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Need to Know: Heavy Metals

Heavy metals are odorless, invisible, and virtually undetectable — but they’re of increasing concern to functional medicine doctors, integrative practitioners, and many nutritionists and dieticians. Though some, such as mercury and lead, make headlines, we are exposed to a variety of harmful metals on a daily basis in our food and the environment. Over the years they can accumulate and impact our mental and physical well-being. 

But unlike the ability to proactively choose sugar-free, gluten-free, and other fill-in-the-blank-free foods, it’s harder if not practically impossible to choose foods free of harmful metals.

“Heavy metals are ubiquitous; they’re everywhere,” says Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. “Some are essential in our diet for biological function — zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron — but others we need to be more concerned about, especially as we mature and have ingested them for more years. The down effect can cause cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, neurological changes, and kidney damage.” Mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium are the Big Four and of the most concern.

Bradley says first, if you still have old-school silver-amalgam fillings, which contain mercury, get them removed by a biological dentist (also known as a holistic dentist — one who takes your whole body, emotional, and nutritional health into consideration, and uses natural and conventional treatments for oral care). Lead has been found in fruit juices and root vegetables. Headlines in 2012 raised the alarm about levels of arsenic in apple juice. Cadmium is a component of car batteries that’s been found in grains and veggies grown in contaminated soil. “What’s striking with cadmium is that if we’re iron deficient,” Bradley says, “which many women have been at one point, especially in pregnancy, it takes affinity for absorption in the small intestine, gets stored in the body, and can affect kidney and bone function. That means women who’ve had multiple pregnancies are more at risk.”


Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning are extremely subtle. Determining if you have heavy metal poisoning may take some Sherlock Holmes–style deductions on the part of your doctor.


Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning are extremely subtle, Bradley says. Determining if you have heavy metal poisoning may take some Sherlock Holmes–style deductions on the part of your doctor, but Bradley says after 45, if you’re otherwise healthy with no chronic disease, a sudden kidney issue or early fracture without blunt force trauma, for example, might trigger investigation into your heavy metals levels.

“I recently had a perimenopausal patient who surfs, and when she did the pop-up thing to stand up on her board when a wave comes, she fractured a rib. It’s the kind of indication that lead me to work up causes of bone fractures, such as osteoporosis, and explore heavy metals in her body. If there are heavy metals present, then exploring treatment with oral chelation is an option.” (Chelation agents convert metal ions in the body to inert forms that can be eliminating through urination.)

The diet-first approach

Bradley recommends the following for limiting and detoxing from heavy metals:

  • Eat as clean as possible and organic if you can. But, Bradley says, even organic vegetables can still have trace amounts of heavy metals from soil. “For example, brown rice husk absorbs more, so I recommend basmati rice,” she says.
  • Avoid big fish, especially tuna. Stick with white fish. “Bigger fish like tuna and grouper ingest more mercury from environmental pollution in the water because they live longer and they eat the smaller fish which are also ingesting mercury.”
  • Eat foods high in antioxidants, vitamins, and enzymes that help your body’s natural detox pathways — including vitamins C, A, and E, and coenzyme Q10. Good sources include fatty (and, yes, smaller) fish, such as herring, mackerel, and sardines; cruciferous vegetables such as spinach, cauliflower, cabbages, and broccoli; oranges and strawberries; legumes such as soybeans, lentils, and peanuts; and nuts and seeds, in particular sesame seeds and pistachios.
  • Eat more fiber. It naturally aids detoxification by absorbing heavy metals and passing them through the body. Bradley recommends supplementing with modified citrus pectin, “a nice fiber that helps to bind heavy metals that can sit in the microbiome layer of the intestine.” Bonus: It has cardiovascular benefits and can help reduce cholesterol.
  • Drink more water to naturally flush your body — and try to make it filtered. To check the levels of heavy metals in your water supply, Bradley recommends visiting the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database by zip code.
  • Get regular saunas — hot or infrared. “Everything we eat, drink, put in our bodies, or breathe in is detoxified by elimination, breathing out, and sweating. Saunas are a great way to detox and de-stress.”

If you have concerns about your heavy metals levels, consult with your physician or find a functional medicine doctor and get tested.

Photo: Baldomir

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