Today, mercury is one of the most potent neurotoxins known, causing severe alterations in the body tissues that lead to a wide range of adverse health effects in animals and humans.
Mercury’s creeping neurotoxicity is highly devastating, particularly in the central and peripheral nervous system. Decreased performance in areas of motor function and memory has been reported among children exposed to presumably “safe mercury levels”. Similarly, disruption of attention, fine motor function and verbal memory was also found in adults on exposure to low mercury levels.Recently heavy metal mediated toxicity has been linked to diseases like Alzeihemer’s, Parkinson’s, Autism, Lupus, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Source).
Apart from central nervous system defects, arrythmias, cardiomyopathies, necrotising bronchitis and pneumonitis (arising from inhalation of mercury vapour which can result in respiratory failure) and kidney damage have also been associated with mercury exposure.
Mercury is also immunotoxic, being both a potent immunostimulant (leading to immune over-activation problems such as allergies) AND immunosuppressant, depending on exposure dose and individual susceptibility, producing a number of pathologic sequelae including lymphoproliferation, hypergammaglobulinemia, and total systemic hyper- and hyporeactivities (Source).
Because mercury is ubiquitous in the environment (through mercury contaminating rain-, ground- and sea-water), we are all unable to avoid exposure to some form of mercury. Polluted water leads to mercury-laced fish, meat and vegetable (Source). Mercury is also used in the cosmetics industry (especially in skin lightening products and freckle creams).
Main Sources of Mercury Exposure
Our exposure to mercury occurs via multiple pathways: air, water, food, soil, cosmetic products, dental care, vaccines. Mercury is also used in some industrial and agricultural activities and occupational operations (the electrical industry and the manufacturing of switches, thermostats, batteries).
The major sources of chronic, low level mercury exposure are dental amalgams and fish consumption (in particular tuna) due to its bioaccumulation in the food chain.
The two most highly absorbed species are elemental mercury (Hg0) and methyl mercury (MeHg).
Dental amalgams contain over 50% elemental mercury. The elemental vapour is highly lipophilic (it has an affinity for fat tissue such as the brain) and is effectively absorbed through the lungs and tissues lining the mouth. After Hg0 enters the blood, it rapidly passes through cell membranes, which include both the blood-brain barrier and the placental barrier. Once it gains entry into the cell, Hg0 is oxidised and becomes highly reactive Hg2+.
Methyl mercury derived from eating fish is readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and because of its lipid solubility, can easily cross both the placental and blood-brain barriers. Once mercury is absorbed, it has a very low excretion rate (Source).
A major proportion of what is absorbed accumulates in the kidneys, neurological tissue and the liver. All forms of mercury are toxic and their effects include gastrointestinal toxicity, neurotoxicity, and nephrotoxicity.
How Mercury Harms the Body
Depletion of Essential Trace Minerals Leading to Overall Poor Health
Recent reports have shown that toxic metals interfere metabolically with nutritionally essential minerals such as iron, calcium, copper, and zinc (Source) and simultaneous exposure to multiple heavy metals may produce a toxic effect that is either additive, antagonistic or synergistic (Source).
Oxidative Stress Leading to Rapid Ageing and Low Energy
The molecular mechanisms of toxicity of mercury involves oxidative stress: once in the cell both Hg2+ and MeHg bond to certain cellular proteins and deplete cellular antioxidants, especially glutathione (Source). The other toxic metals that affect glutathione status are cadmium and nickel. Ironically, both chronic and relatively low level mercury exposures were shown to inhibit enzyme activity and induce oxidative stress in the cells [Source] and the body needs high glutathione S-transferase activity in order to be able to eliminate mercury .
The interaction of mercury compounds suggests the production of oxidative damage through the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (free radicals). The formation of free radicals causes various modifications to DNA bases and enhanced lipid peroxidation (Source). In other words, the fats in your cell membranes turn rancid and are not able to function properly, affecting the transport of nutrients into the cells and the transport of toxins out of the cell. Lipid peroxidation also affects the mitochondria, the energy-producing mechanism inside cells, which means you will complain of fatigue, low energy and low mood.
Although mutations of DNA, which can activate oncogenesis or inhibit tumor suppression, were traditionally thought to be crucial factors for the initiation of carcinogenesis, recent studies have demonstrated that other molecular events such as transcription activation, signal transduction, oncogene amplification, and recombination, also constitute significant contributing factors [1, 2]. Studies have shown that mercury and other toxic metals effect cellular organelles and adversely affect their biologic functions [3, 4].
Accumulating evidence also suggests that free radicals/oxidative stress play a major role in the mediation of metal-induced cellular responses and carcinogenesis: mercury has been shown to induce the formation of ROS (reactive oxygen species) known to cause DNA damage in cells, a process which can lead to the initiation of carcinogenic processes [5, 6].
What Is Your Defence Against Toxic Metals?
To combat these effects, cells have antioxidant mechanisms that work to correct and avoid the formation of ROS (free radicals) in excess. These antioxidant mechanisms involve vitamins C and E, melatonin, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase that protect the cells by chelating mercury and reducing its oxidative stress potential .
Antioxidants (both enzymatic and non-enzymatic) provide protection against deleterious metal-mediated free radical attacks. Vitamin E and melatonin can prevent the majority of metal-mediated (iron, copper, cadmium) damage both in vitro systems and in metal-loaded animals. Toxicity studies involving chromium have shown that the protective effect of vitamin E against lipid peroxidation. (However, another epidemiological study has shown that a daily intake of vitamin E of more than 400 IU increases the risk of death and should be avoided). (Source)
Vitamin E – this study done on acute Hg toxicity in rats showed that vitamin E provides complete protection from mercury toxicity in the liver with both pre- and post-treatments.(Source)
Selenium: HgCl2-induced lipid peroxidation was shown to be significantly reduced by antioxidant pretreatment with selenium. Selenium has been shown to achieve this protective effect through direct binding to mercury or serving as a cofactor for glutathione peroxidase and facilitating its ability to scavenge ROS. (Source)
Zinc (Zn) is essential for the immune system due to its ability to act as an antioxidant that reduces oxidative stress.
Vitamin C is another powerful antioxidant that prevents lipid peroxidation and repletes glutathione levels.
DETOXIFICATION – The Most Effective Health Strategy for Toxic Metal Elimination
As already pointed out, once mercury is absorbed, it has a very low excretion rate. In order to stimulate mobilisation and excretion of mercury, you need to work with a health practitioner to activate Phase 1, 2 and 3 of detoxification. While Phase 1 is easily activated through everyday exposure to various toxins, Phase 2 and Phase 3 are only activated through specific therapeutic measures.
First, there are a number of obstacles to detoxification that need to be considered:
- Systemic inflammation that accompanies infections, food allergies, gut dysbiosis, auto-immune conditions. Inflammation and detoxification are opposite states, and in order to stimulate detox, inflammation needs quenching.
- Chronic constipation and gut dysbiosis: the lipopolysaccharides released by bad bacteria creates a state of inflammation in the gut that makes toxic metals 10 times more reactive.
- Stagnant liver and bile: the bile is like the “conveyor belt” of toxin elimination so a person who is cholestatic (failing to move bile) is also toxostatic (failing to eliminate toxins).
- Kidney damage and adrenal fatigue: kidney problems lead to a state called retention toxicity in which the person cannot eliminate toxins via the kidneys.
- Poor methylation: this genetic factor explains why people with the lowest mercury levels can sometimes be the sickest. Poor methylation will lock the mercury into the cell and prevent its elimination.
- Stress: high cortisol blocks some detoxification pathways. On the other hand, brain relaxants such as GABA that put you in a parasympathetic state, can induce detoxification.
If infections are present, you will need to undergo anti-microbial therapy first, otherwise you’ll be feeling much worse when detoxing. Viral infections as well as parasitic ones drive down glutathione and this is one of the major antioxidants that can help eliminate toxic metals.
Warning Signs that You Might be Affected by Mercury Toxicity:
There are many symptoms of mercury toxicity but as with anything, these might be caused by other factors, this is why both a history of exposure AND the total constellation of symptoms need to be taken into account. Mercury levels can also be tested in the blood and hair. Other symptoms of mercury toxicity could be:
- Digestive problems: Chewing triggers the release of mercury from the fillings. Once into your digestive system, it mixes with digestive juices and forms mercury chloride which can then damage your stomach linings, causing problems with your digestive system: stomach ulcers, irritable bowel symptoms, food sensitivities, abdominal cramps, recurrent parasitic infection
- Kidneys: bloating/water retention
- Skin rashes, eczema, dermatitis
- CNS: depression, anxiety, irritability and bad mood, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, tremors, unexplained burning sensation or numbness, reduced cognitive function, memory loss, chronic fatigue, tinnitus, schizophrenia, paranoia.
- Muscular System: muscle weakness, pins and needles in hands and feet, involuntary muscle twitches and spasms
- Immune System: allergies, auto-immune conditions, frequent colds and flu. Also: Herpes, Candida overgrowth (mercury kills friendly bacteria in the gut and this affects the immune system since 80% of the immune system is located in the gut and is dependent on the beneficial action of the microbiome)
- Heart:abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure
- Liver & pancreas: poor blood sugar control, hypoglycemia
- Thyroid/Parathyroid dysfunction, hypothyroidism, adrenal dysfunction, infertility
Due to mercury’s harmful effect of depleting glutathione levels, all pathologies related to glutathione deficits implicate mercury in their aetiology. These are:
- cardiovascular disease
- diabetes type 2
- poor liver function, cirrhosis
- neurodegenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s
- cystic fibrosis
- lung disorders
- rheumatoid arthritis
There are 5 basic steps that need to be adjusted to the individual person and their medical history
- Pre-detox therapy (2 to 6 weeks) for people with serious toxic exposure or who are naturopathically very reactive.
- Anti-inflammatory therapy for people with inflammatory conditions such as those exposed above.
- Upregulation of eliminatory pathways (gut, liver, kidneys, lungs, skin)
- Upregulation of the glutathione system and Phase 2 detoxification
- Upregulation of Phase 3 detoxification: filtration/ elimination
Phase 2 detoxification is upregulated through the synergistic administration of several polyphenolics and sulfur compounds known for their ability to enhance synthesis of Phase 2 liver enzymes and intracellular antioxidants, or support other bodily functions that enhance detoxification such as bile flow.
Such polyphenolics include: ellagic acid (pomegranates), Gotu-Kola, green tea, grapeseed extract, curcumin, dandelion (known cholagogue), pine bark, quercetin (a compound from red onions), R-lipoic acid, Haritaki fruit extract, nattokinase.
Sulfur compounds include the cruciferous vegetables, garlic, ALA.
Chlorella is also a very effective toxic metal chelator.
If you suspect you might be suffering from heavy metal toxicity, please contact us at email@example.com
For a full webinar on detoxification, we recommend you watch this presentation by Dr. Christopher Shade whose laboratory research on detoxification informed and inspired the clinical part of this article.