What is heavy metal toxicity? A nutritionist explains how it could impact your health

Should the average person worry about heavy metal toxicity?

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/ Source: TODAY
By Kristin Kirkpatrick

The concern over mercury, and other heavy metal toxins is a hot, and controversial topic for people who worry about their health.

As a nutritionist, when my patients give me their medical history, more are mentioning heavy metal toxicity. Others are asking if they need a heavy metal detox. Many of these people are dealing with health issues and symptoms they can't easily find an explanation for — but that does not mean they have heavy metal poisoning.

Should the average person worry about heavy metal toxicity?

In short, no.

Studies show that high levels of exposure in the average person are rare. Most serious exposures to heavy metals occur in the workplace, not from the foods we eat. If you're a sushi lover who indulges in a tuna roll from time to time, you don't have much to worry about.

Many of my patients are hearing the term "heavy metal detox" as a marketing play for products that claim to reverse exposure. None of the tests available online have shown to have scientifically-backed data behind them — that makes them ineffective or downright dangerous. I advise patients to avoid these kits. Instead, I suggest a visit to a physician as a reasonable first step.

What are the heavy metals people worry about?

Heavy metals are found naturally in the earth’s crust and may end up in the environment, our water supply, food, medicine and the herbal supplements we take, especially those made overseas. The most common metals that impact humans are lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, mercury and chromium. Toxicity occurs when you are exposed to high levels, usually over a prolonged period of time.

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Heavy metal toxicity can come in two forms: chronic or acute.

For example, you can acquire a chronic toxicity if as a child you were exposed to lead paint in your home, drank water coming from lead pipes. Lead is extremely toxic and there's no known safe level for anyone to consume, breathe or drink. Lead-based paint or lead in water are the main sources of exposure in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration has investigated lead in fruit juices and some baby cereals, but food is not considered main source of exposure by child nutrition experts.

Symptoms of heavy metal toxicity

Symptoms can vary, but are based on age, type of metal and amount and duration involved. General exposure often includes symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Mental health issues
  • Heart problems
  • Infertility
  • Kidney and bone damage
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Confusion or respiratory distress

Where would the average person find heavy metals?

It’s not very easy to be exposed to large amounts of heavy metals on a regular basis. Most people who suffer high levels of exposure work in factories or mines where heavy metals are prevalent. In chronic exposure, heavy metals have time to settle into the kidneys and other organs.

Other ways people are exposed to heavy metals include tobacco smoke, certain fish and shellfish, as well as aluminum cookware, air pollution and water.

The average American should not lose sleep over heavy metal toxicity fears, but individuals should be proactive about reducing exposure to them. Though no one can avoid exposure completely, as heavy metals could be in every day environmental components such as air, soil, food and water. You can avoid mercury exposure by limiting consumption of large quantities of fish such as tuna, shark and mackerel.

The FDA has guidelines for eating fish and choosing varieties that are lower in mercury.

No one is immune to heavy metal exposure; we all have some amount sitting in our body. The amount, however, will vary from person to person based on many factors. Kids who live in a home where both parents smoke may be more susceptible to arsenic exposure.

How to get rid of heavy metal toxicity:

It’s not easy to test for chronic heavy metal exposure and experts caution that pills and potions marketed to reverse a heavy metal toxicity are not scientifically effective or approved by the FDA. If you have a number of symptoms, talk to your physician about your possible exposure.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.