From the fish on your plate to the fillings in your teeth, heavy metals are abundant in our modern-day environment. Research indicates that exposure to aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, among other heavy metals, predisposes us to a variety of health issues. With the sheer number of potential sources of metal exposure in our environment, it is challenging to know which ones may be accumulating in your body and impacting your health. Heavy metals testing provides insight into your body burden of heavy metals, giving you actionable information that you can use to minimize your exposures and detox effectively.
What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are naturally-occurring elements with a high atomic weight and a specific gravity five times that of water. Atomic weight refers to the average mass of the atoms comprising the metal, while specific gravity refers to the ratio of the metal density to that of water.
A handful of heavy metals are essential nutrients to the human body, such as iron, cobalt, and zinc.
However, there are also heavy metals with harmful effects on the body, including cadmium, mercury, and lead. These are the metals that, upon entering our bodies, wreak havoc on many bodily systems, including the gut, heart, and brain.
While heavy metals occur naturally throughout the earth’s crust, most environmental contamination and human exposure to heavy metals result from anthropogenic activities, including mining, smelting, and industrial processes. (1)
Types of Heavy Metals and Where to Find Them
The most common and potentially toxic heavy metals found in our environment include aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
Aluminum is one of the most plentiful metals in the earth’s crust. Aluminum is a common food contaminant. Aluminum foil, cooking utensils, and storage containers all leach aluminum into food, which we then consume. (2) Cooking foods wrapped in aluminum foil at high temperatures or in the presence of acidic ingredients, such as lemon juice, may increase the amount of aluminum that leaches into food. (3, 4, 5)
Aluminum exposure also occurs through the skin in the form of aluminum-containing antiperspirants; aluminum chlorohydrate is the active ingredient in many antiperspirants due to its physical blocking effect on sweat ducts. (6) Certain medications, such as antacids, have a significant aluminum content. Finally, aluminum is an immunologic adjuvant, a substance used to increase the immune response to a vaccine, making vaccinations a substantial exposure source. (7)
Arsenic is a natural component of the earth’s crust but is also utilized in man-made applications, such as pesticides. It readily leaches into groundwater, making drinking water supplies a significant source of arsenic exposure in the United States. (8) Rice and shellfish also constitute significant exposure sources, with U.S.-grown rice demonstrating exceptionally high levels of this toxic metal. (9, 10)
Cadmium exposure occurs primarily through inhalation of cigarette smoke and car exhaust. However, consumption of leafy greens grown near highways and exposure to traffic area runoff is also a significant but underappreciated source of exposure. (11, 12) Auto mechanics, particularly those who work on older cars, are at an elevated risk of cadmium exposure. (13)
Drinking water, old houses with lead paint, and cosmetics represent the most significant lead exposure sources in our modern-day society. (14) While leaded gasoline was phased out decades ago, lead remains in our soils due to previous use. Lead is also found in the glaze used in many porcelain dishes and cosmetics, such as lipstick. (15)
Mercury is perhaps the most well-recognized toxic heavy metal and also arguably the most complex one. Industrial plants, coal burning, incinerators, and chlor-alkali facilities have released copious amounts of mercury into our oceans for hundreds of years, resulting in widespread seafood contamination.
Mercury is also a primary component of dental amalgams. Interestingly, exposure to non-native EMFs may also release mercury from dental amalgams. (16)
For decades, mercury was used as a preservative (thimerosal) in pediatric vaccines and comprised a significant source of exposure for children (17); today, it has been removed from most pediatric vaccines but remains in more than half of flu shots.
There are four primary forms of mercury, each with unique environmental sources, bioavailability, and toxicity within the body. Together, they contribute to the total body burden of mercury. These forms of mercury include elemental, inorganic, methyl-, and ethylmercury.
- Elemental mercury: Mercury exists in the atmosphere primarily in its elemental form (Hg0) as a liquid or gas released through mining and burning processes, runoff from landfills, and erosion of natural depots. Elemental mercury vapor is also the primary form of mercury released from dental amalgams. (18)
- Inorganic mercury: Inorganic mercury (Hg2+) is released from the surface of corroding dental amalgams. Inorganic mercury’s toxic consequences are much more significant than elemental mercury; however, it also has more limited mobility in the human body.
- Methylmercury: Methylmercury (MeHg) is a form of organic mercury that is lipophilic in nature, meaning it readily crosses lipid-based cell membranes. MeHg binds to amino acid structures called cysteinyl residues, allowing it to enter the central nervous system. (19) This property of methylmercury makes it highly mobile, allowing it to easily cross from the intestine into the systemic circulation, and from the circulation into the brain. Over 95 percent of the mercury found in fish is methylmercury, making seafood the most significant source of exposure. Methylmercury is also formed in the gut when gut bacteria react with the metal.
- Ethylmercury: Ethylmercury was used as a preservative, thimerosal, in vaccines for decades. (20) While it is no longer used in pediatric vaccines, it remains in many flu shots.
How Do Heavy Metals Impact Your Health?
How do heavy metals impact your health? At a cellular level, heavy metals generate free radicals that “steal” electrons from the enzymes, proteins, lipids, and genetic material (DNA), throughout your body. These free radicals instigate a chain reaction of oxidative stress, defined as an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Heavy metal-generated oxidative stress harms the nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, and gut, leading to a vast array of adverse health effects. Acute exposure to large amounts of heavy metals is well-recognized as a public health threat.
By contrast, low-level chronic exposure to heavy metals tends to fly under the radar but may be no less damaging to your health over the long-term. In fact, many ongoing, chronic health conditions may be due to low-level, chronic metals toxicity.
Here’s a list of just a few of the possible effects of heavy metals on the body:
- Nerve discomfort
- Bodily aches and pains
- Cognitive impairment (23)
- Blood sugar dysregulation (24)
- Compromised bone structure integrity (25)
- Low mood
- Disrupted sleep
- Thyroid dysfunction (26)
- Kidney dysfunction
- Vision disturbances
- Blood pressure irregularities
- Skin issues, including breakouts and rashes
- Gut imbalances, including changes in bowel regularity and reductions in friendly gut bugs (27)
- Immune imbalances, including unproductive inflammatory responses and increased vulnerability to external immune threats (28)
The health effects of individual heavy metals overlap; certain heavy metals may even synergize with one another, potentiating their harmful health effects. These characteristics of heavy metals make it extremely difficult to parse out what metals may be contributing to your health concerns. To make intelligent decisions that support your best health, metals testing is essential.
Don’t Guess – Test!
The ubiquity of heavy metals in our environment and the myriad symptoms triggered by exposure make it difficult to determine which heavy metals may be impacting your body. When it comes to heavy metals, don’t guess – test! Metals testing gives you vital information about which metals are affecting your body so you can take actionable steps to minimize your exposure, detoxify your body, and improve the health of your entire body. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series, in which we’ll discuss the critical differences between our Mercury Tri-Test and conventional challenge testing for metals.