Have you ever experienced depression, irritability, mood swings, tremors, autoimmune diseases, chronic infections, felt sluggish, or lost in a state of brain fog? Maybe you sought the opinion or help of a medical professional or health care practitioner in diagnosing or treating troublesome symptoms like temporary memory loss, fatigue, insomnia, joint pain, or headaches, only to have them tell you they can’t find anything wrong with you, or your blood work up, that points to a treatable diagnosis?
Even worse, when you get a diagnosis and are treated for it but the symptoms persist! This can often happen because symptoms like these are consistent with a variety of different health problems or conditions –including clinical depression, Lyme Disease, chronic fatigue, even cancer –which makes them hard to pin down.
If you or someone you know has had an experience like this, you may be suffering the effects of heavy metal toxicity. The most abundant and potentially deadly heavy metals in the environment are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, which separately and collectively can damage your nervous, immune, and reproductive systems.
These metals are naturally occurring in soil, present in herbicides and pesticides, and are released into the air via wood-burning stoves, car exhaust, fuel additives like MTBE, and even cigarette smoke. What makes them heavy is their gravity relative to that of water. The scary part is that these metals enter into your body on a daily basis, through your lungs, digestive tract, and skin, and can affect just about anyone regardless of profession or economic status.
Like it or not, if you eat fish, inhale second-hand smoke, drink water, or simply breathe the air, there’s a good chance you’re getting exposed to them and probably more often than you realize.
Chronic exposure to low levels of heavy metals don’t cause health problems right away, so unless you have a an acute case of something like Mercury poisoning –which manifests symptoms like impairment of peripheral vision, tingling in the hands and feet, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, and impairment of speech, hearing, and walking– then you could be building up exposure over a long period of time which can lead to problems down the road.
When confronted with the symptoms of metal toxicity, most physicians don’t think to look at heavy metals as the underlying cause of the ailment or the disease that may have resulted from it. To confound matters, sensitivity can vary, with some people developing symptoms at lower levels of exposure than others.
Although a large percent of metals are excreted from the body through sweat, urine, and the bowels, whatever your body can’t eliminate gets socked away in places that aren’t vital to maintaining life –mainly body fat, teeth, and bones.
The only effective way to remove metals from the body is through a process of either oral or intravenous chelation. This is the natural detoxification process whereby specific organic molecules (usually amino acids) “grab” onto the metal molecules in your body to form complex ring-like structures called chelates that move the metals out. Many amino acids like NAC (N-acetyl Cysteine) and ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid), and liver supporting herbs like Silymarin (Milk Thistle), as well as sulfur compounds, are chelating agents that help the body excrete metals.
The Metal and The Damage Done
Here’s a brief run down on the four most potentially harmful metals, the harm they cause, and how to reduce your exposure to them:
ARSENIC. There are two types –organic and inorganic. The former occurs naturally in the earth and small amounts are actually necessary for proper bodily function. The latter is a known carcinogen released into the air by burning fuels and coal as well as through widespread use of weed killers and pesticides. The wood industry is one of the biggest contributors to arsenic pollution and has used arsenic to preserve wood since the 1940s. An estimated 90% of wooden play structures, decks and picnic tables are made from arsenic-laced wood.
Chronic exposure to low levels of arsenic can create problems for all your organ systems and is strongly linked to lung and skin cancer. To lower your exposure to this metal eat organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables; avoid insecticides and weed-killers (if you have to spray avoid products containing lead arsenate); keep children away from wood treated with chemicals; avoid eating food directly off picnic tables or food that has come in direct contact with picnic tables; and consider replacing treated wood in and around your home with newer, non-toxic alternatives like bamboo.
CADMIUM. Found deep below the earth’s surface, it began contaminating the food and water supply when people started mining for zinc, which is often found mixed with cadmium. Since cadmium is naturally drawn to zinc it can elbow zinc out of the body –throwing key biological processes out of whack. Too much cadmium can eventually lead to a depressed immune system, kidney damage, and cancer.
To lower your exposure to this metal, don’t eat refined grains (when grains are refined, the outer zinc-rich layers are stripped off and the cadmium-rich kernel is retained). Instead, eat zinc-rich foods like whole grains, beans and nuts. Avoid inhaling cigarette smoke –either directly or indirectly. One cigarette contains 1 microgram of cadmium. When smoked, 30% of a cigarette’s cadmium is absorbed directly into the smoker’s lungs. The rest is released into the air.
LEAD. Discovered as a by-product of smelting silver, this metal has been used by humans since the beginning of civilization. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that affects brain development and the nervous system. Too much can be deadly. Until the 1970s, gasoline and lead-based paint were the biggest contributors to lead pollution. Today one of the main sources of lead exposure in adults is drinking water contaminated from old lead pipes and faucets. Other common but not so obvious sources of lead exposure come through burning candles with lead-based wicks, and for women, using lipstick –many of which have been found to contain alarming levels of lead.
High lead levels can damage arteries, cause irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and hypertension. Unfortunately, there is no known level of lead that is safe for humans. To reduce your exposure to this metal, avoid burning candles made with lead wicks and find natural alternatives to commercial lipsticks. If you drink tap water, run the tap for a few minutes to flush out any standing water from the pipes that may have been contaminated, or install a water-filtration system. And use low or no VOC paints, especially inside your home.
MERCURY. Coal-burning power plants are the biggest producers of mercury pollution –spewing about 98,000 pounds of mercury into the air. From there, mercury seeps into rivers, lakes, and oceans where it’s absorbed by small organisms like algae, then makes its way up the food chain to bigger and bigger fish –becoming more concentrated at each level. Seafood remains the biggest source of exposure though there’s still some debate as to which fish to avoid. Shark, swordfish and tuna seem to be the worst offenders.
Another common source of mercury exposure is the fillings in your teeth though the potential harm from this is also hotly debated. Because mercury is a potent neurotoxin that disrupts the development of the central nervous system, it poses the biggest threat to pregnant women, children, and teenagers. Mercury competes with oxygen for space in red blood cells. When oxygen can’t get thru the body is deprived of energy.
To minimize exposure to this metal, be careful what fish you eat and how often you eat it. Aim low on the food chain and if you have to eat tuna stick to light canned tuna or fresh yellowfin tuna, which are likely to be less contaminated. If you have mercury filings, find a holistic dentist experienced in the removal of mercury fillings and get them replaced with less toxic fillings.