with high silicon content include Fiji, Volvic and Spritzer.

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