At the California Center for Functional Medicine, we often see patients with complex medical histories and symptoms that don’t fit inside the usual diagnostic categories of the conventional medical world. As a result, they are often given a prescription for an antidepressant and assured that they are perfectly healthy, or they are otherwise left unaided after multiple physicians just don’t know the cause of their seemingly mysterious complaints. Fortunately, they persist and find their way to our clinic.
In searching for the underlying cause of chronic illness, I’m often surprised by how frequently we find high levels of toxic metals, especially mercury. Mercury is a common environmental contaminant, and many of us are unknowingly predisposed to mercury toxicity.
As this is a fascinating and complex topic that affects many of us, Chris and I will soon be offering a free webinar providing more details about how mercury wreaks havoc in our body, how to test for mercury toxicity, and how to support healthy detoxification. In this article, I want to provide an overview of mercury exposure, explain how we normally move it out of our bodies and why some of us develop toxicity, and provide some clues to see if you might be mercury-toxic.
Mercury 101: Three Forms of Mercury
There are three major types of mercury:
- Elemental mercury: this is the form in “silver” fillings, or dental amalgams. Such fillings are about 50 percent mercury with smaller amounts of silver, tin, and copper (1). Dental amalgams continuously lose trace amounts of mercury, primarily as mercury vapor, or gas, which we inhale. Just as we inhale oxygen and it’s transported from our lungs to all of the tissues in our body, so too is mercury inhaled and transported throughout our body.
- Inorganic mercury: you can think of this form of mercury as a result of corrosion. At some point, the elemental mercury in dental amalgams will be inhaled or swallowed, and then it attaches to another compound, forming inorganic mercury.
- Organic mercury: also called methylmercury, this is the type of mercury found in seafood. When we eat fish, the methylmercury is delivered directly to our intestines. Somewhat unfortunately, due to a process called molecular mimicry, which can be thought of as a case of mistaken identity, our body sees the organic mercury, thinks it’s a beneficial nutrient, and brings it out of the gut into circulation.
Different Individuals, Different Rates of Mercury Detox
Based on studies during an outbreak of mercury poisoning from eating mercury-contaminated seeds, the half-life of mercury (meaning the time it takes to decrease the blood level of mercury by half) for most people is 60 days (2). But the range is 40 to 120 days. In someone who only slowly detoxifies mercury, exposure to a constant source, even if small, such as with dental amalgams, leads to significantly greater accumulation and toxicity than would occur in someone who quickly moves it out of the body.
Chronic inflammation can lead to impaired detoxification and mercury accumulation. Are you at risk?
Mercury Detox Is Affected by Numerous Factors
Mercury is moved out of the body by the glutathione system. Glutathione can be thought of as the master antioxidant. One of its many roles is to attach to metals and other toxins to guide them out of the body.
Genetics and epigenetics clearly have some influence over our rate of detoxification (3). But the story is much more complex, and fortunately, there are a number of pieces of the detoxification process that we can support.
Most notably, there is a complex interplay between inflammation and detoxification, and one cannot be treated without addressing the other.
Chronic Inflammation = Impaired Detoxification. And, Mercury = Chronic Inflammation. A Vicious Cycle.
Detoxification is essentially an antioxidant system. Inflammation, in contrast, plays the role of “attack and repair.” For example, if you cut yourself, you’ll notice that the skin around that cut becomes red, warm, and a little swollen. This is because inflammatory cells move in to “attack” any potential pathogens (like bad bacteria) that may try to move into your body through the cut (since the skin provides a normal barrier of defense). Inflammation is often protective in the short term, but it is associated with increased oxidative stress, meaning there’s an increase in reactive compounds that can cause damage to our cells and our DNA (4). Chronic inflammation, which is essentially “pro-oxidant,” will decrease detoxification, which is “anti-oxidant.”
In one study looking at fish consumption in children, levels of mercury were compared with inflammatory markers (5). Even though the levels of mercury in these children were low, an association was seen between higher mercury (whether due to slow detoxification and associated accumulation, or due to high consumption) and several inflammatory markers.
One study looking at how the immune system responds to mercury found an increase in the release of pro-inflammatory immune cells (6). This dysregulation in the immune system leads to an unopposed inflammatory response and increased risk for infectious or autoimmune diseases.
Inflammation Makes Us More Susceptible to Mercury Toxicity
In one study, inflammation due to different causes, including exposure to bacterial endotoxin, which occurs with food poisoning or other GI infection, significantly increased toxicity (7). Another study similarly found that small amounts of bacterial endotoxin exposure substantially increased susceptibility to damage from various toxins, including metals (8). And another study in mice demonstrated that mercury in the presence of bacterial endotoxin caused measurably more kidney damage than mercury alone (9). This means that the same amount of mercury or other toxins will cause more damage in the presence of inflammation.
Mercury Affects Every Cell and System in Our Body
Because of this, the effects and symptoms of mercury toxicity are different in each individual. While the variety of ways in which mercury affects each of us is too much to cover in this article, here’s a list of some signs and symptoms that mercury is affecting your health:
- Anxiety (10)
- Depression (11)
- Brain fog or decreased concentration
- Fatigue (12)
- Frequent headaches
- Ataxia (decreased control over muscular movements such as with walking or picking up objects)
- Sleep disturbance in children (13)
- Autoimmune disease (14, 15)
- Allergies (16, 17)
- Multiple chemical sensitivity (18)
- Paresthesias or neuropathy
- Hearing loss
- Dysarthria (characterized by slurred or slow speech due to weakness or poor control over the muscles used for speech)
- Muscle tremor
- Movement disorders
- Hair loss (19)
- Hormonal dysregulation including abnormal menstrual cycles and infertility (20, 21, 22).
- Cardiovascular disease including hypertension, coronary heart disease, transient ischemia attacks or stroke, or other vascular diseases (23)
- Kidney dysfunction including proteinuria (or “spilling” proteins into the urine)
Our Nervous System Is Particularly Vulnerable to Mercury Toxicity
You can see from this list of symptoms that our brains are especially susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury. Many of these conditions also result from the underlying inflammation and immune dysfunction associated with a high burden of mercury. Fortunately, you can get the mercury out of your body safely!
It’s important to know that if you are considering having your dental amalgams removed, this MUST be done by a biologic or holistic dentist with experience in low emission removal techniques (24). When done incorrectly, removal of amalgams can expose you to a substantial amount of mercury.
In an upcoming webinar (exact date is TBA) Chris and I will talk more about how to test for metal toxicity, including why we don’t recommend provoked mercury tests, what additional tests need to be considered, and how we approach detoxification. The webinar will provide some time for questions and answers, so we’ll look forward to answering your specific questions there!
Now I’d like to hear from you … have you experienced any benefit after having your dental amalgams removed? Or have you otherwise found high mercury levels caused your symptoms?
About Amy: Amy Nett, MD, graduated from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 2007. She subsequently completed a year of internal medicine training at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, followed by five years of specialty training in radiology at Stanford University Hospital, with additional subspecialty training in pediatric radiology.
Along the course of her medical training and working through her own personal health issues, she found her passion for functional medicine, and began training with Chris in June of 2014. She subsequently joined the California Center for Functional Medicine to work with patients through a functional medicine approach, working to identify and treat the root causes of illness. Similar to Chris, she uses nutritional therapy, herbal medicine, supplements, stress management, detoxification and lifestyle changes to restore proper function and improve health.