Heavy Metal Poisoning - causes and treatment

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[UPDATED JUNE 2024]

Introduction

Heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, aluminium, arsenic, nickel) are a problem because bio-chemically they look very similar to essential trace elements. This means that they get incorporated into biological enzyme systems which then do not work as they should and therefore render those enzyme systems less efficient or malfunctioning. This means that enzyme systems go slow. If this affects a single organ it will cause organ failures, if it affects all cells it can present with a chronic fatigue syndrome and in the longer term it has the effect of accelerating the normal aging process.

Different metals have affinities for different parts of the body so for example, mercury will concentrate in the brain, (and is associated with Alzheimer's disease), in the heart (to cause cardiac dysrhythmias), in the bone (osteoporosis) and in the kidney (resulting in kidney failure).

  • Nickel appears to bio concentrate in hormone sensitive tissues in women and we see high levels in the breast and ovaries - nickel is also a known carcinogen and is a likely cause of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Aluminium concentrates in the brain and is associated with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Lead also concentrates in the brain and is known to reduce intelligence in children. It is likely that all these metals bio-concentrate in bone and therefore could be a risk for osteoporosis.

All these heavy metals are known carcinogens and mutagens (cause birth defects) - this is because they get stuck in DNA and upset the reading of the genetic code.

The key to diagnosis is history - unless you think of it you won't find out! The problem with any poisoning is that the symptoms are usually non-specific - you have to suspect a problem, then test for it. In clinical UK practice the single most important heavy metal poisoning comes from mercury fillings, mercury preservatives in vaccinations and, increasingly, mercury in fish.

The symptoms and treatment of heavy metal poisoning is the same as for any chemical poisoning - see Chemical poisoning - general principles of diagnosis and treatment

Mercury (Hg)

The major source of Hg is from "silver" fillings - 50% of dental amalgam is Hg which is constantly released from the day they are put in. Dental amalgam is actually a liquid, albeit a very stiff one, and mercury evaporates from the surface. Watch a dramatic video, Smoking Mercury, demonstrating the level of release of vapours from mercury fillings.

Mercury has deleterious effects on the immune system, renal, reproductive, CNS, heart, oral and gut bacteria.

Link with autism in children

See also Autism - the treatment of for other causes of autism, including other heavy metal poisoning, and further treatment options.
In children most Hg comes from vaccinations and fillings. Lyn Redwood calculated that her autistic son received 187.5mcg of mercury (thiomersal) during his first 6 months of life, largely from DTP and HIB vaccinations. This is 100 fold higher than "safe" limits for adults. See Brief introduction to Lyn Redwood and her work

Studies on autism and mercury poisoning include:

Evidence of mercury poisoning in autism

"Subjects with > or =6 amalgams were 3.2-fold significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism (severe) in comparison to ASD (mild) than subjects with < or =5 amalgams."
"The obtained data demonstrates a significant elevation of Hg and Pb together with a significant decrease in the Se levels in RBCs of patients with ASD when compared to the healthy controls."
"Overall, urinary mercury concentrations were significantly higher in 221 children with autistic spectrum disorders than in 18 normal controls (Relative Increase (RI)=3.15; P < 0.0002)."
" This review found 91 studies that examine the potential relationship between mercury and ASD from 1999 to February 2016. Of these studies, the vast majority (74%) suggest that mercury is a risk factor for ASD, revealing both direct and indirect effects. The preponderance of the evidence indicates that mercury exposure is causal and/or contributory in ASD."

....and many others

Evidence for chelation in autism

"Promising treatments of autism involve detoxification of mercury, and supplementation of deficient metabolites."
"Overall, DMSA therapy seems to be reasonably safe, effective in removing several toxic metals (especially lead), dramatically effective in normalizing RBC glutathione, and effective in normalizing platelet counts. Only 1 round (3 days) was sufficient to improve glutathione and platelets. Additional rounds increased excretion of toxic metals."
"The groups receiving one round and seven rounds of DMSA had significant improvements on all the assessment measures."
"There was positive correlation of Aluminum, vanadium, mercury, uranium with some subscales of CARS. After treatment with DMSA, there was statistical significant difference in the mean level of mercury and lead before and after chelation. There was significant difference in the mean score of CARS before and after management with DMSA chelation regarding some subscales and the total score of CARS."
"This study provides the first clinical evidence for the benefit that combined anti-androgen and anti-heavy metal therapy may have on some children with ASDs."
"During the last several years, there has been growing clinical and scientific evidence that most children with autism suffer from mercury/metal toxicity. Furthermore, there have been many reports from physicians and parents that removal of mercury and other toxic metals can be very beneficial to children with autism, sometimes resulting in a major decrease in autistic symptoms. A wide variety of detoxifying agents and protocols have been used, and the purpose of this paper is to discuss the pros and cons of the different treatments available. Overall, our consensus position is that removal of mercury and other toxic metals is one of the most beneficial treatments for autism and related disorders."

....and many others

Amalgam

Amalgam is a solution, 8 amalgams will release 120 mcg Hg daily, of which 10 mcg is absorbed, compared to 2.6 mcg from other sources. Adjacent gold fillings will increase Hg release 10 fold. Hg combines with sulphur amino acids, bio-accumulates and is poorly excreted, so urine and blood levels are poor indicators of Hg status. Furthermore, the poor excreters will accumulate Hg more readily and so a low hair or sweat reading may be a bad sign! The choroid plexus acts as a sink for Hg and Hg is selectively concentrated in the medial basal nucleus, amygdala and hippocampus - areas of the brain responsible for memory, suggesting Hg may be a factor in Alzheimer's disease. Hg fillings have been banned in Germany, California, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and many other countries.

Hg toxicity is enhanced by low levels of sulphur, vitamins A C and E, thiamine. Fasting increases Hg absorption. Calcium inhibits absorption.

All metal toxicities are reduced by zinc (Zn), calcium (Ca), iron (Fe) and vit D.

Symptoms of Hg Toxicity

  • Brain - cognitive dysfunction, multiple sclerosis, psychological symptoms, tremor, polyneuropathy, paresthesia, emotional lability, personality change, weakness, blurred vision, dysarthria, unsteady gait.
  • Immune - autoimmunity, food allergies, immune suppression,
  • Kidney failure
  • Infertility - polycystic ovaries
  • Antibiotic resistant infections
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Cardiac abnormalities - especially dysrhythmias
  • Gut dysbiosis and "candida" problems

Aluminium (Al)

This is becoming an increasing problem since aluminium is now being used in vaccinations instead of mercury. Many antacids contain aluminium (although some are being phased out), furthermore aluminium foil, aluminium cookware and aluminium used in tin cans are all possible sources of toxicity.

Cadmium (Cd)

The major source is from smoking, but also Cd is in water and air from our polluted environment.

High cadmium causes abnormal calcium metabolism with decalcification and abnormal bone modelling. Low iron increases toxicity of cadmium and lead, causing impaired cognitive function. Cd also replaces zinc in metallothionine (the mechanism by which zinc is absorbed from the gut).

Again, sensitivity to cadmium can be ascertained by lymphocyte sensitivity testing - see link above.

Lead (Pb)

The main source was leaded fuel, but levels have been falling since lead free petrol. Lead water pipes are a significant source for some. Paints used to contain lead so beware old painted furniture etc. Lead and zinc compete at tissue sites so zinc and copper are protective against lead poisoning.

Testing for a heavy metal problem (toxicity or allergy)

  • The best test for total load is a urine provocation test. This measures mercury load, and other heavy metals - see Comprehensive Urine element Profile. Mercury levels (and other heavy metals) in the urine before and after chelation are then compared.
  • Hair Mineral Analysis may give a clue but even people with toxicity can produce normal results. But one must be careful in interpreting results.
    • This test measures the levels in hair of the following trace elements and toxic metals: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium, nickel, cobalt, lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, aluminium.
      • If there are raised levels of toxic minerals then there probably is a toxicity problem.
      • However normal or low levels of toxic minerals does not exclude a toxicity problem. Some people are poor detoxifiers and do not dump heavy metals in hair - they get dumped elsewhere in the body. In a study of autistic children, they were found to have lower levels of mercury in the hair compared to controls! The researchers could not understand this until they realised they were dumping the mercury in their brains instead! See New Scientist - "Toxic Clue to Autism" and Reduced Levels of Mercury in First Baby Haircuts of Autistic Children which stated that -"Hair excretion patterns among autistic infants were significantly reduced relative to control"
      • The zinc level can be misleading. A low zinc probably means zinc deficiency. A normal zinc may be due to a very low zinc which then makes the hair grow slowly. This slow growth has the effect of concentrating minerals in the hair to give falsely high readings.
      • A high copper suggests inflammation and always needs investigating further. It is often high with the Pill and HRT - this is one of the tests which makes me worry about the Pill and HRT!
      • High nickel (together with high leVels of any metals) also means nickel sensitivity (to jewelry, watches, zips etc)
      • Chromium, cobalt, manganese and selenium levels are probably accurate.
      • I would not take much notice of abnormal calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium or sodium results.
      • Low iron needs further investigation with a ferritin serum test.
      • However, if all the essential minerals are low (excluding the toxics) I would think of poor nutrition or malabsorption of foods. See Malabsorption - failure to get the goodness from food.

Protection against heavy metal poisoning

Protection occurs in the following ways:

1.Competition for enzyme sites - trace elements in abundance help prevent heavy metals binding to enzyme sites. Because we live in a polluted world and we all have a certain load of toxic metals, this increases the imperative for us all to be taking micronutrient supplements - see Nutritional Supplements

2.A major problem is the upper fermenting gut which may increase absorption of heavy metals. A fermenting gut may produce hydrogen sulphide which converts insoluble inorganic metals into soluble and absorbable organic metals. A paleo ketogenic diet which is of low glycaemic index reduces the risk of fermenting gut - see the following links -

and

3.Take natural chelating agents such as vitamin C 2-4 grams daily and iodine such as Lugol's iodine (iodine binds to heavy metals to allow their excretion) - see Vitamin C - learn to use this vital tool well – the key is getting the dose right, Iodine - what is the correct daily dose? and Iodine - another vital multitasking tool that should be a household word.

4.Antioxidants are also protective against the damage caused by heavy metals.

Treatment of Metal Toxicity

  • Put in place the above interventions to protect against heavy metal poisoning as above ie paleo ketogenic diet and nutritional supplements.
  • Take extra trace elements such as zinc (for lead, cadmium, nickel, thallium) maximum 50mgs daily and/or selenium (for mercury, aluminium) maximum 500mcgms daily combined with a sulphur containing amino acid such as glutathione 250-500mgs daily and/or methionine 250-500mgs daily.
  • Consider Chelation. The idea of chelation is to use a substance which forms a metal complex (often a ring compound) which is readily excreted. In practice two agents are commonly used, namely DMSA and DMPS, along with nutritional therapies. They are not completely selective for heavy metals - they will bind with many metals, so at the time of chelation do not use high dose micronutrient supplements! Minerals should be used as a rescue package following chelation therapy.
    • Trial of chelating agents. See Mercury from Dental Amalgam Fillings: Studies on Oral Chelating Agents for Assessing and Reducing Mercury Burdens in Humans This trial initially involved 191 polysymptomatic patients, of which 179 patients (age range 18-82) completed the study - 106 women 73 men. In the trial 4 agents were tested for efficacy in promoting Hg excretion:
      • DL- 2-3-dimercapto-succinic acid magnesium salt (DMSA) 30mg/kg
      • 2,3,dimercapto-1-propane-sulphonic acid sodium salt (DMPS) 10mg/kg
      • N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) 30mg/kg (care in patients with severe respiratory insufficiency or asthma)
      • Potassium citrate 5 grams (care in patients with renal or adrenal insufficiency, or dehydration) three time daily
Peak excretion of Hg occurred at 3 hours. It was found that:
  • Potassium citrate increased the efficacy of DMPS and NAC but not DMSA
  • Sweat Hg also increased with chelation proportionate to the total body load
There were no hypersensitivity reactions reported, in this trial, patients reported mild GI discomfort, slight fatigue, mild mental fuzziness, slight headache, slight diuresis but no worse.
Other possible chelating agents - hyaluronic acid, chlorella, sulphur, garlic and MSM, chitin, cilantro.
Oral DMSA can be purchased from many outlets, including:
Supersmart DMSA preparation
Health Emporium DMSA preparation
Use one suppository every other evening before bedtime, fox six months, or as directed by a healthcare professional. This product shouldn't be taken during pregnancy or breast feeding, keep out of reach of children. Store at room temperature in a dry place or refrigerate. Keep tightly closed. Do not freeze. Best used at room temperature.

EDTA and heavy metals are attracted to each other, the heavier the metal, the stronger the attraction. But EDTA also chelates indiscriminately, which means it will grab onto the first minerals it encounters. For this reason, it is better to take EDTA 1.5 - 2 hours away from meals and other medicines/supplements. This allows your body time to digest and absorb the EDTA into your bloodstream with its full ability to chelate still intact. In fact, this is why it is BEST to take EDTA at night as suggested above - EDTA will work on the heavy metal load during the night and will not chelate good minerals because one is not eating throughout the night! This is also why one should take EDTA every other night - this allows the body time to recover from the chelation.

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