Heavy Metals: What They Are, Where They’re Found, and What They Do To You

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We live in a toxic world.  According to naturopathic theory, if you remove the obstacles to cure and give the body what it needs to heal itself, then within reason, it will.

Toxins of all kinds fall under the category of “obstacles to cure,” which means we’ve got to do two things: limit our ongoing exposure, and get rid of the toxins that have already accumulated in our tissues.

Heavy metals are getting more and more attention these days as obstacles to cure and even causes of certain illnesses.  Here’s a quick breakdown of the most common offenders.

Cadmium:

  • Found in: mostly cigarettes, cadmium is also concentrated in the water, air, and soil especially in industrial areas where smelting and refining occurs – thus, it can be found in the food supply in those regions.  It is also used in the manufacture of batteries or plastics.
  • Concentrates in: kidneys, liver, and pancreas, but easily absorbed through the lungs.
  • What it Causes: carcinogenic (causes cancer), and can lead to kidney failure, gout, and loss of sense of smell.

Lead:

  • Found in: Exposure can frequently be geographical or occupational (living near or working in a lead smelter or lead mine, welding, construction, and manufacture of certain products such as glass, vinyl mini-blinds, ceramic glaze).  It can also be found in paint (back when it was made with lead), old pipes leading to a contaminated water supply, some herbal remedies imported from overseas, and many others.
  • Concentrates in: the bones. When bone begins to break down at an older age, or after menopause for women, symptoms can arise or worsen.
  • What It Causes: In children, lead has been linked with learning and developmental disabilities including lower IQ, and ADD.  In general it is associated with other neurological problems such as depression and anxiety, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease.  It can also cause high blood pressure, often poorly or unresponsive to medication.

Mercury:

  • Found in: farmed or Atlantic fish, and also in dental amalgams.  (If you have a mouth full of mercury fillings, you can let off enough mercury vapor every time you chew that your mouth will exceed OSHA standards for acceptable levels!)  Mercury used to be used as a preservative in vaccines (called thimerosol), but thimerosol has been eliminated from most vaccines now except for the influenza vaccine.  (It is possible to get flu vaccines without thimerosol, though.)
  • Concentrates in: the nervous system
  • What It Causes: Mercury eats up your body’s antioxidant reserves, leaving you vulnerable to oxidative damage.  This is probably why it has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.  It also inhibits your body’s ability to make ATP (the energy currency of the body).  For more on associated conditions and symptoms, see here.  (There’s a lot.)

Aluminum:

  • Found in: pans for cooking, “tin” foil, aluminum-based antiperspirants, antacids and many other over-the-counter medications, and in processed foods using baking powder (not baking soda – these are different) and self-rising flour (those that don’t include yeast).  Examples include processed cheese and cheese products, cake mixes, pancake mixes, rising flours, and frozen dough.  Aluminum has also replaced mercury in most vaccines as a preservative.
  • Concentrates in: the lungs, bones, and nervous system.
  • What it Causes: There is some evidence that Aluminum may be correlated with the rise in autism.  (Disclaimer: I am not completely against vaccines, but that’s too big a topic to cover here.)  Aluminum has also been linked to breast cancer, kidney failure, dementia, Alzheimer’s, MS, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease.

Fluoride: this is not technically a metal, but since it is an element (fluorine), I figure it belongs on this list too.

  • Found in: water supply, toothpaste
  • Concentrates in: bones
  • What it Causes: Fluorine is the most reactive element on the periodic table.  Because of this, too much of it can interrupt some of the body’s critical activities and act as a poison.  Too much fluorine can actually weaken teeth and bones, and has been linked with osteosarcoma, a very aggressive bone cancer.  Cosmetically, excessive fluoride can cause enamel fluorosis (mottling or white streaks across the teeth).

How do you minimize your heavy metal exposure?

  • Stop smoking!  And limit your exposure to second-hand smoke if you can.
  • Choose a fluoride-free toothpaste.  Other toothpastes plus the physical action of brushing will clean your teeth just fine.
  • Buy your fish wild caught, not farmed, and not from the Atlantic.  Choose Alaskan salmon if you have the choice!   Fish to avoid, due to mercury content: tuna, orange roughy, swordfish, shark, halibut, and snapper.  Fish to consider instead: cod, whitefish, tilapia, ocean perch, shrimp, flounder, scallops, clams, and catfish.
  • Choose non-aluminum based antiperspirants – or just choose a deodorant and not an antiperspirant at all, if you can handle it.  Certain natural deodorants work quite well when used in conjunction with a healthy, non-toxic lifestyle.  (Remember that sweat is one of the body’s mechanisms to eliminate toxins – the more toxic you are, the smellier you tend to be!)
  • If you purchase herbal remedies imported from overseas, make sure you do so from a trusted brand that tests for heavy metals and certifies their products are uncontaminated.
  • Avoid over-the-counter meds that contain aluminum.  Aluminum is sometimes listed as an active and sometimes as an inactive ingredient, so read your labels.  You shouldn’t need to be taking antacids regularly anyway.  If you are, you’re just treating the symptom, not the cause.  The same is true for continuous use of other over-the-counter meds.
  • Avoid products containing baking powder in the ingredient list, unless specifically stated that it does not contain aluminum.  If they don’t say that it doesn’t, assume that it does.  Same goes for self-rising flour.  (Generally you shouldn’t be eating processed crap anyway, if I haven’t said that enough.)
  • Consider having your mercury amalgams replaced, if it’s an option for you financially.  There are biological (or holistic) dentists that can do this for you.
  • Replace your aluminum pans.  Cast iron or stainless steel are a good choice.  They’re harder to scrub clean, though.
  • Make sure you’re getting your daily dose of antioxidants.  These will both counter the effects of some heavy metals, and improve your body’s natural detoxification mechanisms.
  • Make sure you’re getting your daily dose of chlorophyll.  Translation: eat your greens, the darker the better!  This will also help you to eliminate toxins.
  • Make sure you’re getting your daily dose of fiber.  Fiber helps to bind and eliminate toxins of all kinds.  Whole grains and veggies are a great source.
  • Drink plenty of water!  This flushes out your cells, and helps to prevent constipation, which will clearly impede toxic elimination.

What if you’re already toxic?

Honestly, we’re all toxic.  It’s just a question of how much, and whether it’s causing symptoms.  Some of us are hearty enough that our bodies naturally eliminate toxic substances without any issues.  But some, due to an excessive toxic exposure, poor elimination mechanisms, or both, will have to be more intentional about getting rid of toxic offenders.

Heavy metal tests are available through your naturopathic physician.  When test results warrant a more comprehensive protocol, I tend to favor gentle (homeopathic, nutritional supplement, dietary, and cleansing) elimination techniques, while also avoiding ongoing exposure.  Other naturopathic doctors whom I highly respect use more aggressive methods such as oral or IV chelation, and this may be more appropriate in some cases.  I urge you to do your research, and find the doctor and the approach that is best for you!

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