Woman holding her head in bed sick from metal toxins

Your Guide to Heavy Metal Detox

Published: March 2022

Metals are all around us. Some are benign. Others, like copper, zinc and iron, are good for us—so much so that we often go out of our way to ensure we get enough of these minerals in our diets. Then there are others, like lead, mercury and arsenic, which aren't good for you at all—and when too much of these metals end up inside our bodies, it can result in severe health conditions and even death.

So what do you do if you've fallen prey to metal toxicity? Fortunately, there are ways to detoxify your body from heavy metals. Heavy metal detox techniques range from chelation therapy, which is a careful treatment overseen by a physician, to less effective techniques like metal detox baths. This article will tell you a little more about what you need to know about heavy metal poisoning.

What is heavy metal toxicity?

Girl laying in bed with a dog with metal poisoning

Heavy metals are only dangerous when they get inside of us (or our pets, or our loved ones). Here's the thing: once these kinds of toxins are in our bodies, many of them are very hard for our body to get rid of. So, the toxins simply accumulate, building up inside of us until they're concentrated enough to cause a problem: negatively affecting various healthy functions in your body.

Think you've been exposed? A simple blood test for heavy metal exposure will let you know for sure—so you can seek out treatment.

Heavy metals in our environment

As humans, we're primarily responsible for the uptick in heavy metals found in our environment—both the natural one (that we're polluting) and the manmade one we all live in. That's because ever since the Industrial Revolution, heavy metals have been used in everything from paint (think lead) to the cars we drive, the materials our houses are built out of, even the smartphones we're glued to. Typically, low-grade metals in our environment (such as ore) pose the greatest threat, because of the quantity of them in our environment and length of exposure matters.

Metal toxicity in our food

Another way you can be exposed to toxic metals is through your diet. Probably the most famous of these is mercury poisoning from buildup in top-of-the-food chain seafood, such as salmon. Another great example is lead poisoning from a contaminated water supply. There's plenty of other vectors for food-based metal poisoning—but those are two examples you've probably already heard of before.

Poisonous heavy metals

Construction worker on mill drill machine exposed to cadmium

Poisonous heavy metals

  • Lead

    is nobody's favorite element. Lead is used for fishing weights, soldering materials, even bullets. In addition, many older homes contain lead-based paint. Unfortunately, lead doesn't have to come out of the barrel of a gun to hurt you. Once ingested in high levels, lead-containing materials can cause irreversible damage to your nerves, bone marrow, kidneys, liver, the list goes on and on. If you are concerned about lead poisoning, call Poison Control.
  • Arsenic

    was used in makeup during the Renaissance. Along with a gleaming complexion, arsenic gave those unfortunate users paralysis, madness and in some cases, death. Today, arsenic accumulates in contaminated food (including chicken and rice) and drinking water. Unsafe industrial practices, mining, and cigarettes are also exposure risk factors. In human tissue, arsenic disrupts cellular metabolism and energy production.
  • Cadmium

    is a shiny metal. Because of this, it's used in hardware and tools to make them look all glossy and chrome. It's also used in small things like nuts and bolts. People who use tools as part of their job are particularly at risk for cadmium poisoning, since they have the highest exposure to this toxin. And cadmium is bad for cellular health, and what's worse, it takes a long time for your body to eliminate it.
  • Antimony

    is a very soft metal. Alloys of it are used in batteries, cable sheathing, paints, glass, and many other household materials. Unfortunately, in concentrated amounts, antimony is a toxic irritant and possibly cancerous.
  • Mercury

    occurs naturally in coal and other fossil fuels. When these fuel sources are burned, mercury is released into the air. From there, mercury settles into water supplies where it's absorbed or eaten by microorganisms. The thing is, mercury doesn't go away—it travels up the food chain, where it is concentrated in fish and shellfish. Diet is how the majority of Americans are exposed to mercury toxicity, and why mercury-free seafood is an alternative worth considering. You can also get mercury exposure through silver dental fillings.

    Note: Mercury is highly toxic. Early signs of mercury toxicity include tremors, nervousness, irritability, depression and memory problems. It gets worse from there, with victims suffering impaired motor skills, difficulty breathing, even problems with hand-eye coordination and other cognitive disorders.

Have I been exposed to heavy metals?

Woman laying on a couch with stomach ache as a sign of heavy metal exposure

If you think you're suffering from acute heavy metal poisoning, you need to call Poison Control in your area. But what if you're concerned with low-level, chronic exposure? First of all, watch for the symptoms:

  • Gut health issues

    —When you've ingested heavy metals, you might suffer from a stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Abnormal heartbeat

    —Also called arrhythmia, this symptom is serious. Call a doctor.
  • Hands & feet

    —Specifically, tingling or loss of feelings (even weakness) in your extremities.
  • Difficulty breathing

    —This can be minor irritation like coughing, or serious issues like fluid accumulation in the lungs.
  • Behavior changes

    —This can range from irritability to unexplained memory loss, due to the metal toxicity affecting your central nervous system.
  • Fingernail changes

    —Horizontal lines across your fingernails could be a sign of exposure to metal.

Unfortunately, many signs of heavy metal exposure are non-specific and can be missed or explained away by much more common diagnosis. So how can you find out if you've been exposed to heavy metals? Laboratory testing for toxins is the only way to be sure—your doctor can analyze your results and get you started on a treatment plan.

What is a heavy metal detox?

You've probably heard of detox regimens before: these are either medically prescribed or homemade remedies that are intended to help your body rid itself of something toxic or unwanted. Heavy metal detoxification processes are the same in that they help you rid your body of toxic metals. But are concoctions such as a "heavy metal detox smoothie" or even certain nutrients actually effective?

Does a heavy metal detox work?

If you're suffering from an acute toxic metal exposure, a physician will use metal-drawing drugs to help extract the toxic metals from your body. This is an effective and possibly lifesaving detoxification treatment. But other gentle therapeutic ways of removing toxic metals exist, and they can be incorporated into healthy lifestyle detox regimens. Heavy metal detoxing may support your kidneys, heart, and even the way your brain functions.

(Keep your liver healthy—check out these easy ways to liver detox.)

How can I detox from heavy metals?

We're going to go over some therapies and foods that can help detoxify your body of heavy metals. But if you really think you're suffering from heavy metal exposure, you want to contact poison control and/or your physician immediately. Many heavy metals (we're looking at you, mercury) are no joke and you need to go to a doctor or an emergency room, not the supermarket.

Chelation is a process where one compound (usually ingested) binds to the heavy metals you want out of your body. Then, you excrete the "chelated" metal + chelating compound combo. This process takes time and should be overseen by a qualified physician. One reason why is that chelation therapy can pull healthy metals (think minerals like zinc, copper or iron) from your body at the same time, resulting in deficiency.

Detox foods

Cup full of bluberries which can help detox from metal

So there are foods that help you detox from heavy metals, as well as help mitigate the effects of low-level metal exposure. Again, we stress that if you think you're suffering from acute exposure, call a doctor.

Cilantro's Latin name is Coriandrum sativum. It's also called coriander or Chinese parsley. And in one study, it proved adept at removing methylmercury from water. But this experiment used cilantro plants to remove the toxic metal from the water column. It doesn't necessarily mean cilantro can remove mercury from inside of you.

A food with similar properties is spirulina—in fact, clinical studies have shown that spirulina protects against arsenic toxicity. This plant is a blue-green alga that can be eaten in smoothies or oatmeal or taken as a supplement.

In addition, wild blueberries are packed with antioxidants, and it turns out that antioxidants help your body fight the negative effects of heavy metal exposure. This is because one of the ways heavy metals affect your body is by creating free radicals, which in turn produce significant oxidative stress at the cellular level. So the antioxidants in blueberries can help you stave off the effects of heavy metal exposure. Who knew! (Incidentally, blueberries are a great source of that friend of your immune system, vitamin C--so eat up!)

Detox nutrients

Woman crushing garlic which helps with metal detox

There are some plants and extracts that have been shown to reduce or block heavy metal induced toxicity. The good news is, those plants and extracts are already on the who's-who of worthwhile nutrients you can eat regularly—or take as an extract—to keep your body healthy!

  • Garlic

    has a high sulfur content. As it turns out, toxic metals love sulfur. Remember chelation therapy, which we discussed before? Well, the sulfur in garlic appears to bind to toxic metals like cadmium and lead: in animal studies, garlic helped inhibit cadmium-induced kidney damage. It also reduced lead-induced oxidative damage.
  • Glutathione & alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)

    are potent antioxidants found in both foods as well as produced within our own bodies. Since they both fight free radical damage (and guess what – they also contain metal-binding sulfur!), they may be able to help with heavy metals, too. One study found that glutathione and alpha-lipoic acid can help reduce the toxic effects of lead, cadmium or copper in rats.
  • Modified citrus pectin

    has shown promise as a safe chelating agent. Pectin is a kind of polysaccharide derived from plant cells. In this case, a pectin made from citrus fruit skins was shown to help significantly reduce heavy metal toxicity, without side effects.
  • NAC

    is also known by its longer name, N-acetyl cysteine. This powerful antioxidant encourages your body to produce an antioxidant of its own, glutathione, which helps mitigate the damage caused by heavy metal toxicity. In rats, NAC has shown promise in lowering mortality from acute copper poisoning. In addition, NAC has immune system benefits.

We hope this entry-level run-down of heavy metals and what you can do about them has helped put your mind at ease…or at the very least, given you some pointers on how to help detoxify your body from heavy metals. Remember, you can get yourself tested for heavy metal exposure—and if you think you're suffering from acute heavy metal poisoning, get medical help fast.

References

By: John Gawley, Health & Wellness Writer

John Gawley graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English before beginning his career as a technical writer, copy writer and content manager. John has extensive experience in the health and wellness field, and he is the Senior Copywriter at Life Extension.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD