Medanta expert Dr. Mittal on Litchis
Is the Muzaffarpur litchi toxicity story a unique finding? Outbreaks of a similar illness have been reported in Vietnam and Bangladesh. Although associated with litchi consumption, the exact relationship with litchi or its contents was never clearly established. It has been known since 1962 that litchi contains naturally occurring toxins called hypogycin A and methylene cyclopropyl glycine (MCPG), which lower blood glucose. Toxins are found in greater amounts in unripe fruit than in fully ripe ones. Litchi toxins cause a severe disruption of metabolism. When we starve, blood glucose levels tend to drop—the liver then pours out glucose into our circulation as a protective mechanism. Toxins in litchi block the liver’s glucose synthesis and so the organ is unable to respond to food deprivation. In Muzaffarpur, many of the affected children were from economically weaker sections of society, and were malnourished. When poorly nourished children with limited liver stores miss dinner, their sugar level tends to drop even more. This drop in glucose leads to seizures or epileptic fits, loss of consciousness, and along with other metabolic disturbances, may prove fatal.
An increase in commercial litchi production, which has made the fruit abundantly available in areas like Muzaffarpur, has led to easy access. It is quite understandable that children preferred to quell their hunger by consuming delicious litchis in orchards and subsequently missed their evening meal.
For safe’s sake, litchi consumption by children should be controlled by parents. This is especially true of those living in litchi growing areas. And children should never miss a meal, particularly dinner. In case of illness, the blood glucose level should be checked, and if needed, glucose given.
Does this mean the beginning of the end for litchis? Probably not. The fruit will continue to be enjoyed across India and the world—but yes, certain precautions in its consumption will become the norm. Urgent public education in this regard is a must.
And maybe a day will come when we will actually be able to extract these low blood glucose producing ‘toxins’ from litchis and use them to treat diabetes. more