Integrative Health Blog

The Dangers of Heavy Metals in Food

Posted by Dr. Margarita Kullick on Wed, Mar 07, 2018

I had the opportunity recently to listen to a speech from a futurist. A futurist studies trends and makes predictions about the future. Some of his predictions were positive. He predicts less pollution, cleaner water and fewer chemicals, toxins and heavy metals in fish and plants. So, until that time comes, should we worry?

You bet.

What do Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cancer, Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Anxiety, and Autoimmune diseases have in common?

All these diseases have cellular dysfunction, and factors like a heavy metal burden and a chronic low level of toxicity may play a role in chronic disease. Mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and aluminum are being seen in the body. Where are these metals coming from? What are they doing to the body, the brain, the bones, the immune system? As physicians, we check the heart rate, blood pressure and blood. As a functional medicine physician I will check for heavy metals in the body if it is indicated. If you are suffering from chronic disease, or unable to achieve the level of health you want, it may be time to check the levels of chemicals and heavy metals in the body.

Why should we be concerned about heavy metals?

Humans are exposed to heavy metals on a daily basis as they are natural elements in food, water and soil. Most toxic of the heavy metals humans are exposed to are arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminum, sometimes called the terrible five. Mercury is found in dental fillings and fish, lead can be in contaminated water or old paint and some Baby Boomers may have lead deposited in their bones from childhood. Aluminum is in soil, air, anti-perspirants and other personal care products. Cadmium can be in liver, cigarettes, grain cereals and shellfish. Arsenic is found in soil, water, and various foods and dairy products, even eggs.

The problem is that for some people, these metals can slowly build up over time in the bone, brain, and tissues of the body. They can be difficult to get rid of as they can be stored in fat cells, and fat cells want to protect the organs of the body.

Zinc, copper, manganese, chromium, and selenium are also heavy metals, but they are called trace minerals and are essential for health. But in excess amounts they too can be toxic, as in the well known Wilson Disease, a degenerative neuromuscular condition where copper accumulates in the body due to a genetic disorder. A copper and zinc imbalance is a known cause of psychiatric and emotional issues.

Testing for Heavy Metals

The terrible five have gained this reputation since an overloaded system or chronic, acute heavy metal intoxication may cause many symptoms and ailments including fatigue, memory loss, anxiety, anemia, depression, decrease of cognitive function, and havoc to the immune system. These symptoms are all translated to well known diseases, according to the preferential place of accumulation such as the brain, red cells, bone, or liver. High levels of one or several heavy metals have been found in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, Dementia, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Autoimmune diseases, Cancer and so on. The different elements, once in the body, are stored in different tissues, and a simple blood test is not usually the answer, but hair analysis is not perfect either due to the many contaminates of hair dyes and shampoos. I find an Oligoscan detects the frequency of the metals, and a 24 hour urine collection after a DMPS or DMSA challenge can be cumbersome and expensive. So I choose the combination of oligoscan plus hair analysis either from non-dyed cranial hair or pubic hair to get a baseline test and to follow up for recovery.

When I review the test results with patient I may find some skepticism, especially if he or she has struggled and spent good amount of their income trying to eat a healthy diet. What may seem healthy may not be the best option, and we all have to read labels and do our homework.

Heavy Metal Contaminants in Our Food

I refer you to my recent interview with Lisa Fletcher from ABC7 regarding protein powders, including some organic varieties, contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. In one of the protein powders they found micrograms per serving of Arsenic 0.8, Cadmium 2.8, Mercury 0.26, and Lead 0.97. What does this mean?

Watch Video on Contaminants in Protein Powder

In an ideal world the amounts of dangerous elements in food content should be ND, or non detectable. But it is not just protein powders that are a problem. Let’s compare our powder drink numbers of arsenic micrograms (mcg)per serving to one of our main food staples- rice.

From rice protein powder at 0.1 mcg per serving to rice bran cereal with 30 micrograms per serving, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site of 67 pages lists all the samples of different rice, including rice found in baby formulas and infant cereals. The samples are according to type of rice: long, white, brown, basmati, from California, Arkansas, India, and so on, and is useful only to scare me since it does not give me the brand name where I can choose wisely the next time I am shopping for rice or rice products! The protein powder had much less than the average serving of rice (from 2 to 10 micrograms per serving) but if we consume this every day, plus other foods contaminated with the rest of the terrible five, we have a possible formula for disaster translated into a deterioration of human health.

We have a mammoth task if we want to stay healthy!

Perhaps the CDC should look at the “allowable” amount of heavy metals to reference based on 97% of blood samples, to “zero” heavy metals in the body for the optimal level. I also think that a Surgeon General’s warning of some of these products is in order, the same as nutritional disclosure of fat, trans fats, sugar, protein, and sodium. We should also be informed in a clear, simple way that this particular brown organic rice or wild rice contains heavy metals.

So, regarding heavy metals, my formula to health is:

  • become knowledgeable regarding the sources of exposure
  • avoid exposure (we all should do our best)
  • monitor your levels of toxicants intermittently
  • incorporate a life long detoxification program

But please do not attempt a detox with every online product you find, as that may have disastrous consequences on your brain cells. I consider it vital to know my patients level of toxicity and based on their individual health situation we can come up with a personalized  plan for heavy metal detoxification.

Enjoy life.

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 Margarita Kullick MD is a functional and anti-aging medical physician who is board certified in Internal Medicine. Her areas of interest include holistic primary care, chronic disease management and prevention (diabetes, kidney disease, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis), hormone replacement therapy, depression/anxiety, brain health and memory loss, and testing of the markers of aging. Dr. Kullick is bilingual in English and Spanish and a medical writer for a Hispanic community publication.

Topics: heavy metal detoxification