Functional and natural medicine live in a world where their angry cousin, conventional medicine, keeps shouting for evidence, for studies, and for proof. Thankfully, the vast majority of what we do has sound evidence to support it directly or indirectly. The moaning and groaning of the grumpy cousin are therefore unwarranted- except for the rare times when someone in our fields forgets the evidence to push the hype. In the case of using either humic acid and fulvic acid as a toxin binder, I am still waiting for some cold hard facts, for studies that show efficacy or potential mechanism of action.
Why pick on humic acid and fulvic acid when so many are touting its benefits with big name products and promises of the “gentle detox”? Well, it’s like this: if these two little so-called wonders are actually imposters, then my patients are wasting time and money on an ineffective therapy instead of the tried-and-true products we have evidence for. Basically, I am against using these newcomers to the detox world alone, instead of other, more proven therapies. I actually recommend a particular product that contains some humic and fulvic acids, but I depend on the charcoal and zeolite clay in the product rather than the extra acids.
As many have recently asked me about these humic acid/ fulvic acid alone products or asked to switch over to them for detox, I decided it was time to “dig” into this dirt sourced product for a final answer, an answer better than a website making unsupported claims of success after success. The humic acid and fulvic acid are really a group of different complex chemicals made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygens derived from decaying organic material in soil. The exact chemical structure depends on what organic matter is the initial ingredient, which microbes are in that soil, and other environmental factors of the location.
The proposed mechanism of benefit is said to arise from the multi-fingered carbon backbone with various polar groups on the end that can bind various metals and toxins deep in the body tissues. Supposedly, the acids collect various good minerals from their soil source, deliver them to cell after absorption from the gut into the blood, and then pick up toxins to pull out for excretion. All this depends on the “energy” (mentioned frequently in a podcast and on product websites) of acidity.
Wow. Safe as dirt. Works wonders. Little side effects. Magically delivers good nutrients and pulls away bad stuff for the trash heap. Even better, you can take it with just about anything unlike charcoal and clay in other toxin binder products. Must be lots of scientific support for these claims…
Well, not so much. I first looked at 2 or 3 well known product websites for humic and fulvic acid. There was a lot of talk about ‘science proves this’ and ‘science proves that’, but I found no articles or links to scientific sites. Very disappointing. Then I checked out a few internet gurus who had written about these substances or the particular products. Still, not much. There were some citations for other benefits such as skin health and nutrient delivery, but no solid support for detox.
Without much to go on that would prove the product claims were science supported, I took to my own research. A quick Pubmed search for “humic” or “fulvic” brings up 106 articles from 1986 to present. Okay, something to work with.
Looking through the 106 links gave me the following possibilities that might support use for detoxing in humans. Most of the links were not related to my query:
Winkler, J., & Ghosh, S. (2018). Therapeutic Potential of Fulvic Acid in Chronic Inflammatory Diseases and Diabetes. Journal of diabetes research, 2018, 5391014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/5391014
Swidsinski, A., Dörffel, Y., Loening-Baucke, V., Gille, C., Reißhauer, A., Göktas, O., Krüger, M., Neuhaus, J., & Schrödl, W. (2017). Impact of humic acids on the colonic microbiome in healthy volunteers. World journal of gastroenterology, 23(5), 885–890. https://doi.org/10.3748/wjg.v23.i5.885
Zhou, S., Chen, S., Yuan, Y., & Lu, Q. (2015). Influence of Humic Acid Complexation with Metal Ions on Extracellular Electron Transfer Activity. Scientific reports, 5, 17067. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep17067
Other sites provided some references, but none directly looked at toxin reduction in humans. There were some studies addressing humic or fulvic binding metals in water. There were some studies addressing other benefits of these substance, but NOT detox.
Pure Himalayan Shilajit https://www.purehimalayanshilajit.com/fulvic-acid/
Also noted on Pubmed were a few articles addressing potential side effects of these substances:
Ghio, A. J., & Madden, M. C. (2018). Human lung injury following exposure to humic substances and humic-like substances. Environmental geochemistry and health, 40(2), 571–581. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-017-0008-5
Sudre, P., & Mathieu, F. (2001). Kashin-Beck disease: from etiology to prevention or from prevention to etiology?. International orthopaedics, 25(3), 175–179. https://doi.org/10.1007/s002640000179
Gonzalez, D. H., Soukup, J. M., Madden, M. C., Hays, M., Berntsen, J., Paulson, S. E., & Ghio, A. J. (2020). A Fulvic Acid-like Substance Participates in the Pro-inflammatory Effects of Cigarette Smoke and Wood Smoke Particles. Chemical research in toxicology, 33(4), 999–1009. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chemrestox.0c00036
Kihara, Y., Yustiawati, Tanaka, M., Gumiri, S., Ardianor, Hosokawa, T., Tanaka, S., Saito, T., & Kurasaki, M. (2014). Mechanism of the toxicity induced by natural humic acid on human vascular endothelial cells. Environmental toxicology, 29(8), 916–925. https://doi.org/10.1002/tox.21819
Peng, A., Wang, W. H., Wang, C. X., Wang, Z. J., Rui, H. F., Wang, W. Z., & Yang, Z. W. (1999). The role of humic substances in drinking water in Kashin-Beck disease in China. Environmental health perspectives, 107(4), 293–296. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.99107293
Yang, C. L., Bodo, M., Notbohm, H., Peng, A., & Müller, P. K. (1991). Fulvic acid disturbs processing of procollagen II in articular cartilage of embryonic chicken and may also cause Kashin-Beck disease. European journal of biochemistry, 202(3), 1141–1146. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1432-1033.1991.tb16482.x
This article mentions the use of the substances for detoxifying soil but not animals:
Bi, D., Yuan, G., Wei, J., Xiao, L., Feng, L., Meng, F., & Wang, J. (2019). A Soluble Humic Substance for the Simultaneous Removal of Cadmium and Arsenic from Contaminated Soils. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4999. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16244999
I have not read all these articles, but from the titles and a few abstracts I did read, I am ultimately ‘not digging this’. If we are going to win others over to the real benefits and real hopes in functional medicine, we either need to use pre-done science as proof or do the studies needed for proof. Until then, we should be very careful about making promises we can’t back up.
One last pet-peeve… after listening to the one reasonable podcast interview on humic and fulvic acids, I must emphasize that claiming a Christian inspiration for a product does not mean it is the real deal. The interviewed expert should not have suggested this was spirit inspired or alluded to the Bible’s mention of our being made of the dirt as a reason to ingest an unproven substance. Nor does eating dirt mean you are ‘grounding’ with the earth.
Helping you restore a healthier abundant life means more than just providing recommendations and discounted supplements. It also requires taking time to understand the science behind our recommendations. It requires pointing out which therapies don’t work and which ones are yet to be proven. Until further evidence is available I will stick to the binder therapies which at least have animal and (some) human data, along with plausible mechanisms. So far, humic and fulvic acid, regardless of which brand you buy, lack all three.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.