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Metalhead: Could toxic heavy metals be making you ill?

Reading time: 8 minutes

Could pervasive heavy metals like lead and mercury be making you sick? Here’s how to spot the signs and symptoms, says Dr Leigh Erin Connealy, and your action plan for effective detox

Toxic heavy metals are all around us. They’ve been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, so it’s vital you’re aware of where they may lurk and how to rid your body of these noxious elements. Here’s a guide to the worst ones to watch out for and what you can do about them.

Common problematic heavy metals

There are multiple ways to be exposed to heavy metals—from the air you breathe, the foods you eat and the water you drink to the fillings in your teeth and the cosmetics and personal care products you routinely slather on your skin. Some of the most toxic and damaging heavy metals are mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium, chromium and arsenic.

A recent study looking at the toxic mechanisms of some of these metals found that “bioaccumulation of these heavy metals leads to a diversity of toxic effects on a variety of body tissues and organs. Heavy metals disrupt cellular events including growth, proliferation, differentiation, damage-repairing processes, and apoptosis.”1

In other words, the buildup of these toxins wreaks havoc throughout the body, changing how your cells function, grow, multiply, repair themselves and die. Any time foreign elements begin disrupting the body’s natural processes, disease has a chance to take root.

Long-term exposure to heavy metals has been linked to several problems, including reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, oxidative stress, DNA damage, enzyme inactivation, inflammation, and more. As the study above explains, the effects of heavy metals can be acute or chronic and can affect a wide range of different body organs.

Research has long supported the link between heavy metals and cancer. In a landmark study published in the Journal of Cancer Prevention, the authors listed cadmium, chromium, arsenic and nickel as class 1 carcinogens (substances known to cause cancer) and noted that “almost all heavy metals induce various cancers and diseases.”2

Signs and symptoms

One of the most significant issues with heavy metals is that they are hard to detect and diagnose. Your heavy metal burden can build slowly and silently over time, causing symptoms that patients—and even most doctors—miss until more severe problems arise.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of exposure to these toxic heavy metals (see chart, xx) can help you determine whether detox therapies are necessary. Working closely with an integrative physician trained in diagnosing and treating heavy metal burdens is essential, as many of the recommended treatments can be done only under a doctor’s care.

Cutting-edge diagnostics

Conventional medicine relies almost solely on blood and urine tests to detect heavy metals. They work okay, but their shortfall is that they do not always reveal the actual levels in the body.

The human body is quite adept at protecting itself. To shield vital organs, the toxic heavy metals are often pushed into the peripheral tissues and not released into the bloodstream; hence the blood/urine tests come back with low levels. More finite tests that can detect these heavy metals throughout the body are required, and that’s where Oligoscan comes in.

One of the newest modalities we’ve been using at the Cancer Center for Healing and the Center for New Medicine, Oligoscan (oligoscan.fr) is a cutting-edge diagnostic tool that not only detects hard-to-find heavy metals but also reveals whether a person has mineral deficiencies or excess oxidative stress. It uses high-tech spectrophotometry, a technology that measures light absorbed by the body.

Oligoscan can instantly measure, evaluate and share data regarding a patient’s trace mineral reserves, the level of oxidative stress in their bodies and their toxic heavy metal burden. Treatment plans are based on the types and levels of minerals and metals detected.

Fast, noninvasive and extremely accurate, this diagnostic tool will be making waves in integrative medicine for years to come.

Effective detoxification therapies

Once your practitioner has determined you have heavy metal toxicity, it’s essential that you begin detoxing to reduce your heavy metal load. We recommend the following therapies and supplements to our patients at the Centers.

We also suggest you find an integrative physician near you who is well versed in these protocols. Excellent resources for choosing a practitioner are the American College for Advancement in Medicine (acam.org) and the Institute for Functional Medicine (ifm.org).

EDTA chelation

EDTA chelation therapy is one of the most effective ways to remove toxic heavy metals from the body. The term chelation is derived from the Greek word for “claw”—an apt description as this therapy uses ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid (a synthetic amino acid related to vinegar) to bind to and carry toxins out of the body via the urine.

Developed in Germany nearly 90 years ago, EDTA chelation has proven highly effective in reducing heavy metal burdens, especially lead. Research suggests it can be a successful adjunct therapy3 for the following conditions:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • Coronary artery disease

Both oral and intravenous (IV) EDTA chelation are available, with IV typically being the most potent and effective. There can be side effects, though, so talk to your integrative physician about which treatment protocol is right for you.

Infrared sauna

One of my favorite—and most highly recommended—therapies for detoxification of any kind is infrared sauna. Because the skin is the body’s largest detoxification organ, it makes sense that releasing toxins through this pathway would be effective.

Using infrared heat to induce sweating helps usher out all sorts of unwanted toxins, from pesticides, drug residues and acidic wastes to heavy metals. In addition to detoxing the body, regular use of infrared sauna helps to increase circulation, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, relieve stress and promote relaxation.

I recommend infrared sauna therapy to the majority of my patients and have been using it regularly for nearly a decade. Sauna therapy is offered at medical clinics, gyms and spas, or you can purchase a variety of in-home options. While not all saunas are created equal, as long as you can increase your body temperature and get the sweat flowing, some of these incredible benefits will still apply.

It’s always best to consult your doctor before beginning infrared sauna—or any new therapy. Though generally safe and well tolerated, infrared sauna may not be suitable for people with very high or very low blood pressure.

Detoxification baths

One simple and effective detox treatment you can do at home is to take regular Epsom salts baths. This pure mineral compound is made up of magnesium and sulfate. Magnesium helps regulate hundreds of enzymes in the human body, while sulfates flush out toxins and aid in the absorption of nutrients. In addition to detoxing, the benefits of Epsom salt baths include pain relief and reduced inflammation.

To maximize your detox efforts, consider adding Enviromedica’s Magnetic Clay Bath (available from perfectlyhealthy.com in the US and livevitae.com in the UK). This uniquely potent formula made up of optimal-grade, desert-sourced, mineral-rich clay and sea salt is designed to gently draw toxins and impurities out of the body. It’s even more effective when combined with Epsom salts and baking soda.

For the ultimate detox bath, mix 1 cup baking soda, 2 cups Epsom salts and ¼ cup Magnetic Clay in a bowl with water and add to the running tap. Soak for a good 20 minutes or so in warm or hot water, relax and enjoy.

Dry skin brushing

Dry skin brushing is a do-it-yourself lymphatic drainage therapy that is excellent for aiding in detox. Lymph is the clear fluid that delivers disease-fighting agents into your cells and escorts germs, toxins and all the other “gunk” out. Dry brushing is even more effective when performed prior to infrared sauna and detox baths.

You start with a long-handled, soft, natural-bristle brush (found in health food stores or online) and simply brush your skin in long, sweeping strokes in the direction of your heart. Make sure to cover both sides of the body, brushing your arms, legs, chest, abdomen, back, hands and feet.

Skin brushing stimulates lymphatic flow, breaking up blockages in the system. It’s an excellent detox therapy and needs to be done for only five to ten minutes each day to be effective.

Supplements

Toxin-binding supplements or agents, such as zeolite and chlorella, can be effective as well. Taken orally, they help remove toxins from the body by fastening onto them and carrying them out of the body via the urine. They’re widely available in health food stores in stand-alone or combination products.

Suggested dosage: Follow instructions on the product label

Quinton hypertonic and isotonic seawater liquid mineral supplements (available from perfectlyhealthy.com in the US and proactivehealthcare.co.uk in the UK) help to improve your mineral status, which is key to detox.

Suggested dosage: Follow instructions on the product label

Act fast

If you have unexplained symptoms or you just aren’t feeling your best, heavy metals may be the culprit. Talk to your integrative physician about testing, treatment and ways to lower your heavy metal exposure in the future.

Don’t wait; allowing these toxins to remain in your system for prolonged periods can wreak havoc on your health. The good news is that it’s relatively simple to start the detoxification process and begin your journey to optimal well-being.

Sources of heavy metals

Modern industrialization has been a boon in many respects, but the environmental toll has been disastrous. Contamination of water sources and the air we breathe is more prevalent now than ever before—especially from heavy metals. The list of sources is long, but here are some ways you may be exposed to mercury and other problematic heavy metals.

Auto exhaust
Pesticides
Fertilizers
Dental amalgams (silver fillings)
Drinking water (tap and well)
Rice (depending on the source)
Felt
Plumbing (piping)
Bleached flour
Processed foods
Fabric softeners
Calomel (talc, body powder)
Paint pigments and solvents
Cinnabar (used in jewelry)
Laxatives
Mercurochrome/merthiolate
Cosmetics, especially mascara
Floor waxes and polishes
Wood preservatives
Adhesives
Batteries
Air conditioner filters
Large, predatory fish (king mackerel, shark, swordfish, tuna and tilefish)
Improperly coated plates, food containers and cookware
Tattoos

Did you know?

Heavy metals can transfer to a fetus in the womb through the mother’s placenta. This is one reason pregnant women are advised to limit their intake of mercury-laden fish.

Signs and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning

Here are the main heavy metals to watch out for and the signs and symptoms that suggest you may have a buildup of them in your body and need to detox.

Heavy metal Signs and symptoms
Mercury

 

Irritability, anxiety, restlessness, fearfulness, loss of memory, insomnia, lethargy, suicidal tendencies, tremors, incoordination, MS, bleeding gums, foul breath, dizziness, ringing in the ears, hearing difficulties, food sensitivities, chronic diarrhea or constipation, abnormal heart rhythm, elevated cholesterol, abnormal blood pressure, allergies, chronic headaches, subnormal body temperature, unexplained anemia, weight loss, numbness and tingling of hands, feet, fingers, toes, or lips
Lead

 

Anemia, anorexia, anxiety, bone pain, brain damage, cancer, constipation, convulsions, decreased IQ, DNA damage, drowsiness, fatigue, headaches, hypertension, hypothyroidism, infertility, irritability, insomnia, kidney damage, learning disabilities, loss of muscle coordination, memory difficulties, menstrual disorders, mitochondrial damage, muscle pain, pallor, sexual dysfunction, sperm damage, tremors

 

Aluminum

 

Colic, dementia, esophagitis, gastroenteritis, kidney damage, liver dysfunction, loss of appetite, loss of balance, muscle pain, psychosis, shortness of breath, weakness

 

Arsenic

 

Abdominal pain, birth defects, burning of the mouth and throat, cancer, cardiac arrhythmias, coma, decreased white blood cells, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, neuritis, peripheral vascular problems, pigmentation changes, skin lesions, vascular collapse

 

Cadmium

 

Anemia, autoimmune diseases, birth defects, cancer, depressed immune-system response, dry and scaly skin, emphysema, fatigue, hair loss, heart disease, hypertension, impaired neurological function, infertility, joint pain, kidney stones or kidney damage, liver dysfunction or damage, loss of appetite, loss of sense of smell, lung cancer, osteoporosis, testicular dysfunction, yellow teeth

 

 

References
  1. Front Pharmacol, 2021; 12: 643972
  2. J Cancer Prev, 2015; 20(4): 232–40
  3. JAHA, 2022; 11(6): e024648
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