From "clean" skincare to anti-pollution ingredients, the war on toxins isn't something we take lightly. But it might be just about time to turn things up a notch. Well, that's kind of the theory behind the heavy metal detox, the new wellness frontier being adopted by health seekers the world over.
Way more hardcore than a three-day juice cleanse, the heavy metal detox is rooted in the medical belief that a whole host of potentially harmful trace metals is laying siege on our bodies. These heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, weasel their way into our bodies by way of some unassuming, mundane drinking water and plant pesticides that linger on our salad leaves, but if left to accumulate, these metals can cause all manner of ailments (more on that later).
Now, don't freak out: Your body is already pretty well prepared to fight these pesky metals, and it's important to remember to consult your GP if you're really concerned about your exposure. But as a pretty sound starting point, keep scrolling to find out a little more on why these metals are such bad news and the steps that can be taken to get rid of them.
So what's so bad about these metals anyway?
Don't fear: "In small amounts, some [heavy metals] are actually beneficial to health—such as iron and zinc," explains Jo Travers, registered dietitian and author of The Low Fad Diet, "but if they accumulate, they can be really harmful. They bind to proteins that are meant for other metals, which causes problems with cell function and DNA. They can cause anaemia, nausea, diarrhoea, problems with cognitive development, encephalopathy and even death."
How do heavy metals get into our bodies?
Unfortunately, heavy metals are just about everywhere and have plenty of routes to enter our bodies, including, but not limited to, the following:
— Mercury from drinking water and within some seafood.
— Lead from pipes and drains can be picked up by water.
— Others enter the body through pesticides on our fresh fruit and veg, through dyes in clothes and furnishings and even things like batteries and steel.
How can you tell if your body is ridden with heavy metals?
If you want to find out your heavy metal levels, your best route is to visit your doctor for testing. "Heavy metals show in the blood or urine, depending on the metal, so usually testing these will give an idea if you a person has high concentrations," explains Travers. "Liver and kidney function tests will also help to diagnose."
But not all forms of testing were created equal, and many heavy metal tests on the market are unreliable, as they test irrelevant factors such as hair. "Hair testing is unreliable because dust and hair products containing heavy metals may stick to the hair, indicating a high reading that won't actually reflect the levels in the body," warns Travers.
She's also pretty wary of chelation and thinks that in some cases, it can do more harm than good. "This test involves taking substances which encourage metals to stick to them," she says. "This can mean useful metals such as calcium and harmless amounts of iron and zinc can be drawn out from bone etc, meaning that levels in the blood and urine will appear higher than normal."
How do you undertake a heavy metal detox?
This is no juice cleanse. Heavy metal detoxing should only be done under strict medical supervision. "Chelation is a treatment for acute poisoning (high exposure) for some metals but has lots of side effects and can be dangerous—even fatal. For chronic poisoning the best treatment is to remove the heavy metal from the environment to prevent further exposure," Travers explains.
To battle everyday exposure, there are a few things you can do to help, however. "The body has its own protective mechanisms for dealing with heavy metals, such as increasing production of proteins to bind to the metals," she explains. "Making sure that you have an adequate intake of all essential vitamins and minerals will help the body do this." Travers recommends selenium; vitamins B, C and E, which all have antioxidant properties; and iron and zinc as they compete with heavy metals so can reduce absorption.
"Phytochemicals from plants such as isoflavones and polyphenols have also been shown to have antioxidant benefits," she adds. "Having a balanced diet with plenty of plant foods in combination with limiting your exposure to heavy metals—stopping smoking and checking with marine authorities that the fish you eat doesn't have high levels of mercury, for example—will likely prevent any buildup of heavy metals."
Some people also believe that infrared saunas can help detoxify heavy metals from the body, although the science behind that claim is a little bit sketchy.
Can you ever be completely free of heavy metals?
Bad news here. Travers says no: "Heavy metals are all around us in the soil and the environment," so exposure is pretty much non-negotiable.