While we love modern conveniences, the downside is a world more burdened by toxic agents. These toxic agents can come from our air, food, or may even be living in our mouths as dental fillings! The build-up of these toxic agents in our bodies over time can eventually express as recurring symptoms if we don’t purge them, convert them, or avoid them. One of the toxic agents that is a more common cause of symptoms than you may think is the metal mercury.
It is fortunate that human bodies are naturally self-healing. Mechanisms to rid the body of wastes and turn toxic substances into harmless compounds are built-in. However, mercury and other toxic agents can accumulate in the body, and resist being purged. We can assist these natural mechanisms by minimizing exposure, moving the toxic metal out of the body, and supporting the body as it heals. How can we recognize the symptoms of mercury toxicity, and what can we do about it?
What is Mercury?
Mercury is an abundant metallic element in our environment found in nature which can take multiple forms depending on how it is used in various industries and how the forces of nature can break them down. Because this element can take different forms (elemental, inorganic, and organic), the symptoms can differ slightly depending on which form you’ve been exposed to (1), how large of a dose you got, how it got into your system, and how quickly it got into your system. However, it is well known that at some dosage level, all these forms become toxic to the human body.
Mercury can be ingested through food, especially seafood. The burning of coal and ores can release their naturally occurring mercury particles into the sky, which eventually fall into the sea. The sea can change the form of the mercury, however, it still gets into the fish through their food. Bigger fish such as tuna and swordfish eat a lot of smaller contaminated fish, essentially concentrating the mercury in their fatty tissues.
Wait... It's in My Mouth?
One of the most concerning sources of ingested mercury is dental fillings that contain mercury as part of their mixture. Over time, chewing can erode the dental fillings and release a form of mercury into a person’s digestive tract. Unfortunately, the more mercury-containing dental fillings one has, the more mercury is detected in the bloodstream (2). Lots of fillings can quickly lead to an over-accumulation of mercury.
Poisoning or over-accumulation can also occur due to inhaling mercury vapor. Vaporized mercury particles tend to migrate to the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord - which issue and communicate commands to the rest of the body. If the tissues of the nervous system are sufficiently poisoned, the negative effects can be felt all over the body. People working in certain industries where mercury is used (or is a by-product) are at risk of getting over-exposed. Typically this is a known danger and many precautions are in place to protect them. However, getting mercury-containing dental fillings drilled or removed can expose you to mercury vapor if the dentist does not proactively take special precautions.
What are the Symptoms of Mercury Toxicity?
Exposure to different forms of mercury can express as different symptoms all over the body. Some people may show symptoms at very low levels of mercury while others can be symptom-free at high levels of mercury. A doctor may be slow to suspect mercury poisoning when the symptoms being expressed are common to many people and conditions, such as fatigue, joint pain, or hair loss. The range of potential symptoms coming from the over-accumulation of mercury is quite large, so the following is not an exhaustive list (3):
Emotional changes (such as mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness)
Neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching)
Disturbances in sensations
Changes in nerve responses and/or
Poor performance on tests of mental function
Loss of peripheral vision
“Pins and needles” feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth
Lack of coordination of movements
Impairment of speech, hearing, walking, and/or
It is also noted that “Higher exposures may also cause kidney effects, respiratory failure and death” (3).
What Can Conventional Medicine Offer for Mercury Accumulation?
Testing - Conventional medicine can be relied upon for testing hair, blood, and urine for different types of mercury.
Medicines can be prescribed for specific symptoms - For example, bronchodilators can be prescribed if there is acute poisoning from inhaling mercury vapor that is affecting the lungs.
Chelation - Chelation is a process that can bind an ion of metal to some organic molecule, which can later release the metal ion. Mercury is a metal ion that can be chelated from the blood by using a variety of organic molecules. The CDC recommends chelation therapy for acute mercury poisonings be done close in time to the initial poisoning (4). However, chelation is not routinely done, as the CDC highlights in their guidelines for handling acute mercury poisoning. Nor is chelation wise for low-level, chronic mercury exposures.
Why Isn’t Chelation to Remove Mercury A More Common Practice?
Chelation treatments can be very dangerous. One known danger of chelation releasing too much mercury at once, overwhelming the pathways of detoxification leading out of the body. This can result in seizure-like reactions and possibly even coma and death.
Besides overwhelming a body with mercury, chelation can result in it being redistributed to more sensitive body systems. Chelation could cause mercury to move from the arms or legs, for example, to the brain or spinal cord.
Can Functional Medicine Offer a Safe Way to Detox Mercury?
Functional medicine can help lighten the body’s burden of many toxic offenders, not just mercury. Here is just a partial list of functional medicine approaches to reducing a toxic load on a body, which can be applied to mercury accumulation:
Remove the offenders. – This is where testing comes in handy because you will know what to eliminate in your environment. Known products that can be sources of mercury are listed on the EPA’s website. It’s worth taking a look at this list and removing as many sources of mercury as you can.
Foods - If you have a known mercury accumulation, reducing the amount of mercury-laden seafood would be ideal.
Fillings - If you have dental fillings but do not know if they contain mercury, find a dentist who is familiar with mercury-safe techniques to examine your fillings. Consider a biological dentist certified by the International Academy of Oral Medicine & Toxicology (IAOMT) or the International Association of Mercury Safe Dentists (IAMSD). If the fillings are made with mercury, have this highly trained dentist remove them safely. It is highly suggested that you engage your functional medicine doctor to help you support your body before, during, and after mercury removal.
Under supervision, take supplements that bind and move mercury out of the body – Many supplements bind to mercury in the blood and help removal via natural bodily mechanisms such as urination and sweating. We will evaluate the type of mercury exposure you have and may suggest substances that can bind to and help escort mercury out of your body. Taking binders improperly can increase the risk of harm, so it is highly recommended that you enlist the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner.
Support the detoxification efforts of your liver – The liver helps convert toxic substances into less harmful substances through 2 processes. These processes involve breaking a substance down or adding something to it (or both) to enable a safe purge from the body. Many therapeutic, nutritional products are available through functional medicine doctors that can help support both phases of liver detoxification and provide gentle liver support, to assist it in clearing out toxins.
Intravenous (IV) therapy to support the liver – Depending on your unique situation, it may be wise to engage in deep, broad support for the liver through intravenous therapy. The route of administration, putting nutrients directly into the blood system intravenously, side-steps any issues with breaking down and absorbing nutrients. If you are getting your mercury fillings removed by a knowledgeable dentist, you could greatly support your body before, during, and after your procedure with IV nutrients.
Glutathione – Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that can be synthesized by the liver and can be delivered in high doses via IV therapy. Besides a rather long list of positive properties, glutathione has been shown in studies to protect the brain from damage from mercury poisoning (5) and strongly counters severe inflammation (6).
Myer’s cocktail – This is widely-used IV is a blend of vitamins and minerals named after the doctor who concocted the original recipe, John Myers, MD. Most current formulations (called the “modified Myer’s cocktail”) have some combination of magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin C. It was designed to provide support to the human body in multiple ways and has been used successfully to address a wide range of conditions such as migraines, fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, and allergies (7) - symptoms that are also reported in mercury poisonings.
Vitamin C – The “Swiss army knife” of vitamins, vitamin C has been shown to have a very long list of beneficial effects on the body. It is difficult to find a study that indicates vitamin C was not beneficial in some way. Among other things, vitamin C has evidence of being anti-inflammatory (8), anti-viral (9), anti-oxidant (10) anti-cancer (11), and addresses Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) (12). In regards to mercury toxicity, vitamin C can help protect multiple organs from damage so it would be a key ingredient for support (11, 13, 14).
Alpha Lipoic Acid – The fatty acid Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), is yet another powerful naturally-occurring antioxidant that has multiple beneficial modes of action such as reducing inflammation. Studies have focused on its ability to reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity. Not only that, ALA has been shown to help restore nerves (15) and can provide strong protection to the liver from numerous types of insults (16-18).
Maintenance: Lifestyle and Prevention Tips for Managing Mercury Accumulation
Know your dentist and the status of your fillings. If you need your fillings examined, find a dentist who has trained to work with mercury.
Monitor and limit your consumption of mercury-containing seafood. The FDA has a good article about this subject, called “Advice About Eating Fish.”
Research your environment at work and home. Is your area known for being contaminated with mercury?
Consider doing a supervised nutritional detox. This practice can help eliminate accumulated toxins, keeping your elimination pathways open and working.
Sweat! One way to eliminate toxins from the body is through sweat. With minimum effort, saunas and foot baths open skin pores that will allow sweat to carry toxins out. Any exercise that increases the heart rate and promotes sweating, including just walking, will help your body excrete toxins.
If you are living and breathing on this planet, you are likely accumulating some toxins. However, a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner can help you identify and address your concerns. Working with our team can help you focus on healthy ways to safely and gradually eliminate toxins such as mercury. We can make a detailed plan to support you, whether you are having mercury fillings removed or just want to move some metals out.
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2022. Toxicological Profile for Mercury (Draft for Public Comment). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. PDF Download. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/ToxProfiles/tp46.pdf
Yin, L., Yu, K., Lin, S., Song, X., Yu, X. Associations of blood mercury, inorganic mercury, methyl mercury and bisphenol A with dental surface restorations in the U.S. population, NHANES 2003–2004 and 2010–2012, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, Volume 134, Part 1, 2016,
Environmental Protection Agency. Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. Retrieved June 2, 2022 from https://www.epa.gov/mercury/health-effects-exposures-mercury
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical Management Guidelines for Mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved June 2, 2022 from https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/MMG/MMGDetails.aspx?mmgid=106&toxid=24
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