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.