Heavy metals—they’re in our food, beauty products and even teeth fillings, but many of us know little about them. Are they essential nutrients or are they toxins that can pollute our bodies and environment? And how can you know the difference?
Though extremely high levels of heavy metal exposure can lead to dangerous side effects, you likely won’t experience these from eating your kale salad at lunch, even though kale has small amounts of thallium and cesium. But when it comes down to it, we want our bodies as toxin-free as possible, so knowing how to identify and resolve high levels of heavy metals in your body is an important part of optimizing your health. We’ve laid out the top four things you should know about heavy metals, where they’re coming from and how you can cleanse your body.
What are heavy metals?
These are the top four things you need to know about heavy metals.
1. Metals are natural.
Metals are found naturally occurring in soil because they are part of the earth’s crust. A heavy metal is defined as a chemical element with a specific gravity that is at least five times that of water.
2. Metals are essential.
Zinc, B12 (which contains cobalt), Iron, Manganese and Molybdenum are metals that are essential to your body’s proper functioning. They are responsible for everything from regulating human metabolism to red blood cell formation to energy production and liver function.
3. Some metals are dangerous.
High levels of Mercury, Lead, Arsenic, Thallium and other heavy metals can cause symptoms as varied as nerve damage and pain, nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, thyroid dysfunction, and even kidney failure and cancer. Each metal can have unique symptoms when they accumulate to toxic levels.
4. The real issue probably isn’t the metals.
It usually takes significant exposure to get severe symptoms and statistics show heavy metal poisoning is relatively rare in the United States, but on the other end of the spectrum, low-grade chronic exposure from things like poor diet, sluggish digestion, toxic environments, and inflammatory, sedentary lifestyles can still lead to a build up of low to moderate levels of metals in the body. This heavy metal accumulation, while not classified as an actual toxicity, can cause immune dysfunction, hormone imbalance, fatigue, brain fog, and even high blood pressure in the case of lead.
Many doctors don’t normally test for heavy metals in the blood because they may not recognize the hallmark symptoms. Because the symptoms can sometimes be confused for other conditions, at Parsley Health, we regularly test for heavy metals to make sure you’re in the clear.
The most common sources of heavy metal exposure.
Sources of heavy metal exposure include:
Rice, especially brown rice, and seafood, which have been contaminated with Arsenic, are a growing problem. Note that both the inorganic and organic forms of Arsenic are naturally occurring, and the inorganic form is much more toxic, but also less prevalent.
Exposure to industrial sources of mercury in an occupational role, or in older fillings in teeth that have mercury as a component. There is also concern as to whether the use of Thimerisol, a preservative in certain vaccines and other medical treatments, which contains 50 percent mercury by weight, is a source of mercury toxicity. People who consume lots of fish that have bio-accumulated Mercury in the fatty tissue of larger fish, such as tuna, swordfish, and grouper.
This is most commonly found in antiperspirants, medications, and personal care products. Previous small-scale research showed potential links between breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum exposure from antiperspirants, however, recent research and reviews of clinical data suggest there is no clear evidence to support this link. Specifically, they mention that while elevated aluminum has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimers, “it remains unclear whether this is a cause or an effect of the disease.” Though heavy metals like aluminum may not definitively be linked to these diseases, they still contribute to a buildup of toxins in the body which can lead to a host of other medical conditions such as muscle weakness, fatigue, brain fog and in more serious cases, seizures, bone deformities and lung problems.
Paint in old houses, leaded fuel emissions in the air (on the decline but still present in industrial settings), and lead in glass and other manufactured products are some of the major sources. It can also be found in natural sources like unfiltered water, bone broth, and while generally not absorbed from soil into plants, can be found in very low quantities on the surface of root veggies like carrots and leafy greens like lettuce.
Thallium and Cesium
Though there have been some recent reports that associate cruciferous vegetables with heavy metal toxicity due to their potential thallium and cesium content, it’s not time to ditch these greens just yet. Some, but not all, cruciferous vegetables, like kale and cabbage, may accumulate these metals but there is no way to know if the veggies you are eating are high in these metals without testing the vegetables themselves. Where and how they are grown – soil, water and fertilizer specifically – will determine their levels. At Parsley Health, when we see high thallium levels in members, we typically suggest decreasing kale consumption to get these toxins under control.
What are heavy metal poisoning symptoms?
As mentioned, heavy metal poisoning is relatively uncommon, but many can still experience effects of less serious heavy metal accumulation in the body.
Acute poisoning (high dose at one time):
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain and cramping
Chronic poisoning (low dose over time):
- Brain fog
- Tingling and burning sensations
- Achy joints and muscles
How to do a heavy metal detox
If you think you may have high levels of heavy metals in your body, get tested to have a clearer picture of what’s going on. At Parsley Health, we offer heavy metal testing through blood and urine. (Read more about the five essential blood tests you need every year.)
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms and your test results show high amounts of heavy metals, these tips can help you clean out your system. Freeing your body of any toxins is an extremely important part of optimizing your overall health. However, if you’re pregnant, eldery or severely ill, we do not recommend a heavy metal detox as mobilization of the toxins could accompany negative side effects for the developing fetus and those with compromised immune systems.
Work with a doctor or a trained functional medicine health coach on gentle detoxification. Most people can successfully detoxify with these steps and do not need aggressive or IV based detoxification treatment.
Boost fiber and detox-friendly foods.
Enhance detoxification by focusing on a high fiber diet with a goal of at least 30-50 grams per day from plant-based sources. Pair your higher fiber intake with adequate hydration to encourage flushing through the system and regular elimination. For specific detox-friendly foods to include, add in plenty of cruciferous veggies and bitter greens, fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, mint, basil and nettles, chlorophyll-rich foods such as spirulina, chlorella and green vegetable juices and liver-supportive teas such as dandelion, milk thistle, turmeric, ginger and lemon. You can also ask your doctor about supplementing the diet with targeted supplements, like antioxidants and phytonutrients, that further support your body’s methylation, a biochemical process essential to detoxification and repair.
Remove common triggers.
Reduce refined sugar, alcohol, excess caffeine, conventionally-raised meat products and other commonly inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy and soy in the diet to help limit your daily toxic load. Instead, focus on an anti-inflammatory foods such as organic vegetables and fruits, well-sourced, high quality proteins and healthy fats which help to naturally support your body’s organs of elimination including your gut, liver and kidneys.
Incorporate regular detox practices.
Ensure regular sweating through heart-rate raising physical activity and weekly sauna sessions (if advised by your doctor). For complementary lifestyle therapies, you can also consider lymphatic massage and skin brushing for additional detox benefits.
Lastly, including healthful, non-toxic ways to manage stress and anxiety such as a consistent meditation practice and built in time for self-care can be one of the most important detox practices of all.