Invisible, odourless, and virtually undetectable to us, the heavy metal mercury is drawing the attention and concern of many, who believe mercury may be a much bigger problem than it was once originally considered to be. And that in fact, it may actually be responsible for and contributing to an array of chronic health concerns.
Heavy metals are chemicals naturally exist in the earth but have become concentrated due to human activity. While some metals are important nutrients in our diets, such as zinc, iron and magnesium, other toxic metals such as mercury, can accumulate in the body with damaging consequences.
What You Need To Know About Mercury
→ Exposure to mercury, even small amounts, may cause serious health problems in people of all ages, however, is of particular concern for the development of the child in utero and in early life.
→ Mercury is lipophilic, meaning that it concentrates in fatty tissues, especially in the brain, which is made mostly of fat. And this is where it has it’s most dangerous effects.
→ Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.
→ Mercury is considered by the World Health Organisation as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern.
What Are The Dangers Of Mercury In The Body?
The main reason mercury is toxic to the human body is that mercury has the ability to bind to sulphur-containing molecules in the body (found in nearly every enzyme in our cells energy powerhouses - the ‘mitochondria’) as well as other chemical binding sites in the cells.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. Mercury exposure has been shown to alter neuronal function and increase oxidative stress, causing abnormalities in learning and behaviour. A research study analysing mercury in correlation with levels of learning difficulties and Autism found that on average, for every 1,000 pounds of mercury released into the environment, there was a 43% increase in the rate of special education services required in that area and a whopping 61% increase in the rate of autism!
You only get one chance to develop a brain and that’s in utero! Scarily, there is preliminary evidence that indicating there are higher mercury concentrations in fetal brain tissue relative to the mother's brain tissue, suggesting that mercury concentrates in the foetus during development.
The only way it can get out of your body is via urine, faeces, expired air, and breast milk. So it is especially important for mothers to be considering their mercury levels prior to, during and post pregnancy.
Mercury exposure activates the steroid hormones anti-inflammatory response, ultimately overstimulating the immune system. Up-regulation of the immune system leaves you in risky territory for developing potential autoimmune conditions.
So, What Are the Main Sources of Mercury?
Mercury exists in three forms:
Elemental: dental amalgams, fluorescent light bulbs, some electrical switches, mining, and some industrial process. it is released into the air when fossil fuels are burned.
Inorganic: formed when mercury combines with other elements, this can either be naturally occurring in the environment or via industrial processes.
Organic: Organisms in water and soil can convert elemental and inorganic mercury into ‘methylmercury’ which accumulates in the food chain, such as in fish. It is also used in small amounts as a preservative.
Exposure can occur via ingestion of organic forms or inhalation of elemental and inorganic forms. The olfactory system (how we smell) provides a direct route of entry for mercury into the central nervous system. Whereas with ingested mercury, bacteria and yeast in the gut can alter mercury, making it able to be passed through the blood-brain barrier (our brains physical defence shield) giving it direct access to the brain.
A healthy individual that is nutritionally equipped with the nutrients needed to excrete mercury in very small amounts. Metallothionein (a metal binding protein in the body) is expressed and mercury can be eliminated in the body. However, if you have an unhealthy diet that is ultimately mineral imbalanced, especially low zinc and high copper (which is very common!), then it is possible that there will not be enough metallothionein to function and properly eliminate the mercury. If the mercury is not eliminated, it begins to build up and causes oxidative stress.
Common Sources of Mercury To Be Aware Of:
Children’s toys (overseas, especially any manufactured in China)
Large ocean fish
High fructose corn syrup
Environmental waste products/runoff
Signs and Symptoms of Mercury Toxicity
Some of us are genetically better adapted to detoxify mercury than others, leading to variable effects within the population:
Concerned About Your Mercury Exposure?
There are currently a few different methods for testing the amount of mercury in the body, but all have their advantages and disadvantages.
→ Blood Tests - Represents the level of mercury currently in the blood, which is what doctors check when they do a blood test for mercury. But unless you’ve been eating fish with mercury recently, you won’t see your total body level of mercury represented in a blood test.
→ Hair Mineral Analysis - Represents the mercury that has already been detoxified from the body.
→ Urine Sample Random or 24 hour collection - Acute exposure (last 60 days) and excretion.
Everyday Steps You Can Take to Combat Mercury
We’re all unfortunately exposed to small amounts of heavy metals on a daily basis and can benefit from taking a few steps to reduce our exposure and boost our body’s ability to detoxify heavy metals:
Optimise your nutrient levels of minerals such as selenium, iron, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin C for support of glutathione, the bodies main antioxidant.
Dietary zinc is essential for the smooth running of the metabolic processes responsible for mercury elimination. Address any zinc deficiencies and copper excesses.
Selenium is needed to support glutathione function, which protects from damage caused by mercury-induced oxidative stress.
Reduce where possible your exposure to mercury.
Avoid large ocean fish and replace with small, wild fish. If it fits in your pan, it is okay!
EAT LESS: Tuna, Bluefish, King Mackerel, Opah, Shark, Swordfish, Tilefish, Wild Sturgeon
EAT MORE: Haddock, Herring, Mackerel, Oysters, Salmon, Sardines, Anchovies, Scallops
Find a holistic dentist. If you have dental mercury amalgams, replace them.
Check your body care products and stop using anything that lists ‘mercurous chloride,’ ‘calomel,’ ‘mercuric,’ ‘mercurio’ or ‘mercury’ as ingredients.
Get a water filter, especially if you have a private water system. Public systems are tested regularly but can still contain mercury and other heavy metals. Use the water-filter buying guide from the Environmental Working Group to help you find the best filter for you.
Exercising and sweating help rid your body of toxins. Get moving every day and try a sauna, steam, or bath each week.
Increase your intake of detoxifying foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, onions, garlic, green tea, and fresh herbs. Coriander is fantastic for its heavy metal detoxifying as it can displace heavy metals from deep tissue stores.
Increase your fibre intake with foods like flaxseeds, legumes, vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts), or fruits.
Current Safety Guidelines
The World Health Organisation has estimated a tolerable concentration of 0.2 μg/m3 for long-term inhalation exposure to elemental mercury vapour, and a tolerable intake of total mercury of 2 μg/kg body weight per day.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a lot of great information on mercury levels, exposure and safety guidelines. For more information check out https://www.ewg.org
If you are concerned about your mercury exposure, or a family members and would like to investigate further, please reach out.