Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, are natural metallic elements (with high atomic weight) but over the years, multiple and intense use of these metals in agriculture, medical, cosmetics and other industries have caused high concentrations of these in immediate human surroundings. This accumulated environmental pollution is now part of our everyday life and raises concerns over its pernicious effects on human well being. Research suggest that these heavy metals are systemic toxicants for human body and can induce adverse health effects such as leaky gut, neurologic disorders, chronic fatigue, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hematologic and immunologic disorders, developmental abnormalities and cancer.
Besides, depending on chemical species, its dose, route and period (acute or chronic) of exposure, the effect of heavy metal poisoning is greatly influenced by personal characteristics of the exposed individuals such as age, gender, genetics, individual susceptibilities and nutritional status. Developing children and fetus (inside pregnant women) are more susceptible to the detrimental effects, as their bodies absorb more percentage of ingested compounds (compared to adults) and development of their brains can get effected by even brief exposures of these metals.
Causes of Heavy Metal Poisoning from Your Environment
Chronic heavy metal exposure mainly occurs through ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact. Once inside human body, these toxic elements start interfering with metabolic, nutritional and immunologic functions of other essential metals such as iron, calcium, copper, and zinc, which leads to poor digestion, ineffective absorption of nutrients and lowered immunity. This biochemical imbalance also induces production of auto-antibodies and free radicals resulting in increased oxidative stress, inflammation and multiple organ damage. Interaction of heavy metals with cell components can even cause DNA damage and trigger carcinogenesis by both activating oncogenesis and inhibiting innate tumor suppression mechanism.
High concentration of lead is released in the environment through fossil fuels burning, mining, production of lead-acid batteries, ammunitions, metal products, and other manufacturing applications (paints, ceramic and glass). Though, efforts have been made to limit its use in gasoline, residential paints, food, drink cans and plumbing systems, still it is a serious health problem, as lead is the most systemic toxicant that affects almost all organs in the body. Lead exposure during pregnancy can cause preterm delivery, reduced birth weight and neuro-developmental abnormalities in offspring. Chronic lead exposure causes detrimental effects on central nervous system, cardiovascular system, kidneys, and cancer.
This metal is most common in our immediate environment, as it is used to make: i) cook wares and food containers i.e. aluminum foil, cans, ceramics; ii) food items such as baking powder, milk products, beer, bleached flour, cheese, color additives, vanilla powder, drinking water; iii) pharmaceutical products such as nasal spray, medicines (antacids, aspirin), dental amalgams; iv) personal care products i.e. deodorants, toothpaste; and v) insulated wiring, auto exhaust, cigarette filters and fireworks. Chronic aluminium exposure disrupts functioning of kidney, liver and digestive system; reduces immunity; impairs mental functions; induces behavioral problems; and causes muscle weakness.
Mercury is ubiquitous in the environment, as it is released into the air whenever anything burns. It is widely used in making switches, thermostats, batteries; preservatives by pharma industry; antifungal agents by wood processing industry; precious metal processing and dental amalgams. Dental amalgams and contaminated fish are the main source of exposure. Dental amalgam contains elemental mercury, which is absorbed through lungs and tissues lining the mouth. Being lipid soluble, it easily crosses cell membranes (even placental and blood-brain barriers) and produces highly reactive oxygen species (ROS), which cause oxidative damage and interfere with vital processes like nerve transmission and cell division. Mercury has a very low excretion rate, so once absorbed, it starts accumulating in the liver, neurological tissue and kidneys, which leads to gastrointestinal toxicity, neuro-toxicity, and nephro-toxicity.
It is used in agricultural products such as pesticides, herbicide and insect sprays. Arsenic toxicity occurs through contaminated ground water, soil and seafood from coastal waters. Arsenic can cause digestive issues (anorexia, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain); respiratory tract infection; skin, nail and hair problems; muscle weakness and increased risk of cancers.
Various industrial applications i.e. production of alloys, pigments, and batteries, use Cadmium. The main source of its exposure is inhalation of emissions from industrial activities and cigarette smoke; eating contaminated food; and working in cadmium-contaminated work places. Chronic cadmium exposure is associated with decreased pulmonary, olfactory and gastrointestinal functions; lower bone mineral density and osteoporosis; and depressive symptoms.
How to reduce effects of heavy metal poisoning
Chronic exposure to heavy metals leads to toxic accumulation of these in the soft tissues of human body. Often, medical diagnosis overlooks heavy metal toxicity, resulting in significant amount of morbidity and mortality. A simple analysis of blood, hair, urine and feces determines the extent of accumulated heavy metals in the body. Here are some simple steps that can help in reducing the burden and detoxifying your body:
- Exposure to these metals occurs mainly through diet, medications and immediate family and work environment, so taking into account the dietary and lifestyle history is the first step to identify the hidden sources of metal exposure and reducing overall body burden.
- Human body has strong detoxifying system (liver, kidney, lung and skin) that continuously work to eliminate toxins and wastes. Antioxidant mechanism (vitamins C, vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase and melatonin) also scavenges the free radicals created by heavy metals and reduces build-up of oxidative stress. Toxicity happens when heavy metal accumulation overrides and exhausts this buffering capacity. Thus, to support body’s elimination system focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating nutrient-rich, organic, whole food, plant based diet; exercising regularly and taking adequate rest; and limiting consumption of inflammatory causing substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, refined sugars and grains.
- Detoxification, or ridding the body of these poisonous metals requires a concerted effort. Chlorella and cilantro and useful at chelating (or binding the metal into a molecular “cage”). Chelation therapy involves oral, topical, rectal, or intravenous substances (like EDTA) to carry heavy metals out of the body in the urine. Sweating, especially far infra red saunas, help eliminate heavy metals through the skin. Regular bowel movements encourage elimination of heavy metals through the stools.
- Enhance body’s detoxification process, by intermittent fasting, alternate hot and cold baths, spending time outdoor, soaking in sunshine, doing yoga and breathing exercises.
- Also, use good water and air purifiers; and natural household and personal care products to limit exposure.