Depending on your musical tastes, heavy metal might make up
a good amount of your music collection. (That’s fine by me — as long as you
leave the stereo off if I come over to visit!)
But when it comes to your health, all musical tastes and
joking aside, you can definitely have too much heavy metal in
What Are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are just that — heavier — than other metals.
Many of them are abundant in the environment. This means you’re exposed to some
You’ve undoubtedly heard of certain heavy metals before.
Some common ones are lead, iron, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury.
Some metals, in small amounts, are essential for life. But
exposure to harmful heavy metals can be very dangerous in large doses
or in certain forms.
To understand what this means for you and what you can do
about it, let’s examine heavy metals.
We’ll look at why heavy metals exist and how you can
reduce your exposure. We’ll also discuss how you can protect your body by
doing a heavy metal detox.
Heavy Metals Are Almost Everywhere
Heavy metals are a natural part of the Earth’s crust.
Human activity has
led to an increase of heavy metals in the environment. As a result, the heavy
metal exposure risk for humans, as well as all land and sea animals, has also
Exposure to heavy metals can occur through food,
water, air, and commercial products and medications.
9 of the Most Common Heavy Metals in Everyday Life
Arsenic is in certain food crops
as well as in drinking water, cigarette smoke, cosmetics, and even the air
you breathe. It’s odorless and tasteless and has a history of use as a
lethal substance. Arsenic received the name “the
king of poisons” in centuries past because royalty used it in
assassinations for personal gain.
Mercury is a component of thermometers.
It’s also a common contaminant foundin certain fish and shellfish. It
builds up in the ocean as a byproduct of coal burning and other industrial
pollution. Exposure to mercury can causeneurological damage, harm to the kidneys, and
even blindness. Before scientists understood the toxicity of mercury
to humans, it was used in cosmetics, medicines, and in curing felt
for hats. In fact, this is where the term “mad as a hatter” came from. Hatmakers often
developed physical and mental ailments due to their ongoing mercury
Copper has been used by humans for many thousands of years, to
make things like electrical wire, utensils, architecture, and piping. In
tiny amounts, copper is an essential micronutrient for humans. But too
much will damage the kidney, heart, liver,
stomach, and brain.
Nickel has had many applications
since ancient times as a corrosion-resistant metal. It
is essential for you to make red blood cells. But again, there’s a limit
to how much is safe in the body. Too much nickel can cause cancer, damage to your nervous
system, reduction in cell growth, and adverse effects on your heart and
Cadmium was used initially during World
War I in paint and as a tin substitute, but today finds its niche in
rechargeable batteries and tobacco. Cadmium may be the most toxic element. It serves no beneficial
purpose in the human body or the ecosystem. Cadmium is a known carcinogen.
And it can accumulate in your body for life.
Chromium results naturally from burning coal and oil. It gets into
the environment through fertilizers and sewage. Paper, pulp, and rubber
manufacturing, as well as leather and tanning processes, also use
chromium. High exposure is threatening to the liver, kidney, and
neurological system, and can result in skin disorders.
Iron is the most abundant natural metal in the Earth’s crust. It’s
the most essentialelement for all living species because of its
role in facilitating the transport of oxygen through the bloodstream.
But having too much iron in your body is toxic. Women tend to outlive men by seven or
eight years on average for many reasons. One of these may be that menstruating
women reduce their iron levels with every period.
Aluminum is naturally present in air, water, and soil. Mining and
processing of aluminum increase its concentration in the environment. You
know aluminum through the foil you might wrap on leftovers or the can of
soda in the pantry that (hopefully!) you recycle. Aluminum is fairly
scarce in the air, water, and soil. Exposure mostly comes from food and
consumer products. Aluminum can enteryour body by way of antacids, astringents, food
additives (such as anti-caking agents and colorings), baking powder,
buffered aspirin, certain cosmetics, and antiperspirants. Aluminum in the
body can cause lung problems if inhaled. Oral
ingestion, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have much effect. Mixed
evidence also suggests that aluminum can lead to neurodegenerative
diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
Lead sources include battery waste, fertilizers, pesticides,
factory chimneys, car exhaust, gasoline additives, and old paint (the U.S.
banned it from household paints starting in 1978). Lead exposure is extremely toxic for humans — especially
for fetuses and young children. It can harm your blood system, reproductive
organs, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and brain.
The Risks of Having Harmful Heavy Metals in Your Body
You need small
amounts of certain heavy metals to survive and carry out critical
bodily functions. Thes ones you need include iron, cobalt, copper, manganese,
molybdenum, and zinc.
You can find these micronutrients in various food sources.
And they’re safe at the needed amounts. All metals are toxic at certain
doses, but some can be more damaging than others.
Heavy metals can accumulate in
your body and become dangerous for organs, like your heart, kidney, brain,
liver, and bones.
They can disrupt normal bodily functions, partly
because they displace other important nutrients.
Having an excess of heavy metals in your body can
also lead to chronic diseases. These
include certain cancers, neurological problems, cardiovascular disease,
and type 2 diabetes.
How Do You Know If You Have Too Many Heavy Metals in Your
Not everyone is at equal risk for toxic effects. Your
risk level depends on many factors. Your age,
health, nutritional profile, exposure to the metal (and the quantity), and how
effectively your body can detoxify excessive amounts all play a role.
Too much exposure to heavy metals can result in either short-term (temporary) and
long-term (chronic) toxicity.
Short-term exposure is usually a result of coming in contact
with a high amount of a metal over a shorter period, like through one-time
Long-term exposure is more likely to be a result of exposure
to lower levels of metals over a longer period. This may
result from regularly consuming a food item, for example, or from regularly
using a product that contains low levels of metals.
Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning may vary depending on the type of metal. Symptoms
can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration,
changes in heart rate, numbness and tingling of hands and feet, behavioral
changes, and anemia.
Some heavy metals, including arsenic, can cause Mees’
lines (horizontal white bands on your fingernails).
Many of these symptoms could also result from other
conditions and diseases. It’s usually best to have a medical professional help
determine the cause before assuming that heavy metals are at fault for any
particular set of symptoms.
Testing for Heavy Metal Toxicity
If you suspect heavy metal toxicity, your healthcare
provider can order certain tests to confirm a diagnosis.
Medical professionals will often start by checking
your blood. They can also test your kidney and liver function as
Some medical professionals might want to test your urine, hair, and nails. This can help
diagnose heavy metal poisoning and determine the appropriate treatment.
It’s common for pediatricians to order blood tests for children to
check for lead exposure, especially if they live in high-risk areas or
environments. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for kids because
it can cause irreversible brain damage and even death.
How to Reduce Your Heavy Metal Exposure
You may not have much control over the air you breathe or
the exhaust from the traffic in your town. But you can influence other
potential sources of heavy metal exposure.
The most significant risks for heavy metals stem from the
foods you eat, the water you drink, the products you use, and certain exposures
inside your own home.
Top Heavy Metal Risk #1 — Food
When it comes to having control over your heavy metal
contact, a great place to start is by evaluating your everyday food
Certain foods are known to be at higher risk for containing
heavy metals, so avoiding them can help remove unnecessary exposure.
Heavy metals are a concern to pregnant and
breastfeeding women since they can passthrough
both the placenta and breastmilk. Weaning babies and toddlers are also at risk
because heavy metals have even been found in commercial foods targeted at them — both
organic and non-organic.
Heavy metals are especially prevalent in products that are
rice-based. (More on that below.) Young kids are also at a higher risk of metal
toxicity because their smaller bodies are more susceptible to
absorbing and retaining them.
Even though organic foods can still contain heavy metals
present in soil, they have the benefit of not being exposed to nearly as many
pesticides. (Ideally, they are not exposed to any!)
A recent study by Newcastle University found that
conventionally-grown food had ten to 100 times more pesticides than organic
food. What do pesticides have to do with heavy metals? Many
pesticides contain inorganic heavy metals.
3 Types of Food That May be of Particular Concern for
Mercury is commonly discovered in large, predatory fish.
This is because these fish tend to live longer than smaller organisms, where
mercury ingestion and absorption often originate in the ocean.
Algae and plankton absorb mercury, which small fish eat. Bigger
fish will then eat the small fish. And even larger fish will eat those
fish — moving up to the top of the food chain, with an ever-increasing
accumulation of mercury in the tissues of the fish.
Unfortunately, the very top of the food chain could be you
if you have a big fish on your dinner plate.
Some of the most at-risk fish for mercury
contamination include tuna, king mackerel, marlin, orange
roughy, shark, swordfish, and tilefish.
Rice is an inexpensive, versatile, and nutritious food item.
However, recent research has found that, regardless of the variety,
rice is one of the most arsenic-contaminated foods on store
Brown rice is among the worst. Studies conducted by Consumer Reports found that brown rice
actually had 80% more arsenic than white rice. This is because arsenic
accumulates in the outer grain, which is removed to make white rice. Infant
rice cerealcontains around six times as much arsenic as baby
cereals made from other grains.
The arsenic content in rice can vary depending on where in
the world it grows. Whether it grows organically or conventionally, however,
has no meaningful relevance to its arsenic content. Testing also shows
that grains like quinoa, amaranth, bulgur, farro, polenta, and millet
typically contain little if any arsenic.
And here’s some other good news: Cooking
methods can help reduce the arsenic content of rice. Rinse rice before
cooking, and then cook it using a water to rice ratio of
6:1, draining off excess water when done.
Researchers also found that cooking rice in a coffee pot can reduce its
arsenic content by up to 85%. You can make a risotto that will really wake you
up in the morning! (For more about arsenic in rice, check out our article
Though marketed as something of a miracle elixir for all
manner of health benefits, bone broth can be a significant
source of lead.
This is because bones store lead. And when you cook the bones or many hours
to make bone broth, the contents of the bones will remain in the end product.
A 2013 study published in Medical Hypotheses found
that even bone broth made from organic chicken bones had “markedly high
lead concentrations,” as compared to water cooked in the same pot.
(For more on the health considerations related to bone broth, see this article.)
Top Heavy Metal Risk #2 — Drinking Water
Heavy metals enter the groundwater through soil
contamination of underground aquifers.
It might be a good idea to have your water tested for heavy metals, especially if you have a well
or if your home has older plumbing.
The tragic case of contaminated drinking water that most
recently dominated the headlines is in Flint, Michigan. In 2014, government
officials eager to save money replaced properly treated water from Lake Huron
with improperly treated water from the Flint River.
The 100,000 residents of the city were exposed to lead
leaching from old pipes. Local physicians alerted the public of high lead levels in resident
children in 2015.
Despite all the attention on Flint, it is far from the only
area with a lead problem.
According to an investigation published in the Washington Post in 2016 based on EPA
records, “Lead taints water across the U.S.”
The report went on to describe that an estimated 20%
of the water systems in the U.S. have unsafe levels of lead. Among these
water systems, 350 daycare centers and schools failed lead tests a total of 470
times between 2012 and 2015. In New Jersey alone, 11 cities had even more
dangerously high lead levels than Flint.
Is this problem limited to the United States? No.
According to a 2014 story in the Irish Times, lead contamination levels up
to 80 times the legal limit were detected in drinking water in Dublin. And
an estimated 40% of properties in the UK connect to the
water supply main by lead pipes that are leaching lead into municipal drinking
Fortunately, modern technology can reduce and even
remove heavy metals, like lead.
One way to do this is by investing in a high-quality
water filtration system for your home water. This may include distillation,
ion exchange, reverse osmosis, or an activated carbon filtration system. Different
products will remove different toxins and metals. Look third-party tested
products. This ensures they will indeed remove what they claim to remove from
(For more on drinking water and water treatment
out our article on water here. And for one of my favorite water filter
options, and a special price for Food Revolution readers, check out the AquaTru, here.)
Top Heavy Metal Risk #3 — Consumer Products
Heavy metals, including iron, mercury, arsenic, lead,
chromium, aluminum, and zinc, have been found in popular personal care products, like makeup,
whitening toothpaste, sunscreen, eye drops, and nail polish.
In a 2013 study published in Environmental
Health Perspectives, researchers tested 32 lipsticks for lead — and found
that 75% of the lipstick samples contained detectable lead levels.
Want to find safer cosmetics and personal care products?
Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Heavy metals in personal care products may result from
contamination. But sometimes, they’re actually added ingredients.
Manufacturers often use aluminum in cookware, including aluminum pots and pans.
Fortunately, safer alternatives are available, like stainless steel.
Top Heavy Metal Risk #4 — Your Home Air
Though at lower concentrations than in food, heavy
metals also exist in the air.
Arsenic is one of the most common metals in
the atmosphere. There are higher concentrations of it near
Other airborne heavy metals include cadmium,
chromium, and nickel. Why are these substances floating around?
Mainly because of certain human activities, like driving
cars, running heavily-polluting industrial businesses, and using aerosol
How do you clean up the air you breathe?
One option is to get a home air purifier that filters out
heavy metals. You might also want to consider making it a household rule
for everyone to remove their shoes before walking around inside. This prevents
tracking heavy metals around the house and then kicking them up and inhaling
Foods to Help You with Heavy Metal Detoxification
The best thing you can do to prevent heavy metals from
building up in your body is to avoid excessive exposure in the first place.
However, you can’t count on attaining perfect success.
Every time I stand behind a bus as it starts up, I feel like
I need a detox! But that doesn’t mean I want to live in such a way that I never
wind up standing on busy streets.
When your body is working as it was designed to, it can
protect you from many of the heavy metals you are exposed to without them doing
And certain foods and nutrients may help your body remove
Here are six of them:
Heavy Metal Detox Food #1 — Cruciferous Vegetables
Your liver has enzymes that work to flush toxins from your
You can boost the
efficacy of these enzymes by eating cruciferous
vegetables, such as broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and
Heavy Metal Detox Food #2 — Fiber
Fiber — found
only in plant foods — can help bind to cadmium, arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and
aluminum. This makes it easier for your body to clear them out.
This mechanism is called Metals Capturing Capacity.
Researchers have found that foods naturally high in insoluble
fiber may be particularly good at binding dietary mercury.
Heavy Metal Detox Food #3 — Phytates
A compound in plant foods called phytates. They inhibit iron
absorption, can help remove excess iron in the body.
Grains, nuts, and
legumes all contain phytates.
Heavy Metal Detox Food #4 — Probiotics
Probiotics may also play a
role in helping your body clear away heavy metals.
Research shows Lactobacillus
acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis bacteria
are effective in reducing oral lead exposure in the brains of
A 2014 study published in the journal American
Society for Microbiology looked at the effects of probiotics on
mercury and arsenic absorption in the body. The researchers found that yogurt infused with Lactobacillus
rhamnosus was protective for pregnant women against mercury absorption
by up to 36% and against arsenic by up to 78%.
Heavy Metal Detox Food #5 — Cilantro
While more research is needed, some scientists think that
cilantro may help reduce the toxic effects of heavy metals.
Some researchers suggest that eating cilantro alongside
commonly contaminated food items, at the same meal, may reduce the body’s
absorption of heavy metals. Another study suggests that cilantro may increase urinary excretion of mercury, lead, and
Heavy Metal Detox Food #6 — Black Sesame Seeds
Black sesame seeds may also help remove heavy metals from
Research indicates that their ability to bind lead,
cadmium, and mercury may be due to powerful phytochemicals known
as lignans. Black sesame seeds seem to bind more effectively to these heavy metals than to
lighter essential metals, like iron, calcium, and zinc.
How do you use them? You can easily sprinkle black sesame
seeds onto most any dish or even add them to smoothies. A delicious way to
Can Other Foods Help Protect You from Heavy Metals?
Research has indicated several other foods with the
potential for removing certain heavy metals — specifically, cadmium and iron —
from the body.
Diets high in soybeans, onions, curry paste, and
grapes have been shown to have a beneficial effect
on cadmium levels and have actually reversed damage to various organs and
Other studies have shown that diets high in garlic, ginger,
green tea, and tomato paste, help to heal damage caused by excessive iron
Algae, such as chlorella and spirulina, have
also improved kidney, liver,
and brain damage induced by cadmium and iron. This is thought to
be due to the high antioxidant content of algae.
(Interested in trying spirulina, but not sure how to use it?
Check out this “Heavy Metal Detox Smoothie” from Food Revolution Summit
speaker Anthony William.)
Does Sweating It Out Help Detox from Heavy Metals?
Some health advocates have proposed that sweating can help remove certain
heavy metals. Strenuous exercise or regular sauna
baths can therefore enhance a heavy metal detox.
While this may be true, no large controlled trials
are illustrating it or offering specific evidence-based guidance. That
doesn’t mean it doesn’t help. It simply means that we don’t know.
The most proven heavy metal detoxification intervention
appears to come from efforts to clean up the environment and eat foods that
promote your body’s natural capacity to detoxify.
Heavy Metals Are Worth Your Attention
The modern world has increased our exposure to heavy metals
far beyond what our bodies were designed for. But even though you can’t
avoid heavy metals entirely, youcan take steps to reduce your
By making informed choices when it comes to the products you
use, the foods you eat, the water you drink, and other everyday habits, you can
significantly reduce the amount of heavy metals that make their way into your
And by choosing to eat a healthy diet, based on a
wide variety of whole plant foods, you can help your body protect and detoxify
itself. Then heavy metal can stay where it belongs: in your music library
(or not, as the case may be!).