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Mercury in Rice. What it means for you and for children.

Key points for Mercury in Rice:

Mercury from air pollution accumulates in rice

Mercury in rice may be high enough to harm brain development

Relying on rice as a staple food may be bad idea.

We know mercury is bad for you. It harms brain development and increases risk of heart disease. There is also evidence that it may increase risk of diabetes (Jeppesen et al. 2015).  It is especially bad for pregnant women, young infants and women who may become pregnant because of the harm it may do to their future children. Women and children (as well as men) are advised to limit the amount of mercury they eat by limiting intake of some kinds of fish.  Older, larger predators (swordfish, tuna) that eat high on the food chain are likely to have the most mercury. Younger, smaller fish have less time to build up mercury in their tissues.  They are thus less likely to pass it on to human consumers.   Fish, especially oily fish, has a lot of health benefits though.  Fish, or oil from fish, has been associated with reduced cardiovascular disease, less depression, and higher IQ. Regulators have tried to balance risk from mercury against some of the health benefits of fish.  That’s a tough one.  The best strategy seems to be to limit high-risk fish, and enjoy lower risk fish.

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Mercury in Rice: how it gets there

Mercury in rice starts with burning of coal, trash, and forest fires.  Mercury is released to air.  Mercury can travel the globe and is widely distributed.  The most dangerous form of mercury is methyl-mercury. This is mercury that has entered the environment and been transformed from elemental mercury to mercury with a methyl group on it.  The methyl group lets mercury lodge in fatty tissue, including the brain and other nervous tissue.  Methylation is done by bacteria in low-oxygen conditions.  The bacteria transform the mercury, small mud-dwellers pick it up.  The mud-dwellers get eaten by fish.  Which get eaten by larger fish. Which get eaten by us . . . where the mercury stays.  The bacteria that transform mercury are found on lake, river and ocean bottoms.  But these same bacteria are also found in rice paddies.  This mercury starts with air pollution, which settles in agricultural areas.  Sometimes far-away agricultural areas, but ends up in rice.   Scientists at the University of South Carolina and in China have been studying mercury in rice and its effects on children who do not eat fish (Rothenberg et al. 2016).  These are important studies because they show how mercury impacts children without the beneficial effects of fish confusing the picture. A strategy to reduce mercury exposure may be to reduce the amount of rice you eat.

Babies, Children and Mercury in Rice

So far the effects observed have been small, but measureable, declines in cognition. Or IQ to simplify things. It is important to note that the people studied live in China, and eat more rice than most Americans.  I asked the lead researcher, Susan Rothenberg, if American rice had less mercury than rice in China.  “unfortunately, American rice has similar levels of Mercury.”  So . . . it looks like buying local, or American rice, will not help.  Something that may be important is that rice is a staple food for babies. It is often the first solid food we feed our children.  One of the reasons we are advised to eat a varied diet is so that we will get a wide range of nutrients.  It can also be important to eat a varied diet so that you do not get too much of a particular contaminant like mercury.  I would not know what to suggest to parents, other than to talk to your baby’s pediatrician or dietary specialist for questions about child nutrition.  Varying a young child’s diet can be challenging.  Sorry there.  More research is coming out and we may reinvestigate mercury exposures in children.  Till then, less rice, perhaps.  Oh.  And clean air is important.

Genchi G, Sinicropi MS, Carocci A, Lauria G, Catalano A. 2017.  Mercury exposure and heart diseases.  Int. J Environ Res Public Health. 14(1): pii: E74. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14010074

Jeppesen C, Valera B, Nielsen NO, Bjerregaard P, Jorgensen ME. 2015.  Association between whole blood mercury and glucose tolerance among adult Inuit in Greenland.  Environ Res. 142(PtA): 192-7.

Rothenberg SE, Yu X, Liu J, Biasini FJ, Hong C, Jiang X, Nong Y, Cheng Y, Korrick SA. 2016.  Maternal methylmercury exposure through rice ingestion and offspring neurodevelopment: a prospective cohort study.  Internaional Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.  (In Press).

A Crossfit women considers alcohol consumption and its effect on performance

Can one daily drink of alcohol increase risk of heart disease?

Can one drink of alcohol increase risk of heart disease?  Reporters are saying a new study says “Yes”.  Many people have been advised through print or conversation that a daily glass of wine or beer is a healthy practice. And it might be for some. Many studies have found a longer lifespan in people who drink moderately.  People who are heavier drinkers have higher death rates, but so do people on the lower end of the scale when compared to “light to moderate” drinkers.  Heavy drinkers have been advised to drink less, while very light drinkers have been encouraged to drink a little more.  It has been thought that there is an ideal level of alcohol consumption for best heart health.

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The idea that some people are genetically vulnerable to alcoholism is widely known.  However, some people seem to be genetically-disposed to drink less.  It was assumed that people genetically-disposed to drink less alcohol would have poorer heart health on average than people who drank lightly to moderately because so many of them miss the “golden window” of optimal intake.

Genetic variant is associated with some measures of better heart health

A new study has looked at data on drinking habits health data from over a quarter of a million people who had participated in dozens of different studies.  The large amount of pooled data allows for a more powerful analysis and reduces the likelihood that any differences among groups was due to chance.  In this pooled data study, researchers compared drinking habits and health of people with a particular gene variant called ADH1B rs 1229984 A-allele had

  • lower BMI
  • lower blood pressure,
  • less interleukin-6 (a marker of inflammation)
  • lower levels of C-RP (C-reactive protein, another protein involved in inflammation and associated with poorer health)
  • narrower waists
  • lower risk of stroke.

Their risk factors for heart disease were 10% lower than non-carriers at each drinking level.

People with theADH1B are faster at metabolizing alcohol.  This leads to a rapid  increase in acetyl aldehyde (which is toxic and makes you feel crappy and can give you a hangover.)  People with this gene variant drink 17% less alcohol than people without the gene.  Apparently it puts them off alcohol a bit, but not really all that much.   Possibly they just don’t need as much alcohol to feel it’s effects.

One of the things the researchers mentioned in the paper was the possibility that reducing alcohol intake, even if you are a light to moderate drinker might improve your health.

Why this study may be important to the genetically “normal” person.

Many studies have shown that the dose-response relationship between alcohol intake and cardiovascular disease is U-shaped.  This is what you would see with vitamin A.  Too little is bad for you and too much is bad for you.  Moderate is best.  This study shows that people with the ADH1B have a linear curve for alcohol.  Their risk factors decrease steadily as intake moves from high to low:  /   that brown slash there is supposed to represent a linear relationship.  This means we might want to look a bit more into the dose-response curves for everyone.  Or dose-responses for specific groups.

Study limitations and things to consider

Articles in the press are starting to appear stating that lowering alcohol intake is better for everyone’s health.   It might. But it might not. It may be true only for ADH1B. They seem to have better heart health even when you compare heavy drinking ADH1B with heavy drinking “normals”.

Correlational studies matter.

As many like to remind themselves and others: Correlation does mean causality (if only I had a quarter for every time the phrase wafts by my ears!)   Statistics are a wonderful tool.  Epidemiology studies, which are correlational studies, have been incredibly valuable in figuring out what factors influence our health.   Human experimental studies are better in many respects.  Researchers can control many of the variables. But they are extremely difficult to do and very expensive.

Final take-away:  People with gene variant ADH1B may be able to lower their risk of heart disease by drinking less alcohol.  This effect has not been observed in people who have other forms of the gene.

Read the original BMJ article here.

Other WODMASTERS articles about alcohol and health:

Athletes Alcohol Performance and Recovery

Alcohol and Diabetes


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Holmes, M., M., Asselbergs, F., Sattar, N., Lawlor, D., Whittaker, J., Davey Smith, G., Mukamal, K., Psaty, B., Wilson, J., Lange, L., Hamidovic, A., Hingorani, A., Nordestgaard, B., Bobak, M., Leon, D., Langenberg, C., Palmer, T., Reiner, A., Keating, B., Dudbridge, F., Casas, J. et al . (2014). Association between alcohol and cardiovascular disease: Mendelian randomisation analysis based on individual participant data BMJ, 349 (jul10 6) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.g4164