Unfortunately, yes. Heavy metal toxicity can result in damage to many of your body’s biological systems as well as lead to degenerative diseases and some cancers. We humans can encounter heavy metals in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. As is usually the case with either deficiencies or toxicities, children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heavy metals. This is because their bodies are undergoing such rapid development and because they often consume more food in comparison to their body weight than adults do.
The three heavy metals humans are most commonly exposed to are lead, mercury, and cadmium. We’ll also consider the chemical element arsenic, though it is technically considered a heavy metalloid (how fancy!).
As for lead, the most common food sources (these heavy metals can appear elsewhere in our environment both naturally and due to pollution) for lead exposure are foods grown in a lead-rich soil. Mercury most often shows up in fish and shellfish that come from mercury-contaminated water (cue small sigh of relief from those who do not eat aquatic animals). The foods that contain the highest amounts of cadmium are grains, legumes, leafy vegetables, and aquatic animals. Arsenic can be found in insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, some aquatic animals and seaweeds, and rice and fruit juices. You might be thinking that buying organic can keep you safe from arsenic, but unfortunately, because it occurs naturally in soil and water, it can also be present in organic foods.
Because heavy metals occur in the environment both naturally and due to human activity, it is impossible to avoid them completely. The good news is that there are steps you can take to encourage your body to rid itself of heavy metals or to prevent them from even entering your cells in the first place.
The way these heavy metals interact with our bodies offers us a strategy for preventing their accumulation. Many heavy metals behave very similarly to nutritionally essential metals (good-for-you metals!). As such, the good metals and the dangerous ones both compete for the same transport mechanisms to pass through our intestinal walls and eventually into our cells. To give some examples, if your body is running low on either zinc or iron, your capacity to absorb cadmium may increase. Calcium, iron, and zinc can block out lead, and selenium can serve to prevent the absorption of both mercury and lead. Additionally, selenium helps us actually excrete toxic metals, in particular, mercury and arsenic! A good strategy for dealing with these pesky little buggers is to consume adequate quantities of vitamins such as calcium, zinc, iron, and folate; antioxidants such as Vitamin C (citrus fruits), Vitamin E (sprouted nuts and seeds), and beta-carotene (carrots, sweet potatoes, peaches, and apricots); and foods like garlic and cilantro, which help with the excretion of heavy metals.
Making sure that we consume adequate quantities of essential nutrients might help us prevent toxic metals from entering our systems and can give what’s already in there the boot. This offers a lot of hope! Rather than asking yourself whether you should worry, ask yourself what you can do about it!
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