Are Heavy Metals to Blame for Your Mysterious Symptoms?
Heavy metals are all around us. Our modern world exposes us to heavy metals on a daily basis, many of which our body was not designed to process. High amounts of heavy metal exposure can cause health problems and even lead to heavy metal poisoning or heavy metal toxicity. Heavy metal toxicity can cause irreversible damage and in some cases, be life-threatening.
What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are substances that are naturally formed in the earth’s crust. Due to modern industrialization, there are many heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc. Not all heavy metals are toxins, and some, like iron and copper, are needed to keep the body healthy.
Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity
Symptoms of heavy metal toxicity can vary depending on the amount of exposure. Acute toxicity happens when you get a high dose at once, such as a chemical spill or a child swallowing a toy containing heavy metals. Acute toxicity is a medical emergency and you should seek urgent care or call your local poison control center immediately. Symptoms of acute toxicity typically present quickly and may include:
- Abdominal pain
Chronic toxicity is when you have low-dose exposure over a long period of time, which allows the heavy metals to gradually build up in your body. Symptoms present slowly over time and can include:
- Muscle cramps
- Tingling or tremors
- Muscle tics and twitches
- Brain fog
- Memory loss, impaired language skills, and confusion
- Headaches or Migraines
- Joint pain or whole-body aches
- Loss of coordination
- Abnormality of gait
- Anxiety and depression
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Low body temperature
- Infertility and miscarriage
Although it is important to be aware of the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity, tissue levels are usually quite high before symptoms are experienced. In the early stages, many people have no symptoms at all.
Heavy Metal Exposure
Heavy metals enter the body typically through three routes: absorption through the skin, inhaling tiny molecules, or eating or drinking contaminated substances. The most common toxic metals are:
- Lead: found in contaminated water supply from lead pipes, batteries, paint, gasoline, and construction materials
- Mercury: found in thermometers, light bulbs, batteries, seafood, amalgam dental fillings, and topical antiseptics
- Arsenic: found in topical creams, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, paint, enamel, glass, contaminated water, and seafood
- Cadmium: found in metal plating, batteries, and cigarette smoke
- Thallium: found in rodenticides, pesticides, and fireworks
Some common sources of heavy metal exposure that can lead to toxicity include:
- Working in a factory that uses heavy metals
- Taking medications or supplements with high amounts of metallic elements
- Breathing in old lead paint dust found in homes and apartments built before 1978
- Eating fish caught in areas with high mercury levels
- Drinking water contaminated with heavy metal
- Handling metals or products made with large amounts of metal (including pesticides or paint) without using personal protective equipment
Heavy metals can affect anyone who has had exposure. Those at higher risk include people who work with metals, live in an environment with high air or water pollution, live in buildings with pipes made from older metals, and regularly eat food that contains metals. Children are at a higher risk for heavy metal toxicity since their bodies are still developing and they are more sensitive to the negative effects of exposure.
Heavy Metals and Chronic Illness
Toxic heavy metals are a trigger for widespread health issues and chronic disease. The rise in environmental pollution of air, food, water, and cosmetics with toxic heavy metals is a significant contributing factor to many chronic inflammation-based diseases.
Heavy metals accumulate in tissues like the brain, liver, kidneys, nervous system, and parts of the immune system. This contributes to the aging of tissues and increases the risk for chronic diseases and cancer. The metals also deplete antioxidants in the body, which results in free radical damage to organs and tissues. For example, glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants in the body, becomes depleted by the oxidative stress of heavy metals, making the body even more vulnerable to harmful compounds.
The accumulation of heavy metals and decrease of antioxidants has been shown to cause autoimmune disease, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration. Recent studies have shown a strong connection between heavy metals, like lead and mercury, and Alzheimer's disease. An elevated amount of these metals in the body trigger the brain to increase amyloid production to reduce inflammation created by the metals. Unfortunately, increased amyloid production often leads to dementia.
Additionally, specific heavy metals have been linked to various diseases and cancers:
- Arsenic: bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease
- Cadmium: hypertension, heart disease; lung, prostate, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, and bladder cancer
- Mercury: Parkinson’s, atherosclerosis, increased clotting, endothelial dysfunction4
- Lead: cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, respiratory disease, urinary disease, digestive dysfunction, neurodegeneration1
Reducing Your Toxic Load
Although heavy metals are hard to avoid completely, reducing exposure as much as possible is the first step in the prevention and recovery of heavy metal toxicity. To limit your exposure to heavy metals:
- Read the labels of skin and hair products and avoid products that are known to contain aluminum or other harmful metals.
- Drink purified water from glass or stainless steel. We recommend the Berkey water filter system.
- Avoid cooking with aluminum and Teflon.
- Avoid or restrict mercury-heavy fish, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The biggest offenders are swordfish, shark, and tuna. Instead, eat fish with lower mercury levels including wild salmon, Alaskan halibut, farmed tilapia or catfish, Mahi Mahi, and Atlantic mackerel.
- Eat organic when possible to avoid the ingestion of metallic compounds found in pesticide residues.
- If you work around heavy metals, wear masks and protective clothing and shower immediately upon returning home.
How to Reduce the Effects of Heavy Metals
For those with heavy metal toxicity or a high toxic load, it is essential to take steps for detoxification and support liver function with nutrition. Dietary changes can help those with elevated toxicant exposures, specifically, a diet that supports the biotransformation of toxins can help to alleviate toxic burdens like heavy metal accumulation. This includes cruciferous vegetables, berries, garlic, and turmeric3.
Other nutritional considerations include:
- Nutritional supplements like magnesium, zinc, and potassium support heavy metal detox.
- Phytonutrients like sulforaphane, curcumin, quercetin, and resveratrol to support phase 2 liver detoxification.
- B vitamins, especially niacin and folic acid, glutathione, BCAAs, flavonoids, and phospholipids support phase 1 detoxification.
Research suggests increased toxins contribute to sleep disorders and circadian rhythm dysfunction, but sleep also plays a vital role in detoxification. For many people, supporting strong sleep habits may not only increase overall health but also help them to eliminate the toxins contributing to their sleep disturbances5.
Sleep essentially “cleans up the brain.” The space between brain cells increases during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins. Using the paravascular pathways (a combination of glial and lymphatic cells), the brain can rid itself of waste by pushing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) through the widened brain spaces and into the paravascular pathways allowing harmful toxins and proteins to be transported out of the brain2.
Studies have shown the space between brain cells changes dramatically during an awake state, proving the critical need for sleep to reduce the burden of toxins, specifically those affecting the brain and cognitive disorders2,5.
The best way to support quality sleep is by committing to a sleep hygiene practice. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night, stick to a consistent bedtime and wake schedule, keep your room free from electronics or other distractions, ensure your sleep environment is cool and dark, and limit meals 2 hours before bedtime.
Sleep and nutrition are two major ways to support biotransformation and detoxification of heavy metals, but there are many other ways to support your detox pathways including:
- Sauna therapy
- Lymphatic drainage
- Adequate fluids
- Support healthy and daily bowel movements
- Charcoal binders
- Deep breathing
- Chelation therapy (typically for more advanced cases, speak with your healthcare provider)
Although we’ve discussed the dangers of heavy metal toxicity, our body does contain small amounts of metals, like copper and zinc, that are essential for optimal health. These metals help keep your organs functioning well, but as we’ve seen, too much can lead to damaged tissues and organs, and chronic disease.
Because we are exposed to heavy metals on a daily basis, the best way to protect your health is to reduce exposure where you can and incorporate supportive detoxification practices. If you suspect you are suffering from heavy metal toxicity, speak to your functional medicine provider as soon as possible. Together you can evaluate which blood tests, additional labs, and protocols are most appropriate for you. If you do not have access to a functional medicine provider, schedule a 15-minute call with our new patient coordinator to see if we are the best fit for you and your health.
- Gwini, S., MacFarlane, E., Del Monaco, A., McLean, D., Pisaniello, D., Benke, G. P., & Sim, M. R. (2012). Cancer incidence, mortality, and blood lead levels among workers exposed to inorganic lead. Annals of Epidemiology, 22(4), 270-276. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2012.01.003
- Han, F., Chen, J., Belkin-Rosen, A., Gu, Y., Luo, L., Buxton, O. M., & Liu, X. (2021). Reduced coupling between cerebrospinal fluid flow and global brain activity is linked to Alzheimer disease-related pathology. PLOS Biology, 19(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001233
- Hodges, R. E., & Minich, D. M. (2015). Modulation of metabolic detoxification pathways using foods and food-derived components: a scientific review with clinical application. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/760689
- Moss, J. (2019, Mar 7). Toxic heavy metals – a trigger for widespread chronic disease. Moss Center Integrative Medicine. https://mosscenterforintegrativemedicine.com/blog/2019/1/19/toxic-heavy-metals-a-trigger-for-widespread-chronic-disease
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O’Donnell, J., Christensen, D. J., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J. J., Takano, T., Deane, R., & Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep initiated fluid flux drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science, 342(6156), 373-377. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1241224