(NaturalHealth365) Toxic heavy metals – generally defined as a group of dense compounds with adverse health effects — are found everywhere: in food, water, soil – even in the air we breathe. So prevalent are these substances that researchers tell us that we all carry a certain amount of these metals in our bodies – depending on age, health and exposure.
Have you ever gotten tested for heavy metal toxicity?
In reality, you don’t need to live near a hazardous waste site, or a manufacturing plant that releases lead or mercury in the form of industrial pollution, to experience exposure to heavy metals. Prolonged use of metal-containing paints, personal care products or pesticides, or ingesting contaminated food, can also cause excessive metals to accumulate in the body.
Acute heavy metal intoxication – the sudden intake of high levels of heavy metals – is a life-threatening condition that can cause kidney failure and damage the central nervous system, heart, digestive tract, liver, endocrine system and bones.
But, what about chronic toxicities from repeated exposures to relatively low levels of heavy metals?
Natural health advocates believe there is cause for serious concern. While conventional medicine considers true clinical metal toxicities to be rare, many natural health experts and naturopathic physicians believe that heavy metal amounts under the classical toxicity threshold can still cause great harm, depleting the body’s store of antioxidants — such as glutathione peroxidase — and increasing the risk of certain cancers and diseases.
At risk are the most vulnerable among us
Children — particularly sensitive to lead intoxication — are exposed to lead in at least 4 million households throughout the United States; there is no identified “safe” level of lead exposure in children. Pregnant women and unborn babies are also believed to be particularly at risk.
A trio of toxins lies at the forefront. Mercury, lead and cadmium, three of the primary heavy metals currently causing concern, all affect the body in different ways.
Mercury, which displaces iron and copper in the body, causes oxidative damage and inactivates natural protective antioxidants; it can also cause a range of adverse effects, from tremors and loss of coordination to kidney failure. Eating coldwater fatty fish, which absorb methyl mercury from the water, is a common source of exposure. Of course, dental amalgams (mercury dental fillings) is another big source of exposure.
Lead displaces magnesium and iron and disrupts calcium metabolism. In toxic amounts, it can cause cognitive deficits, brain lesions, behavioral changes, lowered IQ and anemia. Common sources of exposure are contaminated pipes and lead-based paint.
Cadmium, which binds to red blood cells, disrupts the body’s metabolism of the essential mineral zinc, and can lead to decreased bone mineralization. A known carcinogen, cadmium is absorbed through cigarette smoke. It is also found in soil and ocean water.
Fortunately, new and emerging therapies for heavy metal detoxification feature improvements over the standard methods, offering safer, more focused ways of treating the condition.
Chelation therapy: an old standby gets a new twist
For many years, chelation therapy has been a primary treatment for heavy metal detoxification. Chelating agents, which include dimercaprol, calcium-disodium EDTA and DMSA, bind to toxic metal ions, making it easier for the body to excrete them.
Unfortunately, chelation therapy can also flush essential trace minerals from the body, and can have toxic effects which include kidney overload, cardiac arrest, anemia and mineral deficiency.
Thankfully, scientists are developing safer heavy metal chelators that are highly specific for metal toxins, and which also feature low affinity for essential minerals. A promising new treatment has the tongue-twisting name of polygamma-glutamic acid-coated superparamagnetic nanoparticles; composites of magnetic chitosan and grapheme oxide also show promise. In addition to sparing the body’s essential minerals, these new magnetic chelators can be specifically directed to target affected organs.
Scientists are also tweaking the science of chelation by combining known chelating agents to achieve better effects. In a review published in 2010 in International Journal of Environmental and Residential Public Health, the authors noted the use of DMSA used in tandem with the antioxidant n-acetyl-cysteine.
Scientists have long been puzzled by the fact that elevated blood levels of metals don’t necessarily translate to clinical metal toxicity. On the other hand, metal toxicities can occur in some people with levels believed to be “safe.”
Toxicogenomics, the study of the way toxin exposure changes gene expression, can help determine the true toxicity of metal levels, as well as helping to treat the damage. For example, finding out which genes contribute to resistance to heavy metals not only helps to solve the mystery of individual tolerance to heavy metals, but offers exciting implications for prevention.
In a 2008 review of toxicogenomics published in Journal of Environmental Biology, the authors expressed their hope that identification of novel molecular targets could help treat cancers resulting from heavy metal exposure.
How to reduce toxic metal uptake and minimize your risk
Experts say you can reduce your toxic metal uptake by consuming adequate amounts of the antioxidant vitamin C and E, as well as trace minerals such as zinc, iron and selenium. Carefully reading labels, avoiding mercury amalgam dental fillings, eating pesticide-free organic foods and opting for high-quality fish oil supplements over mercury-heavy fish are also steps you can take to reduce your risk of excessive metal accumulation.
Chlorella, an algae-derived nutraceutical food available in health food stores and online, has been shown in clinical studies to accelerate the excretion of methyl mercury; n-acetyl-cysteine, folate, garlic powder, probiotics and cilantro extract also have detoxifying effects. Although heavy metal accumulations can threaten your health, emerging therapies – along with appropriate personal choices – may be of great use in minimizing the damage and preserving health.
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