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Can You Safely Chelate Heavy Metals?

Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Evguenia Alechine
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Evguenia Alechine, PhD (Biochemistry), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

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Factory smoke

Most people don’t have to worry about heavy metal exposure. In rare cases, excessive amounts of these metals released into the environment can pose a health threat. Poisoning may cause fatigue, confusion, mood changes, and gastrointestinal issues. Find out whether there are safe complementary approaches to support conventional treatment.

Complementary Approaches to Reduce Heavy Metal Poisoning

Heavy metal poisoning is extremely rare in the United States. It happens only when people are exposed to exceptionally high amounts of heavy metals in their environment, typically due to work-related conditions.

Despite this, various heavy metals tests and detox protocols are being promoted online as healthy for the general population or for people suffering from certain health issues.

Science goes against these approaches. Evidence suggests that people should be cautious about these unproven, potentially unsafe, and often costly treatments.

Additionally, detox supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.

The FDA also clearly advises consumers against using over-the-counter chelation agents, which can be dangerous. Chelation agents should only be used by prescription and for certain cases, under medical supervision [1].

If you are being treated for heavy metal toxicity, certain healthy dietary changes and complementary strategies might be an option.

You may try the additional strategies listed below if you and your doctor determine that they could be appropriate. Many are not backed by proper clinical trials. None of these strategies should ever be done in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.

In people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning, the goal of chelation is to bind heavy metals, which allows metals to be excreted out of the body.

1) Removing Sources of Exposure

The first step in reducing the body burden of heavy metals is to reduce or remove the source of exposure, if possible. This may mean taking a break from your job if occupational exposure is an issue, reducing consumption of high-mercury seafood, testing and filtering drinking water, or quitting smoking.

Your doctor will go over all potential sources of exposure with you if they suspect heavy metal poisoning.

2) Essential Minerals Intake

Limited research suggests that nutrients like zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium might reduce the absorption of toxic heavy metals. According to some studies, their depletion results in enhanced toxic metal uptake from the gut [2, 3, 4, 5].

These nutrients can be found in many healthy foods you can include. They are also included in multivitamin supplements. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or making major dietary changes, especially if you are currently receiving treatment for heavy metal poisoning.

3) Healthy Foods

Garlic

Some scientists think that garlic may protect against the damaging effects of heavy metals and help with their excretion. However, clinical trials are lacking.

When rats were given garlic at the same time as cadmium and mercury, the accumulation of heavy metals in their liver, kidneys, bone, and testes was decreased and the activity of certain enzymes was partially restored [6]. In addition, cadmium excretion was increased.

In rats given mercury, cadmium, and lead in addition to 7% raw garlic in their food, accumulation of the heavy metals was decreased in the liver, with the greatest effect seen for cadmium [7].

Garlic is safe and it’s known to be good for health. However, studies in humans are needed to determine if it can bind heavy metals and reduce their toxicity.

Chlorella

In mice, diets consisting of 5% and 10% of Chlorella increased urinary and fecal excretion of mercury, and decreased mercury levels in the brain and kidneys, without affecting glutathione levels. Human studies about this use are lacking [8].

Cilantro

In mice, cilantro supplementation alongside lead administration resulted in significantly fewer lead deposits in the bones [9].

However, in a study (RCT) on 32 children aged 3 – 7 years with lead-exposed parents found that cilantro extract given for 14 days did not decrease lead concentration in blood or excretion in urine compared to the placebo group [10].

Cilantro has not been tested for other types of heavy metal poisoning. It’s safe in the amounts it’s commonly used in foods, but there’s not enough data to rate its effects on health. Further clinical trials are required.

Unproven Methods to Avoid

OTC Use of Prescription Chelation Agents

Some alternative practitioners recommend heavy metal chelation supplements, which are sold over-the-counter (OTC). They claim that these supplements remove heavy metals from where they are stored in the body into the bloodstream to be excreted (through the liver via bile in the feces, through the kidneys via urine, or through the skin via sweat) [11].

However, chelation agents should only be used by prescription and for approved indications, under medical supervision [1].

DMSA

Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) is an FDA-approved prescription product indicated for the treatment of lead poisoning in children [1].

The FDA recently warned consumers not to use Captomer or Captomer-250 by Thorne Research, which contained DMSA. Thorne subsequently recalled this product, which was being marketed as a dietary supplement for heavy metal toxicity and heavy metal chelation therapy [1].

The FDA advised consumers to avoid all products offered OTC for chelation or detoxification. There are no FDA-approved OTC chelation products.

Calcium Disodium EDTA

Calcium Disodium EDTA (CaNA2EDTA) is approved by the FDA for intravenous use for the reduction of blood levels and depot stores of lead in lead poisoning (acute and chronic) and lead encephalopathy [12, 11].
It is also known as Calcium Disodium Versenate. CaNA2EDTA may deplete essential minerals, particularly zinc, copper, and manganese [13]. It should not be used during pregnancy or in people with kidney or liver diseases [11].

The FDA issued a warning about “chelation therapies” and other calcium disodium uses that are not approved by the FDA. Deaths in children and adults undergoing these unapproved therapies have been reported [14].

Pulsed Chelation

Some chelation agents may cause side effects that can affect the gastrointestinal system, skin, kidneys, or liver. Kidney and liver function need to be closely monitored during chelation therapy with some agents [15].

So-called “pulse chelation” is an area of research. Some scientists suggest that heavy metals should be detoxified slowly with prescription chelation agents to prevent redistribution through the body and minimize side effects. There’s not enough evidence to support this practice [11].

Studies are exploring whether some patients undergoing treatment need to discontinue or receive lower doses of chelating agents if side effects worsen. This might allow the body’s detoxification and excretory systems to “catch up” [11].

Therefore, some physicians may consider pulsing the chelation process. You should be continually monitored by a qualified physician during this time.

Unapproved Chelation Agents

DMPS

Dimercaptopropane sulfonate (DMPS) is not an FDA-approved drug.

Despite this, it’s being used in the US for alleged heavy metal toxicity. Many false detox claims surround its use.

Despite its status as a non-approved drug, DMPS was being compounded in some pharmacies in the US. Until recently, compounding substances like DMPS was a grey zone exploited by questionable alternative practitioners. FDA’s new rule concerning the use of bulk drugs in compounding pharmacies put an end to this practice [16].

Subsequently, the use of DMPS was limited to intravenous administration and hospital use only [16].

DMPS has been used in the treatment of mercury and arsenic poisonings and some other less common heavy metal poisonings [17, 18, 19, 20].

DMPS also increases the urinary excretion of necessary nutrients like copper, selenium, zinc, and magnesium, necessitating supplementation with them before or after treatment [21].

In one trial on autistic patients, a few children developed a worsening of symptoms from DMPS [22].

Sauna/Sweating

No valid evidence supports the use of saunas in people with heavy metal poisoning.

Sauna is probably good for the average healthy person. It supports overall wellness. But despite the popular claims, heat, infrared light – and any type of sauna, for that matter – will not help you “sweat out toxins.”

For example, researchers believe that sauna use increases circulation throughout the skin and induces sweating, with blood flow to the skin increasing from 5 – 10% and the amount of blood pumped through the heart at rest to 60 – 70% [23].

Limited studies suggest that when people who have sweating causes some minerals, such as zinc, copper, and manganese to be excreted via the skin. But it has never been shown that sweating – caused by exercise or sauna use or other means – increases the elimination of heavy metals or that it’s helpful for people with heavy metal poisoning. This is a myth [24, 25].

Purported Supplements for Heavy Metal Detox & Chelation

Detox supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use.

No clinical evidence supports the use of the supplements listed below in people with heavy metal poisoning.

Below is a summary of the existing research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

Additionally, supplements may interact with medications. Speak with your doctor before supplementing. If you are being treated for heavy metal toxicity and your doctor determines some of the supplements listed below may be appropriate, you may try them.

1) Glutathione

Glutathione is an antioxidant that is produced from three amino acids: cysteine, glutamic acid (closely related, but not to be confused with glutamine), and glycine.

Glutathione contains sulfur components that seem to bind mercury, lead, and cadmium [26].

Other compounds that have thiol groups include the amino acid cysteine, albumin, and metallothioneins. Mercury has a high affinity for thiol groups. Scientists believe it can readily bind to the thiol-containing compound that’s most abundant in the body (usually glutathione) [27].

Researchers are exploring whether higher levels of glutathione protect against mercury accumulation [28].

The effects of mercury on depleting glutathione levels are being studied in brain cells, red blood cells, and kidney tissues [29, 30, 31].

Glutathione is hypothesized to protect against mercury in 4 ways:

  1. Binding to it and preventing it from causing damage to enzymes and cells [32]
  2. Preventing mercury from entering the cell, where it does the most damage [32]
  3. Helping transport and eliminate it from the body [31]. A study on rats poisoned with mercury suggested that glutathione is important for removing mercury via bile [33].
  4. Serving as an antioxidant that may neutralize free radicals such as hydrogen peroxide and lipid peroxides that are produced by mercury [32].

These mechanisms have not been confirmed in humans.

Glutathione supplements are not recommended since they have poor bioavailability. You can learn about natural factors that may increase glutathione levels in this post.

2) Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is another antioxidant that is hypothesized to have the ability to penetrate the cell membrane as well as cross the blood-brain barrier. Scientists are researching whether it can bind to heavy metals in the brain and reduce damage to cellular membranes [34, 35, 36].

This is important as lead and mercury easily accumulate in the brain [37, 38].

Animal studies suggest that alpha-lipoic acid may increase glutathione levels inside and outside of cells. According to one theory, it might regenerate used glutathione to make it active again [36, 39].

Additionally, scientists suspect that alpha-lipoic acid may increase the production of glutathione by increasing the uptake of cysteine into the cell. Cysteine is the rate-limiting component of glutathione production [39].

In other animal studies, it reduced the uptake of cadmium into liver cells and prevented the absorption of arsenic in the intestines. These findings can’t be extrapolated to humans [40, 41].

Of note, animal studies suggested that alpha-lipoic acid may help redistribute heavy metals, but these studies administered it intravenously. Scientists think that this might cause alpha-lipoic acid to combine with glutathione in the liver, which may not happen with oral use [42, 43, 44].

No clinical trials have investigated the use of alpha-lipoic acid on heavy metal toxicity.

Doses of up to 1,800 mg/day of alpha-lipoic acid by mouth were used in clinical trials on people with diabetic nerve pain [45].

3) Modified Citrus Pectin

Pectin is a fiber in plants. Modified citrus pectin (MCP) is a form of pectin that has been altered to be more digestible.

However, clinical studies on MCP and heavy metal poisoning are few, small, and biased. The studies were performed by Dr. Isaac Eliaz, who holds the patent for MCP. Proper trials are lacking, so we don’t yet know if MCP is safe and effective for this indication.

In one low-quality, small study on children with high blood levels of lead, 15 grams of MCP a day for 28 days decreased lead in the blood; urine lead levels increased by about 132% [46].

The second study included healthy volunteers and found that 15 grams of modified citrus pectin a day for five days increased urinary excretion of arsenic (130%), cadmium (150%), and lead (560%) [47].

Since these people were not sick and had a normal body load of heavy metals, this study brings us to another important question: is urinary excretion of heavy metals a meaningful marker? Most experts will say no.

Scientists suggest that urine tests may give an inaccurate representation of body burden for some metals [48].

The controversy was heightened once companies started offering “at home heavy metals urine tests.” No evidence backs up heavy metals testing in most people and at-home urine testing may lead to improper sample collection, inaccurate results, and questionable interpretation.

4) Vitamin C

Low vitamin C levels have been associated with decreased glutathione levels and increased oxidative stress [49].

Vitamin C increased glutathione levels by recycling used glutathione in one human study (DB-RCT) [50].

In rats, vitamin C supplementation increases lead excretion in the urine and feces and prevent lead absorption in the intestine. This finding can’t be extrapolated to humans [51].

Lead toxicity can lead to damage to the membranes of red blood cells, impairing their function. In 15 workers exposed to lead, one year of vitamin C (1 g/day) and E supplementation (400 IU/day) reduced lipid peroxidation in red blood cells between 47.1% and 69.4%, comparable to 19 non-lead exposed workers [52].

Dosages between 500 – 1,500 mg a day are often used in clinical research settings.

Sometimes vitamin C is given through an infusion in combination with the chelator EDTA. This practice has not been medically approved. High amounts of vitamin C (5g or more) can be harmful [53].

5) Selenium

Selenium is an essential nutrient. It’s required for the activity of glutathione, and increased levels of selenium have been associated with increased levels of glutathione in the blood [54, 55].

In 103 mercury-exposed villagers in China, 100 micrograms of selenium daily in the form of enriched yeast increased mercury excretion and decreased markers of inflammation and oxidative stress compared to controls who were given the yeast without selenium [56].

In rats exposed to mercury, selenium prevented neuronal damage and the suppression of protein synthesis caused by mercury and helped repair damaged tissue that helps conduct nerve signals (myelin sheath). These mechanisms haven’t been investigated in humans [57].

Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium. One nut contains about 68 – 91 mcg of selenium.

6) N-Acetylcysteine

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a form of cysteine that may increase the production of glutathione. NAC is often used for drug poisoning in emergency medicine.

In mice, N-Acetylcysteine enhanced excretion of mercury in comparison to control animals [58].

In 171 workers exposed to lead, N-Acetylcysteine reduced blood levels of lead and increased glutathione concentrations, while at the same time decreasing oxidative stress [59].

However, there are not enough reliable data to rate the effectiveness and safety of NAC for heavy metal poisoning.

7) Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral. Good dietary sources of zinc include red meat, seafood, dairy products, nuts, legumes, and whole grains [60].

Scientists consider that Zinc competes with cadmium and lead for the binding sites on proteins, and zinc deficiency can lead to greater absorption of cadmium and lead [61].

In lab animals, zinc seems to increase the synthesis of metallothionein, a protein that binds cadmium and helps detoxify it from the body. It might also protect the activity of an enzyme called δ-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase (ALAD) that is sensitive to lead. However, these pathways have not been explored in humans [62, 63, 64].

8) Activated Charcoal

While limited studies suggest activated charcoal may bind mercury, lead, and nickel in industrial waste, no studies that have measured its chelation abilities in the human body [65].

9) Methionine

According to one unapproved theory, methionine may help with chelating metals because of its sulfur group. When methionine was added to the diet of rats, it increased fecal excretion of lead. Human studies are lacking [66].

10) Taurine

Taurine is a sulfur-containing compound. Its effects on heavy metal poisoning in humans are unknown.

When taurine was given to mice, it protected against oxidative damage in the brain caused by cadmium and improved the antioxidant status in the animals [67].

Another study in rats suggested that taurine supplementation prevented damage of brain tissue due to arsenic [68].

Taurine was also researched against lead toxicity in rat ovaries and mercury toxicity in the hearts and livers of rats. Clinical trials are needed [69, 70, 71].

11) Carnosine

Carnosine is a molecule made of the amino acids beta-alanine and histidine with purported antioxidant properties [72].

Scientists are researching whether carnosine can bind cadmium and mercury in cells [73].

In rats, carnosine seemed to prevent kidney damage from lead and increased glutathione levels [74].

However, we don’t know how carnosine might affect heavy metal poisoning in humans.

Other Supplements

These are often recommended by alternative practitioners::

Clinical evidence is lacking to support their use for heavy metal poisoning.

Experiences of People who Removed Heavy Metals from their Bodies

The opinions expressed in this section are solely those of the users who may or may not have medical or scientific training. Their reviews do not represent the opinions of SelfHacked. SelfHacked does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on SelfHacked. We understand that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.

Some users reported that N-Acetylcysteine supplementation improves symptoms of depression, reduces brain fog, and provides a slight energy boost. Others experienced gastrointestinal discomfort and headaches.

Users report mixed results when supplementing with alpha-lipoic acid, with some noting increased energy and feelings of general well-being and reduction in nerve pain, while others report an increase in fatigue and mental fogginess, to which some attribute to an alleged “redistribution of mercury.”

One individual claimed to have removed heavy metals by taking 1 g/day of DMSA (in addition to N-Acetylcysteine and alpha-lipoic acid) for 3 days every 2 weeks, which eliminated chronic Candida infections and persistent anxiety and brain fog. Another DMSA user noted that just 50 mg of DMSA resulted in psychosis lasting for a month, which highlights that the OTC use of prescription chelation agents like DMSA can be extremely dangerous.

A Final Word of Caution

Remember that several deaths from unapproved chelation therapies have been reported. We strongly advise against the OTC use of chelation agents, which can cause serious side effects.

Many symptoms of heavy metal poisoning are unspecific. Poisoning is uncommon in the general population.

If you think that you are at risk of chronic heavy metal poisoning, contact your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor will assess your symptoms and exposure risk. People who work in certain industrial environments might be at risk.

If you have been acutely exposed to heavy metals–such as by inhaling metal fumes in the workplace or elsewhere – urgently contact a poison center near you (call 1-800-222-1222).

Plus, keep in mind that supplements marketed for “detoxing” heavy metals have not been approved for medical use. There’s no evidence to support their use. If they don’t contain chelating agents, they might be safe. But they are likely to be expensive and ineffective.

About the Author

Ana Aleksic

Ana Aleksic

MSc (Pharmacy)
Ana received her MS in Pharmacy from the University of Belgrade.
Ana has many years of experience in clinical research and health advising. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana spent years working with patients who suffer from various mental health issues and chronic health problems. She is a strong advocate of integrating scientific knowledge and holistic medicine.

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