In last week’s Health Tip we discussed the chemical swill accumulating in your body from a variety of sources, some obvious and some not.
This week we’re looking at heavy metal toxicity. For those who were otherwise preoccupied that day in high school chemistry, the heavy metals are a group of especially dense metals or metal-like substances (called metalloids) found in the environment. Let me say right up front that toxic heavy metals need to exit your body as promptly as possible.
These metals–specifically lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and aluminum–can all be absorbed by your body and stored there. Not that this is new. Here’s someone you might remember from 150 years ago. The expression “mad as a hatter” came from the mercury absorbed by people making felt hats. Did I mention that two years ago the Trump administration ordered a rollback of mercury regulations?
We tend to think that heavy metal toxicity happens to other people and not us. This is pure NIMBY (not in my backyard) logic. You protest that lead poisoning, which occurs when kids munch on sweet-tasting paint chips (among other ways), could only happen in neighborhoods and cities not as nice as yours.
Sorry, but lead exposure is mostly related to the age of housing and how much lead in old buildings is stirred up during renovation.
Heavy metal accumulation
As heavy metals accumulate in the body, any of them can cause multiple and mystifying symptoms, both physical and mental. When conventional physicians encounter a patient with longstanding and seemingly unrelated symptoms, they virtually never screen the patient for heavy metal toxicity.
The most common symptoms linked to heavy metal toxicity are fatigue, headaches, depression, brain fog (with measurably lower IQs in children), diminished memory and cognitive ability, and peripheral neuropathy (numbness/tinging in extremities).
Also, because toxic metals can make their way into the millions of metabolic reactions throughout your body, these metabolic processes start shutting down, triggering susceptibility to damage from free radicals, destroying delicate cellular membranes, and causing functional decline of brain, kidneys, heart, and bone marrow in addition to increasing susceptibility to certain cancers.
Scientists know for certain that heavy metal exposure/accumulation accelerates the aging process. Here’s just one of many studies on this subject, linking cadmium levels to walking speed (a common measurement of premature aging).
Your susceptibility to toxic metals is likely genetic, with some people more susceptible to accumulating (or being able to clear them) them than others. For example, a single meal of sushi can cause a measurable increase in blood levels of mercury in one person but not in another. You can get some idea of your genetic susceptibility with this simple test, which uses a scraping of cells from inside your cheek.
There are good reasons to get tested for toxic metals
First, if you’re pretty sure you have a history of exposure, get tested. For example, you once lived near a factory whose smokestacks were visible from your bedroom window, you’ve been living in an old building (pre-1950) for years, you do craft work with metals in an unventilated area, or you really like sushi (which carries methylmercury, also a toxin) and eat it a lot.
However, concerning dental amalgams, know that the Dental Amalgam Wars have been ongoing for 150 years (!), since amalgams were first introduced. The question: do dental amalgams, which are 40% mercury, actually release enough mercury to be a health hazard?
Remember, toxic metals remain stored in your fat deposits. If, as you look back on your life, you remember playing with those fascinating little beads of mercury for hours on end, you volunteered to clean out an abandoned paint factory (cadmium), or your hobby was making stained glass windows (lead in the solder), you should probably get tested.
Second, if you’ve got some of the chronic symptoms I listed earlier (fatigue, muscle/joint aching, brain fog) and you endlessly hear “We can’t find anything wrong with you and all your tests are normal,” get tested.
In addition, consider testing if you have any premature chronic health problems (heart, lung, or kidney disease or cancer anywhere in your body) that seem inappropriate for your age.
Listen up: when you care for your body correctly, your vital organs should last well until your late 80s or early 90s. If you learn that you’re falling apart prematurely, it’s possible you’re being poisoned by toxic metals you were exposed to long ago.
Getting tested for toxic metal exposure should be straightforward and fairly easy, but when patients want to explore testing, they meet with some real barriers. Except for the blood tests offered to children being screened for lead poisoning or to worried sushi devotees for mercury, most conventional physicians are taught little about toxic metal testing.
As a start, ask your doctor for a “toxic metal screen.” This is a blood test that should include lead, mercury, arsenic, aluminum, and cadmium, all of which are troublemakers. It’s worth noting that testing hair samples, popular several years ago, fell into disfavor when hair from the same volunteers was sent to four different testing labs and received four completely different results.
If the screen reveals that your blood levels of toxic metals are found to be virtually zero, you’re probably out of the woods. However, low blood levels indicate you’re still in the trees.
If any of your scores are not zero, consider the next step, called a “provoked urine challenge.” With this test, you’re given oral DMSA (dimercaptosuccinic acid), a chelating compound that literally pulls a sample of the toxic metals from storage in your body and sends them into your urine. You then mail a bit of urine to Doctor’s Data in St. Charles, IL, which has been testing for toxic metals for almost a half a century.
Since the vast majority of us have been accumulating toxic metals for years, this particular test almost always returns some positive results, which can look quite alarming to the uninitiated. The provoked challenge is considered controversial because most doctors don’t know what to do with the results.
However, take a look at this sample “post-provocation” urine test on a patient with symptoms of a previously undiagnosed chronic illness and suspicious-looking but low blood levels of mercury and lead. You can see that after the provoked urine challenge, many metals appear, but the indicators for lead and mercury (and aluminum) stand out clearly from the pack.
Because the chelating medication (DMSA) requires a prescription from a health care practitioner, clearing your toxic load is not something undertaken without the supervision of someone trained in Functional Medicine. If you want to proceed with diagnostic testing and heavy metal detoxification, schedule with me or any of our practitioners: Katie McManigal, N.P. Wendy Ploegstra, N.P., Rachel Gates, N.P. Caley Scott, N.D., Parisa Samsami, D.C.
Once you complete the steps, you’ll be able to access both your test results and our recommendations online.
David Edelberg, MD