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Heavy Metal Toxicity

What are “heavy metals” and why does everyone want to detoxify them?

Heavy metals are naturally occurring metallic elements that are “heavy” because they have a larger atomic weight and density compared to water. There are some heavy metals such as copper, zinc, and iron that are essential for human health in the correct amounts but can be toxic when consumed in larger amounts. Other heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic are highly toxic and poisonous even in trace amounts. These metals are considered poisonous, carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and can cause serious health issues in humans and in plants.

Most of our exposure to excess heavy metals comes from environmental exposure (usually by direct contact or inhalation) as a result from human and naturally-occurring activities such as mining, industrial production, metal corrosion, soil erosion, volcanic eruptions, etc. In additional to environmental exposures, we are also exposed to these metals through our water, food, commercial products.
Heavy metals are being increasingly used because of industrialization and therefore our environmental exposure has been steadily increasing. While heavy metal exposure is regulated in foods and medicine to fit under the daily dosage limit, these foods and medicines are not our only exposure to these metals. There are efforts to decrease and eliminate exposure in the wastewater treatment facilities; however, environmental exposure remains.

How do they cause harm?

As they are metals, they have electrical conductivity and are willing to lose their electrons which produces cations that become free radicals and can cause damage by interacting with and changing proteins, DNA, and other cells in the body. Refer back to our post on oxidative stress (link) to see what harm this can cause. These metals are also able to easily bind with certain molecules like proteins, DNA, and enzymes in our body and disrupt their function.

Essentially, these metals can cause oxidative stress and damage, disrupt proteins structure and function, disrupt DNA synthesis and repair, suppress antioxidants, cause cell damage and death, etc. All of these things can cause issues in the body such as neurotoxicity and neuropsychiatric diseases, anemia, infertility, metabolic abnormalities, immune system dysfunction, osteoporosis, and affect the function of major organs such as the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, etc.

How can I decrease my exposure and promote heavy metal detoxification?

The absorption of heavy metals has in part to do with the conditions of the gut microbiome. When there is bacterial imbalance in the gut, the permeability of the lining of the gut often suffers which can increase the absorption of the heavy metals being consumed instead of excreted.
Additionally, the overall nutritional status of a person greatly affects the observed toxicity in a particular individual. Therefore, paying special attention to getting adequate iron, calcium, and zinc is important as well as consuming adequate amounts of all nutrients in order to optimize your body’s inherent detoxification systems.
To decrease your exposure, you can avoid certain foods that are common culprits for higher levels of heavy metals such as farmed fish (especially from another country that is less regulated), dairy with hormones, non-organic foods which can expose you to other chemicals as well, and other foods such as alcohol that can put extra load on your liver.
You can also incorporate certain foods to help support your body’s detoxification systems and may help in detoxifying heavy metals. These foods would be cruciferous vegetables (broccoli sprouts, Brussel sprouts, etc.), sulfur-containing vegetables (garlic and onions), and fiber-rich fruits and grains. Chlorella (a type of green algae) and activated charcoal (particularly of coconut shells) are both known to help bind heavy metals to increase detoxification. Make sure to drink adequate amounts of water when attempting any sort of detoxification. However, make sure you first talk to your doctor before adding a supplement into your diet.
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