Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements that can accumulate in our bodies from the foods we eat, our environment, and personal care and cleaning products we use.
What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals earn their name because of a high atomic weight and density that is at least five times greater than water.
This includes arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum, nickel and others. These elements are found all over the world; they permeate the earth, our food supply, and our water. Though we don’t intentionally ingest them, heavy metals are present in all of our bodies simply because of the environment we live in.
Exposure to these elements, even in low concentrations, can be very dangerous. Heavy metals replace beneficial minerals like zinc and iron on a cellular level and cause cells to malfunction. The presence of heavy metals in our bodies can impact cellular respiration and our cells’ ability to reproduce effectively. Even at low levels they can cause multiple organ and DNA damage.
Fat cells often absorb heavy metals, trapping them inside the body. Not only do heavy metals accumulate and linger for decades, but the side effects of carrying toxic levels of heavy metals can be dire.
What Problems Do Heavy Metals Cause?
Heavy metals affect many systems, and their symptoms range greatly. While some people experience low energy, mood disturbances and cognitive changes, others may display no symptoms for many years. Regardless, the body’s major systems are bearing an increasingly heavy load.
As heavy metals reach toxic levels, the effects grow more concerning. Mental abilities may decline, and damage occurs to the central nervous system and vital organs including the heart, kidneys and liver. Heavy metals are considered to be human carcinogens; studies show a correlation of toxicity levels and cancer in humans and animals.
If exposure continues, it can lead to physical, muscular and neurological degeneration. For example, mercury is a neurotoxin that collects in spine and brain and can cause neurological problems. Lead can negatively impact a child’s developing nervous system, contributing to behavioral and learning disorders.
Because the symptoms of aging often mimic those of heavy metal poisoning―less stamina, memory loss, aches and pains―many older adults mistake their symptoms as a natural part of aging. While growing older may be partially to blame, heavy metals are often a contributor. At its worst, heavy metal toxicity can resemble Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis.
Are You at Risk?
Researchers have identified at least 23 metals that can contribute to heavy metal toxicity, or “poisoning,”. This includes mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, nickel and others. Not everyone is equally exposed, and tolerance levels differ by individual.
Some of the highest risk factors for heavy metal toxicity include:
- Exposure to traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, or radiation.
- Eating processed foods, non-organic foods, farm-raised fish (versus wild-caught), or canned goods.
- Drinking contaminated water.
- Getting a tattoo.
- Using products that contain heavy metals, including household, personal care, cleaning, lawn care and pet care products. Common culprits include air fresheners, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, toothpastes, insecticides, antiperspirants, plastic toys, some baby formulas, stainless steel cutlery, aluminum foil and cosmetics.
- Having metal amalgam dental fillings, because silver fillings slowly release mercury into the body. Many dentists are now able to remove and replace them safely.
You can also carry heavy metals passed down in utero from mother to baby, so even family history plays a role.
Curious about your body’s specific heavy metal load? Hair analysis and blood tests are widely available if you suspect you may be suffering from heavy metal toxicity.
Hope for the Future
With the abundance of heavy metals in our environment, is there any hope of escaping their toxic effects? Are we raising our children in a world too toxic to tolerate?
The bad news is that kids likely have a higher risk for heavy metal toxicity than adults due to their smaller size and developing bodies. Some studies have indicated a connection between heavy metal exposure and behavioral challenges such as autism and ADHD.
Still, there is hope for a less toxic future. The human body is remarkably resilient, and the sooner heavy metal toxicity is addressed, the sooner the body can begin to recover.