and how to get it out of our systems
Over here at goop, we eat a lot of sushi, so much so that we discuss how high our mercury levels must be weekly—and we don’t seem to be the only ones. General concern about the levels of mercury in our water and food are coming up more and more, and not just amongst our pregnant friends. We asked Dr. Alejandro Junger, a Cardiologist and detoxification expert who we would trust with our lives (we love his very easy-to-implement program, Clean), just how concerned we should be. And more importantly, we asked him how we can help our bodies unload toxic heavy metals.
Is mercury poisoning a real threat?
Mercury is an extremely toxic element and heavy metal that is increasingly affecting the health of millions of people. It’s a major problem today because our exposure to it is rising (1), from the air we breathe to the food we eat. One of the primary ways we are exposed to mercury is by eating large fish such as tuna, shark, and swordfish. The bottom line is that we want to reduce our exposure to mercury as much as possible. One of the biggest challenges is that most practitioners and researchers are not aware of the latest science that shows elevated levels of mercury can take a serious toll on our health. Exposure to this heavy metal has been linked to increased incidents of chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune conditions, ADHD, autism, as well as memory loss, irritability and blurred vision (2). Even if you don’t have one of the ailments listed above, mercury exposure could still be having an effect on your health. When I see a lingering health issue that hasn’t been cleared after significant lifestyle, cleansing, and dietary changes, I look to see if mercury is one of the causes.
Does mercury exposure just come from fish? What are all the sources?
There are different types of mercury, but most of our immediate exposure comes from a few major sources:
Fish that are high in methylmercury, also known as organic mercury. Typical examples are the big fish mentioned above, like tuna, swordfish, shark, etc.
Most of the mercury that finds its way into the environment is from coal-fired power plants, artisanal gold mining, and processing plants that make plastics and chlorine (3). The mercury is sent into the air, then rained down on lakes, into soil, and carried off by rivers. It all eventually makes its way to our oceans where the organic compound is then accumulated into the fatty tissue of fish (4). Finally, it ends up on our plates. When we eat high-mercury fish, the mercury is distributed throughout our body but primarily takes hold in the kidneys and brain. Once there, the mercury can cause slow havoc to a variety of organs especially the heart, brain, and gut.
In pregnant mothers, mercury is transferred to the fetus through the placenta causing increased risks of poor neurological performance, language skills, and verbal memory (5).
Mercury amalgam—also known as inorganic mercury—dental fillings.
We can also be exposed to mercury through drinking water (especially private water systems like wells that are often untested and municipal systems), occupational exposures, and by coal heating in homes.
New cases of mercury poisoning have also been connected to certain skin lightening face creams (2a). I recommend that people check if their products are free from toxic chemicals at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.
What are the symptoms of mercury toxicity or overload?
In the integrative medicine world, mercury is known as the “great mimicker” because it can mimic many different chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s, dementia, nervous system dysfunction, and even cancer. It also worsens the effects of a variety of conditions like ADHD, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and gut problems. Many of these problems are diagnosed daily in doctor’s offices around the country, but few doctors investigate the role of mercury in the process of treating people. These patients are treated symptomatically and are given medications for the rest of their lives, without ever knowing that mercury toxicity could be at the root of the problem. If mercury toxicity was discovered, effective treatment would have given them a chance of resolution without the need for long-term symptom relief with pharmaceuticals, many of which have serious side effects. Let me give you a real-life example. One of my patients began experiencing all sorts of health issues like migraines and skin problems without explanation. We eventually found that she had been exposed to a large dose of mercury after having her mercury fillings removed by a dentist. When I tested her for mercury, I found that she had one of the highest levels I had ever seen.
“HERE’S THE TRUTH: I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH MERCURY IS AFFECTING SOMEONE UNTIL I TEST THEM, TREAT THEM, AND THEIR SYMPTOMS GO AWAY.”
I see it more and more in my patients and so do my medical colleagues in the Functional Medicine community. That’s why it’s important that people are aware of the problems caused by mercury so they can bring it up with their doctors.
What can we do to reduce our exposure?
More and more we are seeing that many symptoms and health conditions we experience are caused by many factors. Having an awareness that mercury could be playing a role is the first step.
REDUCE HIGH-MERCURY FISH INTAKE
The next step is to reduce our intake of fish that contain mercury. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain trace amounts of mercury but it “bioaccumulates” or builds up in larger fish. Even albacore tuna, which you see in most supermarkets, is something you should not have more than once a week, and children should have it even less.
A great resource to check mercury levels and environmental impact of fish is the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector.
- ahi tuna
- albacore tuna
- bigeye tuna
- blue fin tuna
- king mackerel
- wild sturgeon
FILTER YOUR SHOWER & TAP WATER
If you use a private water system (i.e. wells), you are more likely to be exposed to mercury than municipal water because public water is tested regularly. But even municipal water can contain mercury and other heavy metals. Filtering your shower and drinking water in your home or apartment is a great health practice that reduces your exposure to mercury as well as other contaminants and heavy metals. Use the water-filter buying guide from the Environmental Working Group to help you find a filter that’s a good fit for you.
ADD SPECIFIC NUTRIENTS & FOODS TO YOUR DIET
The final step is to include items that can aid the detoxing of heavy metals from our bodies.
- Important nutrients to take are selenium (200-400mcg daily), vitamin E (400 I.U. per day), vitamin C and glutathione (6). Often a daily high-quality multivitamin can provide them.
- High doses of Chlorella, a concentrated green algae, has been shown to helpful in reducing mercury, however about ⅓ of people cannot take it due to gastrointestinal distress (7).
- Cilantro has been found to displace heavy metals from deeper stores to connective tissue, where the items listed above can help usher it out of the body (8). This is especially true when used with chelating agents such as DMPS, DMSA, and MSM (9). These items are used by health practitioners and doctors when your levels are high and need to be reduced.
- Other items that have been said to help with mercury detoxification are zeolites and different kinds of clay (bentonite, etc.)
REMOVE YOUR MERCURY FILLINGS
This is a big topic and an important one that is beyond the scope of this article. If you have your mercury fillings removed, it is imperative that you use a biological dentist who has the necessary tools to remove mercury correctly. If you don’t, you could be exposing yourself to more mercury, like the patient I spoke of above. Many dentists and even the FDA will tell you that mercury fillings are safe. They’ll tell you that “there is no evidence that mercury amalgam fillings are harmful to your health.” The truth is that they don’t know. There is no proof that mercury exposure through fillings over time is safe. But what we do know is that mercury is toxic and we don’t want it in our mouths. That’s why the World Health Organization recommends that a “phase down should be pursued by promoting disease prevention and alternatives to amalgam (10).”
What should we do if we’re convinced our mercury levels are high?
First, you need to get tested to make sure your levels of mercury are actually elevated. It’s best not to self-diagnose but to run the tests so you and your health practitioner can create a targeted plan. Often doctors will add a mercury test to a routine blood test, but blood tests by themselves are not a good indicator of mercury levels. Urine tests are better and they are the ones I use the most often. The best type of tests use a combination of blood, urine, and hair analysis like the one from Quicksilver Scientific. I recommend that you work with a functional medicine doctor who can run these labs and help you develop a protocol for removal if needed.
I encourage you to get tested if:
- You have mercury fillings or you’ve had your mercury fillings removedand have health issues
- You eat fish especially larger fish: tuna, swordfish, etc. 4 to 7 times aweek—and have health issues
Should everyone get tested?
Elevated mercury levels in our body can cause many different health problems, but symptoms are slow to build, so we don’t need to freak out about it. What we do need to do is take stock of where our health is at, and then if we fall within the testing guidelines I have laid out above, get tested. Once we have the tests, we can boldly and calmly move forward and address the situation. Unfortunately, I don’t think this issue is going to go away anytime soon. In fact, the situation is getting worse. So we need a plan. The major action we can take is to reduce our exposure and add in nourishing nutrients that can help us detoxify when we are exposed. (See list above.) We are going to need a concerted effort from both practitioners and patients to deal with this problem, and many health practitioners are still unaware of the role elevated levels of mercury play in our health. I encourage you to share the resources below with them.
Resources to share with your practitioner
Article by Dr. Mark Hyman
Paper by Dr. Kinglhart and Mercola from Journal of Nutritional and Enviromental Medicine
Mercury Dental Resources
Chang, L.W , Gilbert,M and Sprecher,J: Modification of methylmercury neurotoxicity by vitamin E, Environ.Res. 1978;17:356-366
Klinghardt, D: Amalgam/Mercury Detox as a Treatment for Chronic Viral, Bacterial, and Fungal Illnesses Explore! Volume 1997;8, No 3
Omura Y, Beckman SL Role of mercury (Hg) in resistant infections & effective treatment of Chlamydia trachomatis and Herpes family viral infections (and potential treatment for cancer) by removing localized Hg deposits with Chinese parsley and delivering effective antibiotics using various drug uptake enhancement methods. Acupunct Electrother Res. 1995;20(3-4): 195-229
Mercola J, Klinghardt D. Mercury toxicity and systemic elimination agents. Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine 2001; 11: 53– 62.