If you eat sushi regularly or have old-school silver crowns in your mouth, you may be storing an unhealthy amount of heavy metals in your body—maybe even to the point of toxicity.
Most adults accumulate some level of metal in their bodies over time, according to Elson Haas, MD, director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin and author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition. The problem occurs when there’s too much for the body to handle. “Metals that the body doesn’t get rid of through urine or stool get stored in the kidneys, bone or brain,” he says. Symptoms of metal poisoning range from fatigue, nausea and hair loss to simply not feeling well. Some reports have even associated metal poisoning with serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s and cancer. While those links have not yet been proven, Haas says, he believes metal toxicity causes memory issues and increases the risk of dementia.
And it’s not only fish and fillings that are to blame for releasing toxins into our bodies. We can absorb heavy metals from the environment—water pollution, industrial waste, some pesticides, certain paints and even dark hair dyes. Foods grown in metal-laced soil are another potential source of toxins.
There are about 20 metals generally regarded as “heavy,” says Haas. The most toxic are mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic and nickel. But this is where it gets tricky. Not all heavy metals are a health risk—some are actually good for us. “Minerals such as zinc, copper, chromium, iron and manganese are essential to body function in small amounts,” Haas explains. “It’s those metals the body doesn’t need that cause stress on the nervous system and brain function.” And these unwanted metals can show up in a number of places.
Mercury is the metal that’s getting the most attention these days, partly because it’s the easiest to get too much of—especially if you like fish. Large breeds, like shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and tuna, are higher on the food chain and live longer, so they have more time to build up mercury, which originates from algae at the bottom of the food chain. There’s no consensus about how much is too much, so Haas recommends eating a variety of fish several times a week, focusing on the smaller fry. On the Food and Drug Administration’s OK-to-eat list are salmon, sardines, shrimp, pollock, tuna (canned light), tilapia, catfish and cod. The Environmental Protection Agency advises pregnant or breastfeeding women, however, to eliminate the big types of fish from their diets entirely.
Mercury makes up half the metal in dental fillings, along with aluminum and nickel, says Stephanie Cave, MD, who practices integrative medicine in Baton Rouge, La., and is in favor of having all old amalgams removed.
Certain vaccines contain mercury and aluminum, according to Cave, who advises, “Any metal can affect a child, so ask your pediatrician.”
Cave says aluminum can turn up in antiperspirants, so use deodorant instead.
Unhealthy amounts of cadmium can build up in the body—particularly if you live in an industrial city, since the metal is released into the environment through the mining and burning of coal. Another culprit: cigarette smoke, inhaled and secondhand.
Soil and water
Cadmium can enter the food chain via plants like wheat, rice and potatoes grown in contaminated soil, or via shellfish from polluted water. This heavy metal is not easily eliminated by the body, says Haas, but it’s also one of the few that won’t travel to the brain. Arsenic can also leach into the soil from contaminated water and pesticides. (Remember that arsenic rice scare a couple of years ago?) The FDA has been tracking the arsenic levels in rice and fruit juices for the last two decades.
So what’s a person to do?
Although anyone can experience heavy metal overload, some people are genetically more prone to toxic buildup, according to Cave. These individuals have a “methylation defect” and cannot detox as effectively due to low glutathione, an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals. If you’re one of these people, or are chronically tired, irritable or simply curious, consider checking out your metal levels, then possibly getting treatment.
The first step is a urine test. If high levels of metal show up, you may be a candidate for chelation therapy (“chelate” means to grab). This treatment involves taking a DMSA capsule orally or getting an IV that contains substances that latch onto the heavy metals and flush them out through urine.
Chelation is controversial and costly, however. The therapy can run up to $5,000 and, if done improperly, may remove too many healthy minerals, cautions Haas. “To me, the best chelating is naturally and slowly over time—three to six months or more—which prevents any toxicity reactions like headache [or] fatigue,” says Haas, who uses small doses of DMSA along with natural chelators like cilantro, garlic and chlorella.
Although foods and most other things we come in contact with don’t have a heavy metal “warning label,” you can still try to limit your metallic intake by paying attention to what you consume. You can also incorporate the abovementioned foods—cilantro, garlic and chlorella—to help carry these toxins out of your body. But Hass recommends keeping everything in perspective. Yes, tuna and swordfish have mercury, but “fish is still good-quality food,” Haas says. “My suggestion is to rotate types to avoid persistent intake of toxins.”
The same goes for foods grown in soil that may have trace amounts of minerals. To wit: The metal thallium recently caused a flap because “some research showed a link between heavy kale consumption and a variety of medical ailments due to thallium,” explains Haas. The report went viral, though there’s no substantive proof, says Haas. His take? “I’m still eating kale.”
- Preventive Medical Center of Marin
- Food and Drug Administration: Foodborne Illness Contaminants - Metals
- Health Physics Society
- American College for Advancement in Medicine
- Healthy.net: Cadmium
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vaccines
- Food and Drug Administration: Apple Juice & Arsenic
- Dr. Andrew Weil: Chelation Therapy