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About a year ago, patients started coming into my office and asking me questions about this new miracle cure-all.
One patient heard it could cure his arthritis.
Another told me her daughter swore it would make her hair shinier. She said she’d been drinking it for three days straight and asked if I could see a difference. I did not. But then, I’m no hair expert.
A third patient wanted to know if I thought he should buy a $45 canister of powdered bone broth that promised to help him lose weight.
And finally, one of my favorite patients, Mira, a 93-year-old grandmother of seven, told me she’d been making her grandma’s recipe for bone soup for the last 60 years. She swore it kept her a “hot item” (her words, not mine) in the dating pool because it helped her get rid of cellulite!
So I did what any self-respecting doctor would do: I asked Google.
Research versus Buzz.
I Googled the term “bone broth” to see what the buzz was about. I came up with hundreds of blogs and articles all about its history as an age-old, catch-all remedy. And, many health sites seemed to be selling new bone broth products claiming it’s rich in nutrients to help fend off inflammation, fix leaky gut syndrome, heal skin, and even improve general digestive health.
But it turns out, there’s not much research to back up those claims. However, before deciding whether or not something’s truly healthy, it never hurts to ask, ” Just what is it, exactly?”
For starters, bone broth is made from—that’s right—bones.
Basically, people cook the bones at low heat for a really, really long time. The broth can be made from the bones of any animal. The most popular broths are made with beef or chicken. In some cases, recipes even call for heads and feet.
On top of it all, there’s no real tried and true recipe. But, there are a lot of questions when it comes to boiling bone broth:
>> What animal should be used?
>> At what temperature should the broth boil?
>> What about adding onions, garlic, herbs?
>> Do varying ingredients or cook times change the nutritional value?
>> How long should it cook?
Now depending on how the broth is made, the nutritional value can actually change. So if we were to use a processed broth product, how do we know what we’re getting? The answer is…we don’t.
But, is it good or bad for our health?
Well, any broth aficionado will say the secret to a successful bone broth is in how long it’s left to simmer. Thing is, the process must take a long enough time for all the connective tissue to dissolve so the minerals can make their way into the broth.
If it’s a beef bone broth, at least a day is necessary to make sure all of the cartilage dissolves. But the problem with cooking a bone for so long is that a serious amount of glutamic acid will be released into the broth. Glutamine is the molecule responsible for the savory, satisfying flavor known as umami.
Now, glutamic acid is the most common non-essential excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. (1) Simply put, a neurotransmitter is like a little messenger that runs information between a nerve and the other cells in our bodies. And an excitatory neurotransmitter increases the chances the carried information will stimulate an action potential—or a tiny explosion of electrical activity. (2)
Now, glutamate happens to be an excitotoxin—in other words—a substance able to bind to certain receptors in the brain and body, and destroy neurons. (3)
And again, when it comes to glutamic acid, we could be doing some real damage. Dr. Russell Blaylock states:
“Scientists have learned from many studies that certain parts of the brain are especially sensitive to excitotoxins. High concentrations of these chemicals in the blood affect the brain.” (4)
Is leaky brain possible?
It turns out, glutamic acid is monitored by the brain. Lately, it seems leaky gut syndrome is being talked about all over the web. This is when the protective lining or barrier of the gut becomes compromised due to an imbalance of good bacteria and bad bacteria. (5)
Believe it or not, our brains have a similar barrier. And it’s possible a large intake of glutamic acid could increase brain barrier permeability—in other words, it might cause perforations or small holes in the brain barrier. The result is similarly called “leaky brain.”
An excess of glutamine might contribute to some troublesome, recognizable signs of leaky brain which include the following:
>> Leaky gut
>> Mood swings
>> Blurry vision (6)
But, there are even more disconcerting possibilities when it comes to bone broth. For example, if the bones used come from the wrong animals, those consuming the broth could become overexposed to lead. Turns out, lead can build up in plants and animals in a contaminated habitat.
Lead build up in animals.
Most often, lead build up can be traced to animals raised in the developing world.(7) Now, not all animals are contaminated, of course. But widespread use of the metal has unfortunately caused serious environmental contamination in many places throughout the world.
For instance, in Alberta, Canada, case histories of pasture-raised cattle have suggested that lead poisoning occurred as a result of the cattle eating soil where crankcase oil had leaked from discarded batteries in the field. (8) And that’s just one example!
So, we can never be too careful. It’s best to research where meat comes from and stay away from regions in which mining, smelting, manufacturing, and recycling activities, use of leaded paint, leaded gasoline, and leaded aviation fuel are prominent. (9)
Now nature’s smart, animals naturally store lead in their bones. It’s a sort of biological self-defense mechanism. So if the meat or bones used in a broth come from a polluted environment, they could be very high in lead.
Also, lead can affect any organ in the body. The best known cases explore effects on the nervous system, kidneys, and bones. (10)
In fact, cattle are susceptible to lead poisoning because tools made of lead (or containing lead) are quite often found on and near farms. Anything like batteries, discarded oil filters, crankcase oil, and old paint cans can cause contamination.
In certain instances, lead exposure in cattle has even impaired their nerves, digestive tracts, muscular systems, and caused depression, colic, ataxia, and blindness. There have even been cases of lead poisoning of cattle from ingesting silage in the United States. (11)
In a recent study, broth made from contaminated bones was significantly higher in lead content than from the tap water used to make it. (12)
Even more to be concerned about.
In addition to the whole lead issue, there’s Neu5Gc to consider. Found in red meat and pork, Neu5Gc is a sugar molecule that’s linked to serious health issues (including the formation of tumors, heart health issues, and inflammatory concerns). (13) Not only that, but the concentration increases as the molecule is cooked—not good news when it comes to simmering broths for over 24 hours.
More research needs to be done in order to decipher whether or not there is a significant amount of Neu5Gc in the bone itself, but until we know more, I highly recommend staying away from beef bone broth.
Tips when drinking bone broth.
Furthermore, when considering adding bone broth to a healthy diet on a regular basis, we’ve got to do our best to:
>> Research the sources of the meat we eat.
>> Try to use pasture-raised sources.
>> And, as always, drink in moderation (by which I mean, once or twice a week at most).
Does this mean all bone broth benefit claims are bogus?
Well, there’s likely some truth to certain claims about bone broth.
For example, a study of 15 people found that sipping hot chicken soup increased the flow of mucus much better than sipping either hot or cold water. (14) So, I can buy the claim that chicken soup helps clear out sinuses.
But for instance, when it comes to claims about restoring collagen with bone broth, NPR recently reported, “Since we don’t absorb collagen whole, the idea that eating collagen somehow promotes bone growth is just wishful thinking.” (15)
That’s William Percy’s take. He’s an associate professor at the University of South Dakota’s School of Medicine. He just doesn’t think broth can do much of anything for our skeletal systems.
So while some research does support bone stock having certain benefits, like a mild anti-inflammatory response, the possible negative side-effects might be reason enough to monitor bone broth intake.
The lesson here, for those who choose to consume bone broth, is to please allow the time to do some research first. Then if bone broth still seems worth a try, please limit consumption to a cup once or twice a week.
And again, try to avoid beef, lamb, or pork bone broth at all costs.
Remember, these particular meats are likely to have a higher concentration of lead contamination, and beef and pork are sources of potentially harmful Neu5Gc.
Remember, not all health trends are created equal. Most come and go. Be ready for this craze to fade into the background too, giving way to the next wave of marketing madness.
If you’ve given bone broth a try, did you seem to see noticeable results? Did you like the taste? Or did you just feel like you were drinking plain old soup? I’d love to invite you to share your comments and thoughts below or on Facebook.
(10) Cite Seer X
(11) RST2 – Stem Projects
(13) UC Davis Health
Author: Dr. Steven Gundry
Image: Courtesy of author
Editor: Deb Jarrett