Lead toxicity is a serious problem in North America, yet, we still don’t talk about it enough. Sure, we’ve all heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and other specific situations. Chances are, you even know how old pipes or paint may increase the risk of lead exposure. But we still don’t talk enough about how lead exposure may disrupt your health.
According to a recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, lead may be responsible for 5.5 million cardiovascular deaths related to lead exposure (1). This is responsible for about 30% of cardiovascular deaths. This may mean that lead exposure is a bigger cause of heart disease than smoking or cholesterol. Lead exposure may also increase the risk of chronic inflammation, fatigue, sleep issues, migraines, cognitive complaints, mental health issues, digestive problems, muscle and joint pain, reproductive issues, and other health issues.
I want to change that today. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about lead exposure. I will discuss the link between lead exposure and nutrient deficiencies. Most importantly, I will offer some tips on how to counteract the health effects of lead exposure and improve your health.
What Are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals, or toxic metals, are natural materials that offer no benefits to the human body. On the contrary, they can have adverse effects on our environment and living organisms, including your body. They can interfere with normal biological processes. They may bind to proteins in your body that, under normal circumstances, would be activated by beneficial minerals, such as magnesium or zinc. They may increase oxidative stress and inflammation and result in chronic symptoms (2).
The main heavy metals include arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), and mercury (Hg). Aluminum (Al) is also associated with harm – technically a light metal but often included due to its toxic effects. In this article, I will discuss lead exposure and lead-related nutrient deficiencies and health issues. If you are interested in learning more about heavy metal exposure in general and its effects on mast cells and histamine, I recommend reading this article. If you are interested in learning about heavy metals in food, I recommend checking out this article.
What Is Lead
Like other heavy metals, lead is a naturally occurring element. It’s found in the earth’s crust, but as you will learn, it may be hiding in your home and surroundings. Despite having some useful benefits as a non-corrosive metal in making certain products that hold or touch highly acidic substances, lead can have some toxic effects on animals and humans that may lead to both acute and chronic health issues (4).
Sources of Lead Exposure
Lead can be found in the air, water, and soil. It may be found in our homes, certain products, and even some foods (4).
Sources of lead exposure may include:
- Lead in old paint in homes and buildings
- Leaded gasoline
- Old pipes and plumbing materials
- Industrial sources and contaminated facilities, for example, from mining or smelting sites
- Contaminated water from old pipes
- Contaminated groundwater from the soil
- Air from industrial contamination or spark-ignition engine aircraft
- Food, including fish, hunted game, bone broth, poultry, lettuce, and onion (as explained here)
Though federal and state/provincial regulatory standards may help to decrease the amount of lead found in drinking water, air, consumer goods, food, and industrial settings, lead exposure is still an issue.
The Problem with Lead Exposure
Exposure to lead may increase the risk of premature birth, brain damage in developing babies, and nervous system issues. Lead is also a known carcinogen, which means it may increase your risk of cancer. Exposure to lead may also increase the risk of digestive issues, fatigue, headaches, brain fog, mood disorders, and poor fetal development (4, 5, 6).
Recent Research on the Impact of Lead Exposure
A recent 2023 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health has found that lead exposure may have a much more substantial impact on global health than we have been previously aware (1). Researchers found that lead poisoning may contribute to over 5 million deaths annually. This makes this problem comparable to air pollution.
The study found that lead and toxic heavy metal exposure may lead to an average of 6 IQ points loss in young children in developing countries. Lead pollution may increase the risk of brain development issues, heart disease, and other serious health problems. As a result, leaded gasoline has been banned around the world and there are efforts to address lead-affected old pipes and buildings. Yet, you can still be exposed to lead through lead-acid car batteries, cookware, cosmetics, fertilizers, soil, food, and various other sources.
According to the lead author, about 5.5 million adults died from lead exposure-related heart disease in 2019 alone (7). People from lower economic circumstances are more likely to be impacted by lead-related issues. Many of these deaths are from poor and middle-income countries. However, lead exposure is still a serious issue in Canada, the United States, and other Western countries as well. Being from a poorer neighborhood, your chances may be higher due to the lack of updated pipes, old buildings, and old paint. However, we are all exposed to a certain extent to food, the soil, cosmetics, cookware, and so on. Sometimes even herbal remedies from countries with less regulatory oversight can be contaminated and a source of exposure.
These new results are about 6 times higher than prior estimates. These 5.5 million lead-related cardiovascular deaths are responsible for about 30% of all cardiovascular disease-related deaths. This would mean that lead exposure is a bigger cause of heart disease than smoking or cholesterol. It would also make lead exposure one of the leading causes of death worldwide.
Symptoms of Lead Exposure
Symptoms of chronic lead exposure or other toxic heavy metal exposure may include (8):
- Chronic inflammation
- Insomnia and sleep issues
- Stomach cramps, constipation, and other digestive issues
- Brain fog and cognitive complaints
- Headaches or migraines
- Mood swings and irritability
- Anxiety and depression
- Muscle and joint pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Reproductive issues
- Kidney problems
- High pressure
- Skin issues
Who Is At Risk of Health Issues from Lead Exposure?
Lead exposure is not ideal or healthy for anyone. However, certain people are at higher risk of experiencing issues than others.
Children are particularly at risk. They are still growing, and their nervous system and brain are more sensitive and at higher risk of being negatively affected by lead long-term. Not to mention that babies and young children are less aware and not careful, yet more curious, thus are more likely to touch, lick, eat, or drink something containing lead, including lead-based paint on toys or the walls or lead from dishes, glasses, water, or food (8).
Pregnant women and their developing babies are also at higher risk than non-pregnant individuals. People working at industrial jobs or places with potential lead exposure or having hobbies, such as making stained glass, tend to have a higher risk of lead exposure. Adults with chemical sensitivities, mast cell activation issues, autoimmune issues, chronic health issues, or otherwise compromised health, as well as, older adults, may also be at a higher risk of developing chronic symptoms from an amount of lead that may not lead to issues in others (8).
Nutrient Deficiencies in Lead Exposures
Nutrient deficiencies may also increase the risk of developing issues from lead exposure. They may also coexist alongside lead-related health issues. This has been documented in research and literature for decades.
A 1979 paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives has discussed the link between lead exposure and deficiencies of certain minerals and vitamins (9). Authors found that certain mineral and vitamin deficiencies may increase the risk of problems from lead exposure in animals. They also found that an excessive intake of dietary fat, excessive intake of protein, and protein deficiencies may increase the risks. Low levels of calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and copper may increase lead-related health problems, including anemia.
Nutrient deficiencies may enhance or coexist with lead exposure issues. We have the most evidence of this when it comes to iron. Iron deficiency may increase lead absorption. It commonly co-occurs with lead-related health issues and is a particular risk for children (10).
A 2022 review published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology has found that iron levels should be considered when assessing the risk for lead-related problems (11). After looking at 58 studies on the subject, researchers found that high levels of lead in the blood may be correlated with a decreased body iron store and a higher risk of anemia. They found that this may pose the highest risk for younger adolescents. Researchers emphasized the importance of iron supplementation to reduce lead exposure-related health issues.
Strategies to Improve Symptoms of Lead Exposure
Completely avoiding lead and other heavy metals is impossible. Your risk of health issues depends on a variety of factors, including the level and length of exposure and your personal health. Here are some of my tips to reduce your risk of health issues related to lead or other heavy metals and improve symptoms of lead-related nutrient deficiencies and other heavy metal-related issues.
Reduce Your Risk of Lead Exposure
To decrease symptoms and health issues related to lead exposure, you need to reduce your risk of lead exposure. Keep your home well-maintained. Address any water damage issues. Replace old or damaged pipes as soon as possible.
Maintain any painted surfaces, reduce and prevent paint deterioration, and regularly inspect for problems. If there is old, chipped, or lead-affected pain, remove it professionally. Work with a Lead-Safe Certified contractor as needed for repairs.
Keep your indoor air clean with the help of a HEPA air filtration system to reduce lead exposure through the air. Dust can be an indoor source, with lead from outdoors due to soil contamination making its way inside. Remove dust regularly. Clean outlet screens, faucet aerators, and other higher-risk areas regularly.
Remove your shoes and wash your hands and your children’s hands after playing outdoors. Wash your children’s hands, toys, pacifiers, and bottles. Follow a healthy diet and avoid lead exposure from food as much as possible. If you are at a high-risk job for heavy metal exposure, you may consider switching to a safer job, or if not possible, wearing protective gear and boosting detoxification (2).
Consume Foods That May Help to Counteract Lead-Related Issues
Following a nutrient-dense whole foods diet is absolutely essential to reduce your risk of lead-related health issues. Avoid foods that may be at risk of lead contamination and counteract problems that may occur from consuming these foods. You may learn more about this in this article. In summary, the following foods may help to counteract heavy metal toxicity:
- Iron-rich foods: Since iron deficiencies may increase the risk of lead exposure-related health issues (10). You may consider consuming more iron-rich foods, including pasture-raised turkey and chicken, grass-fed beef and pork, liver, eggs, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, cashews, kale, and quinoa.
- Foods high in vitamin C: Vitamin C may help to reduce the toxic effects of heavy metals. Vitamin C may also improve iron absorption and decrease the absorption of lead (10). Oranges, strawberries, grapefruit, kale, and red peppers have high Vitamin C content.
- Foods rich in calcium: Calcium may help to reduce the amount of lead your body retains from exposure (10). The combination of calcium and phosphorus may be particularly beneficial against the negative effects of lead (10). Calcium-rich foods include winter squash, edamame, almonds, salmon, leafy greens, and dairy. Sources of phosphorus may include grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised eggs, nuts, legumes, and vegetables. Though dairy may be a good source of both, if you are dealing with dairy, casein, or lactose-related food intolerance, food sensitivities, or allergies, it may not be right for you.
- Sulfur-rich foods: Sulfur-rich foods may help in the process of detoxification (12). Cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and onion are examples of sulfur-containing foods.
- Pectin-rich fruits and vegetables: Pectin is a soluble fiber that may increase heavy metal excretion (13). It may be found in pears, green apples, citrus fruits, cabbage, beets, and carrots.
- Foods containing amino acids: Amino acids are considered natural chelating agents (14). They can be found in corn, whole grains, spinach, carrots, turnips, plums, grapes, and pomegranates.
If you want to improve symptoms of lead exposure, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification pathways. Drink lots of purified water to support hydration and detoxification through urine and sweating. Exercise regularly, use your infrared sauna, and spend time outside in the sun when it’s warm outside to support detoxification through sweat (15, 16).
Support your lymphatic system through rebounding, exercise, and dry brushing. Support liver and kidney detoxification by eating grapefruits, prickly pear, cranberries, other berries, and olive oil, and add n-acetyl cysteine, glutathione, and liver-friendly herbs (17, 18). Under guidance you can use toxin binders, such as activated charcoal, to help remove lead, other toxic heavy metals, and other toxins (19). Support your gut with daily probiotic supplements and foods rich in pre and probiotics (20).
Try Supplements to Reduce Lead Toxicity
You may also try some supplements to support detoxification from lead and other heavy metals, reduce the effects of lead exposure, and reduce your risk of lead-related issues. Here is what I recommend:
- Iron: Iron deficiencies may increase your risk of lead-related health issues. If you have iron deficiency, you may benefit from supplementation. Iron supplementation without deficiencies may cause issues though, so test for iron deficiency and anemia with the help of your doctor before considering supplementation (10, 11).
- Activated charcoal: Activated charcoal is a fantastic toxin binder for removing toxic heavy metals from your body (19).
- Glutathione: Glutathione may help to support detoxification and lower oxidative stress, cellular damage, liver problems, and the risk of various health issues (18, 21, 22).
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): NAC is a great antioxidant that may also support liver and kidney detoxification (23).
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C may support detoxification and is excellent for cellular and immune support (24). Vitamin C may also improve iron absorption and reduce the absorption of lead (10).
Look Into Chelation Therapy
IV chelation therapy decreases the effects of lead and other heavy metal exposure (25, 26). A solution mix that contains significant amounts of vitamin C and a chelator (EDTA) that removes heavy metals (27) is infused in a medical setting for select patients, for example. This may be beneficial for heavy metal-related heart issues. You may learn more about the potential benefits of IV chelation therapy for heart health in this article and the potential connection between heavy metals and heart disease here.
Lead exposure is not the only risk for heavy metal-related issues. There are many toxic heavy metals that may lead to symptoms and health issues. If you are dealing with symptoms of heavy metal exposure, I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article.
If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here.
Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.