Heavy metal toxicity is a growing concern and often an unknown root cause of a number of serious health issues. A heavy metal is defined as any metallic chemical element that has a high density and is toxic, or poisonous at lower concentrations. Many heavy metals naturally exist in our surrounding ecosystems, and are generally not a problem in small concentrations. However, with industrialization, heavy metals are used in many products we use daily and have leached into our food. It is our exposure to these low to moderate amounts of metals over long periods of time that cause ill effects on our health.
The main problem with heavy metals in our bodies is their ability to bio-accumulate. Bio-accumulation means the metals do not leave the body by their own accord and accumulate in certain tissues. Due to bio-accumulation, heavy metals are passed up the food chain from smaller species (fish) to humans. The main tissues targeted by heavy metals include: the liver, kidneys, bowel, brain and nervous system, spleen and eyes. The metals will not be cleared by the system unless some type of intervention is used to chelate the metals and flush them out. There are some heavy metal toxicities that are more prevalent than others like mercury from dental fillings and lead from lead pipes and paint.
Heavy metal exposure happens over a lifetime, depending on where you live, and your exposure. I ask each of my patients what type of toxic exposure they have had over their lifetime, as well as their mother’s exposure. Unfortunately, many infants today are born toxic with heavy metals as they pass to the baby through the placenta and breast milk. Children are especially at risk because many vaccines contain heavy metals, mainly aluminum and mercury. Thimerosal is a preservative in many childhood vaccines that is 49.5 % ethyl mercury by weight. Mercury is toxic, especially to infants and young children. Studies are now showing the link between autism and thimerosal exposure in children who have difficulty with mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. allows 0.1 mcg of mercury per kg body weight per day. The FDA also stated that a safe dose was on a daily basis. However, in the first six months of an infant’s life, the doses of thimerosal in vaccines is concentrated in three vaccines on three given days.
Unfortunately, the issue of vaccination is very controversial. What is even more alarming is that most people and unsuspecting parents do not even know of the controversy and risks that surround vaccination.
In practise, the main source of heavy metal toxicity that I encounter is exposure from silver metal dental fillings, called amalgams. Amalgam means a mixture or blend of metals, namely mercury. Dental amalgams are at least 50 % mercury by weight. Mercury is not a stable metal. Chewing, acidic saliva and the consumption of hot or cold food and drinks causes the mercury in the amalgams to gas off and be inhaled or swallowed. Now the mercury can enter the bloodstream, and this is how it accumulates in the major organs like the liver and kidneys. Some countries are becoming more aware of the mercury issue in amalgams, and others are not as concerned. Germany banned the use of mercury-containing amalgams in 1992.
The World Health Organization has calculated that the average human daily dose of mercury from various sources:
Dental amalgam = 3.0-17.0 micrograms/day (mercury vapor)
Fish and Seafood = 2.3 micrograms/day (methyl mercury)
Other food = 0.3 micrograms/day (inorganic mercury)
Air & Water = Negligible traces
Dental amalgams are clearly the highest source of daily mercury exposure. There is a controversy among dentists about the safety of removing amalgams. Some will say that in the act of drilling into the amalgam to remove it, more mercury vapor is removed than if you left it alone. This is true, but biological dentists use extra precautions such as a gas mask and barrier method to collect as much mercury as possible during the process.
Other sources of mercury toxicity include :
Fish – Especially larger fish that live longer and bio-accumulate more mercury:
Tuna, swordfish, mackerel, shark, tilefish, char, large bass, pike, trout, halibut, orange roughy, grouper, pickerel, muskie and snapper
Latex paints, floor waxes
Cosmetics- hair dye, skin lightening creams, contact lens solution, haemorrhoid creams, Perfumes
Vapours from sewage treatment plants
Commonly seen symptoms of mercury toxicity include:
Fatigue, headache, insomnia, nervousness, impaired judgment and coordination, loss of libido, emotional instability, hypothyroidism, foggy thinking, chronic fungal infection, candidiasis, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and speech disturbances.
Lead is unquestionably linked to brain damage in children who are exposed to high levels. Prenatal exposure may cause birth defects, miscarriage and underdeveloped babies.
Sources for lead contamination are the following:
Children’s costume jewellery
Lead based paint
Tin cans, in the solder that binds them together
Lead damages the kidneys, brain, blood (it enters the red blood cells), muscles and bones.
Symptoms of Lead toxicity may include chronic kidney disease, hypertension, encephalopathy, anaemia, gout, sterility, abortion, fatigue, irritability, ADD, hyperactivity, memory loss, decreased sensory and motor reaction times, and abdominal pain.
Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the earth’s crust. It can be found in the following sources:
Food Additives (leavening agents)
Aluminum damages the brain and is linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. It affects the muscles, liver, lungs, kidneys, skin, reproductive organs, stomach, thyroid, and bone.
Symptoms of aluminum toxicity include: Constipation, anorexia, gastro-intestinal irritation, hyperactivity, speech disorders, dementia, osteomalacia, excessive headaches, abnormal heart rhythm, numbness of hands and feet, blurred vision, and impaired memory.
Aluminum disrupts calcium regulation in the body and also binds phosphorus, and iron in the gastro-intestinal tract.
Source of Barium include the following:
Agent swallowed by patients for certain X-Ray procedures
Barium displaces potassium in cells which can lead to muscle weakness, changes in nervous system function and heart abnormalities.
Ceramic glazes and enamels
Food (from soil contamination)
Power and smelting plants
Cadmium toxicity causes skeletal demineralization, increasing the risk for osteoporosis and fractures. Other symptoms of cadmium toxicity include; anaemia, dry skin, hair loss, heart disease, joint pain and kidney stones.
Cadmium is especially harmful because it increases the permeability of cells, and allows for other heavy metals to leak into the cells.
Copper can be found in the following sources:
Sewage treatment plants
Copper affects the liver, bone marrow, kidneys, spleen, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, hair, brain and eyes
Symptoms of copper toxicity may include: Abdominal complaints, metallic taste in mouth, schizophrenia, manic depression, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, hypochondria, poor memory, irritability, fatigue, and demyelination of nerves.
Copper is often found in dietary supplements and multi-vitamins/mineral. One with copper toxicity should never take more copper from an outside source. Copper competes with zinc for absorption, so often the treatment of choice is to supplement zinc.
Detoxification of Heavy Metals
There are four steps involved in the detoxification of heavy metals.
1) Diagnosis of heavy metals in system
Heavy metal toxicity can be tested in one of many ways. The body does excrete small amounts of heavy metals in the hair, stool and urine. Hair analysis reveals the amount of metal being excreted and the mineral status of the patient. Certain patterns of mineral deficiencies and excesses in the hair are consistent with heavy metal toxicity even if the actual metals being excreted are minimal. Stool and urine samples can be taken either with a provoking agent (a chelating compound to speed up the excretion of metals) or without. Depending on a patient’s complaint or disease process, testing with provocation may be risky with its own set of side effects because you are forcing the body to dump more metals all at once. For this reason, I prefer to test the stools initially without a chelating agent to see what the body is excreting on its own. After a chelation protocol, the test can be re-taken to show the change in excretion of the metals.
2) Remove the source of toxicity
If the source of toxicity is known as with dental amalgams, a protocol for removal should be discussed with your dentist. I usually suggest that no more than one large amalgam be removed at one visit and visits should be spaced out by about a month. This allows the body to detoxify smaller amounts of mercury over a period of time.
However, if the source of toxicity is unknown, this is where the detective work begins. Knowledge of the sources of heavy metals may help to narrow down the field of possible exposure sites. Keep in mind that the exposure may have been years ago due to the fact that the body bio-accumulates heavy metals.
2) Open the organs of excretion
The organs of excretion need to be functioning optimally when you start to chelate or remove heavy metals from the body. The main organs of excretion for heavy metals include: liver, kidneys, lungs, bowels and skin. If these organs are not excreting efficiently during the metal detoxification process, there is a danger of becoming more toxic and experiencing more symptoms of toxicity.
A simple way to encourage the detoxification of the liver is to squeeze fresh lemon juice (1/4 to ½ lemon) into warm water and drink first thing in the morning. Herbal medicines such as Milk Thistle and Dandelion Root are commonly used for liver detoxification.
To detoxify the kidneys, drink at least one litre of water per day and urinate frequently. It is important to sip small amounts of water throughout the day, rather than gulping a lot at one sitting because only 2 ounces of water can be absorbed at once. Herbal medicines such as Dandelion Leaves, Corn Silk and Horsetail cleanse the kidneys.
Lungs can be detoxified by deep breathing exercises. Most of us only use the top 1/3 to ½ of our lung capacity. It is important to use the entire lung while breathing to exchange as much stale air as possible with each breath. For this reason, exercises like yoga and Pilates are wonderful because they incorporate proper breathing and train the lungs to detoxify.
Bowel detoxification can be achieved with increasing the amount of fibre in the diet. There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. The following chart gives examples of each.
(Pectins, gums, mucilages, hemi-celluloses)
Helps fermentation in GI tract
Increases cholesterol absorption and excretion
(Cellulose and hemi-cellulose)
Increase bulk of stools and decrease toxicity in colon.
Psyllium Wheat bran
Apple/pears with peel
Whole grain breads
Increasing the number of bowel movements per day is imperative when detoxifying heavy metals. I usually recommend that patients aim for at least two bowel movements daily while on a heavy metal detoxification protocol.
The skin, being the largest detoxification organ, eliminates heavy metals through perspiration. Inducing perspiration can be achieved with far infrared (FIR) saunas. FIR saunas are reported to have better detoxifying effects compared to traditional saunas and steam rooms. FIR is the same as the heat we absorb from the sun, but not the ultraviolet rays that can be damaging to the skin. It is just below red light in the electromagnetic spectrum of light and cannot be seen, only felt as heat. FIR energy is absorbed by our bodies and penetrates into the fat and muscles of the body, not just superficially as do regular saunas. For this reason, it has a greater ability to detoxify the lymphatic system and fat cells. It is very important to shower soon after a sauna to wash away the toxins.
Chelation (pronounced key-layshun) means binding of a substance to the heavy metal so it can be excreted from the body. There are two types of chelation therapy, intravenous and oral. I prefer oral chelation because it is easy to administer and most of the heavy metals are excreted via the bowel. Intravenous chelation usually excretes via the kidneys.
Oral Chelation Supplements
A great oral chelation supplement is called VitaDetox from VitaTree Nutritionals. It contains chlorella, plus herbal medicines designed to detoxify all the major internal organs. The standard adult dosage is 2 caps, twice daily on an empty stomach. You may need to detoxify for a long time, months to years to totally clear the heavy metals from your system.