15 Evidence-Based Heavy Metal Detox Strategies

The human body is increasingly exposed to elevated amounts of heavy metals in our environment.

When these metals enter your bloodstream or digestive system, they can create significant health problems and lead to long-term health risks.

Understanding your risk of heavy metal toxification, how to find out if you have heavy metals in your system and learning how to detoxify from heavy metal exposure, can help you to improve your health and repair damage caused by this environmental threat.

 

Understanding Heavy Metals

Heavy metals are all metals that have relatively high densities, atomic numbers, or atomic weights.

While these metals rarely naturally occur on the Earth’s crust, they are now present because of industrialization, mining and other aspects of modern life.

While we require small amounts of some heavy metals for our health, like zinc, cobalt, copper, magnesium, manganese, and iron, other heavy metals are highly poisonous to humans, including mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium (1).

You may be wondering how you could even become exposed to heavy metals.

Human activity has concentrated these natural elements through mining, industrial waste disposal and the creation of certain products, such as lead batteries, treated timbers, paint and agricultural products.

Others may become exposed to heavy metals due to their occupation, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing, construction, and other industries.

These heavy metals find their way into the air, water, food and commercial products through runoff, tailings, poor disposal methods, and other mishandling.

This results in widespread exposure to heavy metals by nearly everyone on the planet.

The heavy metals with the most significant potential for human harm are cadmium, mercury, lead, and arsenic.

Lead is the most common contaminant that you are likely exposed to today (2).

Because these are the most common and harmful heavy metals affecting the human body, this review will focus mainly on how to treat for overexposure to these four elements.

 

How to Recognize Heavy Metal Intoxication

If you have high concentrations of one or more heavy metals in your body, your symptoms may vary depending on your overall health, the source of your exposure, your levels of toxicity, the metal to which you were exposed, and the length of your exposure.

Each metal has a different impact on the human body.

For example, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury are classified as known or possible carcinogens (3).

High levels of other lead or cadmium can lead to problems with the growth of unborn children, leading to complications or even death (4).

High levels of mercury in the body can lead to depression, memory problems, tremors, fatigue, headache or hair loss (5).

Because each metal affects the body differently, it is important to understand your own symptoms, as well as how each element could be contributing to your problems.

It is also important to note that these metals can also have a synergistic toxicity effect.

This means that their combined impact can be more toxic and harmful than the power of each metal individually on your body (6).

We will explore each heavy metal in-depth to discuss how it adversely affects health, when present at toxic levels in the body.

 

Testing for Heavy Metal Exposure

If you are concerned that heavy metals may be negatively influencing your health, you can test for heavy metal exposure in several ways.

Talk to your doctor about your feasible options and concerns.

The most common ways to test for heavy metals include blood tests, urine tests and using hair or toenail samples.

It can be difficult to get an accurate portrait of your total heavy metal burden, however, since your body stores these elements in many ways, which are often not detectable through standard testing measures.

We will first consider blood tests.

A blood test is generally only appropriate if you have acute exposure to a specific element, such as from a chemical spill or industrial accident.

It will only tell you what is currently in your blood.

It is quickly filtered by your body when any metals present will become stored in your other organs (7).

Urine tests are another way to gauge metal toxicity.

They are the most commonly used but are not always the most accurate.

While your body will try to excrete heavy metals through urination, this test is still not a completely accurate measure of how much of a specific element you may be stored in your body (8).

You do not excrete all metals or compounds through your urine.

Therefore, combining urine with bloodwork can help provide you with more information.

Hair testing is a way to gauge past exposure to heavy metals.

When it is combined with other measurements, such as blood or urine analysis, it can help you understand your heavy metal load (9).

 

The Provoked Urine Test

One method of testing for toxic levels of heavy metals is through a specific test known as the provoked urine test or the “challenge test.”

This test requires you to ingest a chelating agent that is known to bind with metals, thus forcing excretion of the element through the urine.

Once the urine is tested, the analysis can provide information about the type and concentration of metals that are present inside your body (10).

Many people who complete this type of urine test experience negative side effects, due to the rapid excretion of these heavy metals.

This can quickly overload your body’s natural detoxification pathways.

Releasing these heavy metals into your body through this process can also cause additional harm.

There are additional questions as to the validity and standards of protocol for this type of analysis, leading many to caution its use when testing for heavy metal exposure (11).

If your physician recommends this test, be sure that you understand the risks involved, before agreeing to take it.

 

Heavy Metal Effects on the Human Body

The four most common metals that lead to toxicity and cause negative health consequences are lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

We will explore how each of these affects the human body.

 

Lead Poisoning

Lead is perhaps the most common of all heavy metal toxicities, because of its prevalence in many products.

The lead was formerly used to create such everyday items as paint, water pipes, and ceramics.

While the use of lead in such items as household paints was banned in the late 1970s, lead still exists in one-fourth of all homes in the United States.

This has led to significant exposure through dust, soil, water and contaminated particles (12).

Most cases of lead poisoning in adults now come from occupational exposure.

However, for children and others, the source of most lead poisoning is from food.

Children, especially babies and toddlers, are at an increased risk for lead poisoning, due to their small size and their tendency to put things in their mouth, including toys or other objects that may be contaminated with lead particles or decorated with lead-based paint.

Women who are pregnant are also especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

It can cross the placental barrier and harm the developing fetus.

Lead poisoning can lead to pre-term birth, low birth weight, and learning delays and deficits for children exposed in utero (13).

Lead accumulates in many areas of the body, including the brain, heart, liver, kidneys, and bones.

Lead poisoning can result in headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability and problems with memory (14).

Lead harms the body by blocking calcium, causing oxidative stress and disturbing how proteins and enzymes function within the cells.

 

Mercury Poisoning

Because it is the most toxic heavy metal on the planet, mercury poses a considerable risk to the human body (15).

Even in insignificant amounts, mercury can have significant negative effects on your health.

Most people are exposed to mercury from eating tainted seafood, but other sources of this element include dental fillings and small-scale gold mining operations (16).

Mercury is stored in fatty tissues and the liver of fish when they eat smaller fish.

This is why large species, such as tuna and swordfish, have a much higher concentration of mercury than smaller fish.

When humans consume mercury, it is stored in the fatty tissues that make up the myelin sheaths around nerve cells and the brain.

It can also be stored in the liver and kidneys, which are mostly made from fat.

Having too much mercury in your body can lead to kidney damage, permanent brain damage, loss of hair, problems with memory, depression, headache, fatigue, and difficulties with coordination and balance (17).

Those with chronic or high levels of mercury exposure are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis and other heart problems (18, 19).

Even at low levels, the presence of mercury can cause cellular deterioration in the brain.

Mercury harms the body, by binding to amino acids and enzymes to interrupt cellular function.

It also depletes the body’s stores of important antioxidants, like glutathione, which can cause damage and even cellular death.

 

Cadmium Poisoning

Cadmium is a water-soluble metal which can be absorbed into plants and the body in several ways.

The two most significant sources of cadmium exposure are smoking (via absorption in the tobacco leaves) and occupational exposure in various manufacturing and metal-working industries (20).

Cadmium accumulates in and is highly toxic to the kidneys, which can result in several chronic health problems.

Long-term exposure to cadmium can cause not only kidney disease and stones but also osteoporosis and problems with calcium metabolism.

Unlike the other heavy metals that can cause damage, cadmium seems to work indirectly by decreasing antioxidants, rather than causing direct oxidative damage (21).

 

Arsenic Poisoning

Most people are exposed to arsenic through food that is grown in water and soil contaminated with this heavy metal (22).

Some industries also use arsenic, so occupational exposure is also possible.

Most recently, rice has been found to contain high levels of this heavy metal, leading to concern regarding its use, especially among small children (23).

Arsenic is processed in the liver and excreted through the kidneys. This puts these two organs at most risk for arsenic exposure (24).

If young children are excessively exposed to this heavy metal during childhood, they may develop behavioral problems that can continue throughout their lives (25).

It can also cause problems with long-term memory and language learning.

Arsenic poisoning is linked to pre-term birth and fetal mortality as well as diabetes (28).

Long-term exposure to arsenic causes skin lesions, hypertension, genetic mutations, nerve inflammation and cancer (27, 28, 29).

Arsenic harms the body by inhibiting the function of mitochondrial processes, depleting certain essential minerals in the body and causing excessive oxidative stress.

 

Detoxification of Heavy Metals

Chelation is a process of binding heavy metals with organic material, then excreting these compounds from the body safely.

This process should be done in a way that does not redistribute the harmful heavy metals to other parts of your body, does not overwhelm your excretion systems and does not interfere with your overall health and well-being.

If you want to engage in heavy metal detoxification, there are some rules and procedures you should follow in order to accomplish this safely and help restore your health (30).

 

Stop Additional Exposure

Before trying to remove heavy metals from your body, start by reducing or eliminating your exposure to these elements.

Examine your diet and lifestyle to eliminate possible sources of contamination.

Be sure that you are filtering your drinking water and protecting yourself from other sources of exposure in your daily life.

 

Support Excellent Excretory Health

You do not want to begin chelating and detoxifying your body of heavy metals, if your kidneys, liver, or digestive system are not healthy.

These organs and systems are responsible for most of the excretion of toxins, and if they are clogged or malfunctioning, you could do more harm than good with a detox.

Focus on improving the health of your liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines, before you start a chelating process.

 

Supplement the Minerals Your Body Needs

Chelating can remove heavy metals that your body needs for optimal health.

The presence of minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and calcium reduces your body’s ability to absorb heavy metals.

Therefore, having sufficient levels of them in your blood will help the process.

 

Find the Right Chelator

Once you are ready, you should choose a binding agent and begin the chelating process.

When you chelate, you supply the binding agent, which finds and bonds with heavy metals and then transports them through your bloodstream into your various excretion pathways.

You can excrete these heavy metals through your feces, urine or sweat.

 

Go Slowly and Work in Waves

When your body is excreting these heavy metals, you do not want to overwhelm your system or cause the redistribution of the heavy metals to other organs.

A slow, steady process can be beneficial.

However, you can also work in patterns of chelation and rest to allow your natural detoxification systems opportunity to rest and recover from this process.

You may want to work with your physician throughout this process to ensure you are not overburdening your excretory pathways or causing more harm.

 

Choosing the Right Chelation Agents

Taking supplements and using other natural remedies and methods can help rid your body of excess heavy metals and detoxify your system.

Choosing the right binding agents and processes depends on your needs and symptoms.

We have included those chelation methods that have some research on human subjects.

However, there are many more that have also been tested in cellular or animal trials.

 

Sauna Treatments

Sweating is an excellent way to excrete any of the four major heavy metal toxins discussed above.

Saunas have been used for centuries to increase circulation and induce sweating, which can help to push toxins like heavy metals out of the body (31).

It is important to remember that you also lose beneficial minerals, vitamins, and electrolytes when you sweat, so you should be sure to replace these in your diet each time you use a sauna to detoxify.

 

Vitamin C

If you want to protect against lead toxicity, vitamin C can lower oxidative stress and boost glutathione levels (32).

Supplementing with vitamin C can lead to increased excretion of lead in both urine and feces, while also repairing damage to red blood cells caused by lead exposure (33, 34).

The most common dosages are between 500 and 1500 milligrams per day, and while higher dosages may not cause many problems, there does not seem to be any increased benefit (35).

 

Calcium Disodium Versenate

Another effective chelating agent for lead is calcium disodium versenate (CaNa2EDTA).

This treatment must be administered intravenously.

Therefore, it is recommended that you have medical supervision for this treatment.

Calcium disodium versenate can deplete your body of other essential minerals, so it is essential that you supplement them to support good health.

It has been shown to be effective in cases of lead poisoning (36).

 

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)

N-Acetylcysteine is a medication that is used to treat acetaminophen overdose.

However, it has also been found to help chelate both lead and mercury.

In human trials, this drug was successful in reducing blood levels of lead, while increasing glutathione concentrations (37).

In animal trials, it enhanced the excretion of mercury by 400 percent (38).

 

Glutathione

The antioxidant glutathione is a powerful tool for treating mercury toxicity.

Glutathione contains sulfur compounds that bind not only with mercury but also with lead and cadmium (39).

When you have high concentrations of glutathione in your system, your body naturally resists mercury accumulation (40).

This antioxidant not only protects your cells by discouraging mercury deposition and binding but also transports this heavy metal to eliminate it from your body (41, 42).

 

Selenium

Another excellent binding agent for mercury is selenium.

It was used successfully to encourage mercury excretion in Chinese villagers exposed to mercury (43).

Eating enriched yeast or Brazil nuts, both high in selenium, can improve your blood’s concentration of this essential mineral.

 

Zinc

If you want to prevent absorption of lead or cadmium, boost your zinc levels.

This metal competes with cadmium and lead for sites with which to bind.

Therefore, improving your zinc levels can help you to resist heavy metal overload (44).

Higher levels of zinc also promote cadmium excretion (45).

 

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)

ALA is a powerful antioxidant that has the ability to chelate heavy metals from all parts of the body, including the brain (46).

It helps to repair the damage done to cell membranes by heavy metal exposure (47) while increasing the production of helpful glutathione (48).

Doses of nearly 2,000 milligrams of ALA are well-tolerated and generate no side effects.

Therefore, it can safely be used to help detoxify the body from exposure to all types of heavy metals (49).

 

Dimercaptosuccinic Acid (DMSA)

DMSA is a medication designed specifically as a heavy metal chelator.

It can be administered in a variety of ways.

Taking DMSA as an oral supplement has been shown to increase urinary excretion of mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic (50, 51).

It helped reverse lead poisoning symptoms in one toxicity situation.

Because it binds to all heavy metals, it is important to supplement necessary minerals like magnesium, calcium, copper, iron, and zinc during and after the use of DMSA (52).

 

Dimercaptopropane Sulfonate (DMPS)

Like DMSA, DMPS is a drug designed specifically as a chelator.

It absorbs more readily into the body than the other medication (53).

DMPS works well in binding with all heavy metals, and it works well for excreting mercury from the kidneys (54).

With both DMSA and DMPS, it is essential that the body is well-hydrated and that excretory systems are functioning well to prevent additional harm from the chelation process.

 

Conclusion

Heavy metal exposure can lead to significant health problems, especially if left untreated.

Understanding your risk of exposure to these elements is important.

If you believe that you have elevated levels, you should have your blood, urine, and hair tested.

There are many ways to encourage the excretion of heavy metals from your body.

This includes using natural and pharmaceutical supplements and medications to bind with these metals so that they can be excreted from the body.

Removing heavy metals from your system can help to improve your health.

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