Coming up on this episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy.
Dr. Mark Hyman:
Traditional medicine completely ignores this. It’s like a black hole. They don’t test for it, they don’t look at it. They don’t know how to actually diagnose your body burden. They don’t know how to help you detoxify or any of the important things you need to do to actually resolve this problem.
Welcome to The Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman. That’s farmacy with an F, a place for conversations that matter. And today I’m bringing you a health bite to improve your health because taking small steps every day can improve your health over the long term.
Now, today we’re going to talk about mercury. And not the planet. We’re going to talk about mercury toxicity in the environment and how it affects our health. And I’m telling you, I know a lot about this, not because I’m a good doctor, because I was deathly ill from mercury poisoning for many, many years and had to discover the science about it and how to treat it and cure myself, which actually was the way I began to understand the model of functional medicine, because without that, I think I’d probably be in a nursing home or dead by now.
Now, mercury really is probably the biggest source of environmental toxicity that I see in my practice every day. And I’ve tested tens of thousands of people, probably done 100,000 heavy metal tests in my career. I’ve seen more of this than maybe most physicians on the planet. And I can tell you that it’s real, that it has real impacts on our health, and that treating it creates real measurable results for people who are sick from it.
Now, I’ve had this and I don’t wish it on my worst enemy because Mercury is one of those compounds that screws up every system in your body. We’re going to talk about what the science is about it, what we know about it, and actually how to deal with it.
Now, I actually got mercury from many sources. I grew up eating tuna fish sandwiches. I had a lot of dental fillings. I love sushi. And I also lived in China, in Beijing, during the winter, which heats its 10 million people living there in their homes with raw coal, and that raw coal is a source of mercury, lead and other contaminants. So I was breathing that in every day. I had an air filter, which I cleaned out stupidly and knocked it out the window and breathed in the concentrated soot, which was full of mercury. And when I developed the symptoms, it just hit me all of a sudden. I was basically fine and then something tipped the scale. I think it was an intestinal infection. And because of my own personal genetics, which make it hard for me to detoxify, and because of this high load of mercury I had in my body, I all of a sudden went into severe collapse. I couldn’t think, I was fatigued, I couldn’t sleep, I had muscle pain, twitches, muscle damage. I had severe digestive issues because mercury interrupts all the digestive enzymes, and I had diarrhea for years. I developed food sensitivities, depression, anxiety. I mean, I really didn’t know what the hell was going on with me for a number of years until I actually did some testing and I found I had huge levels of mercury.
I’ve done, again, I said probably 100,000 of these tests in about 10,000 or more people and I can tell you that I had probably maybe in the top 10 or 20 of all the highest tests I’ve ever seen. Now, I’ve seen this in so many of my patients every who suffer from all sorts of things from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, through depression, anxiety, obesity, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, heart failure, heart disease, so many different issues, many gut issues. If we don’t understand how to diagnosis this, if we don’t understand how to treat it, we’re going to be leaving so many people in the lurch, suffering needlessly.
Now, traditional medicine completely ignores this. It’s like a black hole. They don’t test for it, they don’t look at it, they don’t care about it for some reason. Occasionally, they will do a blood test for mercury levels, and you’ll see a whole blood mercury and it may be high from fish, and they go, oh, stop eating so much tuna fish. But that’s about the extent of it. They don’t know how to actually diagnose your body burden, they don’t know how to help you detoxify or any of the important things you need to do to actually resolve this problem. So I’m going to give you a rundown on the state of mercury that we know now, and a plan to actually help reduce your exposure and also heal and get rid of mercury from your body.
Now, years ago I went to a conference. It was called The Impact of Mercury on Human Health and the Environment, and it was held at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. This was a conventional medical conference. I’m going to break down what was there, but it was an amazing group of scientists, policy makers, environmental scientists, toxicologists, biochemists, journalists, academic doctors, practicing doctors, dentists. Everybody was there. And we tried to make sense of the environmental impact, toxicology, the basic science, the public policy implications, the health implications of one of the least studied and probably the greatest potential threats to our long-term health, which is mercury.
Now, mercury levels were not high in our environment until the Industrial Revolution, until we were able to dig coal out of the ground, until we were able to actually burn it, until we developed the fossil fuel industry. All that led to the rise in mercury in the atmosphere, which actually polluted our oceans and led to fish being contaminated with mercury, and the rest of the story is pretty clear. Now, there were episodes of volcanic eruptions and things like that in the past, and you can actually see in different snow melts when they’ll do, for example, ice cores on glaciers and they can say, oh, there was a volcano in the Philippines in 1805, and we can see that mark in the snow. But it’s really been a 30 fold increase over the last 100 years in mercury in the environment. 70% of it’s from human sources, and particularly in the last 40 years, during the last period of great industrialization. And it comes from coal burning and coal-fired industrial plants, cement plants, chloralkali plants. They actually use this in the making of plastics, pesticides, PVCs, pipelines and more. So basically, there was a reduction industrial mercury emissions over the last 10 years, but I think it’s a small amount compared to what we’re really dealing with in our environment.
Now, what is the deal when it comes to the risk of these problems? Well, it’s kind of a increasing risk with increasing dose. Now, there is an exception for that if you actually are dealing with immune effects, and we call this immunotoxicity, in other words, the role of environmental toxins in causing autoimmune disease. These are in fact called autogens. It’s a well-described phenomenon medicine now. And mercury doesn’t have to be hugely high to actually cause an autoimmune response, so it’s important. But there really is no safe level. What’s the normal blood level of mercury? Well, on your lab test, it may just say zero to 15. But what’s the normal biological requirement for mercury? Zero. There is no normal level of mercury in the blood. It should be zero. There’s no need for mercury in the body.
Now, there’s a lot of data about the risks. Some of that comes from, for example, research in the Seychelles Islands where they looked at kids and how they basically were affected, and they had a lot of fish in their diet, and they had mostly reef fish, which have low levels of mercury. On the other hand, the Faroe Islands, where people were eating whale blubber, which is hugely high in mercury, three parts per million, there they found extremely high levels in the umbilical core blood, and it correlated with reduced performance in neurologic testing in over 900 mother-infant pair. So they looked at mothers and infants, they checked the level of mercury in the cord blood, they looked at neurological testing, and there was significant impact.
And the dose relates to the impact. So the severest symptoms occurred with higher doses. And you want to make sure that you have a look at what your levels are. When you see the effects, there were developmental effects in walking, talking, decreased performance on neurologic tests. So it’s really important.
Now, the problem, problem is testing. When we look at testing, doctors will look at blood levels; it’s what doctors typically check. But unless you’ve been eating fish with mercury in it over the last 90 days, it may not show your true body level. For example, most mercury is clear from the blood within 90 days, and some of it’s excreted in the urine, processed by your liver, but most of it is actually sequestered or stored in your organs, in your muscle, in your brain, in your liver and your kidneys. That’s where it goes. And when you eat, for example, tuna, what are you eating? You’re eating the muscle of the fish, and that’s where it’s stored.
So unless you actually do a challenge test where you take a chelator, which binds to the mercury in your body, pulls it out and collects your urine for six hours, you’re really not getting a valid look at what your body burden is. And unfortunately, this is not a test done by conventional doctors. They might do a 24-hour urine mercury test. That’s helpful if you had acute exposure in, for example, an industrial plant or something. But it’s not going to tell you what your long-term body accumulation is. So mercury basically accumulates in muscle and accumulates in fat, and so basically blood levels aren’t the best test for your body burden.
There’s another form of mercury called the inorganic mercury. Now, methylmercury is the most predominant form that comes from fish, but inorganic mercury is primarily from fillings. We call these silver fillings. They’re not silver; they’re mostly mercury. And it’s cleared from your blood, it’s stored in your tissues, and it can be converted to methylmercury in the body, and it can actually end up leading to all kinds of neurologic issues, everything from dementia to ADD to autism. And so you really need a proper diagnostic test to look at it.
So the question is how do we get mercury in our bodies? Well, it’s a lot of different sources. It can be from mercury vapor in the air if you live near a cement plant or a coal burning plant, it can be from water, from contaminated water, from fish, as I mentioned, from your dental fillings. There’s ethylmercury in vaccines, thimerosal, most of it’s been taken out, but there’s still a few vaccines like the flu vaccine that has it, can be occupational exposures, it can be from home exposure. You break a fluorescent light bulb, you have a thermostat, you have batteries, red tattoo dye, if you got tattoos, skin lightening creams can cause it. There used to be more over the counter products, less so now, but it used to be in contact lens fluid and neo-synephrine, which you use for colds, sinuses. So 80% of it is basically coming from the source of fish is primarily what’s going on. It’s basically coming through your gut. You do inhale it if you’re exposed, but it’s not as much of big of an issue.
Now, once it gets to your body, it goes to the kidneys, it goes to your brain, it can be transferred to the baby through the placenta, so a lot of kids are born pre polluted. The only way out of your body is through your urine, your feces, your breath, and breast milk. So the problem that mercury causes in your body is it binds to enzymes. It binds to what we call the sulfur groups of enzymes. And this is on most enzymes and it’s in the mitochondria and other chemical binding sites. And it basically jams up your biochemical machinery, which is why it causes such widespread effects.
Now, with big exposures, we’ve documented the consequences like the Minamata Bay exposure where there was affluent from factories going into this bay, and then the people in the town ate the fish and the kids ate the fish and they had terrible birth defects. They had pink disease, or acrodynia. Also teething powder back in the day, in the 30s and 40s, had mercury in it. It was called calomel. It was something used in medicine way back in the 1800s. I think it’s what the Lewis and Clark Expedition used to treat everything from syphilis to chronic infections. We’ve heard of the Mad Hatter syndrome, the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. The hatters used felt to actually make the hats and the felt was made stiff with mercury. It’s also in fungicides from grain exposures to contaminated grains. So it’s really a problem.
Now, it mimics so many different problems so you think you have depression, you’re obese, you have diabetes, you have dementia, you have autism, you have ADD, you have whatever, an autoimmune disease, and you think, oh, that’s all what they are. But actually, they may be caused by mercury. We know that the symptoms of mercury poisoning in babies is very, very similar to the symptoms of autism. This is very well described. It’s called erythrism and it’s an issue and it leads to shyness, mood swings, insomnia, memory issues. A lot of neurologic symptoms are caused by mercury. Parkinson’s been linked to it, tremor, loss of balance, loss of hearing, tunnel vision, slurred speech, headaches, sexual dysfunction, really, really important. It can affect the gut like it did for me, causing diarrhea, vomiting, nausea. It can cause skin issues. So it’s really quite a problem. We want to make sure we get rid of the mercury.
So one of the controversies is about mercury fillings. I think Canada’s mostly banned it. I think finally the FDA said it shouldn’t be used for pregnant women and children. Wonder why it’s okay for the rest of us. I don’t really think it is. But basically, it’s clear that the fillings, through chewing and through the pH of your mouth, depending on the microbiome of your mouth, can vaporize and release large amounts of mercury over time, from brushing, grinding. And so that can be a factor.
Now, there was a large study that was published in JAMA. Found really no correlation between mercury fillings and behavioral issues in kids. However, there were a lot of problems with that study. First, it was a short study, and two, they didn’t look at the genetic differences in these kids. And there was really differences in the kids who had impaired detoxification pathways. So if you redid the analysis of the study and you said, okay, who are the kids who are poor detoxifiers versus good detoxifiers? The good detoxifiers seemed okay. The ones who were bad detoxifiers had a seven year developmental delay. So if they were 18, it was like they were 11. So that’s a real, real problem.
Now, it can take a long time to get rid of mercury from your body, up to 18 years to clear half the dose of mercury. And it comes up very, very slowly once it gets in. So you’ve got to learn how to actually reduce the exposures. And I think when you look at people with fillings, the data’s really clear. They have higher blood mercury, they have three to five times more mercury in their urine, they have two to 12 times more mercury in their tissues than those people without amalgam fillings.
There was one study I saw in sheep and monkeys where they basically put in fillings and then they actually didn’t see terribly high levels in their blood because it’s inorganic mercury, but their tissue levels were high. And when they did brain biopsies, they found a lot of this in the brain. They’ve even done autopsy studies on people with Alzheimer’s. And the ones who had the most filling surface area had the higher risk of Alzheimer’s. So it’s really quite an important thing.
Now, urine levels is how often doctors check, but again, it just looks at what’s really your current exposure, so you really got to do the proper testing. There are now tests, Quicksilver Scientific is a test called the QS tri-test, where it looks at mercury from inorganic sources or methylmercury from fish so you can get a sense of where it’s coming from. But I’ve seen, for example, patients who have fillings for decades who have high levels. I’ve had it for 30 years. I’ve had the fillings. It’s probably not a problem. Not true. They still vaporize.
Now, I see more and more changes in many countries like Germany and Canada and Europe where they basically have banned these fillings. They can’t get them anymore. You still can do in the United States, but most dentists actually don’t do them anymore. They just kind of quietly have switched over. I don’t know why. By the way, you should ask your dentist this. According to the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, if you take fillings out of somebody’s mouth, you can’t throw it in the garbage. You have to dispose of it in a specific way as if it were a toxic waste. So ask your dentist if he says they’re fine, say, “Why is it okay to put in my mouth but it’s not okay to throw in the garbage?” I think that you should think about that.
So I think the data on this is pretty clear. Again, many, many scientists are on board with this and many governments are very clear that this is a problem. So I think we need to really get serious about getting these fillings out of people’s mouth safely, and that’s a whole nother conversation about how to safely remove them because you can’t just go in there and drill. You’ve got to put a dental damn in, you’ve got to high speed suction, you’ve got to make sure you don’t swallow it, you don’t breathe in the vapor. The dentist should be wearing a mask, a gas mask, basically. So you have to find a special dentist. And there’s a website, IAOMT.org. We’ll put all this in the show notes where you can get a dentist who’s been trained, how to safely remove mercury. I think this is important.
Now, let’s talk about genetics here, because I think not everybody’s affected. I’ve seen people with a mouthful of filling. Some guy was 70 years old. I’m like, this guy’s going to be in trouble. But it turned out he was okay because he was able to really detoxify. Unlike me, I’m not great at detoxifying, so I tend to have increased absorption of mercury, decreased ability to eliminate mercury. I have glutathione genes that are problematic. And glutathione is the body’s main way of getting rid of mercury. It’s a sulfur based molecule in the body. It’s from three amino acids, cystine, glutamine, and glycine. And it’s ubiquitous, it’s critical for longevity, for health and for detoxification. It’s an antioxidant, an inflammatory, and you need it to get rid of mercury.
Now, people who have high mercury tend to have depleted glutathione because their body’s working overtime to get rid of it so you need to do things to boost glutathione. But I have genes that make it hard for me to make glutathione and I end up having more load of mercury given there’s a problem.
There’s also interesting data on APOE genes. These are genes that are Alzheimer’s risk genes or cardiovascular risk genes. And if you have APOE4, you tend to not be able to eliminate mercury because it doesn’t have a cystine or sulfur [inaudible 00:19:07] amino acid on the APOE lipoprotein 4 genotype. And so that basically means that if you have this, you’re at high risk for not only Alzheimer’s, but many other cardiovascular risk diseases and you end up being unable to excrete it. In one study, I think it was in Australia, they gave people a chelator DMPS who had APOE4, and compared to non APOE4 patients, they had much higher body burdens of mercury.
So this all sounds pretty depressing, but the good news is that we can reduce one, our exposures and two, increase our ability to eliminate it. And so when I see someone coming into my office, I check their blood pressure, I check their heart rate, I get their weight, I get all these important things, get their cholesterol. I check mercury and heavy metals on every single patient who comes in with any health problem because it can be a great mimicker of all sorts of diseases and I want to make sure that if they have it, that I treat it, and if they don’t, that I have eliminated it from my diagnostic possibilities of what’s causing the problem.
Now, the main ways we’re exposed, again, is contaminated fish and our fillings. So you want to make sure that you get rid of the large fish in your diet like tuna, swordfish, shark, [inaudible 00:20:22] fish, halibut, orange roughy. I mean, the list goes on and on. There’s some great resources. The NRDC has a wallet card, which is low, medium and high mercury fish. Environmental Working Group has a great resource for how to reduce your contamination from fish. That’s EWG.org. There’s the Monterey Bay Health Watch. So there’s a lot of great sources and there’s actually great companies that now are doing regenerative agriculture, which are raising great fish with low toxin levels. The company I like is called Seatopia.Fish. We’ll put that in the show notes. That’s C-E-A-T-O-P-I-A.Fish. And they have great delicious tasting fish. So really important.
Now, you can check your blood level, but again, remember, that’ll only detect your recent exposures. You can check your hair. Again, that gives you a partial picture because it doesn’t check any mercury from filling, just from fish. And again, as I’ve said, once your hair grows out, if you haven’t been exposed, let’s say you ate tuna fish for 10 years, then you stopped for two years, there would probably be none in your hair or none in your blood, but you could have a ton in your body. So the only way to really detect it is using a chelating drug called DMSA or DMPS, which is not so available in the US, and it binds to the mercury like fly paper. It’s got sulfur in it. It should only be done by a doctor. It involves taking one dose of medication followed by a six hour urine collection. And then you see how much comes out. And it’s the most reliable way to see what your body burden is.
Again, this is not a conventional test that most doctors do. It’s not really well recognized. People say it’s problematic, but they go, well, yeah, of course you’re taking a chelator. But no, if there’s no mercury, and I’ve had patients with no fillings who are vegan, who I do the test on, who never ate fish, who don’t have any fillings, who don’t live near a cement or coal plant, and they have zero heavy metals in their body for mercury. It’s quite amazing. So it’s something I’ve seen over and over again. I think there needs to be more research. But again, there’s nobody funding this data.
Now, if you are sick and you have a high level of methylmercury or ethylmercury from the blood test you can see, it’s probably a good idea to see a dentist and get your fillings out safely. There’s a lot of ways through food you can actually improve your body’s detoxification capacity. You can take cruciferous vegetables, the broccoli family. That boosts glutathione. Garlic and onions also do the same thing. They have sulfur in them. You can use various things like cilantro, which I’ve seen juice cilantro can help their bodies eliminate them. You want to make sure you’re taking plenty of fiber and having regular bowel movement to bind and excrete the metals. You want to make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. You want to do saunas, which help to eliminate the heavy metals and toxins through your sweat.
But you also may need to take a chelating drug or do other things as well. There’s some great supplements that can help that boost glutathione like [inaudible 00:23:17], lipoic acid. Things like selenium and zinc are also important for activating your body’s metal detox pathways. You need the right methylating vitamins, b6, b12, folate. So I’ve written a lot about this. We’re going to link to articles that I’ve written about how to identify sources of mercury, how to optimize your body’s own detoxification systems. But it’s really, really important if you have any type of chronic illness and you have any type of exposure that you get this properly checked, that you work with a functional medicine doctor to get this properly treated. And you will see profound benefits.
I went from basically being barely able to function to being severely ill and having all sorts of immune issues, cognitive issues, digestive issues. I had severe muscle damage with elevated muscle enzymes. I was a mess. And it took many years for me to learn about this, to detoxify myself. But now I’ve learned how to do it a lot faster. And I would say it’s one of the most satisfying things I do is treat people with these problems. And I’ve seen people reverse obesity, depression, autism, ADD, Alzheimer’s even, poor metabolic health, autoimmune diseases, Crohn’s disease. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. I remember one guy had ulcerative colitis. I tried everything I knew how to do. Finally, I did his heavy metal test. He had super high levels. We chelated him and supported him with IVs and other things like glutathione, and he completely reversed his ulcerative colitis.
So I see these stories every day in my practice and I encourage you to not give up. You need to go find somebody who can work with you. I would check IFM.org for a doctor in your area. But recognize that this is a big problem. It leads to many conditions that are often misdiagnosed as something else. And in order to properly deal with this, you need to work with a trained functional medicine doctor to help you identify the source, identify your body burden, and create a roadmap for applying the right therapies in the right way at the right time to help your body detoxify.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this health bite. It’s a lot of information, but I think it’s important. And I think you can limit your exposures, you can get mercury out of your body and it’ll help you live a long, vibrant, healthy life. And that’s it for today’s health bite. Hope you liked it. If you loved it, please share it with your friends and family on social media. Tell us how you’ve dealt with your heavy metal toxicity. What can we learn from you? Maybe you’ve discovered a way to help get rid of it. And also, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and we’ll see you next time on The Doctor’s Farmacy.
Hi, everyone. I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. Just a reminder that this podcast is for educational purposes only. This podcast is not a substitute for professional care by a doctor or other qualified medical professional. This podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. If you’re looking for help in your journey, seek out a qualified medical practitioner. If you’re looking for a functional medicine practitioner, you can visit IFM.org and search their find a practitioner database. It’s important that you have someone in your corner who’s trained, who’s a licensed healthcare practitioner, and can help you make changes, especially when it comes to your health.