What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are natural components from the earth and some of them are essential for a healthy metabolism in microscopic quantities. However, high concentrations of heavy metals can be toxic to the body and contribute to many health disorders including aches and pain.
These substances include lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminium, cadmium, antimony, copper, uranium, strontium, nickel, beryllium, even chromium and cobalt in excess.
Many of you will recall the children's story Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter who wore the top hat. The term "he's as mad as a hatter" reflected on this since all milliners made felt hats containing mercury. Mill workers were also exposed to mercury in the past but even now coal mining and processing, including burning for power, releases high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic along with carbon dioxide!
Toxic heavy metals are present in the air we breathe, especially in cities and industrial environments, water and soil. They are even in our food supply often in the form of a by-product that may be included. They are also present in our homes and work places. Toxic substances are also included in pharmaceutical products of all types including recreational drugs, cigarettes and many types of cosmetics, to name a few. And of course it's in amalgams, so have all your toxic mercury amalgams removed now!
If you work in an industrial environment that is involved in toxic metal release you should wear full protective masks and clothing at all times.
Research has indicated that contamination is so pervasive in our modern day environment, it's no longer a question of whether we are exposed to toxins but rather a need to know how much? We do live in a toxic world!
Effect on the Body
There are so many health issues that can manifest from excess of heavy metals so this list serves as a guide:
neurological disorders, memory problems, depression, insomnia, irritability, learning deficits, aggressive behaviour, ongoing anxiety, fearfulness, emotional instability, dizziness, poor cognitive function, headaches/migraines including physical disorders such as liver or kidney dysfunction, infertility, arthritis including rheumatoid arthritis and gout, chronic fatigue, Parkinson's disease, acute/chronic pain that is unresolved by various types of bodywork, hypertension, digestive disorders, degenerative eye disorders such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, even candida and some cancers. This list is by no means all inclusive.
Obviously, some issues such as headaches could be caused by poor posture, whiplash or what we term "organic issues" where the liver is failing to conjugate hormones efficiently resulting in cyclic headaches for women, for example.
Many medical doctors don't consider how heavy metals can contribute to so many health issues for which they are prescribing drugs. A GP told me once that all city people must expect to have lead and cadmium in their body at the very least and that the liver can release this over time without any natural remedies being prescribed since they don't work! I beg to differ on both accounts!
US research estimates 64 million homes still contain lead paint! According to this report, 5-15 million of these homes have been identified as "very hazardous". Many children are currently affected by lead toxicity in the US and most of these are younger than six years. Lead can affect IQ levels and contributes to learning disabilities, hyperactivity (so your ADHD drug Ritalin may not be the answer!), aggressive or disruptive behaviour - the list goes on.
Childhood exposure to lead can result in adverse effects well into adulthood resulting in neurobehavioral effects even 20 years after initial exposure.
What we also need to understand is that lead competes with calcium in the body and loss of this vital mineral contributes to so many metabolic malfunctions including a decrease in neurotransmitter (these vital chemicals relay messages along nerve cells) release and blockage of calcium channels.
The central nervous system is greatly affected by lead toxicity often resulting in a myriad of neuropsychiatric symptoms.
Chronic exposure to lead results in accumulation in brain and soft tissue, along with bones. The effect is insidious as it can remain in the bones for many years before being slowly released back into the blood stream.
Are heavy metals useful for the body?
Microscopic amounts of various heavy metals are needed for healthy metabolic function. For instance, small amounts of nickel are needed by the body to produce red blood cells but in excess can contribute to decreased body weight, heart, liver, nervous and circulation system damage, fatigue, irritability, skin irritations and hair loss.
Copper is essential for healthy metabolic function and healthy hair growth but in excess can contribute to anaemia, liver and kidney damage and stomach or intestine problems. If you live in a home with old copper pipes, sediments can leak into the drinking water so it is advisable to install a reverse osmosis system or drink mineral water. People who eat too many avocados (especially vegans) have been known to have excess copper levels since avocados contain copper. Balance in everything is so important!
How can you resolve this?
First and foremost, if you have had heavy metals in your system for a long time you cannot expect an overnight fix. It takes time to leach the toxins safely out of the body and, while this is happening, it is important to provide the body with correct nutrition to give your cells the strength to throw off the toxins that burrow deep inside at a cellular level. Diet must be addressed and people often try to bargain with their favourite food. If you want to get well you must cease consuming anything that is counterproductive and often introduce other healthy options. Diets may vary slightly from person to person.
Supplements in the form of minerals and vitamins are often included to build up cellular strength and aid with correcting underlying deficiencies since heavy metals can destroy healthy minerals. Your diet may provide a wide array of minerals and vitamins but it is not all utilised due to the heavy metals in your system.
Saturated fats are important and must be included in the diet. Ideally, these should be animal fats that assist in releasing heavy metals from the body. So vegans who may eat only eggs and even those vegetarians who include fish may be lacking in sufficient animal fats. Coconut oil is saturated fat but it does not work the same way.
Some people may present with unique biochemical, genetic and nutritional factors which make them more susceptible to the effects of toxic heavy metals.
Tests for heavy metals
Blood tests have been conducted but they are not very accurate. High blood levels are often found in acute heavy metal exposure and in people exposed to high levels of toxins over a lengthy period of time. However, in chronic low level exposure, blood levels can be low due to redistribution of toxins throughout the body over time, yet bone and other tissue levels remain high.
Urine tests are often conducted by doctors but one functional lab recently advised me they found strong comparisons between urine and hair mineral analysis testing. I have found the latter to be very reliable in ascertaining imbalances with nutrition, minerals and toxic heavy metals. We need to see what is occurring at a deep cellular level in the tissues of the body.
However, many practitioners prefer to run urine challenge tests using a chelating agent. This chelating agent binds to heavy metals in the body and is then excreted in the urine releasing heavy metals. The urine is then tested to determine the amount or type of toxic metals you have excreted.
When taking samples of hair for hair mineral analysis testing, the practitioner requires all details of shampoos, conditioners, soaps and any other product you have used on your hair. Only virgin hair can be used. If you colour your hair you must wait for a regrowth so that a sample can be taken from the nape of your neck. Men who have no hair must use pubic hair.
Homoeopathy is used to aid in leaching out the unwanted heavy metals, along with some vegetable juices, especially those like Chinese cabbage that produce white juice. White juices should not be mixed with coloured juice. Trace minerals and fulvic acid are important to both cleanse the cells and restore strength and mineralisation. However, fulvic acid is not available in many Australian products and often we have to seek products overseas.
This maybe a long-term process - it really depends how chronic the levels of toxicity are. Finetuning the healthy minerals in the body is important otherwise it is harder to release the heavy metals.
EDTA chelation is a therapy often used by integrated doctors or orthomolecular physicians. Here, repeated administrations of a weak synthetic amino acid known as ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA) slowly reduce atherosclerotic plaque and mineral deposits throughout the cardiovascular system by dissolving them away. EDTA removes toxic heavy metals from the blood. EDTA is administered either orally or intravenously - the latter called IV chelation.
It has been noted that as we age we tend to accumulate far more toxic heavy metals and, of course, if we already have a toxic level that has not been addressed it is easy to see how health will deterioriate over time.
Those who wish to run comparisons may opt for both hair mineral analysis tests and urine tests to be conducted at the same time.
Either way, you will need to take a number of trace minerals, vitamins and homoeopathics for quite a while to rid your body from heavy metals.
I personally feel that everyone should consider a heavy metal test when visiting a naturopath or holistic doctor as this way you can look to achieve a better outcome with your treatment program.
Sydney-based Lyn Craven is a practitioner of naturopathy, nutrition, medical herbalism, Bowen therapy, Reiki energy healing and meditation, and is a corporate health presenter/consultant with 19 years' experience in natural therapies. www.lyncravencorporatehealth-naturopath.com
Disclaimer: Information presented in this column is not intended as medical advice but to advance the understanding of holistic nutrition and lifestyle and its place in a balanced approach to health. Readers are encouraged to be guided by their own healthcare professionals.
Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804