Our bodies naturally contain metals, some of which are essential for a number of enzymatic processes, metabolic functions, etc. These include zinc, selenium and copper (1).
Cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic and antimony on the other hand, serve no function in the body and are toxic even at low doses. However, these toxic heavy metals are also present in our bodies but in such minuscule amounts as to pose very little risk to our health.
Iron and aluminium are not heavy metals, and while a certain amount of iron is essential for health, the toxicity of aluminium remains difficult to quantify.
While the working principles of chelation were discovered as early as the 19th century, it was not until the Second World War that it was actually put into practice (2).
It was in the 1940s and 50s that chelation therapies were first used, for treating heavy metal poisoning in industrial workers and miners.
The principle behind chelation is relatively simple: a medication is injected intravenously which has the property of binding to the metal cations of the heavy metals present in the body. The heavy metals can then be excreted in urine along with the binding drug.
Still used today, chelation therapy is thus an exceptional medical protocol reserved for severe poisoning in which there’s an immediate risk to life.
When a patient is suffering from certain health problems or medically-diagnosed poisoning, detoxifying treatments such as chelation can be performed. Let’s take a look at some of these scenarios.
We often hear about calcium chelation by citrate, for example, but what exactly is it? When treating patients who require extrarenal replacement therapy (eg, haemodialysis), usually because of serious kidney failure, doctors may use citrate calcium-chelation protocols because citrate has anticoagulant properties which are vital during extracorporeal circulation (ECC) (3).
Citrate is a weak organic acid that enters the tricarboxylic acid cycle in the form of citric acid. Its anticoagulant action rests on its ability to chelate ionised calcium in plasma with which it then forms a diffusible complex.
So we can see that here, citrate is used in medicine as a chelator in an anticoagulant capacity, rather than to rid the body of excess calcium.
In fact, hypercalcaemia (excess calcium) is usually treated with increased hydration rather than chelation (except in specific cases where drugs are used), the idea being to simply encourage the calcium to be excreted in urine.
Aluminium is present in the body in the form of cations, especially in the case of poisoning, and is thus an ideal candidate for chelation by ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), an organic compound which binds specifically to metal cations (4).
Aluminium is the third largest constituent of the Earth’s crust after oxygen and silicon. As a result, our bodies are constantly exposed to it through the food we eat and the air we breathe. But this exposure is increased further by its extensive use in industry, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, because of its many properties and low cost.
Currently, however, the impact on human health of this exposure remains the subject of much debate and it is therefore difficult to place a specific value on aluminium chelation.
Graphene is not a heavy metal but a derivative of carbon, which is increasingly used in the form of nanoparticles in new technologies: touch screens, more powerful computers, solar cells, etc.
Graphene is a miracle product for industry but concerned scientists want its potential toxicity to humans to be more accurately assessed before its use becomes widespread, such toxicity being the subject of continuing debate in the scientific community. (5).
At the present time, however, with the exception of those working in factories that use graphene, the risk of poisoning is very small, as the amounts to which our bodies are exposed are minimal.
Nonetheless, some naturopaths recommend graphene chelation protocols, primarily using plants such as chlorella.
Iron is not a heavy metal either, but elevated levels in the body can lead to general problems such as fatigue, lack of libido or joint pain.
Excess iron is, however, rare and primarily affects people either suffering from haemochromatosis or who have been taking iron supplements for a prolonged period without actually being deficient.
In such cases, doctors sometimes treat excess iron with chelation based on deferoxamine or less commonly, EDTA (6).
Sulphur, again, is not a heavy metal. When we talk about sulphur chelation, we’re actually referring to a detox treatment based on sulphur chelators. Certain sulphur-containing compounds, such as methylsulfonylmethane, are believed to have significant chelating effects. Proponents say they bind particularly well to arsenic and mercury.
One of the main side effects associated with intravenous chelation, especially EDTA, is potentially serious, even fatal, hypocalcaemia. In poorly-performed chelation, the most common symptoms are low blood pressure, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, seizures and muscle and joint pain (7).
Chelation therapy has been growing in popularity for some years now, especially in non-conventional alternative medicine. Many therapists believe that chelation could be used to treat autism, certain forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
But it’s important to state that:
In any event, intravenous chelation therapy is a strict medical procedure which must only be used in the context of diagnosis, treatment and monitoring by a doctor. Especially if you think you are genuinely suffering from heavy metal poisoning.
However, some people keen to remove all possible traces of potentially harmful or toxic metals from their body opt for easily-accessible oral chelation. Several substances can be used for this (but if you want to try them, be sure to seek advice from a health professional first):
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