Detoxes seem to have as many cheerleaders as they do critics, and heavy metal detoxes are certainly in the midst of the tug of war between the two camps.
To be sure, exposure to heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury can be detrimental to your health. A high level of heavy metals in our bodies can lead to toxicity. In turn, that toxicity can cause ailments such as lung cancer and kidney damage.
“In very small amounts, many of these metals are necessary to support life. However, in larger amounts, they become toxic. They may build up in biological systems and become a significant health hazard,” the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, heavy metal poisoning can be caused by industrial exposure, air or water pollution, foods (such as farmed fish), medicines, improperly coated food containers or ingestion of lead-based paints.
While the dangers of heavy metals are well-documented, the need to rid our systems of heavy metals through detoxes is another matter.
On his natural health website, Dr. Josh Axe, a natural medicine doctor, chiropractic doctor and clinical nutritionist, explains that at least 23 heavy metals can remain in our systems for years and can contribute to acute or chronic toxicity.
Those heavy metals, Axe adds, can be removed through detoxes that include foods like leafy green vegetables, other non-starchy vegetables, herbs, spices, algae and bone broth, as well as through detoxifying treatments and certain supplements.
“Exposure to toxic heavy metals is believed to be a contributing factor, if not a root cause, of symptoms like low energy, mood disturbances and cognitive changes,” Axe says.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic have a different take on all detoxes, including those aimed at heavy metals. The clinic says there’s little evidence that detoxes actually eliminate toxins from our bodies. In fact, the clinic adds, the kidneys and liver generally do a great job of flushing out most of the toxins that we ingest.
“So why do so many people claim to feel better after detoxification?” the Mayo Clinic says. “It may be due in part to the fact that a detox diet eliminates highly processed foods that have solid fats and added sugar. Simply avoiding these high-calorie low-nutrition foods for a few days may be part of why people feel better.”
Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at England’s University of Exeter, is harsher in assessing detoxes.
In 2014, Ernst told The Guardian newspaper that there are two types of detox — legitimate and illegitimate.
The legitimate detox, he said, is the one that treats people with life-threatening drug addictions.
The illegitimate detox, Ernst said, is the one “being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”
If toxins did build up so that your body couldn’t flush them out, he said, you’d probably be dead or you’d need serious medical treatment.
“The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak,” Ernst told The Guardian. “There is no known way — certainly not through detox treatments — to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.”
Unlike Ernst, health coach Lisa Jendza believes that a heavy metal detox does make your body work better. She follows a 10-day heavy metal detox regimen that features a nutritional component, as well as a swap-out of skin care products and household cleaners.
“We are more toxic than ever,” Jendza says, “and it is my belief that heavy metal detox, or any detox, is not a one-time event. It is a series of conscious choices.”
Alfred Schofield, co-founder of VitalFit, a maker of restorative plant-based products, also believes in the conscious choice of undergoing a heavy metal detox.
“Focusing on a heavy metal detox can have several long-lasting health benefits,” he says. “Having less heavy metal circulating in your body reduces free radicals — your bodies’ bad actors — and results in a boost in energy and immune function, and better digestion and skin health.”
The most popular type of heavy metal detox encompasses dietary changes, Schofield says. This detox diet emphasizes eating lots of herbs and green vegetables, loading up on foods rich in vitamin C and drinking plenty of water, he says, while it focuses on cutting out fish, processed foods and most alcohol.
“The thing to watch out for here is to be sure to eat a balanced diet and maintain the nutrients that you need,” Schofield says.
The other type of heavy metal detox involves chelation. Through this procedure, a health practitioner adds chelating agents to your body, with the goal of those agents bonding heavy metal molecules and the heavy metals being excreted through urination, Schofield says.
Chelation does come with potential side effects, such as removal of essential nutrients, according to Schofield.
Consumer Reports points out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some prescription chelation products to treat people who’ve accidentally consumed heavy metals such as lead.
However, the FDA says, illegal over-the-counter products often are deceptively marketed as being FDA-approved. The federal agency stresses that it has never approved an over-the-counter chelation treatment for any health condition.
Natural chelating agents include cilantro, chlorella and spirulina.