Heavy Metals: Their Effect on the Brain and Neurological Problems

Heavy Metals and Their Effect on the Brain

Just as foods we are sensitive or allergic to can cause reactions in our digestive tract and lead to chronic inflammation, chemicals in our environment can also contribute to poor mood and physical problems.

We have long known the correlation between neurological prob­lems and toxic chemicals—for example, the association between lead paint exposure and learning and behavior disorders in chil­dren. However, the conventional medical system does not really think about adult mood and behavior issues in relation to metal toxicity. Despite this fact, mounting information reveals that toxic exposures may accumulate over time to cause more subtle slow degeneration of brain and nervous system tissue, resulting in subtle sickness.

As an example of the insidious nature of these metals, one study looked at 281 kids who had been exposed to lead and compared them to 287 non-exposed kids. The exposed children showed significantly more neuropsychiatric symptoms than average adults—but these symptoms occurred more than twenty years after their initial exposure.

Your Brain on Heavy Metals: The Metals Most Frequently Associated with Depression

The metals most frequently associated with depression are lead, mercury, and cadmium, and they are commonly found in our environment. We can trace the origins of these particular toxins to factories, dental work, welding equipment, cigarette smoke, and old galvanized water pipes. There's another source you may not expect: natural medicines such as Ayurvedic (from India) remedies and Chinese herbs have been implicated as sources (which is why it's important to purchase supplements you know are made with the highest quality).

Note: If you are not sure about a supplement's quality, ask a naturopathic physician or other like-minded practitioner who has looked into the companies and its sources and quality control for the supplements.

Metals In Our Body Can Create Severe Imbalances

These sources are all around us, giving these metals easy access to our body. Once in our system, these metals tend to generate imbalances between pro- and antioxidant balance, which can lead to inflammation and neurological damage. They can destroy the function of enzymes and proteins in your body, especially the ones that contain sulfur.

To give you one example of the clinical effect of these metal toxins, a review of medical literature has shown that exposure to mercury can give rise to the symptoms and traits often found in autistic people. When metals attack molecules with sul­fur groups (an element found in your nerve tissue), they negatively affect the function of your nervous system in many ways.

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Metals can cross your blood-brain barrier, and they have an affinity for the fatty sheaths of the nerves (myelin) and the outer covering of each cell (cell membranes). They destroy the proteins in the brain (enzymes) that are responsible for reactions like communication, detoxification, and repair. Metals can also cause problems with your brain's ability to maintain proper levels of serotonin, the neu­rotransmitter needed for good mood.

We know inflammation can cause mood issues. Well, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals can cause brain inflammation. To make matters worse, if inflammation has already set in, your brain cells become even more vulnerable to toxins. But don't worry; the body wants to clean this up for you.

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

Have you ever heard of monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG? You may be saying to yourself, "That's the stuff in pro­cessed foods and known best for its use in Chinese restaurants. It gives some people headaches, right?" Well, if you thought that, you are correct. MSG has something called glutamate, which is, in small amounts, a neurotransmitter. In larger amounts it's a toxic by-product of brain metabolism.

The brain uses a very elaborate system to remove glutamate, but mercury, aluminum, and other toxins can easily damage the proteins the brain uses to do this, thus rendering the brain cells much more easily damaged. People who can't take the MSG likely already have a buildup of glutamate.

A patient's clinical history and certain specific symptoms may help the practitioner suspect toxicity. Check the following list of the most common symptoms to see if any describe you. Certain compounds are specifically associated with disease conditions, which may clue you in as to which metal may be the culprit.

Symptoms Associated with Heavy Metals

  • Tremors

  • Numbness

  • Tingling

  • Headaches

  • Confusion

  • Fatigue

Heavy Metals and Associated Conditions 


 Lead:   Parkinsonism, memory and thinking problems, lower IQ,
                 learning difficulties in children

 Mercury:  Memory and thinking problems, mood problems,
                     heart conditions, high blood pressure, infertility,
                     immune dysfunction

 Cadmium:  Osteoporosis, kidney damage, cancer

 Arsenic: Diabetes

Checking for Metals in Your Body

Heavy Metals and Their Effect on the BrainFinding out the levels of toxic metals in your body can be useful to help decide if working on clearing them should be an option for you. While there is no perfect way to test for these toxic com­pounds, I have found the following methods helpful in assessing the need to address metal toxicity.

Hair and Blood Analysis

One type of mercury called methylmercury can collect in hair, making hair testing a valuable tool, but this test may not show the burden of other types of mercury often sitting in the body.

Conventional medicine uses blood tests for heavy metals to look for overt acute exposure. What this means is if you were exposed to a lot of heavy metal a relatively short time ago, the blood tests will pick this up. But if you had a slow accumulation of metals that gradually changed your mood, the blood test will not be helpful, for the toxic metal had time to settle into your fatty tis­sue, like your nervous system, where it's causing the problems. As a result, checking blood for heavy metals is useful for current expo­sure, but does not show past exposure or total body burden.

Check Your Pee

To show whether you have metals trapped in your body tissue, a more accurate test is called a metal provocation test. This means you will first have your urine tested. Unless you have had a recent large exposure, this first urine should show very little or no metals. Then your naturopathic physician or other health care practitioner will give you a small amount of an agent called oral dimercapto­succinic acid (DMSA) or sometimes you may have an intravenous infusion of a chemical called 2,3-dimercapto-l-propanesulfonic acid (DMPS).

DMSA or DMPS goes into your system and pulls out some of the metals hiding there. After you take the DMSA or DMPS, you will have your urine tested again to see if metals are indeed hiding out. Based on this test, you and your clinician will figure out the best way to clear the metals out.

The Pesticide Pest

Besides the ubiquity of metals in our environment, another con­cern is various commonly used chemicals that may also lead to depression in susceptible people. These often hail from the use of insecticides, herbicides, and thousands of other industrial and household chemicals.

Have you ever thought about why pesticides work? They work (and work pretty well, I might add) by disrupting neurological function in the insect. A relatively large amount of pesticide kills an insect on contact.

Since we humans are bigger creatures, we don't necessarily die immediately from exposure to food and environmental pest controls, but these chemicals do enter our fat and nervous tis­sue, and sit there over time, slowly causing trouble with our nervous, immune, and hormonal systems. Pretty much all of us have these chemicals in our system—and if you are predisposed to mood issues like depression, their presence tips the odds against you feeling good.

©2012 by Peter Bongiorno. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.

Article Source:

How Come They're Happy and I'm Not?: The Complete Natural Program for Healing Depression for Good by Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc.How Come They're Happy and I'm Not?: The Complete Natural Program for Healing Depression for Good
by Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Author

Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc. author of: How Come They're Happy and I'm Not?Dr. Peter Bongiorno is a licensed naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist with offices in NYC and Long Island, and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He is a graduate of Bastyr University, the leading accredited university for science-based natural medicine. Dr. Bongiorno is vice-president of the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians, a member of the American Association for Naturopathic Physicians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and a Diplomat in Acupuncture. He has contributed to The Textbook of Natural Medicine, and The Biology of Depression and Dr. Michael Murray's Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. He has worked as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Yale University, and has co-authored numerous medical journal articles in the field of neuroendocrinology. Visit him at www.innersourcehealth.com.

Watch a video with Dr. Peter Bongiorno and Pina LoGiudice: We Have Medicinal Power from Food Choices


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