Heavy metal exposure is a serious health risk that, even at lower levels, may lead to chronic inflammation and chronic health issues. Mercury is one of the main toxic heavy metals that can affect your neurological, brain, liver, kidney, hormonal, and immune health.
In this article, you will learn about the problem with mercury and the symptoms of mercury exposure. I will share my top recommendations to reduce your risk of mercury exposure and improve your mercury-related symptoms and overall 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. Heavy metals 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 (1).
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 mercury exposure 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. Furthermore, if you are interested in learning about lead exposure, I recommend reading this article.
What Is Mercury
It is one of the most dangerous toxic heavy metals. This occurs in various forms, including elemental (or metallic) mercury, inorganic mercury, and organic mercury (methylmercury). Inorganic mercury is the type of mercury that you may be exposed to through certain occupations. Organic mercury is the type that you may be exposed to through your diet, for example, when eating certain high-mercury fish (2).
Different types of mercury have different degrees of toxicity. Their effects on the nervous system, immune health, gastrointestinal system, lungs, kidneys, eyes, or skin may depend on the type of skin, the level of exposure, the length of exposure, the route of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact), and other factors.
It is naturally found in the earth’s crust. It may be released into our environment through natural activities, such as volcanic activity or rocks breaking down, or due to human activities, such as coal-fired power stations, coal burning, and other industrial processes. In our environment, mercury can turn into methylmercury, thanks to bacteria. Unfortunately, methylmercury can bioaccumulate in fish and selfish, causing high concentrations of mercury that we may digest when eating them or may affect larger predatory fish that consume them. As you will learn, besides consuming mercury-exposed fish, you may be affected by mercury during dental treatment or inhaling elemental mercury in industry sites.
I will discuss this in detail in the next section, but mercury exposure may turn into a serious health risk. It may increase oxidative stress, inflammation, headaches, weakness, fatigue, brain damage, neurodegeneration, liver damage, kidney damage, cardiovascular issues, and cancer (3, 4, 5, 6).
Sources of Mercury Exposure
- Dental amalgam (silver) fillings
- Seafood, especially tuna, shark, and swordfish
- Thermometers, barometers, and other measuring devices
- Skin-lightening products and other conventional cosmetics
- Electric switches and relays in certain equipment
- Certain types of light bulbs and lamps
- Mercury-containing pendants and jewelry
- Occupational exposure
- Air when living or working near industries at risk of mercury exposure
The Problem with Mercury Exposure
Mercury exposure may have some serious health risks. I’m not only talking about acute, high levels of exposure. Chronic low-level mercury exposure, for example, from having a mercury dental fling, may lead to chronic and serious health issues.
Mercury is a carcinogen, which means that mercury exposure may increase your risk of cancer. Exposure to mercury may increase the risk of premature birth, brain damage in developing babies, and nervous system issues. Thus it’s a particular risk for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, babies, and young children (3, 7, 8, 9).
Exposure to mercury may also increase the risk of digestive issues, fatigue, and sleep issues. Because it can affect neurological and brain health, it may increase the risk of headaches, brain fog, cognitive complaints, mood disorders, and poor fetal development (10, 11, 12, 13).
It may increase the risk of chronic inflammation, autoimmunity, hormonal health issues, and chronic health problems. Mercury and other heavy metals may also overstimulate your immune system. This constant stress may create chronic inflammation and may confuse your immune system, causing it to misfire, and attack its own tissues. Moreover, mercury may damage the cells in certain tissues in your body. This may result in your immune system failing to recognize these damaged or altered tissues. It may attack them, mistaking them for harmful foreign invaders. This is a recipe for developing an autoimmune disorder, where your own immune system is attacking your own body (14, 15).
Finally, mercury looks very similar to iodine. One of the jobs of your thyroid is to absorb the iodine available in your body. However, when it is exposed, your thyroid may start absorbing mercury instead due to structural similarities. This may lead to thyroid issues and autoimmune thyroid reactions (16, 17).
Symptoms of Mercury Exposure
Symptoms of chronic mercury exposure or other toxic heavy metal exposure may include:
- Chronic inflammation
- Insomnia and sleep issues
- Muscle and joint pain
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Weakness and twitching
- Digestive issues
- Brain fog and cognitive complaints
- Headaches or migraines
- Mood swings and emotional changes
- Anxiety and depression
- Breathing issues
- Liver and kidney problems
- Poor immune function
- Skin issues
- Thyroid and other hormonal issues
Who Is At Risk of Health Issues from Mercury Exposure?
Your risk of symptoms and health issues from it’s exposure may depend on the level and length of exposure, the type of mercury, your health, family history, and other factors. Certain factors may increase your risk of health issues from mercury exposure, including (18, 19):
- Pregnant women and their growing baby
- Breastfeeding women
- Infants and children
- Having kidney disease
- Being a dentist, working at a dental practice, or having received many dental amalgam fillings
- Working at industrial jobs at risk of exposure
- Being older
- Having chronic health issues
- Dealing with other heavy metal exposure-related health issues
Strategies to Improve Symptoms of Exposure
Completely avoiding mercury and other heavy metals is impossible. All of us encounter mercury at a certain level throughout our lives. Your risk of health issues from mercury exposure depends on a variety of factors, including the level and length of exposure and your personal health.
While you can’t control all factors, you can take some steps to reduce your risk of exposure and improve related health issues. Here are some of my tips to reduce your risk of health issues related to mercury or other heavy metals and improve symptoms of mercury-related nutrient deficiencies and other heavy metal-related issues.
Reduce Your Risk of Mercury Exposure
Fish and seafood have many health benefits, including supporting your body with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and clean protein. The problem is that some fish and seafood may contain high amounts of mercury. This may pose a particular risk for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as they can pass on heavy metals to their babies (20).
So what can you do? Being mindful of your fish intake is important. Not all fish and seafood are unsafe. Larger fish, including shark, swordfish, halibut, sea bass, tuna, and marlin, usually have higher quantities of toxic heavy metals. Small fish, including sardines, mackerel, and anchovies, tend to be lower in heavy metals and safer for your health (21).
If you like fish and want to increase your omega-3 intake, I recommend choosing lower-mercury fish and seafood, including salmon, trout, tilapia, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, cod, sole, shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish are also good low-mercury. For clean protein, you have some non-seafood protein options, choose grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, wild game, pasture-raised eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Avoiding and removing dental amalgam fillings is another way to reduce toxicity and related health issues. If you currently have amalgam fillings, I recommend getting them replaced with safer ceramics fillings. Don’t just visit any dentist, though. It’s important to visit a biological or holistic dental practice where they can safely remove your amalgam fillings, reducing health problems from the process.
Ideally, you want to avoid industries and places where it is present. This may include open water where mercury-affected fish are located. If you work in an industry with high-mercury risk, wear personal protective equipment when handling chemicals and compounds. If possible, switch to a safer occupation.
Choose organic and natural cosmetics and body products to avoid mercury exposure products. Avoid using mercury-filled batteries, lightbulbs, and products as much as possible. Drink purified water, instead of regular tap water.
Consume Foods That May Help to Counteract Mercury-Related Issues
Following a nutrient-dense whole foods diet is critical to reduce your risk of mercury-related health issues. Avoid foods that may be at risk of mercury contamination, and other heavy metal issues from food, 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:
- Foods high in vitamin C: Vitamin C may help to reduce the toxic effects of heavy metals, thanks to their high vitamin C content (22). Oranges, strawberries, grapefruit, kale, and red peppers.
- Selenium: Selenium has the ability to bind to toxic substances in your body and may help to remove it from your body before it can cause damage (23). Brazil nuts are naturally high in selenium, only two a day may help to meet your daily selenium requirements. Seafood and organ meats are also high in selenium.
- Sulfur-rich foods: Sulfur-rich foods may help in the process of detoxification (24). 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 (25). 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 (26). They can be found in corn, whole grains, spinach, carrots, turnips, plums, grapes, and pomegranates.
Since we all encounter heavy metals and environmental toxins, supporting your body’s natural detoxification pathways is critical for all of us. This is especially important if you are dealing with symptoms of mercury exposure. I recommend hydrating your body with lots of purified water. This not only supports hydration but also detoxification through urine and sweating. Increase detoxification through sweating by using an infrared sauna, exercising, and spending time outside in the sun when it’s warm outside (27, 28).
Improve your lymphatic system function through rebounding, exercise, and dry brushing. Support liver and kidney detoxification by eating grapefruits, prickly pear, cranberries, other berries, and olive oil, and using n-acetyl cysteine, glutathione, and other liver-friendly herbs (29, 30). Try toxin binders, such as activated charcoal, to help remove mercury, other toxic heavy metals, and other toxins from your body (31). Support your gut with by eating a fiber-rich diet, consuming foods rich in pre and probiotics, and taking daily probiotic supplements (32).
Try Supplements to Reduce Mercury Toxicity
You may also try some supplements to support detoxification from mercury and other heavy metals, lower the effects of exposure, and decrease your risk of mercury-related issues. Here is what I recommend:
- Activated charcoal: Activated charcoal is a fantastic toxin binder for removing toxic heavy metals from your body (31).
- Glutathione: Glutathione may help to support detoxification and lower oxidative stress, cellular damage, liver problems, and the risk of various health issues (30, 33, 34).
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): NAC may be a great antioxidant that may also support liver and kidney detoxification (29).
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C may support detoxification and is excellent for cellular and immune support (22).
Consider Chelation Therapy
You might also consider chelation therapy. IV chelation therapy may reduce the effects of mercury and other heavy metal exposure (35, 36). A solution mix that contains significant amounts of vitamin C and a chelator (EDTA) that removes heavy metals (37) may be beneficial for heavy metal-related heart issues as well. 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.
Mercury 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.