What is a heavy metal detox?
According to a 2019 review, heavy metal poisoning is a common health issue due to the prevalence of industrial, agricultural, and sewage waste.
Certain substances, such as those present in some foods and medications, bind to heavy metals and transport them out of the body. This process is called chelation.
However, unapproved chelation can be dangerous and even fatal. People should not attempt heavy metal detoxes without the supervision of a healthcare professional.
This article looks at the possible benefits of heavy metal detox diets, the evidence behind them, some vital safety considerations, and the possible side effects.
What is a heavy metal detox?
Substances found in certain foods may help to transport heavy metals out of the body.
A heavy metal detox aims to remove excess heavy metals from the body.
A substance that binds to heavy metals is known as a chelator, and the process that transports them out of the body is called chelation. People may also refer to a heavy metal detox as chelation therapy.
Doctors use specific chelator medications to treat heavy metal poisoning. Certain foods can also help move heavy metals out of the body.
Heavy metal toxicity can affect the function of organs such as the brain, the liver, and the lungs. Having high levels of heavy metals in the body can also reduce energy levels and affect blood composition.
Long-term exposure to heavy metals can cause the symptoms seen in degenerative conditions, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. In some cases, long-term exposure to some metals may even cause cancer.
Some examples of heavy metals include:
Heavy metals can enter our bodies through food and environmental factors. Some sources of heavy metals include:
- soil erosion
- industrial waste
- fossil fuel emissions
- pesticides on crops
- waste water
- smoking tobacco
Are heavy metal detoxes effective?
For people with heavy metal poisoning, a heavy metal detox may be essential to prevent life threatening complications. Doctors may use certain drugs, such as penicillamine or dimercaprol, that bind to metals and carry them out of the body.
For people with low but regular exposure to heavy metals, which can build up in the body, a heavy metal detox may help prevent a variety of chronic conditions. According to some research, heavy metal detoxing may help prevent kidney, cardiovascular, and neurological conditions.
Some healthcare professionals suggest chelation therapy as a treatment option for various health conditions, which the sections below will discuss in more detail.
Some healthcare professionals propose chelation therapy as a treatment for cardiovascular disease.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a large-scale study of 1,708 people found a modest reduction in cardiovascular events after chelation therapy compared with a placebo. However, this was only the case for people with diabetes.
The NCCIH also suggest that it may be better to follow a heart-healthy diet and make the necessary lifestyle changes to address heart conditions, rather than risking the potentially dangerous side effects of chelation therapy, which may provide no benefits at all.
Some researchers believe that there is a link between high levels of heavy metals and Alzheimer's disease.
There has been a lot of preclinical in vitro and in vivo research that shows the relationship between metals such as copper, zinc, and iron and the onset and progression of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. Metals are critically involved in the cellular processes that mediate neuronal and brain health.
Specifically, one article suggests that a therapeutic strategy aimed at targeting brain metals is theoretically well-grounded and justified. However, scientists require further evidence to support this. Research has shown no definitive metal-targeted pathway, such as strict chelation, to be effective or optimal in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Some practitioners suggest chelation therapy as a treatment option for autism. This is linked with suggestions that thimerosal in childhood vaccinations was causing autism due to mercury toxicity. Thimerosal is a preservative containing mercury present in certain childhood vaccinations.
The National Capital Poison Center state that there is no scientific evidence to support any link between thimerosal — or any childhood vaccination — and autism.
Are heavy metal detoxes safe?
Everyone has a certain amount of heavy metals in their body. For people with a normal amount, chelation has the potential to cause more harm than good.
Chelation therapy can treat heavy metal poisoning under the careful supervision of a healthcare professional. Using chelation therapy for anything other than extreme cases of heavy metal poisoning can be very dangerous and even fatal.
According to the National Capital Poison Center, in 2005, a 5-year-old autistic boy died during intravenous chelation therapy using the drug disodium edetate. The chelation therapy caused low calcium levels in his blood, causing cardiac arrest and tissue death, which ultimately led to brain death.
They also report that in 2003, a 53-year-old female died during a naturopathic treatment of intravenous chelation therapy, which used the drug ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. Chelation therapy caused a drop in calcium levels, which then affected blood supply to the heart muscle and cardiac rhythm.
In some cases, heavy metal detoxes can cause heavy metals to recirculate in the body.
Chelation therapy can cause many side effects, including:
- a reduction in calcium levels, which can be fatal
- a drop in blood pressure
- permanent kidney damage
A person may be able to reduce the levels of heavy metals in their body more gradually by making changes to their diet. Certain foods, such as spirulina and cilantro, may help transport excess heavy metals out of the body.
According to one 2013 review, the following foods may be effective for heavy metal detoxification:
- Dietary fiber: Various foods rich in fiber, such as fruit and grains with bran, may help remove heavy metals. Researchers have found fiber to reduce mercury levels in the brain and blood.
- Chlorella: Studies have shown that chlorella increases the detoxification of mercury in mice.
- Foods containing sulfur: Foods rich in sulfur, such as garlic and broccoli, may be good chelators. Research has suggested that garlic may have prevented kidney damage from cadmium and reduced oxidative damage from lead in rats.
- Cilantro: Cilantro may help, but there is currently limited evidence to support this. In an animal study, cilantro decreased absorption of lead into bone. In a trial looking at children with lead exposure, cilantro was as effective as a placebo.
The same review also lists some supplements that may work to chelate heavy metals from the body:
- Glutathione: Certain forms of glutathione, when a person takes it other than orally, may protect cells from the oxidative damage that heavy metals can cause.
- Modified citrus pectin: Modified citrus pectin and substances from brown seaweeds lowered heavy metal toxicity by roughly 74% in human participants across five case studies.
- Sulfur-containing amino acids: Examples of these are taurine and methionine.
- Alpha-lipoic acid: Alpha-lipoic acid is a strong antioxidant that can renew other antioxidants in the body and chelate metals from the body.
- Selenium: Selenium may help remove mercury from the body. In one trial, organic selenium supplementation benefited people with mercury exposure.
Although these are less extreme methods of detoxifying the body, it is still important to take care when using supplements or excessive quantities of one type of food.
Although dietary fiber may help detoxify the body, one study found that soluble fiber such as flaxseed increased the retention of cadmium in rats. People with high exposure to cadmium may therefore need to exercise caution when consuming flaxseed.
Certain chelators, such as alpha-lipoic acid, can cause the redistribution of metals in the body. People should therefore take care when using certain detoxification substances and always follow the advice of a healthcare professional.
Having high amounts of heavy metals in the body may cause health concerns or chronic health conditions. However, there is a limited amount of evidence to suggest that a heavy metal detox with drugs, or chelation therapy, can cure any conditions.
Chelation therapy can be vital for treating heavy metal poisoning. However, in some cases, it can be very dangerous and may cause more harm than good. Sometimes, it may even be fatal.
People wanting to detox from heavy metals should try to find alternatives that are safer and work more gradually. Certain foods also work as chelators to bind to heavy metals and transport them out of the body.
Certain supplements may also work to detoxify the body from heavy metals. People should consult their doctor before taking any new supplements, however, and they should always follow the guidance of their healthcare professional when aiming to naturally detox from heavy metals.