How Heavy Metals Affect Your Health
Heavy metal toxicity is a big deal and most of us have it to some degree. In fact, it even has a hormonal connection.
In today’s article, we’re going to talk about how we get toxic, what the different metals do to our health, how it affects hormones, and how to get rid of them!
Where do we acquire heavy metal toxicity?
The surrounding environment offers plenty of opportunities for acquiring heavy metal toxicity. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from lead paint and mercury-filled thermometers, but it’s still out there in force. Fish caught near waste dumping sites contain mercury, lead and other toxins. Many older cities have lead pipes that bring water to every home. Cities near smelting sites (where glass or industrial chemicals are manufactured) put copper, zinc and lead into the environment. Pesticides used on crops contain heavy metals, and we can be exposed either by eating those foods or by living near the farms themselves. Some dyes used to color the clothes you wear contain heavy metals.
A lot of it comes from your mother. Heavy metals are passed from mother to child, and the rate at which the level of toxicity diminishes is shockingly slow. It can take between four and seven generations for heavy metal toxicity to work its way out of a family tree. So, even though you were born and grew up after the lead paint era, or after the EPA regulated toxic waste dumping in the ocean, or after your city replaced the lead pipes in the water system, it doesn’t mean mom didn’t–or grandma, or great-grandma. Keep that in mind when reading the following section.
Types of heavy metals, their sources and impact on human health – there are 20 heavy metals, and they are all toxic. But we won’t go through all of them, just the ones that have the most impact on people because of their availability and how dangerous they can be.
Aluminum – This metal is often used as a water treatment in city filtration plants to remove organic compounds from the water. It is also found in many commonly-administered vaccines. It is metabolized and removed from the body relatively easily, but can reach toxic levels. People with renal issues are at a particularly high risk for aluminum toxicity. Effects include bone weakness, bone deformities (in children), muscle weakness, sudden changes in one’s mental state, seizures, and dementia.
Arsenic – Heavy industrial activity is a major cause of arsenic exposure. Most often, it leeches into the groundwater that is used as a supply of drinking water for surrounding communities. In many parts of the world, it simply occurs naturally and mixes in with the drinking water. The highest risk for naturally-occurring arsenic toxicity in the U.S. is in the Southwest (S. California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico). It can also be inhaled in heavily polluted areas. Until the 1970s, it was used as a preservative in cosmetics. Short-term exposure leads to vomiting, abdominal pain, encephalopathy, diarrhea, and blood in the stool. Long-term toxicity leads to thick skin, darkening of the skin, heart disease, and cancer.
Gadolinium – The most common source of gadolinium toxicity comes from a contrast MRI. These special MRIs inject gadolinium into the bloodstream to provide color contrasts that make MRI results easier and more accurate to read. It’s generally considered safe in patients with good kidney function, but some believe these types of MRIs are more dangerous than they let on. Symptoms of poisoning include bone pain, changes in skin pigmentation, muscle twitches, worsening vision, tinnitus, low body temperature, hair loss, loss of balance, and swelling of the extremities.
Lead – Shockingly, 1 in 5 U.S. children have potentially toxic levels of lead in their bodies. Lead was not banned for use in paint until 1978. Millions of American homes were built before then, and anytime one of these homes is demolished, remodeled, or the paint gets chipped away, lead in the form of dust coats the surrounding area. Lead dust is one of the most common sources of toxicity. Pipes for water systems that haven’t been replaced since the 1930s are often made of lead (there are still many cities with pipes that old). To this day, lead is used as a solder to join pipes and pump components together. After about five years, mineral deposits coat the pipes and protect the water. But surprisingly, any home that is less than five years old, according to the EPA, should be considered a lead hazard. Lead also finds its way into imported consumer goods, including toys. Many countries whose economies depend heavily on manufacturing do not have the same regulations. Symptoms of lead poisoning include abdominal pain, aggressive behavior, irritability, headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, numbness and tingling, memory loss, kidney dysfunction, anemia, vomiting, seizures, coma, and encephalopathy.
Mercury – The most common sources of mercury poisoning are by eating fish and amalgam fillings in the teeth. However, it can make its way into someone who is involved in gold mining or who works at a coal-burning facility. Mercury makes its way UP the marine food chain. The higher a fish is on the food chain, the more mercury it is likely to have. A shark, for example, will have more mercury (generally speaking) than a sardine. And who is on the very top of the food chain? You are. Symptoms of mercury toxicity include include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness in the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, trouble speaking, trouble hearing, or trouble seeing. Long-term exposure literally lowers your intelligence and can shut down kidney function.
Nickel – Metal braces in the teeth are a common source of nickel exposure, as is exposure to jewelry. It is also an inhalation risk if one works in refining, welding or electroplating. Symptoms of toxicity include kidney and liver damage, infertility, neurological dysfunction, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological deficits, developmental deficits in childhood, and high blood pressure. It is also thought to mimic the effects of estrogen and raises the risk of breast cancer.
Thallium – This metal is particularly threatening as it is ubiquitous due to its widespread use in pesticides. Many people are thallium toxic as a result. Damage to the nervous system can occur in as little as three days after acute exposure, leading to loss of reflexes, convulsions, muscle wasting, headaches, numbness, dementia, psychosis and coma. Longer-term exposure causes hair loss and arrhythmia.
Tungsten – This metal is used in the production of a wide range of products including light bulbs, cell phones, computers, tools, electrodes, bullets, x-ray tubes, ceramics, as well as flame retardant and dye for clothing. Its widespread use means it is a risk for air, soil and water pollution. It is linked to an increase in the occurrence of strokes. But like many heavy metals, it affects mental functioning, breathing, kidney function and can cause seizures.
Uranium – There is an acute risk of uranium poisoning in areas where toxic waste has been stored. It can leech into the soil and water where it makes its way to communities. This is depleted uranium, which is chemically different from un-depleted uranium, which can actually have some health benefits. However, exposure to depleted uranium (or high levels of un-depleted uranium) can lead to kidney damage and kidney failure. The most harmful method of exposure is inhalation in the form of uranium dust, which is most often seen in war zones where a specific type of ordinance is used. This leads to lung cancer, osteoporosis, mental degeneration, and can contribute to diabetes and obesity.
Heavy metals and hormones
The problem with heavy metals is that they often get stored in our fat cells, most of our hormones are produced from fat cells (cholesterol). Furthermore, depending on our own detoxification abilities, heavy metals tend to accumulate over the years; in turn toxins like heavy metals affect hormones and create hormonal imbalances that lead to weight-loss resistance. Real and lasting weight loss is not possible when the body is in a state of toxicity, despite following a healthy diet and exercise regime.
Heavy metals cause competition for the absorption of nutrients. For example, useful minerals like copper and zinc are absorbed in the gut. But because of the atomic similarity these minerals have to heavy metals, if there are high levels of these toxic metals, zinc and copper won’t get absorbed as much as they should. A lot of these minerals are necessary in the production of hormones. For example, zinc is needed for thyroid hormones.
The accumulation of heavy metals in the liver affect detoxification which, in turn, effects the regulation and conversion of sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
Plus, the detoxification processes our body uses to get rid of heavy metals uses a lot of B12, folate, selenium, zinc and magnesium. These nutrients are then not available for hormone production.
Getting Rid of Heavy Metals
The first step is taking a heavy metals test (see a results example in the image above) as each type of metal may require a unique approach.
Heavy metals are especially challenging to extract from the body, particularly as many of them settle into bone tissue or deep in the brain. Removing them requires several lifestyle changes (to avoid further toxification) and usually chemical chelation. This is where supplements like activated charcoal are taken to chemically bind with the heavy metals so they can be flushed out. Care must be taken so that the mechanism by which these toxins are flushed out is maintained, as there exists the possibility that they can be “stirred up” in the body and cause even more damage.
If you would like more info or to inquire about heavy metals testing for yourself or a family member, please contact Dr. Ernst directly for a free consult.