Heavy Metal Toxicity in Human Body

It’s estimated that from birth till age 50, we would have ‘consumed’ up to two tons of toxic wastes from our food, water, beverages, medications, and environmental pollution. Since we’re constantly being exposed to toxic metals and chemicals, we may never be able to remove all toxins from our blood and body tissues. Water-based toxins may be removed through our kidneys and skin. In women, monthly menstruation cycle also helps in detoxification. However, most heavy metals are trapped in body adipose (fats) tissues and difficult to remove. Being bio-accumulative, these metals present in blood of an expecting mother could be passed on to her fetus through its placenta. Heavy metals have been linked to higher incidence of autism, attention deficit disorder, and mental retardation in children (Drum 2009).



Oil-based toxins may be processed for removal by our liver through its two-phases, namely Phase 1 (P450) and Phase 2 (Conjugation). Phase 1 detoxification requires nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamins Bs, ascorbic acid, niacin, and folate. Rich food sources of magnesium include cocoa, almond, and coconut. Magnesium is a cofactor in over 300 enzymatic reactions involving energy metabolism and protein and nucleic acid synthesis (Elin 1994) besides being a component of the sugar-regulating hormone insulin. Excess calcium intake or consuming black tea, soft drinks, salt, or alcohol lowers this mineral in our body. Diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism (overly active thyroid gland), taking diuretics, as well as gastrointestinal disorders such as colitis and pancreatitis also lower body’s magnesium levels. Zinc is required for some 300 catalytic functions in various bodily enzymes (Coleman 1992), whereas niacin is used in more than 200 co-enzymes (OSU 2013).



All detox programmes used must ensure adequate nutrients for Phase 2, which is to bind toxins for elimination in our urine and/or stools. Nutrients used in the complex 6 sub-phases of Phase 2 include taurine, sulphoraphane, alpha lipoic acid, glutathione, magnesium, vitamins B1, B5 and B6, molybdenum, curcumin, glucoronic acid, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, N-acetyl-cysteine, and other sulphur-based amino acids.



If there’s more rapid clearance of toxins during Phase 1 compared to Phase 2, the accumulation of toxic load can worse your liver functions. Adipose (fat) cells can store more than a hundred times more chemical toxins than in other tissues. Toxins can travel to vital organs such as the brain, heart, endocrine (hormone producing) glands, as well as to joints and tissues throughout the body triggering pain, discomfort, and bodily dysfunction. Research studies have linked the imbalance between Phase 1 and Phase 2 to higher incidence of cancer, lupus, and even Parkinson’s disease. According to (Lazarou et al. 1988), adverse drug reactions as a cause of death could be linked to poor clearance between these two liver detox Phases. The intermediate compounds generated from Phase 1 might be much more toxic than those previously stored in the body. If you already suffer from chronic health disorder(s), do not detox without expert advice from a licensed therapist.



Consuming excessive amount of refined starch/sugar causes elevated blood triglyceride levels leading to slower bile flow. Fructose (fruit sugar) and alcoholic beverages promote of fatty liver. Bile acid can harden to form ‘gallstones’ that obstruct bile flow. Under no circumstance should a detox programme be initiated if there’s evidence of bile flow obstruction. A liver function/GGT and/or stool test may confirm presence of this condition. Waiting for gall stones to harden causing severe pain in an already inflamed gall bladder may be rather late. Nevertheless, most gallstones could be safely ‘softened’ and emptied into intestines under the guidance of a nutritional therapist.



The principal sources of this highly toxic metal can come from dental amalgam (or silver fillings, which are banned in some Western European countries) and seafood. It is also found in soil and drinking water in many countries. Amalgam restorative material contains 50% mercury (Edlich et al. 2007), which emits toxic vapor during food chewing, teeth brushing, or drinking hot beverages.

Almost all salt-water fish contain some methyl-mercury, which is an organic and more damaging form of mercury. Restaurants place a premium on serving dishes using pricy large fish. However, bigger fish that are higher in the food chain also have the highest levels of mercury in their flesh  and these include shark, tuna, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. Smaller items of seafood tend to have lower toxicity levels and these include anchovy (ikan bilis), angels, snapper, squids (sotong), octopus, prawn (udang), sardine, trout, clams, and shellfish.

The mercury ingredients in drug medicines include thimerosal, phenyl mercuric acetate, merbromin, phenyl mercuric nitrate, mercuric acetate, mercuric nitrate, and mercuric oxide yellow (FDA 2013).

According to (WHO 2013), exposure to mercury – even in small amounts – may cause serious health problems, and is a threat to the development of the fetus and early childhood.

Mercury poisoning (hydrargyria) can cause dysfunction to our nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. (Lorscheider et al. 1995) at the University of Calgary (Canada) demonstrated that the continuous release of mercury from dental amalgam tooth fillings provided the major contribution to an adult’s mercury load.

Since cooking does not eliminate mercury from food, complementary medicine uses nutraceuticals to promote its elimination from the body. During the initial months, mercury in the blood stream is ‘escorted’ out into intestines for elimination in the stools. Since this metal can exist in vapour form, it can re-enter the body’s blood circulation. Consuming adequate amount of dietary fibers is important especially during this detox therapy period. When blood levels are sufficiently low and deemed safe, a con-current therapy to remove mercury from tissues is administered to trigger its release from tissues. When blood levels are elevated by this new release, chelating with oral nutraceuticals is re-introduced.



This metal toxicity can come from batteries, home renovations, auto repair centers, lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust in older buildings, as well as from contaminated air, water and soil. Lead can be stored in our body tissues for decades. Although children are at higher risk, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults. According  to the (Mayo Clinic 2013), signs and symptoms in adults may include hypertension (high blood pressure), headache, memory loss, mood disorders, weak mental functioning, abdominal pain, numbness or tingling in arms and legs, muscular weakness, low sperm count, infertility, miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women. Herbal products may occasionally contain lead (Ang et al. 2003).



Organic arsenic found in fish, prawn, clams, and other seafood are generally non-toxic and consequently not a cause of arsenic poisoning. Most insecticides, herbicides, or rodenticides used in farming contain the highly toxic inorganic arsenic which can be carried into our drinking water (Brammer and Ravenscroft, 2009) and food chain such as rice (Rahman and Hasegawa, 2011), fruits, and vegetables. Farmed poultry may contain the highest levels of arsenic, due to the chicken feed containing various types of antibiotics. Anaemia and leukopenia (low white blood cell count) are almost universal with chronic arsenic poisoning (arsenicosis). Symptoms after exposure include drowsiness, headaches, and confusion.



This metal toxicity can come from cigarette smoke, dry batteries, industrial wastes, fungicides sprayed on food, and even drinking water. It is being linked to breast cancer (Rahim et al. 2013), kidney damage (Wang et al. 2013) and osteoporosis or skeletal damage (Jarup et al. 1998). Besides, it damages our nervous and enzyme activities, while impairing metabolism of important minerals such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper and sodium. Symptoms of elevated cadmium may include high blood pressure, poor appetite, dry scaly skin, hair loss, lowered immunity, and loss of sense of smell. Toxicity is reduced by adequate intake of zinc, which is removed during refining of grains and sugar. Higher intake of vitamin C rich food such as bird’s eye chili (chilli padi), bell pepper, guava, and green kiwi help promote its detoxification.



It is regarded as the most abundant neurotoxic metal on earth (Tomljenovic 2011) and exposure comes primarily from our diet (Yokel 2000). Sources of this heavy metal include acidic or spicy foods cooked with aluminum foil or in aluminium cookware, water boiled using aluminum container, coffee/tea beverages brewed/stored in aluminum containers, sliced/processed cheeses, cake mixes, self-rising flour, chocolate mixes, non-dairy creamers used in coffee/tea mixes, canned soft drinks/beverages, toothpaste, shampoos, anti-perspirants, antacids and pain-relieving medications. Its toxicity tends to accumulate in the brain causing nerve damage, which has been linked to higher incidence of Alzheimer's disease (Sood et al. 2011), poor memory, learning and behavioural disorders. Other health problems it can cause include fatigue, infertility, liver and skin diseases, as well as gastrointestinal problems.



In very small amount, this metal can enhance our immune defence and relieve chronic fatigue. When it accumulates in our brain capillaries, it can cause inflammation in our brain neurons and may lead to accumulation of the nerve toxin amyloid-beta linked to development of Alzheimer’s disease (Singh et al. 2013). Copper can be absorbed into our body during a hot shower where copper pipe is used. Zinc deficiency can also lead to excess copper retention.



Nutritional therapists trained in detoxification would use a wide range of herbal extracts, sulfur-based amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutraceuticals for detoxifying, chelating, and escorting heavy metals out of the body. All acute cases of toxicity must be referred to the nearest hospitals. It is generally unsafe to self-treat toxicity of a chronic nature. Tests used to indicate presence of heavy metal load rely on urine, blood, saliva and/or hair sample(s). Consult a MoH-licensed nutritional therapist (www.anmp.org.my) if your need help and advice.



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About Author

Dato’ Steve Yap

Masters’ in Metabolic & Nutritional Medicine (USF Med Sch);

Advanced Fellow, Anti-Aging Regenerative Functional Medicine (USA);

Fellow, Integrative Cancer Therapies (USA);

Nutritional Therapy Council Certified Practitioner (UK);

President, Federation of Complementary & Natural Medical Associations M’sia;

Complementary Medicine Director, DSY Wellness Longevity Center (www.dsywellness.com).

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