Heavy Metal Toxicity: What is it and Why is it so Prevalent?
Have you ever heard someone say ” I think I have heavy metal toxicity!”, “I need a heavy metal detox!!”, or maybe you came across a lecture or an article where a holistic-minded health care professional said ” His symptoms were a result of heavy metal exposure.
Our environment is much more toxic than it used to be, you know.” If so, did this thought fascinate you or did you think hmm… that sounds pretty strange. What “kook-doctor” would say such a thing!?
I hate to even admit this but I was once the person thinking that the concept of heavy metal exposure and toxicity was a bunch of quackery. It wasn’t until I began working with an extremely talented, and tough-minded tri-athlete four years ago that my thoughts were forever changed.
In today’s article, I am going to provide you with an evidence-based review of heavy metal toxicity including its causes and associated symptoms. You will also develop a better understanding of heavy metal symptoms and the reason why many of us might actually need a heavy metal detox at some point in our lives. Happy Reading!
Heavy Metal Toxicity Could Happen to Anyone
So, listen to this… I came in to work one day four years ago to find a tri-athlete who had been dealing with an incredible amount of chronic, full body pain for 10 years straight. As you can imagine, he was frustrated because the pain was negatively affecting his performance and he couldn’t stand the fact that he needed an excessive amount of pain medication to make it through each day. Mind you, he was only 38 years old.
He had been to at least 17 different sports medicine docs, physical therapists, dietitians, surgeons, massage therapists and acupuncturists over the years and yet had not even experienced the slightest resolution of pain. Needless to say, I felt a lot of pressure to be a true dietitian-magician as this poor guy was at his wit’s end.
Over the next few months, we worked together to create a whole food, anti-inflammatory approach to nutrition. At the same time, he began working with a highly-skilled Functional Medicine physician who (luckily) knew to test him for heavy metal exposure. As wild as it sounds, this doctor used a reputable heavy metal blood test to uncover the fact that our all-star triathlete was full of harmful metals- mainly mercury and lead.
His doctor explained to me that it likely occurred after years of working in a factory with daily exposure to toxic heavy metals. To make a long story short, his physician began chelating (AKA using something to pulling out) heavy metals out of this gentleman’s system (something that should only be done with a licensed health care professional as it requires supervision, extensive experience, and a sound knowledge base). In the meantime, he and I continued to focus on adequate hydration and foods that would support his detoxification organs (purified water, fresh fruits, and veggies, organic herbs and spices, quality protein, etc.) and within a matter of 3-4 months, this athlete was almost entirely pain free, off almost every single prescription pain medication, and dropped 20 minutes of his Olympic Distance triathlon race time!!!
After this experience, I soon came to find that heavy metal exposure is not an uncommon occurrence and many individuals live their entire lives suffering unknowingly as this concept is not taught in medical school.
Why Heavy Metals are so Prevalent
Excellent question, let me explain. The human body is an intricately designed machine that has never taken interruptions lightly. Hence, throughout recent centuries of vast industrialization, it is no surprise that the prevalence of the disease has skyrocketed alongside the level of environmental toxicity.
Accidental exposure to toxins is often due to a lack of knowledge, but it has cumulatively created deeply rooted problems. Heavy metals, specifically, are natural scientific elements that have detrimental effects on the human body, in large and small quantities.
Over time, these elements have been released and built up in the environment to a point where they are found in the water and farming soil, which eventually can enter your body through the food we consume. At this point, interaction with these elements is virtually inevitable, so it becomes necessary for us to take protective measures for our health, aside from general medical care.
By way of impairing the body’s function, toxins often exacerbate genetic predispositions and cause preventable disease.
Even though there has been a surge of toxicity in our food and environment over the past 50-100 years, I’ve come to find that the conventional medical world has not fully recognized the interplay between the environment and disease. Hence, it remains common practice to treat environmentally spurred issues with medicines that may potentially be toxic themselves.
So, proper nutrition is an essential means of defense toward invasive toxins because it supports the body’s inherent ability to detoxify and form a resistance. Heavy metals are a constant danger to the function of the human body, making it is essential to know how and why we encounter them in the environment in order to act proactively through personal action.
OK, I know what you’re thinking, heavy metals have always been around us. BUT, industrialization has dramatically increased the presence of heavy metals in the environment and our everyday lives.
With a lack of action toward rectifying the environment after being destroyed by industrialization, a heightened risk of harm to the human body and all of society remains.
What Are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are natural elements in the ecosystem that “are essential for life in…lower concentrations yet toxic in higher concentrations.”
This fine line of safety makes interaction with heavy metals potentially dangerous, as they are hard to identify and have significant environmental consequences. Heavy metals are constantly released into the environment through “natural processes such as bedrock and soil weathering, wind and water erosion, volcanic activity, sea salt spray, and forest fires”, so exposure is inevitable.
However, a large portion of the presence of heavy metals in the environment is due to human activity, causing them to be more concentrated and detrimental to our bodies.
Concentrated heavy metal exposure began to occur as our Paleolithic ancestors discovered precious metals like gold and silver, as the lack of scientific knowledge made primitive mining was very dangerous.
While the recent industrialization has reduced cost and increased convenience in technology, food, and production for consumers, it has also dramatically increased exposure to heavy metals. The expansion was excessive and not well regulated, leaving a damaged environment and our health nearly beyond repair. Heavy metals were unintentionally, and sometimes covertly, used in many common household items throughout the mid-twentieth century, such as thermometers, dental fillings, and even deodorants.
The additional “changes in dietary habits and other lifestyle conditions…have been too rapid for the human genome to adjust, and it is believed that such unhealthy changes in nutritional, cultural, and activity patterns may underlie many of the ‘chronic diseases of Western civilization.” For the first time in human history, we spend most of our time sedentary with convenient access to processed food, which is not what the body was built to withstand.
The health problems that arise from a sedentary lifestyle and excessive intake of calorically-dense, nutrient-deficient food are then coupled with the environmental toxicity of the modern world, which creates a perfect storm of bodily ailments. Additionally, because heavy metals remain exposed in the environment for millions of years after their release, the problem does not resolve quickly.
How are Humans Becoming Exposed to These Toxic Metals?
The human body is very susceptible to heavy metals, and they can easily enter the body in everyday life due to small exposures or century-long issues. The toxins do not generally have negative implications for human health until they get inside the body, so as you can imagine, learning where and how that happens is a HUGE piece of the puzzle!
Because of their abundance and human susceptibility, heavy metals can “enter the body in food, water, or air, or by absorption through the skin.” They are absorbed by the fish we eat from the ocean, the water we drink, and in the soil in which we grow food.
The human body is built as an open system of sorts so that we take everything around us internally to some capacity. Because of this biological permeability, the body is one in the same with the world, and whatever is in the world essentially becomes a part of the body in some way shape or form.
As a species, we are suffering from a variety of mystery illnesses for which we have names but not cures. Sadly, this phenomenon seems to be increasing exponentially by the decade.
All of this seems so overwhelming at times.
I believe the immediate solution is to refine the controllable aspects of the dilemma. Over time, humans have gained experiential and scientific knowledge of the implications of heavy metal exposure, so the application of that knowledge is essential for protection.
Today, the most common causes of heavy metal poisoning are “not through bioaccumulation from crops but from either mercury in fish or lead in gasoline, paints, and water pipes, and other metals derived from occupational or accidental exposure.”
While many of these types of incidents have been simple mistakes, lack of knowledge is increasingly becoming an insignificant excuse. Modern-day society has come to trust traditional products and processes that people are discovering to be harmful to our well-being, but are not being addressed.
Food, for instance, is one of the leading examples of convenience innovation, where companies are cutting costs and quality to increase income. Unfortunately, healthcare has also been at the forefront of this type of innovation where we are ‘fixing’ the health problems of recent history with more toxins.
When heavy metals inhabit the body, they have covert and aggregate effects that often exacerbate genetic mutations and cause serious health issues. In other words, traditional medicine tends to treat symptoms with medications vs. working to get to the root of the actual problem.
So, How Dangerous are Heavy Metals?
Toxins are well known to disrupt the intricate system of the human body, but the effects often go deeper than are expected. Heavy metals can do immense long-term damage on the body after cumulative exposure.
Combined with poor diet and environmental toxins, the human body is unable to process disease and other obstacles effectively and therefore cannot function properly. I can tell you from a personal standpoint in my private practice that many neurological conditions, bowel irregularities, and chronic pain have been linked back to heavy metal exposure.
Throughout the meticulously composed system of nature, when quick processing is necessary to deal with toxic infiltrators, “some biological regulatory mechanism is [typically] available by means of which animals can speed up their excretion or retard their uptake of excessive quantities.”  The human body is similarly designed so it is self-sufficient when it comes to defense, but without proper care, it loses this ability.
In the sense that cumulatively, multiple factors lead to major problems, human health is like a bucket that we need to keep from filling.
When a bucket is pre-filled due to genetic predispositions, the introduction of heavy metals and toxins can tip it over into a disease.
What are the Common Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity?
While every individual immune system is different, and exposure issues can express themselves through a number of symptoms, I have found these to be the most common “heavy metal symptoms” across the board when it comes to chronic heavy metal exposure:
- Chronic full body joint pain that just doesn’t seem to let up (think Fibromyalgia)
- Anxiety, depression, extreme mood swings or other neurological conditions that seem to have had a gradual onset
- Chronic headaches and or migraines
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Digestive distress
- Female reproductive issues such as infertility, miscarriage, etc.
- Inability to control weight or blood sugar despite extreme efforts
- The diagnosis of multiple autoimmune conditions that seem to worsen as time progresses
- And lastly, when some or all of these symptoms do not improve whatsoever despite following a diet consisting of fresh, whole foods, that can serve as another red flag suggesting the need for a heavy metal detox
Please note that I am listing these symptoms from my own experience as a functional dietitian, hence why you do not see the research cited. Please also note that acute heavy metal toxicity is different than chronic exposure and it is not something I have addressed in this article.
Are you Saying my Genes are to Blame for This?
Unfortunately, no. Well, not really.
Throughout the last century of increased health issues across the globe, our genes have stayed largely the same, while the environment has changed more drastically than ever before. People cannot logically blame disease on genetic makeup, as many have already done.
Many studies have proven this concept through the twin test, which allows researchers to compare environmental factors with the same set of genes. Generally, the results correlated directly with the harsh effects that the environment has on the body, proving the relative insignificance of genes toward the health of the human body.
As Professor J. Lennert Veerman clearly put it, “Genes may co-determine who becomes obese, but our environment determines how many become obese.”
Therefore, the focus of modern healthcare should not be on continuously fixing the problems that arise and further harming the environment, but preventing those problems by combating the environment externally and internally. The most thorough and immediate way to combat the effects of heavy metals from a personal standpoint is through forward-focused environmental action and nutritional intervention.
Be a conscious consumer. Make the extra effort to drink purified water and purchase organic produce (especially when it comes to the dirty dozen. I think the most stressful part of this entire issue is that no one thing can solve the entire problem.
In reality, “ improving the food environment will require concerted work across a wide range of sectors and settings, from government and industry to local institutions and families.” Small steps by all parties are the most logical solution since the issue of toxicity is so broad.
When it comes down to it, the only thing everyone has control over personally is his or her lifestyle and nutrition choices. Proper nutrition can counteract the toxicity of the environment and control its effects, while “unhealthy dietary practices by themselves can compromise health, thus further increasing a person’s vulnerability to additional chemical stressors.”
This correlation is essential to the fight against toxicity because it is the most direct, complete, and efficient action possible. Moreover, different bodies respond to toxins differently, and a diet driven approach can and should be customized to the individual. Since attacking the problem at the global root of the issue proves relatively impractical, strategic nutrition is the answer to the toxicity and disease epidemic that the world is facing.
Because heavy metals are increasingly prevalent in the environment and dangerous to the body, action is imperative. The issue of toxicity and disease has reached a magnitude beyond what it should be, especially with the modern knowledge and resources we have to deal with it. Just as the world has changed more than ever in the past fifty years to worsen this issue, medicine and lifestyle changes will do the same in the next decades toward a progressive solution.
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I encourage you to check out our post on Why the Stanard American Causes Fatigue and The 7 Best Tips to Fight Fatigue Symptoms in Athletes. Have you been told you need a heavy metal detox? If so, what symptoms were/are you experiencing? What strategies have you found to be helpful in alleviating symptoms? Please share your thoughts below!
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References 1. Furst, Arthur. “Can Nutrition Affect Chemical Toxicity?” Abstract. International Journal of Toxicology, September/October 2002. Accessed March 23, 2018. doi:10.1080/10915810290096649. 2. Henning, Bernard, Lindell Ormsbee, Craig J. McClain, Bruce A. Watkins, Bruce Blumberg, Leonidas G. Bachas, Wayne Sanderson, Claudia Thompson, and William A. Suk. “Nutrition Can Modulate the Toxicity of Environmental Pollutants: Implications in Risk Assessment and Human Health.” Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2012. Accessed March 23, 2018. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104712. 3. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. “Genes Are Not Destiny.” Obesity Prevention. Source. Last modified April 11, 2016. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention- source/obesity-causes/genes-and-obesity/. 4. “Toxic Food Environment.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Last modified April 13, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention- source/obesity-causes/food-environment-and-obesity/. 5. Thivierge, Bethany, Rebecca J. Frey, and William A. Atkins. “Heavy Metal Poisoning.” Edited by Jacqueline L. Longe. Global Issues in Context. Last modified 2013. http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2760200132/GIC?u=lnoca_hawken&sid=GIC&xi d=c08138d9. 6. Cordain L1, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54.