Opinion » Antidote

Ligament Leaching Lattes

Actual treatment room discussion:

"My neck hurts because I've been drinking too many iced lattes." What? "Yeah, my old chiropractor told me that coffee leaches manganese from your ligaments, I think that's why my neck hurts." Leaches manganese? "Yep. That's what he said, so I need to get some manganese supplements." Uh, before you run out and buy some, let me look into that; maybe I'll write a column about it. "I really wish you would; you might help somebody."

At least she didn't say I might finally help somebody. That particular comment usually comes at the bottom of the flaming e-mails pointing out my clearly inadequate research in matters ranging from ozone air purifiers to mangosteen juice. They're probably right; Medline, the EPA and National Institutes of Health are simply propaganda tools and can only aspire to be as evenhanded as multi-level marketing homepages. As for accusations regarding my questionable parentage, I'll look into it.

Fortunately, it didn't take much looking into manganese to determine that either my patient misremembered her doctor's advice or she was yet another victim of clearly inadequate research. Ligaments—the fibrous connective tissue that straps bone to bone—are formed mainly of collagen, a strong and elastic protein. While making collagen does indeed require manganese, a deficiency of this trace mineral is exceedingly rare. In fact, a lack of manganese would more likely cause a serious diabetic-like state rather than mild neck pain. Another minor problem with her doctor's leaching theory is that coffee, far from using up the mineral, just happens to be an excellent source of manganese.

Not to be confused with magnesium (a very different essential mineral), manganese requirements are comparatively minute, though still very important: It helps create important antioxidants that protect the body against highly reactive chemicals to which we are exposed daily. Also, it plays a role in making the joint lubricant chondroitin (best known for A Trip to Wounded Knee with co-star, glucosamine). Essential in tiny amounts, too much manganese can be quite toxic—just ask anyone who mines it out of the ground.

The grey ore of manganese is used extensively in steel production and as a gasoline additive. For nearly two centuries, it's been known that working with the raw ore causes a degenerative brain disorder with characteristics similar to Parkinson's disease. Inhaling the dust and fumes produced during processing may result in a permanent condition called manganism. In addition to the Parkinson's-type symptoms, toxic levels of manganese can also cause an aggressive and psychotic reaction known as "manganese madness." In a phenomenon that has surprised absolutely no one, swarms of trial lawyers are now recruiting the maddest of the miners in hopes of big settlements with processing plants.

The natural presence of manganese in ground water has inspired a recent hypothesis that inhaling the vaporized mineral during your daily shower may expose you to toxic levels. Early research using rodent models has proved convincing enough to raise an alarm. Apparently, misted manganese may circumvent the normally protective blood-brain barrier and travel directly through the olfactory (smell) nerve endings into the brain—though more than a decade of daily 10-minute showers are necessary before theoretical levels are reached. Fortunately, municipal water supplies usually monitor for excess manganese, which leaves well water as the more potentially harmful source. An overlooked breakthrough may be the scientist's ability to convince rodents to take showers.

The point of my litany of toxicity horror stories is to drive home the point that supplementing with manganese is a very bad idea—in fact, it should only be done under the direction of a medical doctor. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine released guidelines containing a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (maximum safe amount) for manganese to be 11 mg per day. Normal dietary intake provides plenty at about 2-3 mg per day. A strong caution: Some joint health supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin also contain up to 30 mg of manganese in each daily dose. I recommend you check the labels and discard any bottles containing the mineral.

The vast majority of us get more than enough manganese in even the typically bad American diet. If you are still concerned that you're deficient, eating more whole grains, nuts, green leafy vegetables (and even drinking iced lattes) will almost certainly provide enough to ease your mind. Oh yes, I'm certain to get more hot-under-the-collar e-mails from the Society Against the Defamation of Supplements' Manganese Defense Fund, but I'm ready: I've double checked my sources and, just in case, pulled a copy of my birth certificate.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send shower respirators and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).