Why molybdenum matters
Did you know, nutritionists actually book consultations with other nutritionists for their own health? This may surprise you! But it’s a lot easier to be accountable than heed your own advice. And there’s always learning to be done.
Recently, I met with a nutritionist who was keen to assess my molybdenum status. I was surprised. It’s not the most well-known of substances. But it is crucial stuff, and, I concluded, definitely worth a post. A nice nerdy one today.
So – molybdenum! Discovered and named in 1778 by a Swede. Hardly a pronounceable nutrient.
(Though I go by “Mol-LIB-den-um” and it seems to work.)
Why on earth should we care about molybdenum? It’s not even listed in the USA Department of Agriculture Food Composition Database. The NHS advice – very brief – assures that deficiency is near impossible.
Well: molybdenum is an essential trace element for the body. It’s substance we have to consume, albeit in tiny quantities, or we’ll suffer. So let us explore what it is, why this mouthful of a mineral is so important, and why deficiency can, in fact, easily happen.
Molybdenum and the liver
The first thing to say is that molybdenum supports the liver. In fact, it is vital for the liver. This is because molybdenum is a required element, or cofactor, for key enzymes to work. If these enzymes don’t operate, which can happen in heritable disease, then brain damage and death are a serious risk (Atwal & Scaglia, 2016). Quite serious.
Molybdenum supports a liver process called sulfation, one of the six Phase II detoxification, or bioelimination pathways which expel toxins from the body.
So let’s quickly understand the two liver detoxification Phases and why they’re important. (And for those in a hurry, just scroll down a bit to sulfation.)
Phase I liver detoxification is where toxins are prepared for excretion. I’ve heard it compared to the process of collecting all the waste from a household, ready to throw out. The toxins need to be prepared, because they tend to be fat-soluble, or fat-loving, whereas our elimination routes (sweat, urine, stool) are water-based. So the toxins are formed into intermediate compounds that can eventually become water-borne. And these compounds can be pretty toxic still.
Phase II detoxification, or conjugation, is the process of making these intermediate compounds water-soluble enough to excrete. This is a bit like sorting the household rubbish into different sorts of recycling and composting – different toxins get treated differently according to type. There are six avenues or ‘pathways’ for this Phase of detoxification, rather like six different recycling bins.
The great thing is to have one’s Phase II detoxification working properly, otherwise it’s rather like letting household rubbish lie around uncollected – half-prepared toxins that hang around too long can become even more harmful than before.
One of the Phase II pathways is called ‘sulfation’. This is where molybdenum comes in, as an essential cofactor for the sulfation enzymes to work.
Sulfation is important for getting rid of body-made toxins, like used neurotransmitters or used sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone, as well as external toxins, such as alcohol, or medications like paracetamol.
It is a sobering thought: every single medication or toxin we take in, has to be processed and cleaned out by the liver. And on top of this, the body is constantly producing its own toxins to clean up. Extra toxins coming in always mean more liver-work to get them out!
Sulfation is also crucial for dangerous sulfites – like the sulfites in red wine - to be transformed into safer sulfates in the body. It processes sulfur-rich foods such as cabbage, eggs, brussels sprouts, garlic, onions, seeds, legumes. Having problems with these foods may be an indication that sulfation isn’t working optimally, and is sometimes linked with asthma (Green and Garneau-Tsodikova, 2010).
Molybdenum is sometimes used by people trying to get rid of candida yeast infections, because it breaks down acetaldehyde, one of candida’s metabolites. (This metabolite is also produced by alcohol, which is why candida sufferers can feel ‘hung over’ without actually drinking alcohol. And certain yeast infections, together with a sugary diet, can even produce ethanol within the body, causing genuine tipsiness… but that is another story...)
Now, most nutrition research assures us that it’s rare to be deficient in molybdenum and that we are likely to get more than enough of it from normal foods (Ayling, 2014).
Top molybdenum-containing foods include dried peas and pulses, grains like oats, nuts, and green vegetables like broccoli. Nothing too exotic or difficult to find.
So why is my nutritionist interested in molybdenum?
As it turns out, molybdenum is an element that should be abundantly available in our diets, but in practice, it is often not available in sufficient amounts.
One reason for this is soil content. It’s known that molybdenum concentrations can vary considerably between soils (Gupta, 2018). And of course plants growing in depleted soils, and animals feeding from deficient plants, produce food that lacks molybdenum (Novotny, 2011).
The second reason is that the pesticide glyphosate can prevent plants from accumulating even the molybdenum that is present in the soil (Zobiole, 2010). Hence, eating organic food sources of molybdenum is important.
The third reason, is that glyphosate chelates, or binds to, various metals, including molybdenum. Thus, residues of glyphosate in our bodies from non-organic plant products (and actually a variety of other sources, even drinking water) may prevent ingested molybdenum from being used (Samsel and Seneff, 2013).
Do we need more molybdenum?
So, should we all be taking molybdenum supplements?
Thankfully, no. We can do our best to ensure intake via organically grown sources of the foods listed above, and most of us should be OK.
But if you have noticeably strong reactions to caffeine, alcohol (and wine in particular), garlic and onions, and perhaps even cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts – and if yeast infections have been an issue – then it may be worth considering a test.
A hair mineral test analysis can show what your molybdenum levels have been like for about the last 3 months, and from this one can decide whether and how to supplement. But, as always with functional medicine, it’s reliable testing AND the person’s symptoms, taken together, which direct any actions taken.
Perhaps the reason molybdenum is only beginning to gain attention, then, is that its deficiency is a relatively recent problem. It was not a difficulty our great-grandmothers faced. Indeed, many of today’s deficiencies, allergies and sicknesses are closely connected with the very dramatic changes which have occurred during the last century or so, in the way we farm, process, market and consume food.
These changes have certainly brought great challenges to world-wide health. But they can also act as an invitation to re-consider and re-imagine our own approaches to eating, as well as the farming, making and selling we support.
And if the mysterious molybdenum has called our attention to these larger matters, then this post has done its job!
Thank you for reading - and I hope you have a wonderful rest of the summer.
To your best of health,
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT, Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
Consultations in London, in West Sussex, and online
Atwal, P.S., Scaglia, F., 2016. Molybdenum cofactor deficiency. Molecular Genetics and Metabolism 117, 1–4.
Ayling, R., 2014. Clinical biochemistry of nutrition, in: Clinical Biochemistry: Metabolic and Clinical Aspects: Third Edition. pp. 180–199.
Green, K.D., Garneau-Tsodikova, S., 2010. 5.15 - Posttranslational Modification of Proteins, in: Liu, H.-W. (Ben), Mander, L. (Eds.), Comprehensive Natural Products II. Elsevier, Oxford, pp. 433–468.
Gupta, P.K., 2018. Illustrated Toxicology. Academic Press.
NHS UK, 2017. ‘Vitamins and Minerals - Others’. nhs.uk https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/others/.
Novotny, J.A., 2011. Molybdenum Nutriture in Humans. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med 16, 164–168.
Samsel, A., Seneff, S., 2013. Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol 6, 159–184.
Zobiole, L.H.S., Junior, R.S. de O., Kremer, R.J., Muniz, A.S., Junior, A. de O., 2010. Nutrient Accumulation and Photosynthesis in Glyphosate-Resistant Soybeans Is Reduced Under Glyphosate Use. Journal of Plant Nutrition 33, 1860–1873.