Mercury and Chelation Therapy

Mercury- it is a common neurological toxin!

Outline:

• Where does mercury come from?
• Who is at risk for mercury toxicity?
• What are the signs of mercury toxicity?
• How do you measure your mercury levels?
• How do you treat yourself if your mercury levels are high?

Mercury is a common element on the planet. As the planet burns coal to generate 40% of the world’s energy supply (over 4 billion tons per year), we release thousands of tons of mercury into the atmosphere and as a result, mercury levels are increasing worldwide in our planet’s oceans.

Where does mercury come from, and who is at risk for mercury toxicity?
Algae (seaweed) absorbs mercury in a form called methyl mercury, which is toxic to human brains. As small fish and shrimp eat algae, they accumulate methyl mercury in their tissues. As larger and larger fish move up the food chain, methyl mercury levels increase substantially. The larger the mouth of a fish, the higher these fish eat on the food chain and usually the higher their tissue level of mercury. Shark, tilefish, bluefin tuna, and swordfish are at the top of the food chain and have very high mercury levels. Grouper, snapper, bass, and albacore tuna have modest methyl mercury levels. In contrast, fish that eat low on the food chain (wild salmon, trout, sole, cod, and shellfish) have low methyl mercury levels.

People will detoxify and eliminate some of the mercury eaten, but the challenge is whether you consume more than your liver can eliminate. People with normal mercury elimination can eat seafood such as salmon or shrimp 2-3 times per week, plus consume grouper or snapper 2-3 per month without accumulating mercury in their tissues. Higher levels of seafood consumption or eating food high in mercury such as swordfish or bluefin tuna often cause high levels of mercury. Most laboratories set normal ranges for whole blood mercury levels and a level less than 11 µg/L would be considered normal. Some of my clinic patients who consume tuna, grouper, or swordfish 1-2 time per week may have mercury levels that are 2-3 times the normal level, sometimes with levels are as high as 25-45 µg/L. This would put them at risk for permanent neurological injury.

Another source of mercury are dental fillings that contain amalgam. While substantial controversy exists regarding the toxicity and safety of dental amalgam fillings, they have been shown to release some level of mercury into the bloodstream. Although dental fillings likely don’t increase whole blood mercury levels more than 2-4 µg/L.

As noted, methyl mercury is toxic to the human brain and nervous tissue. While sudden toxic exposures have caused substantial injury and disability, the biggest concern today is continuous low-level consumption from seafood.

Studies have shown that modest intake from canned tuna will increase methyl mercury levels substantially and that this moderate rise in methyl mercury levels will cause abnormalities in neurobehavioral testing with a reduction in brain speed, reaction time, and other abnormalities in neurological testing. Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disease are strongly associated with elevated mercury levels. Genetic factors impact how well individuals eliminate methyl mercury from their bodies and how their tissue responds to various mercury levels.

What are signs of mercury toxicity?
As mercury is a neurological toxin, the first signs of neuro toxicity relate to these tissues. Mercury toxicity signs include:

• Decreased brain function (our published research has shown significant decreases in information processing speed when mercury levels are >15 ppm)
• Memory loss
• Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
• Hearing loss
• Paresthesias (tingling or burning in the feet or toes from neuropathy)

How to Measure Mercury Levels?
A blood sample is a good indicator of methyl mercury levels. Red blood cells are formed in the bone marrow and live about 120 days. Sampling red blood cells for methyl mercury levels provides an excellent means to assess continuous low-level mercury consumption and accumulation levels. A physician simply orders a laboratory test for mercury from whole blood or from red blood cells. Some medical providers prefer hair or toenail mercury levels, but I find these less reliable.

Testing mercury levels is not a routine part of usual health care. Yet, if you aim to ensure optimal mental performance into your 90s, assessing your risk for mercury toxicity makes sense. If you consume seafood regularly, retesting yearly would be a wise precaution in the effort to prevent neurodegenerative disease.

A normal mercury level used to be < 5 µg/L. In 2010, many labs increased their normal level to 11, because too many people had high levels. I’m not confident this was a wise move, yet our own published research from the Masley Optimal Health Center (Integrative Medicine, A Clinician’s Journal 2011) doesn’t confirm neurological dysfunction until mercury levels are greater than 15.

How to Treat High Mercury Levels and Mercury Toxicity? There are three primary ways to treat mercury toxicity:

  • Stop ingesting so much mercury
  • Increase your ability to detoxify and remove mercury
  • To chelate it (chemically bind and remove it). ALERT! INTRAVENOUS CHELATION CAN BE HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH!                Be cautious regarding who performs your treatment.

Plus, I always recommend you involve your medical provider who knows you with this plan. For information on a comprehensive medical evaluation at the Masley Optimal Health Center, please visit: http://clinic.drmasley.com/

1. Stop ingesting so much mercury

  • If your mercury levels are only mildly elevated and you don’t have neurological symptoms, stop eating big mouth fish (grouper, tuna, bass, snapper, swordfish, shark, kingfish) for at least 3-4 months, then recheck your level. Your level should drop several points.
  • If you have multiple amalgam (mercury) fillings, talk to your dentist about “properly” replacing these with safer materials. If not done properly, in the short term mercury levels will increase.

2. Increase your ability to detoxify and remove mercury

  • Several supplements will double your body’s ability to detoxify and remove heavy metals including mercury from your body. My favorite is MetalloClear from Metagenics. Taken as directed over 2-3 months, without any largemouth fish intake, my clinical experience is that mercury levels drop 5-10 points.
  • Usually, I recheck mercury levels after a detox treatment in 3-4 months and again after one year to confirm they stay normal.

3. To chelate it (chemically bind and remove it)

Chelation has risks and benefits and I only recommend this under proper medical supervision from an experienced professional who knows your detailed medical history. Typically, I discuss this in great detail with my patients and only suggest chelation therapy if mercury levels are very high, >25 µg/L , and/or they have neurological symptoms from mercury toxicity. I would never recommend that a patient try this type of therapy protocol on their own, and their own physician should always be involved. For information on a comprehensive medical evaluation at the Masley Optimal Health Center, please visit: http://clinic.drmasley.com/

  • Simply stated, when you swallow a chelating pill (such as DMSA)or have one injected into your bloodstream (EDTA), it binds to all minerals and heavy metals, circulates them around your body, and then some of them pass out of you with the chelating agent in your urine and stool, lowering your heavy metal levels, but also decreasing essential mineral levels as well. As heavy metals circulate, they are also deposited in your brain and other tissues, and if not done cautiously, this can sometimes worsen your neurological symptoms. During a chelation treatment, if your system is unable to detoxify the extra toxic metal circulation, this may cause more harm (risk) than benefit.
  • Generally, oral chelation treatments are more gentle and less invasive, than Intravenous protocols, and I prefer them most of the time.
  • Prior to starting any form of chelation, a patient should be following an ultra-healthy diet and supplement regimen to ensure your minerals levels are optimized, before starting chelation therapy.
  • When I feel this is clinically indicated at the Masley Optimal Health Center, we prescribe DMSA from a compounding pharmacy. It varies with every patient, but most often we’ll have a patient take 250 to 500 mg of DMSA for 2-3 days, and then take a complete mineral supplement for the following 4-5 days, and continuing this weekly cycle of therapy for 4-8 weeks. Depending upon their medical status, some patients will need their doctor to order blood levels to check mineral and electrolyte levels during treatment. This type of regimen will commonly lower mercury levels by 10-15 points.
  • Usually, I recheck whole blood mercury levels 3 months after oral chelation therapy, and again after one year to confirm they stay normal. Sometimes it takes 1-3 treatment cycles to bring everything to normal, which may include a combination of chelation and MetalloClear treatments.

Steven Masley, MD