If You Eat Fish, Here's What You Need To Know About Mercury

Internist & Functional Medicine Clinician By Susan Blum, M.D., MPH
Internist & Functional Medicine Clinician
Susan Blum, M.D., MPH is a nationally recognized clinician, speaker, author, and teacher. She currently lives in Port Chester, New York, and received her master's in medicine from the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn and her master's in public health preventative medicine from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Are you concerned about your exposure to mercury from the food you're eating? If you eat fish at all, then you should be. This can be confusing, but is very important because mercury can cause autoimmune disease and other health-related problems. I'd like to shed some light on this issue and help you decide what to eat, and how to protect yourself from this environmental toxin.

Where do you find mercury and what is it? Mercury is part of a group of compounds called heavy metals. There are "good" heavy metals like iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. They are good because humans require these metals to function properly. However, keep in mind that these too can be toxic at excessive levels.

On the other hand, heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and plutonium are "bad" toxic metals and if they accumulate in the body over time, can cause serious illness. I want to focus on mercury because there is plenty of data that explains what it does in the body and how we are exposed.

Where does mercury come from?

There are two main sources of mercury to which we are exposed. First, mercury is released into the air from coal burning power plants and from volcanoes. After it settles in the oceans and soil, we end up eating it from the fish or plants or animals that grow and live in these places.

The big fish eat the little fish, and the mercury accumulates, which means it gets more concentrated in the bigger fish. For a list of the worst fish with the highest level of mercury and those you should avoid, click here.

The other main source of mercury is the vapor released from silver fillings. While this is somewhat controversial, there is enough evidence suggesting this is a real issue, and why I recommend replacing your fillings if possible. For more information on how to do this safely, click here.

There are also other places you can be exposed to mercury, like in the preservative of some vaccines, and old thermometers. But fish and silver fillings are the biggest problem.

How does mercury accumulate in your body and make you sick?

Your body was created with multiple detox systems in place to clear out any mercury. One of these, called the glutathione system, is very active in your liver and also in all the cells in your body.

If you are exposed to more mercury than this system can handle, the mercury can build up in your body and cause damage to your nerves, thyroid, immune system (autoimmune disease, for example), and all the cells in your body by causing something we call oxidative stress.

This simply means that you run out of the important antioxidants that your body needs to protect itself, resulting in free radicals created by the mercury that can then damage the tissues.

To protect your cells and tissues, it is critical that you keep your liver detox system in tip-top shape by eating lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables with plenty of color. In addition, you can take specific antioxidant supplements to boost your glutathione.

What can you do to help your body release the stored mercury?

My approach to lowering your mercury level begins with finding and removing all of your exposures. We know that most of the mercury ingested in your body comes from seafood, which is why I recommend decreasing your fish intake to 1 to 2 times a week from the safe list above. Instead of eating lots of fish, eating more plant-based sources of omega-3s from hemp, flax and chia.

Also, there are certain foods that, when paired with fish, will actually help remove the mercury from your body. These include Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, garlic, chlorella and turmeric, which all contain chelating agents that bind to mercury in the gut and in the tissues to safely remove these toxins.

I also recommend adding deeply colored fruits and vegetables to your diet. Berries, pomegranates, tomatoes, prunes, and pink/red grapefruit provide flavonoids that protect your body from the damage mercury can cause while also providing antioxidants to assist the liver in detoxification.

And don’t forget about cruciferous and allium vegetables such as:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Mustard greens
  • Radishes
  • Arugula
  • Watercress
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Scallions!

These are all sulfur-containing powerhouses that prevent the build up of mercury and are critical for your liver detoxification pathways to safely remove this toxin. Incorporating all of these foods into your diet is the perfect example of how food really is your best medicine.

The next step is to support your liver and its ability to clear this metal out of your system. The best strategy is to do a liver detox program once or twice a year such as our online “Do It With Us” Detox. For more information, click here.

Lastly, I do not recommend doing a treatment program yourself, because removing mercury should be medically supervised.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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