…and not in the way that involves big hair and thrashing one’s body around. No, the heavy metal I’m referring to is that which basic chemistry defines as any metal or metalloid compound in the environment that is cause for concern. This concern is due to its adverse affects on human health and surrounding habitat and not so much on how “heavy” the compound actually is. These metals are EVERYWHERE but their toxic concentrations are the bi-product of human industrialization. For instance, vehicle emissions are the worst for releasing toxic metals into the air. Live near a highway or major metro area and your body is constantly filtering in contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, nickel, lead, antimony, vanadium, zinc, platinum, palladium and rhodium. Soil tests along many major roadways in the U.S. indicated that they still retain high levels of lead, despite the phase out of lead in gasoline almost 20 years ago. Fertilizers, paints, treated woods, lead-acid batteries and mining/factory wastes are other sources of contamination. Heavy metals can get in through the air, as noted before, as well as through the water, surface of the skin and the ingestion of plants that have been exposed to contaminated soil and/or water. Also note, the animals that feast on these plants also become a source of exposure to us humans who may dine on them at a later time.
This image shows how heavy metals get released into the Mississippi River courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey Circular
Now, let’s break down how heavy metals negatively affect human health. Certain metals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron are found in living tissue and are essential to human life; however in high concentrations are toxic. Others, like the aforementioned cadmium, lead and mercury are toxic even in low concentrations. Once the metals are introduced into the body, it’s ultimately the liver’s job to filter out what is not necessary and store what it needs. These metals bind to cellular walls and the metabolically active regions within the cell that not only mess with its structure, but also its function. Short term symptoms of toxicity depend on the individual metal and how much of it has built up in the body. Over the long term, many of these metals cause cells to turn cancerous, warp and destroy parts of the central and peripheral nervous system and also reduce and/or destroy red blood cells which affects our circulatory system.
Diagram of the various health anomalies that occur with short and long term exposure of heavy metals (courtesy of DATCS)
With some level of exposure being inevitable in our industrialized world, what can we do to mitigate the affects of heavy metals on our health? There is an FDA approved therapy known as chelation which assists the body in cleansing itself of heavy metal deposits. This therapy is administered by a doctor, who will give you a full evaluation and blood screening prior to beginning the treatment. After you have been assessed for levels of heavy metals, etc. you will be administered a binding agent or chelator intravenously along with vitamin C, B complex, Magnesium and specific homeopathics to support the detoxification. Seated in a chair, your session will be about 30-40 minutes. Perusing various sites that describe the treatment it ironically resembles chemotherapy with its grouping of comfortable recliners and patients seated hooked up to I.V.’s. The doctor will recommend a particular amount of sessions before your blood is reevaluated to indicate if more treatments are necessary. It must be noted that some of the chelators used to bind to heavy metals have their own side effects that could be detrimental to health in the long term; however research is being done to find safer and more effective ones.
Before chelation becomes necessary, it is important to assess your environmental and occupational risks. Is your workplace exposing you to toxins? Obviously if you work in a factory or manufacturing plant as well as in a mine or refinery, you will be exposed if you do not follow safety guidelines, which include wearing protective clothing/gear and properly decontaminating through hygienic practices like skin washing. In your daily life, you can use a filtration system to filter your water of heavy metals and contaminants. There are tons on the market now and are very easily available. Read products labels of the cleansers and products you used daily in your home to see if they contain any heavy metals and protect yourself accordingly. Or even better, swap those cleansers for greener choices that are free of these toxins. Also, avoid getting mercury fillings in your teeth as the amalgam releases small amounts of mercury over time into your body. Find out what other filler alternatives are available (and they are) and choose a dentist who has experience in the safe removal of mercury fillings, so you can have them replaced without exposing yourself to further poisoning. And of course, if you live right on top of a factory, plant or major roadway, it might make you want to reconsider your address lest you never open your windows without the aid of an air filter at all times.
The next and probably most important thing is to assess your nutrition to make sure you are sufficient in calcium, iron and zinc. These three elements bind to lead and cadmium preventing its absorption. Note that I mentioned sufficiency and not excess, which would be toxic to the body. In addition, make sure if you are consuming fish oil, that is from mercury free critters of the sea. And the same goes for the consumption of fish. Know which ones have higher levels of mercury (examples: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, etc.)and limit yourself to no more than one serving per week, if that. Also Vitamin C and E bind to heavy metals and allow them to be flushed out of the system. Vitamin E consumption in studies with lab mice who had been exposed to heavy metals indicated a boost in anti-oxidant defenses and reduction of tissue damage. Taking it one step further, a combination of Vitamin E and C dosage was administered to workers who had significant levels of heavy metal toxicity. After 6 months, there was such a significant repair and boosting of anti-oxidant defenses that their scans compared to people who had never been exposed at all to such toxins. Other nutrients like Folate, Garlic, Cilantro and Selenium have also shown to reduce levels of heavy metals in the body as well as boost liver health. Go nutrition and the ancient Greeks who believed food to be thy medicine.
In conclusion, if you are curious or believe that you might be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, ask your doctor to order you a blood panel for heavy metals as well as a comprehensive blood count, which tests the health of your kidneys, liver and iron levels in your blood. Dependent on the findings you can make the lifestyle and nutritional modifications necessary to rock your life out for many years to come sans the influence of heavy metals!!