Toxic metals are pervasive in our environment. Mercury is in the fish we eat, the vaccines we receive and the fillings in our teeth. Lead belches from coal-burning factories, and the residue of old leaded gasoline and paint remains in our soil and groundwater. Aluminum appears in medications that we swallow and personal-care products that we put on our skin.

These toxic metals can build up in the brain and body—and create big problems. Examples…

  • Mercury is linked to dementia, depression, high blood pressure, autism and attention disorders. It disrupts hormones, mitochondria (the energy-producing parts of cells) and dopamine (a mood-affecting brain chemical). A large study of American women of childbearing age showed that 8% had toxic levels of mercury in the blood.
  • Lead exposure has been shown to lead to depression, schizophrenia, reduced cognitive function, behavioral problems, heart attack, stroke and death.

Estimated: Nearly 40% of Americans have lead levels that are high enough to cause health problems.

  • Aluminum exposure may be linked to increased risk for breast cancer and/or Alzheimer's disease.

New concern: Many people lack a gene called GSTM1 that appears to be key for proper functioning of the body's own natural detoxification mechanisms. This may explain at least in part why some people develop the chronic health problems linked to heavy metals while others who are similarly exposed do not.

To protect yourself, follow a dual strategy that maximizes your body's ability to rid itself of toxins and minimizes future toxic exposure.

To Boost Detox Power

  • Maximize glutathione production. The body's most important natural detoxifier is the amino acid-based antioxidant glutathione. It contains sulfur, which is like flypaper-toxins stick to it, then are excreted via urine and stool.

To increase your glutathione levels, eat plenty of foods that contain sulfur.

Examples: Garlic, onions and radishes... cruciferous vegetables (bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower...and egg yolks.

  • Take detox supplements. Each day, take a multivitamin and follow this metal-chelating regimen-500 milligrams (mg) to 1,000 mg of vitamin C...10 mg to 30 mg of zinc...and 100 micrograms (mcg) to 200 mcg of selenium.

Also consider supplementing with any or all of the following glutathione building blocks—N-acetylcysteine (NAC) at 500 mg to 1,000 mg twice daily...milk thistle extract at 175 mg twice daily...and alpha-lipoic acid at 100 mg to 200 mg twice daily.

  • Sweat out toxins. Take a dry-heat sauna or moist-heat steam bath, or soak in a hot bathtub five or so times per week, starting with 10-minute sessions and gradually increasing to 30 minutes. Drink 16 ounces of water before and after each session to help flush out toxins...shower with soap afterward to rinse toxins from your skin.

Cautions: If you take medication or have a chronic medical condition, get your doctor's okay first. If you are pregnant, do not use a sauna or steam bath or soak in a hot bathtub.

  • Fill your plate with colors. Richly pigmented foods generally are high in phytonutrients, plant compounds that help boost your body's own detoxification pathways. The more colorful your diet, the more different types of phytonutrients you get

Simple: Each day, eat something red or purple (berries, pomegranate, red peppers)...yellow or orange (cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, yellow beans)...and dark green (collard greens, kale, spinach).

Best: Buy organic to limit exposure to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

  • Get your metal levels measured, especially if you have any symptoms of possible metal toxicity, such as unexplained fatigue, memory loss or depression. But don't rely on blood tests, which show what's happening in your bloodstream only at the moment.

More accurate: You swallow a chelating agent (which binds to heavy metals), then your urine is tested for toxins.

To find a doctor who performs this test, contact the Institute for Functional Medicine (800228-0622, If your metal levels are high, the doctor can prescribe an oral chelating drug, such as dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA), to pull out metals.

To Reduce Metal Exposure

  • Eat smaller fish. Metal contamination is common in large fish (tuna, shark, swordfish, tilefish, sea bass) and river fish-so avoid eating these. Instead, to get omega-3 fatty acids that protect the heart and brain function, stick to fish small enough to fit whole in your frying pan-catfish, flounder, herring, mackerel, fresh or frozen sardines, shrimp and other shellfish.

Even small fish are not entirely free of toxic metals, however-so eat no more than two six ounce servings per week. The limits apply to farm-raised fish, too, as these may be contaminated by their feed.

  • Drink only filtered water. Economical faucet-mounted water filters, such as those from Brita or Pur, can reduce metal levels. Even more effective is a reverse osmosis filter installed under the sink. Avoid bottled water in plastic bottles—though probably free of metals, it may contain chemical contaminants from plastic, such as phthalates

Guideline: Drink at least six to eight full glasses of filtered water daily to maximize the excretion of toxins.

  • Choose metal-free drugstore products. Avoid underarm products and antacids that have any form of aluminum on the ingredients list... and contact lens fluid with thimerosol, a mercury-based preservative. Cosmetics can contain metals, too—for instance, some lipsticks have trace amounts of lead, so opt for chemical-free cosmetics (see Limit use of acetaminophen (Tylenol), which depletes your stores of glutathione, to no more than twice weekly.
  • Consult a biological dentist. Even though mercury-containing silver amalgam fillings are banned in some European countries, they still are used routinely in the US, and the American Dental Association continues to maintain that such fillings are not hazardous.

However: Some studies show that mercury migrates through the teeth into the bloodstream...and amalgam fillings are considered toxic waste when removed from the body.

Prudent: If you need a new filling, get one made of composite resin or another mercury-free material. If you have a chronic unexplained illness or if testing shows that your mercury levels are high, consider having your old amalgam fillings removed and replaced with a safer material. For this, consult a biological dentist-this type of professional is trained in the techniques required to remove amalgam safely.

Referrals: International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, 863-420-6373, www.

Eye Test for Alzheimer's?

A simple, noninvasive test that measures damage to cells in the retina of the eye can reveal stages of cell death in the brain. The technique will be tested in human trials later this year and could allow doctors to diagnose and treat Alzheimer's at an earlier stage.

Cancer vs. Alzheimer's

People with Alzheimer's disease may be less likely to get cancer, and cancer patients appear to have a lower risk for Alzheimer's disease. The currently unexplained link between the two diseases could lead to future treatments.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in