If You're Not Eating This Food, You're More At Risk For Heavy Metal Poisoning

Photo: Ali Harper

Heavy metals are introduced into the environment generally as by-products of industrial pollution accumulating in the soil eventually accumulating in the foods (especially organ meats) that we eat. Some examples of heavy metals include arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

The heavy metal cadmium, for example, is emerging as a major cause of kidney disease, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. And cadmium has a half life of up to 30 years, which is why it accumulates in our organs, especially in our kidneys and liver throughout our lifetime. And once our kidneys reach a toxic threshold of cadmium, they begin to fail, and that's certainly not a good thing! In certain regions, the levels of cadmium and lead in fish are higher than the recommended legal limits for human consumption, and this poses a serious problem.

Other heavy metal toxicities include lead toxicity, which can result in kidney and red blood cell damage, impaired nervous system development, and infertility. And mercury toxicity, especially in utero can lead to severe health consequences. The list goes on and on.

And while the toxic effects of heavy metals are well-recognized, you may be asking yourself if there is anything you can do about it. In short: yes.

What can you do about heavy metal toxicity?

While there is good evidence that quitting smoking and eating organically grown foods may reduce cadmium burden, there appears to be an even better way to reduce heavy metal accumulation in our bodies.

In my new book, The Salt Fix, I discuss the importance of consuming salt for improving health. A rather unknown benefit of eating more salt is its ability to help us sweat out heavy metals. Not only does eating more salt increase sweat production, but it is vital to replace this essential mineral if you are using thermal stress (such as a sauna) to help sweat out heavy metals. Increasing the intake of salt also increases fluid intake and urine production and hence may increase the excretion of heavy metals via the urine. Perhaps we should not have been so quick to shun this essential mineral especially in a day and age of high heavy-metal contamination in our environment and food supply.

Another way to reduce heavy metal accumulation in the body is by ensuring an adequate intake of other minerals, especially calcium, copper, iron, selenium, and zinc. When we don't eat enough micronutrients, the absorption of heavy metals in our gastrointestinal tract goes up. In other words, one of the leading causes of heavy metal toxicity (besides environmental pollution) may be an inadequate intake of essential minerals.

But there's a problem: Many of us are not getting the recommended daily intake of minerals, and this can increase the harms to our bodies from ingesting heavy metals. Indeed, animal studies have shown that lead toxicity occurs at 1/16th the normal dose when the diet is deficient in calcium because calcium inhibits the absorption of lead. In other words, if we are eating nutrient-depleted foods, there will be an increase in the absorption of heavy metals. So what’s the take-home message? Eat more nutrient-dense foods!

Similar findings have been noted with zinc. In one animal study, pregnant female rats given diets containing lead but higher amounts of zinc had a 40 percent lower level of lead in their livers and a 32 percent lower level of lead in their blood compared to rats not given adequate amounts of zinc. The zinc-supplemented rats also had lower levels of lead in breast milk, and their offspring had a 15 percent reduction in lead concentrations in their bone. Thus, a diet lacking zinc increased lead burden in both the mother and her offspring. And this probably has significance in humans, too.

Not getting enough copper in the diet has also been found to increase the retention of lead in the liver and kidney. And now that our diets are saturated with sugar, we are at a higher risk of mineral deficiencies (i.e., calcium, magnesium, and copper deficiency), increasing our risk of heavy metal toxicity. To put it differently, an inadequate intake of minerals could be a serious potential public health crisis.

Selenium is another example of an essential mineral that reduces heavy metal toxicity. Indeed, this trace element reduces the absorption and toxicity of mercury. Fish containing higher levels of selenium (even if they contain higher levels of mercury) may actually have less risk for causing mercury toxicity. In fact, the mercury-to-selenium ratio of fish may matter more than the overall mercury content. This is just another example of why essential minerals are more essential than we think.

Minerals are also cofactors for many antioxidant enzymes in the body. And if the body is deficient in minerals, there is likely increased oxidative stress and damage from heavy metal exposure. In other words, mineral deficiencies likely increase the risk of disease from heavy metal accumulation.

So how would you know if you are mineral-deficient?

Unfortunately, blood levels aren’t always adequate except in cases of frank mineral deficiency. However, for certain minerals, such as zinc and copper, there is fairly good evidence that measuring white blood cell mineral levels (neutrophil and leukocyte levels, respectively) may be one of the best tests for determining deficiency. For magnesium, two colleagues and I published a paper concluding that mononuclear blood cell levels have the most evidence for determining whole-body magnesium status.

And how does one know if they have heavy metal toxicity? Well for starters, the evidence is lacking when it comes to using a "challenge test," also commonly referred to as a "urine mobilization test," which utilizes a chelating agent to test for heavy metals in the urine, and there is even potential for harm. Currently, there does not appear to be one test that is easily available for determining total body burden of heavy metals, although urine, blood, hair, and fingernail samples can give clues.

There is a desperate need to provide accurate lab tests to the public that measures both mineral deficiencies and heavy metal toxicities at a reasonable cost. As a society we need to be more concerned about both. Now is the time to remember the importance that minerals play in our diet and our health.

So are you eating a nutrient-dense diet? Should you be worried about mineral deficiencies and heavy metal toxicity? All of these questions are something you may want to discuss with your doctor, especially if you are suffering from a chronic illness that apparently has no cause.

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