A 55 YO male presented to our office with a diagnosis of chronic Lyme. His primary symptoms are intense, migrating myalgias. In his own research (keeping a pain diary) he makes the discovery that 15 minutes after eating “natural” turkey lunch meat, he has a profound flare in pain. An ingredient in this meat? Carrageenan. Check out some details on this often-used thickening agent and its close association with pain and inflammation:
When I wanted to discover whether there was any evidence to associate carrageenan with pain, I headed to the scientific literature. First I looked at whether carrageenan is associated with/causes pain…. and YES, it looks like carrageenan is regularly used to induce inflammation and pain in research studies:
• This report outlines models of pain provocation in animal research studies, injecting substances including carrageenan: http://www.paincenter.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Inflammatory%20pain%20models%20lecture.pdf
• http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12927629 Another study using carrageenan injection to produce hyperalgesia in rodents. Interestingly the effect is bilateral even though injection is unilateral, and acute pain caused by carrageenan is shown here to convert to chronic.
But that is through injected routes, not oral. So can carrageenan enter the bloodstream orally? …. More digging in the literature suggests it’s possible:
• http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4390184/ This study used oral carrageenan in rats and demonstrated systemic effects on insulin sensitivity, fasting glucose levels, and lipids. However, they did not directly measure carrageenan in the blood, so it leaves open the possibility that the effects are gut-mediated, perhaps via microbial activity.
• http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22011715 This is another study showing that oral carrageenan impaired glucose tolerance. It also included a cell culture which was able to demonstrate similar effects, significantly increasing the likelihood it is carrageenan directly that can enter the blood stream and create this effect.
So we can correlate carrageenan with inflammation and pain, and also with systemic effects via oral consumption. Absorption of carrageenan may also be suspected to increase with intestinal hyperpermeability. Certainly a plausible cause for concern. The amount of carrageenan used in these studies is higher than what most of us are exposed to in our regular diets, but it seems the amounts may still be enough to provoke symptoms in individuals who are highly sensitized through comorbidity or whose gut dysfunction causes increase absorption into circulation.
Authored by Dr. Kara Fitzgerald and Romilly Hodges, MS