Heavy Metals are highly toxic elements…
… that can be a threat to the health of people and wildlife even in environments that are not obviously polluted (US Geological Survey). When they accumulate in the body they act as free radicals, cause oxidative damage to cells and impair the function of many important enzymes. As most heavy metals have a long half life, they still can be found in tissues years and even decades after contamination. Even if they do not cause disease, they prevent the body from functioning optimally.
Where do Heavy Metals come from?
Some heavy metals occur naturally in the environment (arsenic in well water); most are a result of industrial pollution.
- Mercury, the most toxic of all heavy metals, is found in fish and shellfish , amalgam fillings, air from spills, incinerators and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels, preservatives in vaccines (Thimerosol), workplace contamination (dental, health services, chemical, and other industries that use mercury), contamination of supplements (non purified fish oil or cod liver oil; herbs from China or India).
- Lead is found in old, lead based paint and in ceramic products. It contaminates the environment through burning fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing (production of batteries, ammunition, metal products - solder and pipes - and devices to shield X-rays).
- Arsenic is used as a wood preservative (contamination through breathing saw dust), in pesticides, semiconductors and car batteries. It is also found in well water and fish.
What are the Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity?
As Heavy Metals affect many organs and functions of the body, they elicit complaints and symptoms that are different from person to person and do not easily fit into the usual diagnostic categories. Therefore they often are difficult to diagnose. Here are some of the symptoms of chronic mercury toxicity:
- Nervous System: Irritability, low concentration, memory loss, insomnia, depression, anxiety, tingling of the extremities, tremors, disturbed sense of smell and taste (metallic taste), unexplained burning sensation or numbness, pain, headaches, fatigue, tinnitus.
- Immune System: Chronic or frequent viral, bacterial or fungal (Candida) infections, autoimmune disorders, allergies. The EPA has determined that methyl-mercury is a possible human carcinogen.
- Cardiovascular: Abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy.
- Skin: Eczema, allergies.
- Endocrine System: Hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, adrenal disease, infertility.
- Gastrointestinal: Food sensitivities, bacterial or fungal overgrowth, recurrent parasitic infections, abdominal cramps, irritable bowl symptoms.
- Systemic: Premature aging, fatigue, fibromyalgia.
Mercury and Neurodegenerative Disease
Mercury is a neurotoxin that has been recognized as a possible co-factor in Alzheimer’s, MS, ALS or Autism. People with a genetic weakness to detoxify environmental toxins are more susceptible to mercury. The combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental exposure increases the risk to get sick. For example, people with an Apolipoprotein E4 Genotype lack the ability to shuttle mercury out of the cell. As a consequence mercury accumulates intracellularly and promotes disease. Genetic testing can reveal a weakness in detoxification pathways.
Allergies to Heavy Metals
Exposure to heavy metals has a toxic effect (heavy metal toxicity), but it can as well can induce a hypersensitivity reaction (heavy metal allergy, Type IV). If a person is allergic to a specific heavy metal, even relatively small amounts of that substance can pose significant health risks. Metal induced allergies cause chronic inflammation. It is believed that this constant activation of the immune system can promote various neurological and autoimmune diseases.
Mercury and Pregnancy
Children, elderly and sick people are more susceptible to the toxic effects of heavy metals, but the developing brain of a fetus is by far the most vulnerable. Mercury passes from the mother to the fetus and can cause mental and developmental retardation. Therefore the FDA issued the following three guidelines for pregnant women:
1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
2. Eat not more than 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.
More stringent recommendations advise to entirely avoid fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding and instead to rely on purified fish oils for Omega 3 fatty acids. Wild Alaskan salmon is mostly seen as safe. Placement or removal of silver amalgam fillings during pregnancy and breastfeeding is outlawed in many European countries.
How is Mercury Toxicity diagnosed?
Diagnosing chronic exposure to mercury can be challenging. It relies on the following factors:
- Symptoms: As mercury can cause a multitude of complaints, relying on symptoms is difficult and can be misleading.
- History of exposure: Is there any industrial exposure? How much fish was consumed and which kind? Dental history?
- Blood, Urine and Hair analysis: Unless there is an acute and recent exposure or mobilization of mercury, mercury is not found in blood, urine or hair. In chronic toxicity, mercury accumulates in the connective tissue and inside the cells.
- Challenge Tests: This is the best method to diagnose chronic exposure to mercury. After taking a chelating agent like DMSA (Chemet) – a medication that mobilizes and binds mercury – the urine is collected for 6 hours and then toxicologically analyzed. The results of a challange test best correlate with the body burden.
How to medically treat Heavy Metal Toxicity
If done right, Heavy Metal Detoxification is a safe and well-tolerated process. For most people it takes between six and twelve months. Here are some of the important elements:
- Nutrition and Lifestyle: During detoxification the diet should be rich in protein, Omega 3 fatty acids and clean water. Regular exercise and saunas are supportive. Dehydration or constipation should be avoided.
- Supplementation: Antioxidants, Minerals and herbal Chelators.
- Medical Chelators: Medications like DMSA or EDTA are used to effectively bind and excrete heavy metals either through the liver and the intestines or the kidneys.