Published December 16 2013
Toxins can have a big impact on one’s health, and while there are many different toxins out there, in this article I’m going to focus on the toxic metals. I’ll be using the terms “toxic metals” and “heavy metals” interchangeably throughout this article. Although any heavy metal can cause damage in excess (i.e. iron or copper), the focus of this article will be on those heavy metals which are toxic even in smaller amounts. There are numerous toxic metals, but I’m mainly going to talk about mercury, cadmium, aluminum, lead, and arsenic. Not all of these toxic metals directly affect thyroid health, but this of course doesn’t mean they won’t have a negative impact on one’s overall health.
Just as is the case with other toxins, nobody is going to be able to completely eliminate all of the toxic metals from their body. Just about everyone has mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other metals stored in their tissues. Some people have small amounts of these toxins, while other people have larger amounts. Either way, the goal is to minimize one’s exposure to toxic metals, while trying to do things which will help eliminate toxic metals (and other toxins) from your body.
There are numerous factors which can trigger an autoimmune response, and it seems as if exposure to some of the heavy metals can cause this to happen as well. I have written a separate article entitled “Mercury and Thyroid Health”. Studies have shown evidence of a link between mercury exposure and elevated levels of thyroid antibodies (1). Some of the sources of mercury exposure include dental amalgams, fish, vaccines, industrial use, and these days a lot of babies are being born with higher levels of mercury that’s passed on from the mother. This of course is the case with other heavy metals as well, along with other toxins.
In fact, I came across a study which looked at the total mercury concentrations in the liver, kidney, and cerebral cortex of 108 children aged one day to five years, and the mercury levels of 46 fetuses were also determined (2). The study found that the mercury in the fetuses and older infants correlated significantly with the number of dental amalgam fillings of the mother. There is also evidence that the methylmercury from fish consumed by the mother can affect the fetus.
Even though mercury can potentially trigger an autoimmune response, the organ most affected by this heavy metal is the brain. And there is evidence that the mercury from dental amalgam fillings may contribute to the body burden of mercury in the brain (3).
In order to help reduce your exposure to mercury you want to avoid eating larger fish, consider replacing dental amalgams, and be cautious about getting vaccinated (to be fair, most vaccines no longer have mercury, although they have other toxins). However, you need to be very cautious when getting dental amalgams removed, as this can exacerbate the autoimmune response for those people who have Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. As a result, if you do get this done I would highly recommend consulting with a biological dentist. A good resource for finding such a dentist is by going online and visiting the website for the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology. Their website is www.IAOMT.org.
Let’s now talk about aluminum, as it is very common to see high aluminum levels, and this is because aluminum is widespread. Some of the common sources of aluminum include pots and pans, aluminum cans, deodorant, aluminum foil, and of course congenital exposure. There is evidence that high levels of aluminum can cause Alzheimer’s Disease, although this is controversial (4) (5). Although it is questionable as to whether aluminum has a direct effect on thyroid health, there is evidence that aluminum exposure can affect the parathyroid glands, and might suppress the release of parathyroid hormone (6) (7) (8).
Even though most of the people who have Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis are adults, there are also children who have these autoimmune thyroid conditions. And while there is a lot of controversy over childhood vaccinations, aluminum is a demonstrated neurotoxin and a strong immune stimulator (9), and is still commonly used in vaccines. An adjuvant is a chemical included in vaccines to help enhance the immune response to an antigen. And there is evidence that simultaneous administration of as little as two to three immune adjuvants can overcome genetic resistance to autoimmunity (10). And in some countries, by the time children are four to six years old they will have received a total of 126 antigenic compounds, along with high amounts of aluminum adjuvants through routine vaccination (10).
Some of the sources of arsenic include pesticides, chicken and rice. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water is common in many countries (11). Inorganic arsenic is considered to be toxic. The highest levels of these arsenics in groundwater occur in the West, Midwest, and Northeast regions of the US. Inorganic arsenics have been found in flour and rice. Poultry and seafood are the primary sources of organic arsenics, which are considered to have very low toxicity. The health consequences of chronic arsenic exposure include increased risk for various forms of cancer and numerous noncancer effects, including diabetes, skin diseases, chronic cough, and toxic effects on liver, kidney, cardiovascular system, and the peripheral and central nervous systems (11). There is evidence that exposure to arsenic can affect thyroid health (12), possibly by affecting the thyroid hormone receptors (13).
I’d now like to talk about cadmium. Some of the sources of cadmium include cigarette smoke, tap water, coffee, shellfish, refined foods, and marijuana. Studies suggest that cadmium is associated with several clinical complications, such as renal dysfunction and bone disease, but also some cancers (14). With regards to thyroid health, one study showed a positive association between cadmium exposure and thyroid hormones in adults (15). Another study showed that taking selenium and zinc may have a synergistic role against cadmium-induced thyroid dysfunction (16). I mentioned earlier how mercury can potentially trigger an autoimmune response, and the same might be true of cadmium (17). However, this is controversial, and I haven’t come across any studies which have showed a relationship between high cadmium levels and autoimmune thyroid conditions.
I don’t commonly see high lead levels with my patients. But some of the common sources of lead exposure include cigarette smoke, colored inks, lead-based paints, ceramic glazes, congenital cause, diets deficient in calcium, magnesium, and/or iron can make someone more susceptible to a lead toxicity problem. There is some evidence that lead exposure can lead to depressed thyroid hormone levels (18) (19). However, some other studies show no relationship between lead exposure and thyroid health. It is possible that the amount of lead can play a role on how it affects thyroid health.
It’s important to understand that while the amount of exposure to a specific heavy metal, or any other toxin, can be important, this isn’t the only factor to consider. In other words, different people experience different reactions to certain toxins. For example, someone who is exposed to a small amount of mercury might have a negative reaction, thus triggering an autoimmune response. On the other hand, another person who has a high level of mercury in their tissues might not have any problems. The company Cyrex Labs has a test called the Chemical Immune Reactivity Screen, which helps to identify immune responses to chemicals bound to human proteins. So while most tests detect the levels of toxins, this tests measures the actual immune response to certain toxins.
There are other toxic metals as well besides the ones I mentioned, although I’m not going to discuss them in detail. Nickel is a toxic metal that can affect the brain and other organs of the body. Some of the other heavy metals include tin, uranium, thallium, and berryllium.
What Can You Do About These Toxins?
The first thing you want to do in order to reduce the levels of toxic metals in the tissues is to do what you can to minimize your exposure to them. For example, with mercury you can try not to eat too much fish, be cautious about getting certain vaccines (i.e. the flu vaccine), and there are times when you will want to consider replacing your dental amalgams. Since cigarettes are a source of heavy metals, if you smoke or live with someone who smokes cigarettes then this needs to be addressed. Drinking water is a common source of different heavy metals, which is why you want to avoid drinking tap water, or at the very least get your tap water tested to detect the amount of heavy metals.
In addition to minimizing one’s exposure to toxic metals, here are a few other things you can do:
Eat well. Believe it or not, eating a healthy diet can help with the excretion of toxic metals. Some vitamins have a protective role which interfere with the intestinal absorption of toxic metals by increasing urinary excretion or creating a synergic effect on the chelating element (20). Allicin, which is the main biologically active component of garlic clove extracts, can potentially decrease lead levels (21). There is also evidence that cilantro can accelerate the excretion of mercury and lead from the body through the urine (22). Certain minerals can also help, as one study shows that supplementation with magnesium caused a statistically significant decrease in concentrations of lead and cadmium (23).
Do a Liver Detoxification. Heavy metals don’t go through the same detoxification pathways as other toxins. However, when one is doing a liver detoxification, this can help to increase the production of glutathione, which as I’ll discuss shortly can help with the elimination of toxic metals from the body. I usually recommend a 21-day detoxification program to my patients, and I personally follow one of these two or three times each year. The herb milk thistle can also help greatly with the health of the liver, as it can lower liver enzyme levels and has demonstrated anti-inflammatory and T cell-modulating effects (24). Milk thistle can also help to promote protein synthesis, helps in regenerating liver tissue, enhances glucuronidation and protects against glutathione depletion (25). There is evidence that milk thistle might offer protection from the toxic effects of heavy metals (26) (27).
Glutathione. Glutathione can help to eliminate heavy metals. One study demonstrated three specific roles glutathione has in protecting the body from mercury toxicity (28). There is also evidence that intracellular glutathione can help to protect against cadmium toxicity (29). Glutathione also offers protection against lead (30). Truth to be told, glutathione is important for the elimination of just about all toxins. The best method of increasing glutathione levels is by taking the precursors, such N-Acetyl-cysteine and alpha lipoic acid. Selenium is also very important for glutathione production. Milk thistle can also help to increase the production of glutathione.
Chlorella. Chlorella is a fresh water green alga rich in proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and daily dietary supplementation with chlorella may reduce high blood pressure, lower serum cholesterol levels, accelerate wound healing, and enhance immune functions (31). Chlorella also can help to counteract heavy metal toxicity, especially with regards to mercury (32) and cadmium (33).
Chelation Therapy. Chelation therapy can help with certain heavy metals (34). I’ve written a separate article entitled “Can Chelation Therapy Benefit People With Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis?“. I don’t recommend IV chelation therapy as the primary treatment method for heavy metals, although I know some healthcare professionals will recommend this to anyone who has high levels of toxic metals. I’m not opposed to using oral chelating agents if someone has higher levels of heavy metals. Some examples of chelating agents include DMSA and EDTA. Although EDTA seems to be more effective in chelating lead than DMSA, there is evidence that using EDTA to mobilize lead causes redistribution of lead and cadmium into the soft tissues (35). It has been suggested that using DMSA helps to increase the excretion of lead if DMSA was given after using EDTA (35). If someone does decide to use chelation therapy then it is also important to do some things to increase glutathione production, which I briefly discussed earlier.
Clean The Colon. Colon hydrotherapy and colonic irrigation can also be beneficial. This treatment approach helps with the excretion of toxic metals, and of course helps the body to eliminate other toxins. Those who have a leaky gut ideally want to get this repaired before doing any aggressive colon cleansing. Coffee enemas are another method of cleaning the colon, plus they can potentially help to increase glutathione production.
Sauna Therapy. Infrared sauna therapy can also be used to eliminate toxic metals. Dr. Walter Crinnion suggests that longer sessions of sauna therapy are needed to enhance the mobilization of heavy metals (36). I usually recommend 20 to 25 minutes of infrared sauna therapy, although in some cases longer sessions might be necessary. However, you want to make sure to replace the electrolytes, and it really is a good idea to be under the guidance of an expert.
For more on detoxification I recommend reading my blog post entitled “3 Ways People With Thyroid and Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions Can Detoxify Their Body“.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the impact toxic metals can have on your health. Certain heavy metals can directly affect thyroid health, while other heavy metals can trigger an autoimmune response, thus leading to a condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. But exposure to toxic metals can cause other health issues as well, which is why it’s important to not only do things to help minimize your exposure to these toxins, but to also follow some of the advice given in this article with regards to eliminating them from your body.