For years, doctors brushed off Khristee Rich’s fatigue that eventually made it impossible for her to work, socialize, or take care of herself. This exhaustion was accompanied by other symptoms: brain fog, chronic widespread pain, migraines, and insomnia. But despite numerous trips to various doctors, no one could diagnose the cause of Rich's problems. Until one day, doing some research of her own, she uncovered the surprising culprit: heavy metal toxicity.
According to Cleveland Clinic, heavy metal poisoning (or toxicity) is the result of exposure to heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic. Heavy metals bind to parts of your cells that prevent your organs from doing their job; and the resulting symptoms can cause irreversible damage.
Rich's experience isn't uncommon for women. All too often, doctors will either brush off women's concerns (telling patients their symptoms are mild and should resolve soon) or dismiss women's research (telling patients they should not self-diagnose, even though they know their own bodies better than anyone). But with Rich's patience and perseverance, she found a way to both diagnose her own disease and manage her symptoms using a completely natural remedy. Find out more about her story below.
What Is Heavy Metal Toxicity?
Heavy metal poisoning is the accumulation of various heavy metals in your body. We are all exposed to heavy metals every day via environmental and industrial causes; everything from food to air can hold these metals. Some of them — like zinc, copper, and iron — are good for us in small doses. However, overexposure to these metals can also lead to heavy metal poisoning — and that can be fatal if untreated.
According to Healthline.com, acute symptoms associated with heavy metal poisoning include headaches, abdominal pain and cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. That last one is the symptom Khristee Rich was hit particularly hard with.
They probably think I’m on drugs, Rich thought, sitting on the floor of a health food store, hoping to find the energy to stand up. Ironically, she was at the store in search of something to give her a boost of energy and improve her mysterious fatigue and brain fog, chronic widespread pain, migraines, and insomnia. “I felt so weak and exhausted, I almost passed out in the store and had to sit down on the floor with my head between my legs,” she recalls.
“The lack of energy and crushing fatigue wasn’t new, as I had lived with debilitating symptoms for nearly 12 years at that point. The insomnia made it impossible to work — most days, I didn’t have the energy to do anything. The tremendous fatigue prevented me from concentrating on working, exercising, or even making a grocery list. My symptoms also forced me to withdraw from nearly every aspect of life, and I had to move in with my parents because I could no longer take care of myself. I felt horrible physically and mentally.
“Despite numerous trips to three primary care physicians, as well as a cardiologist, neurologist, internist, gastroenterologist, endocrinologist, and more, no one could uncover the cause of my fatigue or other symptoms. Time after time, doctors — as well as family and friends — didn’t believe me when I said how sick I was.
“A year after the health store incident, I researched my symptoms and found they all matched with heavy metal toxicity. I took my research to my doctor, who tossed the papers aside, upset that I was trying to diagnose myself. He said, ‘I hate when my patients do this! There is no way you have heavy metals in your body. I’m the doctor, not you!’ I was shocked."
How Is Heavy Metal Toxicity Diagnosed?
After being treatment with skepticism by her doctor, Rich found a new provider, shared her long health history and concerns about heavy metal toxicity, and was sent to an infectious disease specialist. After doing a specific blood test to measure heavy metal levels, the doctor confirmed the root cause of Rich's illness was indeed liver toxicity due to extremely high levels of lead and mercury in her blood.
According to Cleveland Clinic, it can be difficult for providers to diagnose heavy metal poisoning because the symptoms often mimic those of other conditions. It's best to start by telling your provider if you know you've had exposure to a toxic metal. Tests that can detect heavy metal poisoning include a heavy metal blood test, a complete blood count (CBC), an electrocardiogram., an imaging test like an X-ray, a kidney function test, a liver function study, and a urine protein test.
Rich's doctor announced that her case would be reported to the state of Connecticut and added as a statistic — she had likely been exposed to an environmental hazard.
Could Dental Fillings Be To Blame?
“My doctors were in disbelief of the high levels in my blood and asked repeatedly if I was eating tuna five times a day," Rich remembers. "But I ate very little fish. They never determined how I got such high levels, but I wondered if perhaps when my dentist replaced my silver amalgam fillings with white fillings, maybe I had swallowed some of the silver filling shavings. Or if, before the fillings were replaced, some of the mercury leached into my system."
While some dentists believe it's possible that removing dental fillings made of mercury-containing amalgam could reduce body levels of the toxic metal, there is no consistent scientific proof that the dental use of amalgam poses a significant health risk. Still, finding a dentist who uses the SMART (Safe Mercury Amalgam Removal Technique) protocol might be the right choice for you, says Nammy Patel, D.D.S., head of Green Dentistry in San Francisco. Dentists trained in the technique use safeguards, such as air-filtration systems, oral vacuums, and oxygen masks. “This minimizes exposure to mercury particles and vapors released from amalgam, which can worsen toxicity symptoms if not controlled properly,” Dr. Patel says. Once amalgam fillings are safely removed, the payoff is impressive: In a Norwegian study, patients saw reductions in jaw pain, GI complaints, and headaches. To find a SMART dentist, visit IAOMT.org.
What's the Treatment for Heavy Metal Toxicity?
According to Heathline, depending on your level of exposure, medications given intravenously under medical supervision may be able to remove the toxins from your system. These medications bind to the metals in a process called chelation.
In addition to chelation, you can consider a natural complementary therapy, such as a “heavy metal detox.” However, most of these treatments aren’t backed by scientific research. There are some dietary treatment options, though, which incorporate foods that electrically attract metal to help move the toxins out of your body. These foods bind to the metals and remove them in the digestive process.
Eating foods high in vitamins and minerals can help with exposure to heavy metals; specific heavy metal detox foods include cilantro, garlic, chlorella, green tea, and probiotics. This is the all-natural treatment method Rich decided to take.
“The doctors recommended weekly chelation therapy," Rich shares of her experience. "They said I would need treatments in New York City for at least a year and that this was the only way to remove the heavy metals. I researched and learned that it can be costly and painful, and that it comes with side effects, so I wanted to see what else was out there.
So, Rich turned to natural remedies. "I started putting a spoonful of raw organic chlorella powder in a fruit smoothie every morning, and I took a large bunch of cilantro and a few cloves of garlic and made pesto that I put on pasta or ate as a dip with vegetables," she says. "For a month, I drank the smoothie and ate a few spoonfuls of the pesto daily because I had learned that both chlorella and cilantro naturally draw heavy metals out of the body, similar to chelation therapy."
To Rich's surprise... it worked. "Fearing my levels would rise, every week, my doctor checked the heavy metals in my blood, but was shocked as they started to go down. After a month, my levels were zero and I had my health back," she shares. "I healed myself naturally in one month! Today, I feel terrific and have more energy than I ever imagined. I love once again being independent and full of joy.”
The Bottom Line
While the exact rate of occurrence is unknown, heavy metal poisoning in the United States is rare. If you know or suspect that you've been exposed to heavy metals and are experiencing symptoms, visit your healthcare provider.
In the meantime, you can reduce your risk of heavy metal poisoning by minimizing your exposure to heavy metals. Cleveland Clinic suggests you mitigate this risk by:
Wearing personal protective equipment, like a mask and gloves, when working with heavy metals.
Calling your local environmental protection agency to clean up any heavy metal spills.
Limiting the amount of fish that contain metals (mercury) in your diet.
Contacting your local health department, landlord ,or inspector to make sure you don’t have any heavy metals in your home.
Washing your hands before you eat.
Reading labels on products you purchase to see if they contain metals.
One-Minute Quiz: Could You Have Heavy Metal Toxicity?
Is a heavy metal overload draining your energy? If you’re constantly tired and have two or more of the following symptoms, an overload of the toxic metal mercury may be to blame.
✓ Trouble concentrating
✓ Joint pain
✓ Anxiety or blue moods
✓ Muscle weakness
✓ Memory lapses
✓ GI difficulties
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.