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Detox Learning Center

Why Heavy Metal Toxicity and Safety Is Misunderstood

Heavy metals are all around us, from the car you drive to the soil in which your food is grown. It’s normal to feel concerned about heavy metal toxicity, especially when it comes to your food, supplements, and water. 

Trying to avoid all heavy metals may seem challenging, overwhelming, or downright impossible. And with Prop 65 stickers popping up everywhere, it’s easy to question your safety.

However, it might ease your mind to know that heavy metals are not always toxic, because their toxicity depends on multiple factors. In fact, certain heavy metals in trace amounts are essential to good health. 

Of course, overexposure can cause stress in your body and lead to serious health concerns. In this case, a heavy metal detox would be helpful to support your overall health and well-being.

But before you determine the toxicity of a heavy metal that you find in your food or other products, you have to keep in mind the amount of the heavy metal, where the heavy metal comes from, and in what state you find it.

The “Toxic Heavy Metals” Fear

When learning about heavy metal toxicity and how it can hurt your body, you may have heard of things like: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

  • Baby food has extremely high levels of toxic heavy metals
  • Certain types of fish contain high amounts of heavy metals (especially farmed fish)
  • Cosmetic and body care products have high heavy metal toxicity
  • Dental amalgams are a source of mercury
  • MRI contrast can cause gadolinium poisoning
  • Plant protein powders have high levels of lead and other heavy metals
  • Some ceramic items and even toys have high lead content

Because these issues are a real point of concern, it’s easy to say, “all heavy metals are bad,” without considering the sourcing and structure of the heavy metal.

The human body needs certain heavy metals in different ratios and forms. Metals — such as iron and zinc — in small concentrations are needed for overall health. You may know them as minerals, but they’re actually heavy metals. Any metal is a mineral and vice versa, and your body needs essential bioavailable minerals to maintain its healthy function. (8, 9)

Think of your body as an entire ecosystem unto itself. How well your body’s terrain is maintained makes a difference to the health of its ecosystem. Similarly, how your body’s terrain processes a metal or mineral, and whether the minerals and metals exist as inorganic or organic compounds in a particular state have a considerable impact on how the metal will affect your body. 

Types of Heavy Metals

There are different types of metals with different forms. You may have seen the terms “inorganic or organic” and “essential or nonessential.” However, the definition of these terms isn’t straightforward when it comes to classifying heavy metals. 

Organic and essential does not necessarily mean “safe,” nor does inorganic and nonessential mean “unsafe.”

When it comes to toxicity, it is not the metal that makes it dangerous, but rather the form and state of the metal. 

There’s more to unpack and discover when it comes to the type and toxicity of a heavy metal. This is due to oxidation states. A change in oxidation state dictates whether a metal is safe for your body.  (110)

Microbe Heavy metal ionic states

Free or bound? Science of oxidation states

To understand oxidation states of metals, let’s dive into some chemistry. Before you groan, think of this in terms of energy. Energy is everywhere. Remember, energy can be converted, but it’s never created or destroyed. 

All matter in the universe can be broken down into atoms, which can be further broken down into electrons, neutrons, and protons. Energy is the movement of charged particles — think electric charge — and oxidation states reflect this energy state. Oxidation state is the number of electrons that can be gained or lost at any given time, and each oxidation state has a different energy function in heavy-metal bonds. 

A metal with an unstable energy bond (an ion) can be harmful because ions actively try to steal electrons from wherever they can. This means that metals can form different chemical bonds and undergo various transformations in their quest to remain stable. (1, 2)

These different chemical bonds within heavy metals are either covalent or ionic. Covalent bonds are more stable because they share electrons, usually with a carbon atom. To visualize, think of two people linking arms. If someone were to try to break that link, it would be very difficult. 

Conversely, ionic bonds are often not as stable because they transfer electrons. In this case, it’s like two people holding hands. If someone were to run into them, enough force would break the hold and the two people would be “free.”

For example, eating iron in spinach is safe because it’s strongly bound to carbon. In this instance, when a plant-derived heavy metal is attached to a carbon molecule, the metal is organic, essential, and non-toxic for the body to process. A metal ion bound to carbon creates that strong covalent bond, making it harder to separate it into a dangerous free radical ion. (11, 12)

Heavy metals not transformed by this microbial process are called “free-form” heavy metals. If a metal is not interacting with carbons and hydrogens, it is inorganic. Eating shavings off an iron pipe is not safe at all because these are free ions that are not connected to anything. (13)

As you can see, determining whether a heavy metal is toxic or non-toxic is more complex than most people realize or care to examine. That’s why it’s important to look at the oxidation state of a metal and see if it is attached to anything, because if it’s not, it’s free-floating and toxic. 

Heavy Metal Sources: Where Does the Heavy Metal Come From?

Anything grown from the earth will contain some heavy metals. Yes — all herbs, fruits, and vegetables by their very nature contain some form of heavy metals. However, food and supplements from plant sources are different in toxicity from free-floating heavy metals in the water supply. (14, 15)

Why is this the case?

Plant sources of the trace heavy metals we need have gone through what is called a “microbial remediation process.” Essentially, this means that the plant has “digested” and processed the heavy metals and minerals it absorbs from the soil. 

After processing, the metals become soluble organic minerals and metals that the body can use. Because these heavy metals are fundamentally “plant-based,” proteins in your body can fold around them properly to create the mechanisms for you to function optimally. (16, 3)

How does this happen?

It again boils down to energy. Plants can alter the state of metals as they absorb these metals through their roots from the soil and change what metals are actually available to be absorbed by your body’s system. (3, 17, 18)

The same “digestion” process occurs when plants or animals break down and decay in soil. After being absorbed into the soil, these heavy metals are safe and non-toxic to humans when they have gone through this process. (19, 20)

This is also why certain metals can help restore body tissue. Metals can be used to create new carbon-carbon bonds. This takes a great deal of energy and is more stable and less reactive. If the proteins are not able to form new cellular membranes in your body, it’s because of your body’s inability to create new carbon bonds. That’s why people need essential minerals and metals, because certain metals can build new tissue. (21, 22)

Microbe lead in food

Other factors of heavy metal toxicity  

Another factor to consider with heavy metals involves pH levels. You may have heard of pH levels in relation to water and the human body. Metals are more or less reactive depending on the pH of their environment. 

In a study on pH and toxicity done on fish, the test fish tolerated metals much better at lower pH values than at higher ones. As the pH went from basic to acidic (high to low), the fish were able to deal with and process metals better. In this sense, lower pH may help you metabolize heavy metals and can sometimes alter the oxidation state.  A lower pH means more energy available, making elements and metals more available for the body to use. (4)

Of course, we can’t forget about gut health. Microbes are also good at cleaning up bacteria and fungi, and can help your body metabolize metals, so it’s important to have a healthy microbiome. Microbes have various properties that can affect toxicity and mobility because they can also change the oxidation state of metals. (23, 24)

What Metals and Minerals Do You Need?

The right forms of heavy metals work together to support your body. Because metals are critical for vital body functions, your body must regularly maintain the correct distribution of these metals within cells, organs, and tissues.

Again, it’s not only deficiency or overload of these metals that cause health symptoms, but rather the variation of how these metals are formed and structured. You can get these essential metals and minerals from food and supplements. (25, 26)

Essential Metals for the Body

Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are some essential metals the body needs and uses for optimal function. 

Calcium (27)

  • Activates enzymes throughout the body
  • Allows nerves to send messages
  • Assists in blood clotting
  • Builds teeth and bones
  • Helps regulate blood pressure
  • Promotes muscle contractions

Chromium (28)

  • Help cells draw energy from blood sugar
  • Helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels

Cobalt (29, 30)

  • Helps make red blood cells
  • Maintains the nervous system
  • Works as an essential component of vitamin B12 production

Copper (31)

  • Assists with metabolizing fuel
  • Cleans up free radicals
  • Helps make red blood cells
  • Regulates neurotransmitters

Iron (32)

  • Activates certain enzymes
  • Helps make hemoglobin and myoglobin
  • Makes amino acids, collagen, hormones, and neurotransmitters

Manganese (33)

  • Helps form bones
  • Helps metabolize amino acids, carbohydrates, and cholesterol

Magnesium (34)

  • Aids in regulating blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Assists in blood clotting when injured
  • Builds teeth and bones
  • Enables muscles to contract
  • Helps enzymes work and nerves send messages

Nickel (35)

  • Breaks down urea to prevent urea toxicity 
  • Enhances the activity of hormones
  • Metabolizes lipids 
  • Prevents iron deficiency

Potassium (36)

  • Balances fluids in the body
  • Helps to maintain a steady heartbeat 
  • Makes muscles contract
  • May benefit bones and blood pressure

Sodium (37)

  • Balances fluids in the body
  • Helps send nerve impulses
  • Helps make muscles contract

Zinc (38)

  • Bolsters the immune system
  • Helps blood clot
  • Helps make proteins and DNA
  • Helps wound healing and cell division

Guidelines and Standards for Heavy Metals 

Because air, food, soil, and water all have heavy metals in them, there are different heavy metal standards for all food, supplements, and water. In fact, food and water are the highest sources of heavy metals. (39)

For food, the FDA has set an interim reference level for lead of less than 12.5 mcg (micrograms) per day or <0.0125 milligrams (mg) per day for adults. The FDA also has an enforced standard for water specifically because people consume much more water than food or even supplement capsules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the standards for bottled water for different chemicals and metals, with the amount of lead set at 0.005 milligrams per liter (mg/l). (39, 40, 41, 42)

When it comes to supplements, the FDA has stated that every company must establish its own guidelines to “ensure the quality of the dietary supplement.” NSF International (founded as the National Sanitation Foundation) publishes more-popular, global guidelines for food and supplement companies, and is far more stringent than the FDA. For instance, the NSF guideline for lead is <10mcg per day (<0.01mg/d) for adults. Not every supplement company follows the NSF, however. (43, 44)

The most common mistake that people make is testing supplements against water standards, which are different from supplement standards. Again, mathematical conversion and dosing must be considered, such as converting PPM (parts per million) to PPB (parts per billion). One PPM equals one milligram per kilogram (mg/kg), and one PPB is one mcg/kg. That will drastically affect the amount of dosing if the conversion is not looked at accordingly. 

Take PPM as a million pieces of sand. One PPM means that one grain of that million is going to be mercury. So, if the test results showed 0.003 of mercury on a heavy metal test, you’d have to have 300 million pieces of sand to have one granule of sand potentially be mercury.

Panic over Prop 65

You may have seen this warning label like this when buying a product or supplement.

Passed in 1986, Proposition 65 requires businesses to inform Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause birth defects, cancer, or other reproductive harm. 

This proposition was pushed largely as a measure to rein in industrial pollution of drinking water, but it has now been used as private litigation to hunt down and sue companies whose products are “suspected” of containing chemicals.

To protect themselves, many companies have put this label on everything, regardless of the product, which has made it meaningless. You may see Prop 65 warnings on everything from dog collars to the Disneyland theme park. (45)

This mass labeling has caused an uptick of toxicity concerns, and rightly so. We need to be aware of toxic substances. However, this label can be misleading. The only thing that Prop 65 shows is that a heavy metal is present. And since heavy metals are naturally occurring, that's typically the case. The mass spectrometry test that is used doesn’t take into account the state of the metal or how the body will process it. 

With this in mind, if you see this label in or outside of California, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product itself is unsafe.  

prop 65 (square)

How to Detox Heavy Metals: Prevent Heavy Metal Toxicity

Maintaining the right kind of heavy metals at the correct levels is a balancing act that your body always undergoes. You require specific levels for good health. But others rob your health and create the need for heavy metal detox.

The balance comes in two ways: 

  • Bind the bad
  • Build the good

Safely detox heavy metals: Bind the bad

The first thing you need to do is detox heavy metals. Binders are a good source for this because binding toxins to clean out your body is not a new concept. 

Most binders naturally contain heavy metals. The key is to use a binder that contains friendly forms of heavy metals bonded covalently in low concentrations. This acts like a magnet to pull the harmful heavy metals out of your body and carry them all the way out in your stools. (46, 47, 48)

When binding happens this way, the covalent bonds are much stronger and more stable than ionic bonds, and therefore much safer. If there is overwhelming heavy metal exposure in the body, the binding sites that surround the metals in the binder will make them non-available. (49)

Of course, each body is unique. Just because someone is taking binders does not mean they will bind every time. Everyone reacts differently depending on the binder and the dose. 

Replenish essential minerals: Build the good

Along with detoxing the bad, remember to build the good. Having an ample amount of essential organic minerals also helps prevent heavy metal toxicity from accumulating in your body. 

For example, lead mimics the essential minerals/heavy metals like calcium, iron, and zinc. Think of lead as a key that fits into the same lock that calcium does, but it cannot turn to move the deadbolt. The key fits, but it cannot unlock the door. In the body, it blocks your enzymes from doing their job, disrupting your metabolic systems.

Our cells need charged gradients to draw proteins, structure water, and complete other actions in the cell. When you have enough minerals in your body in the right form, the minerals are activated and the electrolytes create a charged gradient, like a magnet. (50)

If there is an abundant amount of useful metals and minerals, there will be less opportunity for lead to "clog up" the locks for essential metals. As a result, there is less need to do a heavy metal detox. (51)

Detoxing Heavy Metals: What Is Considered Toxic?

Heavy metals exist for a reason. Some pose a risk, whereas others don’t. The body needs the periodic table of elements in the right forms and the right amounts. But you are right in having concerns. You must detox heavy metals because overexposure can contribute to health problems.

Ask yourself these questions when determining the toxicity of a heavy metal in your food or other products:

  • What is the source of the heavy metal?
  • What is the oxidation state?
  • Is it bound to a carbon?
  • What is the pH of the heavy metal?

This understanding can help you find the products you need that support your body’s natural ability to detox and have a well-functioning body. So, before tossing an item that may contain heavy metals because of a Prop 65 sticker, remember what makes a metal toxic in the first place.