As you probably know, heavy metals are usually not things that belong in the human body. There are a few heavy metals that we need a very, very small amount, but most heavy metals quickly make people sick if they get inside the body. Luckily, heavy metals are not naturally common in the environment.
When heavy metals do get into the body, the body has several ways to defend itself. These defenses don’t work against large amounts of heavy metals, but they can protect us from moderate exposure. One of the most important defenses the body has is called glutathione.
Glutathione is a tripeptide (molecule made of three amino acids) that attaches itself to some heavy metals. This is called ‘binding’. Once glutathione has bound a piece of heavy metal, the liver is able to clear the heavy metal from the body. Glutathione binds cadmium, lead, iron, and mercury.
If a person is exposed to high levels of heavy metals, such as when working in a factory that handles heavy metals, eating lots of fish that are high in mercury, or living in a home with lead paint, the glutathione will not be able to keep up with the amount of heavy metal in the body. When this happens, the heavy metals begin to make the person sick. This is known as heavy metal toxicity, or sometimes heavy metal poisoning.
On the other hand, when something interferes with glutathione a person may develop heavy metal toxicity from small amounts of heavy metals. MTHFR anomalies lower glutathione levels, leaving people who have them vulnerable to heavy metal toxicity.
MTHFR is a genetic condition, heavy metal poisoning is, like all poisoning, caused by something outside the body. Which makes it a bit surprising that MTHFR increases the risk of heavy metal poisoning. How can a genetic condition effect whether or not a person is poisoned?
The connection is a bit convoluted, but very much real. Basically, MTHFR anomalies destroy the body’s ability to protect itself from heavy metal. A person with an MTHFR anomaly will get sick from amounts of heavy metal that normally aren’t dangerous, because their body is not able to get rid of the heavy metal.
How the Body Deals with Heavy Metals
Many things need to happen before a person develops symptoms of heavy metal poisoning. The first, and most important, is they need to be exposed to a lot of heavy metals. Someone who is never exposed to heavy metals will never get heavy metal poisoning. Unfortunately, our world is full of heavy metals. Mercury is found in sea food, lead in some paints; commercial fertilizers have zinc, nickle and cadmium, even cars spread heavy metal, in the dust from tired and brake pads.
Luckily, the body has ways of dealing with and getting rid of heavy metals. Glutathione, in the liver, clears heavy metal from the blood stream and urine carries it out of the body. If there is more heavy metal than can be carried away by the urine, it is taken up by hair follicles and grows out of the body with our hair. In extreme cases, heavy metal will be ‘stored’ in fat cells. This puts the heavy metal in a place where it can’t hurt the body, but means the heavy metal is still there, and if the person loses weight, the heavy metal will flood their system.
The human body is not very good at getting rid of heavy metals. The systems for getting rid of heavy metals can be easily overwhelmed with relatively small amounts of heavy metals. This is why things like lead in paint and drinking water are so dangerous. The body can keep up with normal heavy metal exposure, but any excess quickly becomes a problem. When no more heavy metal can be shoved out of the body through urine and hair growth, or packed into fat cells, the heavy metal stays in the blood stream, and people get sick.
Glutathione, MTHFR and Heavy Metals
Glutathione is the key to the body’s defense against heavy metals. Anything that interferes with glutathione or reduces the amount of glutathione available immediately increases the risk of heavy metal poisoning. However, removing heavy metals is something of a secondary job for glutathione. It is a major factor in several parts of the metabolism, and gets used for a lot of different purposes. Normally, the body does a very good job of keeping level of glutathione stable. By making sure there is always enough glutathione, the body insures that all the jobs glutathione is needed for can get done, including clearing heavy metals.
There are really only two things can really reduce glutathione levels. One is a genetic polymorphism that interferes with the production of glutathione, the other is high levels of oxidative stress (aka, lots of free radicals). Oxidative stress is the connection between MTHFR anomalies and heavy metal poisoning.
MTHFR anomalies create high levels of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is just as much a poison as heavy metals are, and clearing oxidative stress from the body is one of glutathione’s most important jobs. However, when the levels of oxidative stress get too high, the body can’t keep up, and glutathione levels start dropping. If you are exposed to heavy metals while the body has low levels of glutathione, the heavy metals will stay in your body. Without glutathione, the heavy metals can’t be cleared out of the blood steam and gotten rid of. This can lead to heavy metal poisoning.
MTHFR anomalies → high oxidative stress → low glutathione
Low glutathione + heavy metal exposure → heavy metal poisoning
Many people without any MTHFR anomalies develop heavy metal poisoning every year. And many people with MTHFR anomalies never develop heavy metal problems. However, people who have MTHFR anomalies can develop symptoms of heavy metal poisoning far more easily, and with far less heavy metal exposure, than people who do not have MTHFR anomalies.