The early Greeks used hot baths and purgatives, massage and even blood-letting as a method for balancing what Hippocrates referred to as the body's 'humors'. The Romans used saunas, skin-scraping and bathing to aid health and longevity, and were not unaware that lead in cookware and eating utensils was a possible health risk.
Traditional Chinese medicine releases stored toxins through a regime of acupuncture, diet and herbs. In India, Ayurvedic medicine uses Panchakarma, a system of individualized massage, medicinally herbed oils, purgatives, enemas and blood-letting to relieve toxic overload, followed by a palliative regime of fasting, saunas, pungent herbs and specific exercises to neutralize any remaining toxins. Native Americans used the sweat lodge to rid the body of both physical and mental/emotional impurities.
But not until the 20th century and the discovery of chelating agents—substances that bind to heavy metals such as mercury, lead, plutonium and uranium—did the detoxification process radically change to include the effective elimination of metals.
The accumulation of heavy metals in the body causes an increase in the production of free radicals and oxidative stress, leading to inflammation and, eventually, illness.
Heavy-metal toxicity negatively affects cell membranes and mitochondria as well as the enzymes involved in metabolism, detoxification and damage repair. It can cause DNA damage, cell death, cancer, cardiovascular disease, developmental problems, neurological and neurobehavioural disorders, damage to the kidney, liver and brain, headache, poor attention, irritability, loss of memory, diabetes, hearing loss and anaemia.1
Heavy-metal toxicity is also associated with fibromyalgia,2 multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.3
As they accumulate, these metals also create something called 'adducts', which stick to membranes, proteins and other cell organelles, making them look abnormal to the immune system. As a result, the immune system goes into attack mode, causing inflammation and tissue damage that shows up as a myriad of health problems—from arthritis and fibromyalgia to a leaky gut.
According to Dr Damien Downing, a London practitioner of ecological medicine, adducts can also attach themselves to DNA with some rather devastating consequences.
"When that happens, the DNA can't be expressed properly," he says. The ATP supply—the coenzyme adenosine triphosphate which carries energy to the cells—is inhibited. The result? "You've got fatigue and lack of energy and so forth."
German chemists seeking to replace citric acid as a chelating binder for workers exposed to lead in paint manufacturing (as well as looking for an alternative to citric acid as a water softener) synthesized ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), which quickly became popular as a therapy for arsenic poisoning from chemical weapons developed in World War II, as well as a way to mitigate radiation poisoning.
Administered intravenously, intramuscularly and orally, EDTA and the other chelators that followed, such as DMSA (dimercaptosuccinic acid) and DMPS (dimercapto-1-propanesulphonic acid), rapidly gained use as a medical treatment for cardiovascular disease and other conditions.
Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US sanctioned the use of chelation for the treatment of lead poisoning, hypercalcaemia (abnormally high calcium levels) and ventricular fibrillation as a result of digitalis (derived from the plant foxgloves) toxicity.
Unfortunately, all three types of pharmaceutical chelation therapy can have have side-effects, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, low blood pressure and kidney damage. A few deaths have even
All three therapies also require close monitoring to make sure no liver or kidney damage results from the heavy load of metals being drawn out of the body—some of which is actually reintroduced into the system through the 'enterohepatic circulation', where some of the transported metals, while flowing from the liver into bile, become absorbed into the small intestine, only to be transported straight back to the liver.
Pharmaceutical chelation therapy also pulls essential minerals out of the body along with the heavy metals—a situation that can be highly debilitating. Downing says the chelation process requires constant rebalancing of the minerals in the body. "You have to keep putting all the minerals back and keep monitoring," he says.
Despite these problems, chelation rapidly became the 'go-to' method not only for eliminating heavy-metal toxicity, but also as a testing device for substances like lead and mercury, a particularly stubborn neurotoxin.
"Mercury sticks to fatty tissues like those of the brain, and is exceptionally difficult to release," says London nutritional therapist Tea Novo. "Dental amalgams account for approximately 90 per cent of the body's mercury load, with the second being seafood. But there are many more, and some from quite surprising sources of mercury, such as crematoriums and energy-saving light bulbs."
Chelation challenge-testing to assess the 'body burden' of mercury—the reservoir of deeply embedded mercury gathered over a lifetime of exposure—eventually became the gold standard for both allopathic and alternative physicians seeking to diagnose mercury toxicity in their patients.
Yet recent studies indicate that the chelation challenge for mercury is far from accurate. In fact, it may be downright deceptive. One study found that the DMSA chelation challenge was only useful as an indicator of recent exposure and could not reveal past mercury exposure or body burden at all,4 a limitation that has proved true for DMPS too.5
Another problem with challenge-testing is the fact that the test for mercury does not differentiate between inorganic mercury, which accumulates from silver-mercury amalgam fillings, and methylmercury (meHg) or organic mercury, up to 90 per cent of which comes from eating fish and shellfish.6
Another form of organic mercury to which people are regularly exposed is ethylmercury (etHg). This is the form of mercury contained in the preservative thimerosal, still used in some vaccines. Although originally considered safe even with repeated vaccine exposures (in people as well as in animals), recent studies have found that exposures to both etHg and methylmercury (meHg) at the same time—which is likely to happen in real life—may well have "enhanced neurotoxic effects", especially in developing children.7
Challenging the challenge approach
Dr Christopher Shade, an expert in mercury toxicity and lipid-based nutraceutical delivery systems in the US, says that chelation challenges may also end up making a lot of people who are already sick even sicker.
"You start stirring up this stored mercury with high-dose chelators, and other metals get stirred up as well," he says. "Another problem is that . . . even healthy people show big elevations of mercury and lead in their urine after these challenges. And the doctors interpret this and say, 'Oh, you have all of this mercury and lead, and now we have to go and chelate you.'"
To address all the problems inherent in pharmaceutical chelation and challenge-testing, Shade developed what is called the Mercury Tri-Test. Currently the only clinical test that uses 'mercury speciation analysis'—a patented technology that separates meHg from inorganic mercury and measures each of them directly. This means that the Tri-Test measures mercury levels in hair, urine and blood without the need for challenge-testing. This then allows physicians and other therapists to assess the various sources of mercury the patient is exposed to, as well as determine the body burden and capacity of the individual patient to eliminate both forms of mercury from the body—all of which is necessary information for implementing a successful detoxification strategy.
In conjunction with the Mercury Tri-Test, Shade also developed a radically different kind of three-part detoxification protocol incorporating a heavy metal intestinal cleanse called IMD (Intestinal Metal Detox), a product called Clear Way Cofactors (a proprietary blend of polyphenols (organic molecular compounds of carbonic acid), as well as alpha lipoic acid, heavy-metal cleansing vitamins (B1, B5, B6) and selenium), and finally a Liposomal Nutrient Delivery product rich in glutathione, the body's own natural antioxidant and cell-detoxifier, vitamin C, R-Lipoic Acid and EDTA with R-Lipoic Acid. This includes the use of phospholipids—fatty molecules that form the structure of cell membranes in the body.
Despite being a three-part system, Shade says it isn't automatically a 1-2-3 process. Every patient is different. Sometimes, if there's a lot of inflammation, or if the body's transport system is not flushing adequately, or if the IMD triggers an increase in free radicals, the nutrient phases have to be juggled. "Body reactions are happening at a millisecond scale and all three phases can be happening at the same time," says Shade."The key is to get balance to the reactions."
IMD itself consists of highly purified silica with covalently attached thiolic groups with strong metal-binding interactions. These latter agents act like glutathione, easily attract metals, and supplement the natural actions of glutathione in the intestines.
And because IMD is claimed to not enter the bloodstream, it doesn't contribute to the redistribution of mobilized metals back to the liver and kidneys, which can lead to kidney/liver overload. This is especially important for people suffering from a leaky gut.
"With leaky gut, the reabsorption rate during regular chelation is even higher," says Shade. "The reason it's important that the toxins that move down into the GI tract are rapidly removed and not reabsorbed is because these toxins cause a lot of irritation and inflammation. And inflammation in the GI tract is what's leading to the leaky gut in the first place. So binding up the toxins is an integral part of being able to heal a leaky gut situation."
Another major difference with IMD is that liposomal glutathione and some of the other compounds in the formula step up transferase activity, stimulating the enzymes that transport material between cells.
"IMD makes mercury and other toxins more kidney-filterable, more soluble to transporters in the kidneys," says Shade. "So, in effect, we are working from the cell all the way down from the top of the chain to the bottom because we're affecting the intracellular processes. We're also coming in and fixing damage in the cellular system with phospholipids."
In comparison, pharmaceutical chelators like EDTA, DMSA and DMPS pull toxins only from the blood circulation, and do nothing to restore damaged cellular systems or assist in intracellular transport.
"When trying to help the body detox, you need to consider all organs of elimination, not just the blood," says Novo. "The body needs all the help it can get once the process is underway. The liver, kidneys, lymph and the gut all need to be supported."
When they are, unlike pharmaceutical chelation, not only is the removal of toxins more effective but, in her experience with IMD, there are no side-effects, aside from some patients experiencing minor brain fog, tiredness and intestinal gas.
But does it work?
Although there have been no independent studies on Shade's detox protocol, it is supported by some recent studies showing that thiol-modified nanoporous silica can be used as an oral therapy to both prevent and treat heavy-metal toxicity, and that these substances are "highly efficient" at binding heavy metals.8 An earlier study had shown that nanoporous silica, when properly prepared to bind metal atoms, "could be a valuable material" when used in a wide range of detoxification therapies.9
Shade says his testing has been extensively validated for accuracy and precision, even though diagnosing toxicity is tricky—given that the toxic effect of aheavy metalis not necessarily correlated with the amount present in the body.
"Genetic and epigenetic influences, immune response and comorbidities [other conditions like infections] strongly affect the body's tolerance or susceptibility to toxic effects of any substance," he says. Approximately 80 per cent of patients successfully reduce their heavy-metal loads with his protocol, claims Shade. Those who don't succeed usually have systemic infections that are limiting detoxification rates.
"My protocol supports liver processes through supplying phosphatidylcholine for membrane stabilization and proper bile formation and flow," Shade says. The protocols also provide neurological support through sources of choline and antioxidants, and by lowering toxic-metal levels in the brain.
"There is a period of initial intense detoxification where you can get a lot of recovery, maybe up to 75 per cent," he says. "And then getting the rest is going to take a longer period of time. It depends on what the problem is."
As an example, he relates the case study of a 56-year-old client, a company CEO, who was referred to him by a functional neurologist. The patient was presenting with fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and early-onset Alzheimer's. Not surprisingly, he also exhibited very high mercury levels.
"We did a very in-depth detoxification with our normal system," Shade says. "And we did a lot of phosphatidylcholine [a class of phospholipids that help heal cellular structures, including the cell membrane]. We also put a lot of extra liver support in there."
After about seven months, the patient's early-onset Alzheimer's had almost completely reversed, and all of his liver markers—the fatty liver and insulin resistance—had virtually disappeared.
Detox success stories
The following two successful cases, both of which used Dr Christopher Shade's detoxification protocol, were treated by nutritional therapists Tea Novo and Andrea Paskova, who run nutrition and detox programmes in London.
When 72-year-old Marlene sought treatment, she had heavy-metal toxicity in her body from eight amalgam fillings. Her symptoms included multiple sclerosis (MS), a leaky gut and painful recurrent
Yet, she was not showing much mercury (Hg) release into her urine, hair or blood, according to Dr Shade's Mercury Tri-test, which Novo says pointed towards the presence of high levels of mercury being retained in the body.
"We started her on a low challenge diet—which means anything that can present a challenge for a person's digestion, like grains, sugar, gluten and lactose. These are removed from the diet as they would cause a blood sugar imbalance and, hence, stress," she says.
Naturopathic treatments were also prescribed, and Marlene was subsequently put on Dr Shade's Quicksilver Detox Qube for three months—which he claims supports natural detoxification and nourishes the cells through a highly bioavailable form of glutathione.
After the three-month protocol, the patient reported feeling significantly clearer, with no more signs of MS. Her energy levels were also much higher.
"At this point, we suggested removal of dental amalgams, as we felt the patient was not able to contend with earlier removal due to the high mercury in tissues," says Novo.
Mark was a 10-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder. His parents noticed that, despite having started talking at the age of 12 months, he suddenly became non-verbal immediately after his 13-month inoculations. When Mark showed up at the clinic, he was suffering from leaky gut symptoms and allergies to eggs, peanuts, fish and dairy.
"The mercury Tri-Test was not done as we suspected his Hg [mercury] levels were high, given the nature of his condition and symptoms presented," says Novo. "We put Mark on a low challenge diet, and supplements to improve intestinal function."
After six weeks, Novo slowly introduced IMD—Shade's intestinal cleanse—said to optimalize the natural removal of metals through the gut by delivering insoluble thiol groups [organosulphur compounds] to bind and remove the heavy metals accumulated in the intestines, and to directly neutralize free radicals.
"We also introduced liposomal vitamin C (a product, like Shade's liposomal glutathione, which is more bioavailable) while incrementally increasing the IMD dose from half a spoon to three-quarters over the period of three months," she says. During this period, Mark's gut health improved, and his egg and fish allergies disappeared. At the end of the three-month protocol, he was even able to communicate through a limited number of words.
Other natural chelators
A number of naturally occurring plant peptides and byproducts are effective as metal-binding compounds or as inhibitors of heavy-metal absorption in the first place.
Onion and garlic extracts have both been found to reduce cadmium toxicity (at least in rats).1
Cabbage and broccoli, members of the Brassica family, are known to bind heavy metals, and have also been investigated as a natural means of removing soil contaminants.2
Cilantro, or coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is an effective inhibitor of lead deposition in bones and in the kidneys, most likely because of its chelating effects.3
Citrus pectin, used since the 1920s to mitigate the side-effects of heavy-metal contamination in workers involved in paint manufacturing, has more recently been found to reduce toxicity by an average of 74 per cent.4
Bran fibre—the outer layers of cereal grains—can reduce the uptake of toxic metals, especially mercury, cadmium and lead; during chelation, it can also hamper the reabsorption of the metals being released. But note: soluble fibres like flaxseed increase the uptake of cadmium.5
Chlorella, single-celled green algae, can reduce methylmercury levels in both the brain and kidneys within as little as three weeks.6 Chlorophyll binds with heavy metals in the intestines, preventing their spread to other parts of the body, while recycling metallothionein, a protein made by the liver that moves heavy metals from deep within organs out into the excretory system. Super-rich in methylated B12, the algae support methylation—the creation of methyl groups of hydrogen and carbon—to help shift heavy metals out of the body.
Chlorella can also be used (instead of activated charcoal) beneath the dam placed over the tooth when removing amalgam fillings to minimize mercury vapour exposure.7
Suggested daily dosages: low dose: 0.25-1 g with meals (to bind heavy metals in food); mobilizing dose: 3-9 g either all at once or divided with meals; chelating dose: two to three times the mobilizing dose
Glutathione, the body's naturally occurring antioxidant, binds to heavy metals and helps flush them from the body.
Taurine and methionine, sulphur-containing amino acids, have been shown to reduce oxidative stress in cases of lead toxicity.8
Selenium can increase mercury elimination and reduce oxidative-stress.9
Zeolites, especially clinoptilolite, are microporous aluminosilicate minerals, formed naturally and commercially, that can bind with certain heavy metals, toxins and harmful chemicals, allowing them to be excreted from the body.
Bentonite clay, like zeolite, carries a negative charge, making it bind easily to damaging heavy metals and toxins.
of Oral Medicine and