Minding Your Mercury
For those living in urban areas, and even many who don’t, environmental pollution is a persistent fact of life. We see it in the brown haze on the horizon, the black soot covering plowed snow, the multicolor sheen on waterways. But this is just some of the visible evidence—pollution lives a secret life as well. More and more, environmental toxins are invading our homes, contaminating food and water supplies, and accumulating deep inside the body.
One of the most prolific and dangerous environmental toxins is the heavy metal mercury. It is estimated that up to 8,000 metric tons of mercury are released into the environment each year, accumulating at levels that pose serious threats to environmental and public health.
Though its toxicity is widely known, mercury is still used to make electrical products and common items like florescent bulbs, thermometers, and even dental fillings. But mercury is also a major industrial byproduct, mainly of coal-fired power plants. Mercury-laden soot from these plants is carried far and wide and easily enters the food chain.
Mercury poisoning is a serious condition. In addition to being a neurotoxin that severely affects the central nervous system, the element also damages the heart, kidneys, liver, and other organs, and inhibits the immune system. Pregnant women and children are most at risk.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning include headaches, insomnia, tingling in extremities, problems with speech, hearing, vision, and balance, and cognitive impairment. A study conducted in New Zealand found that people with high levels of mercury suffered fatigue, memory loss, depression, and hair loss. Needless to say, if you are experiencing any combination of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. A variety of tests are available to help determine your mercury levels, and there are ways to safely remove mercury from the body, discussed below.
While there are many sources of mercury, the greatest danger comes from eating fish. Organisms in the water convert mercury into the even more toxic methylmercury. From there, the toxin creeps up the food chain, with much higher levels found in larger predator fish like tuna, swordfish, and shark. European regulators have advised pregnant women not to eat more than 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of these types of fish each week. It’s probably not bad advice for the rest of us as well.
This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding fish entirely. Smaller fish are not considered a significant source of mercury. One interesting study showed that cognition in infants had an inverse relationship with their mothers’ mercury levels. The lower the mercury levels, the better the cognition. The study also noted that women with low mercury levels who ate a lot of seafood had better performing children. These mothers simply avoided large, mercury-dense fish.
There are other common sources of mercury as well. We get small doses from smoggy air, contaminated water, even from some cosmetics. Flu vaccines and other vaccines may contain mercury as a preservative (as thimerosal), and again, “silver”mercury-filled dental amalgams are still an issue in many areas.
Other sources are the new, controversial compact fluorescent bulbs, now replacing incandescent bulbs because of their reported energy efficiency. Be very careful when changing these new bulbs, and if one breaks, never vacuum, as it can disperse mercury into the air. Also, many brands of high fructose corn syrup contain mercury—another reason to avoid processed foods with this health-robbing ingredient.
While we’re primarily focused on mercury, it’s important to recognize that there are a great number of other toxins present in our environment: radioactive particles; other heavy metals like lead, arsenic and cadmium; pesticides; estrogen-mimicking compounds from plastics and fertilizers; and much more. Recommendations for detoxification apply just as much to these pollutants as they do to mercury.
There are a variety of conventional chelation methods that can be used under a doctor’s supervision to remove heavy metals from the body. Some work better than others. One of the more common compounds is EDTA, a synthetic amino acid that’s used to treat lead poisoning. Another compound is DMSA, which is used to chelate lead, arsenic, and mercury.
While these are effective chelation methods, they are known to cause side effects including headaches, low blood sugar, and even organ damage—so be sure to talk to your doctor about whether these detox agents are right for you. Another significant problem with all of these conventional chelation methods is that they remove essential minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the body, taking the good with the bad. Obviously, we need to be careful which detoxification agents we use, as the “cure” can sometimes be worse than the condition.
On the other hand, certain natural compounds, nutrients, botanicals, and foods help remove mercury and other heavy metals from the body over time, in a much gentler way. These natural solutions support the body’s innate detoxification systems, and also work by binding to the heavy metals directly and helping to safely eliminate them.
An important step is to support the body’s ability to make glutathione, a master antioxidant and detoxifier produced by the liver. Glutathione is one of the most important antioxidants for removing mercury. Alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin C, selenium, N-acetyl cysteine, as well as liposomal glutathione supplements support glutathione production and help detoxify mercury from the body. Sulfur-rich foods—including whey protein and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage—also support glutathione production and detoxification in general.
Garlic, cilantro, and chlorella—a type of algae superfood—can also help to detoxify mercury and heavy metals from the body. Garlic binds to mercury and helps to pull it from soft tissues such as the digestive tract. Cilantro is a powerful herb to help remove mercury and heavy metals, and its active compounds may cross the blood brain barrier to help remove mercury from the brain and central nervous system. Chlorella is a milder detoxification agent that also helps to pull mercury from soft tissues and support the body’s natural detoxification systems.
One of my top recommendations for advanced, safe chelation and detoxification is the natural supplement PectaClear. This formula is made with modified citrus pectin (MCP), which has been clinically proven to remove heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic from the body without affecting essential minerals. MCP is a special form of citrus pectin that has been modified to a smaller size molecule, which allows it to absorb into the circulation, bind to heavy metals and toxins, and gently remove them. PectaClear also contains alginates from seaweed, which are another excellent detoxifier. In my clinical experience, MCP and alginates are a powerful yet gentle combination for removing toxic metals from the bloodstream and digestive tract. They also help prevent the reabsorption of toxins, discussed below.
The problem of reabsorption
One of the common pitfalls of some detox treatments is that heavy metals can be taken from one organ, only to be reabsorbed by another part of the body. During heavy metal detox, it’s critical to avoid this game of musical chairs. Once the metals are grabbed by the right detoxification agents, they need to be flushed from the body completely before they re-deposit somewhere else.
That’s why I recommend starting with a formula such as PectaClear, in combination with detoxifying foods, for at least a month. This works to cleanse the circulation and digestive tract and helps prevent toxins from reabsorbing, preparing the body for more thorough heavy metal detox with other compounds that support glutathione production. For this deeper second phase, I recommend adding a comprehensive detox product such as Detox Complete, which incorporates many of the glutathione-supporting ingredients mentioned above, together with other detox herbs such as dandelion and milk thistle.
Even though mercury pollution is becoming more prevalent, we can limit the toxic effects. It’s simply a matter of being mindful. Watch what we eat, choose natural foods and products, avoid heavily polluted areas if possible, and detoxify using gentle, health-promoting detox supplements on an ongoing basis. Remember, it took time to accumulate heavy metals and toxins, so it takes time to clear them from the body. We also face repeated exposure from countless sources, so I recommend a thorough detox program at least once a year. With the rates of exposure rising, keeping mercury out of our system may be one of the most important ways to ensure long-term health and vitality.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.