A Primer on Heavy Metals

By Dr. David I. Minkoff M.D.

 

What are Heavy Metals?

A heavy metal is defined as any metal or metalloid of “environmental concern” (i.e., is toxic at lower concentrations). The term was originally related to the harmful effects of dense metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead (all of which are denser than iron). It has since been used to refer to any other similarly toxic metal, or metalloid such as arsenic, regardless of density. Commonly encountered heavy metals are chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, arsenic, selenium, silver, cadmium, antimony, mercury, thallium, uranium, and lead.

 

Why are Heavy Metals a Problem?

Many heavy metals exist naturally in the environment, and are generally not a problem at their typically small natural occurring concentrations. However, with industrialization, countless tons of heavy metals have been and continue to be released indiscriminately to the environment. Furthermore, heavy metals are constituents of many products we use daily. They then are absorbed into our bodies through the skin (e.g., shampoo, deodorant, etc.), lungs, or digestive tract (from metals leaching into food). It is our exposure to these metals, combined with inadequate elimination of the metals from the body, which paves the way for chronic illness.

Based on experience with my own patients, heavy metal toxicity is a root cause of or significant contributor to a number of serious health issues. The main problem with heavy metals in our bodies is their tendency to bio-accumulate. Bio accumulation means the metals build up in the body faster than they are eliminated, and results in accumulation of the metals in certain tissues. Due to bio-accumulation, heavy metals are passed up the food chain from smaller species (e.g., fish) to humans. The primary tissues targeted by heavy metals include the liver, kidneys, bowel, brain and nervous system, spleen, and eyes. Some form of intervention (e.g., chelation, nutritional, etc.) is needed to eliminate the metals from the body tissues.

Heavy metal body burden builds over time, depending on where you live and the levels to which you are exposed. I inquire with each of my patients to determine the 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. For example, Thimerosal is a preservative in many childhood vaccines that is 49.5 percent ethyl mercury by weight.

 

What are Typical Sources of Heavy Metals, and Associated Symptoms of Over-Exposure?

Heavy metals are entering our bodies with consistent regularity by our contact with a variety of seemingly innocent sources:

Mercury: Besides leaking from mercury amalgam fillings, mercury is also found in seafood (especially tuna), cosmetics, pesticides, paint, plastics, fungicides, fabric softeners, adhesives, floor waxes/polishes, laxatives, suppositories, tattoos, hair dyes, batteries, thermostats, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and mercury thermometers.

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: Lead is found in dyes, gasoline (yes, it is still used in airplane fuel), lead based paint, old plumbing, pottery, insecticides, tobacco smoke, textiles, scrap metal, automobile exhaust, canned fruit juices, car batteries, crayons, hair coloring, air pollution, mascara, and smelting of lead.

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, anemia, gout, sterility, abortion, fatigue, irritability, ADD, hyperactivity, memory loss, decreased sensory and motor reaction times, and abdominal pain.

Aluminum: Aluminum is found in soft drink cans, cookware, cheeses, baking powder, deodorants, white flour, tap water, stomach antacids, toothpaste, laxatives, aluminum foil, automotive parts, automobile exhaust, beer, cigarette filters, artificial food coloring, dental amalgams, milk products, chemtrails, and vaccinations.

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. It also disrupts calcium regulation in the body and binds phosphorus and iron in the gastro-intestinal tract. 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.

Cadmium: Cadmium is contained in cigarette smoke, tobacco, coffee, gasoline, steel cooking pans, metal pipes, tap water, rubber, fertilizers, dental alloys, batteries, candy, refined cereals, colas, copper refineries, fungicides, refined grains, plastics, marijuana, evaporated milk, motor oil, oysters, paint, pesticides, processed foods, soft drinks, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs.

Cadmium is especially harmful because it increases the permeability of cells, and allows other heavy metals to penetrate the cells. Cadmium toxicity causes skeletal demineralization, increasing the risk for osteoporosis and fractures. Other symptoms of cadmium toxicity include anemia, dry skin, hair loss, heart disease, joint pain and kidney stones.

Copper: Copper is found in hard water, hot tubs and swimming pool chemicals, cookware, the birth control pill and other estrogen medications, copper IUD's, dental materials, brackets and jewelry, cooking utensils, piping, fungicides, industrial emissions, insecticides, oysters, chocolate, refrigerator ice makers, some city water, and well water. 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.

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 nerve demyelination.

Other Metals: Radiological releases contain abundant heavy metals (e.g., uranium, strontium, cesium, etc.). A few years ago the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had several (at least three of the six) complete reactor meltdowns. The radiological releases from the Fukushima reactors greatly exceed the amounts released from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents combined, and these releases continue today. This problem is impacting the United States, with the US west coast thought to be the worst affected region thus far.

Radiological heavy metals are harmful not only due to their toxicity, but also as a result of the radiation emanating from the metal. Uranium exposure could cause body tissue damage, specifically in the kidneys. Although the element is only mildly radioactive, it is toxic to the human body if ingested or inhaled (above normal levels). It can also cause rashes, respiratory difficulties, and cataracts. Excessive levels of strontium can adversely affect bone growth, while cesium toxicity can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness, palpitations and arrhythmia.

 

What Can I Do to Eliminate Heavy Metals?

There are four steps involved in the detoxification of heavy metals.

1. Diagnosis of heavy metals

    The body excretes small amounts of heavy metals in the hair, stool, and urine. So testing for heavy metal toxicity generally involves analysis of hair, stool, and/or urine samples. 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.

    2. Remove the source of toxicity

      If the source of elevated heavy metal body burden is known (e.g., dental amalgams), a protocol for removal should be discussed with your doctor or dentist. However, if the source is unknown, a little “detective work” is needed. Knowledge of the sources of heavy metals can help to narrow down the field of possible exposure sites, and enable you to avoid further exposure. Remember that the exposure may have been years ago due to the fact that the body bio-accumulates heavy metals.

      3. Provide support to the organs of elimination

        The eliminative organs need to be functioning optimally when you embark on a program to remove heavy metals from the body. The primary organs of excretion for heavy metals include the liver, kidneys, lungs, bowels, and skin. If these organs are not excreting efficiently during the metal detoxification process, there is a possibility of becoming more toxic and experiencing more symptoms of toxicity. This includes drinking plenty of water and supplementing with nutrients and herbs known to provide organ support (e.g., milk thistle and dandelion root for liver support/detoxification; dandelion leaves, corn silk and horsetail for kidney support/detoxification). Infrared saunas can also be a good way to eliminate heavy metals and other toxins through the skin.

        I should emphasize that the detoxification pathways in the liver are based on a two phase system that requires amino acids to work. These systems are enzymes (made of amino acids). Low protein/amino acid intake may mean low enzyme levels. So as with any other form of detoxification, it is important to ensure adequate ingestion of amino acids and food protein sources when removing heavy metals from the body.

        4. Remove the metals

        Chelation (pronounced key-layshun) involves the binding of a substance to the heavy metal so it can be excreted from the body. There are three main types of chelation therapy – intravenous, rectal, and oral. Intravenous chelation usually excretes the metals from the body via the kidneys. Oral chelation often is preferred to intravenous and rectal chelation because it is easy to administer, and most of the heavy metals are excreted via the bowel (i.e., the kidneys are not taxed).

        The product Metal-Free® is one such oral “chelator,” although it works differently than typical chelators. Metal-Free® has a 14-year proven track record of safely removing heavy metals in thousands of patients. Metal-Free® is an oral spray that is absorbed via the mucosa and is assimilated throughout the body. It is in a culture of bacteria subjected to a microfermentation process with algae and nutrients proven to have natural chelating properties and/or support organ function and elimination. Certain nutrients from the culture are then extracted and filtered using a four-step process.

        The word chelation comes from the Greek word, “chela,” or claw, and refers to the way that a specific chemical molecule, the chelating agent, binds to a heavy metal. Chelators bind by way of ionic bonds. These are the attractions between the positive charge of a heavy metal and the negative charge of the chelating molecule. They have a natural attraction and that is how they work.

        Technically, Metal Free® is not a chelator. It does not work that way. Metal Free® is composed of a unique short protein chain, called a peptide. It is very small and easily absorbed. The way it interacts with the heavy metal is to wrap around it in such a way that the heavy metal is not free to interfere or block an important body process. We call this interaction “CAGE BINDING.” The Metal Free® actually forms a surrounding cage around the mercury, arsenic, lead, aluminum, uranium or cadmium, which the body then removes by excreting it in the stool and then out of the body.

        Metal-Free® has several advantages over a typical chelator. First, its use is safe and simple, requiring only a once-daily administration of up to 8 sprays in the mouth. Second, the ingredients in Metal-Free® stick very tightly to heavy metals so they won't be dropped off and cause trouble elsewhere in the body. Other chelators like EDTA and DMPS have a weaker bond, and may bind to a heavy metal in one area of the body and drop it off at another. For example, if lead is picked up from the bone by EDTA and dropped off in the brain, a worse condition can result.

        Another advantage of Metal-Free® as compared to a typical chelator is that when heavy metals are bound to Metal-Free®, the complex is removed via the bowel or into the hair (vs. the urine). Thus, Metal-Free® does not pose any significant burden on the kidneys. Clinical cases show that the amount of heavy metals that increase in the stool after an oral challenge with Metal-Free® are significant, with values from 2x to 10x over baseline.

        Finally, Metal-Free® has been effectively used to remove all pathological metals, including the heavy ones (arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium, etc) as well as light ones like aluminum. It will remove calcium if it is in the wrong place, like an artery wall. In our initial studies, we did not find evidence of indiscriminate removal of beneficial minerals. So we do not find that Metal Free® results in the mineral deficiencies that typical chelators can cause.

         

        In Conclusion

        Heavy metal toxicity is common in today’s world, and it is an often overlooked cause of a number of ailments. Fortunately, complementary and alternative medicine offers a number of methods to identify and eliminate heavy metals from our bodies. Oral “metal-removal agents” like Metal-Free® offer a safe, simple, and effective means of reducing heavy metals in the body. I use it on an ongoing basis to maintain my body’s heavy metal levels as low as possible.

        When following a heavy metal removal protocol, proper supplementation is essential to support the organs relied upon for elimination. A high quality supplement of the essential amino acids, along with organ and elimination support nutrients, will ensure the timely elimination of the metals that are bound by the chelator or other metal-removal agent. For an example of the supplementation I rely on for my own heavy metal removal, see the Metal-Free® Heavy Metal Detoxification Program HERE.

        As with any detox protocol, there may be side effects during the metal-removal detox process. Side effects can be minimized by going slowly and not overdoing.

        Use of Metal-Free® has been proven over 14 years of use to be safe and effective. Nevertheless, I always advise anyone to consult a healthcare practitioner when detoxifying and eliminating heavy metals.

         

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        These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.