Heavy metals have to hijack systems that are in place to move metals that we need. And this creates a leverage point to protect you from heavy metal toxicity
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Kick heavy metals to the curb : the iron-heavy metal connection
Heavy metals are lurking all around us? We’re eating & drinking them, breathing them and we are even smearing them on our skin. They’re everywhere and the level of exposure continues to rise as they are widely used in agriculture and industry.
And once they’re in the environment, they STICK AROUND.
Heavy metals are forever chemicals
They cannot be broken down i.e. they are non-biodegradable.
They’re just moved around.
And as they move from one trophic level to the next, the levels encountered increase. The term used to describe this phenomenon is bioaccumulation. Since we’re at THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN, we’re especially vulnerable.
It’s not a crisis
Fortunately your body has the capacity to processes them in such a way as to pass them out i.e. they are actively excreted.
But, when the level of exposure is high, they can go into long term storage. The operative word is LONG TERM. Cadmium can stick around in your body for 30 years.
NOTE : One of the storages vehicles is metallothionein, the protein responsible for regulating intracellular zinc concentrations.
Heavy Metals Negatively Impact Cell Processes
As they accumulate, they negatively impact cell processes.
Some organs are more vulnerable than others. Liver cells are more resilient because facing toxic things is part of their job description, but the kidney and pancreas are especially vulnerable.
Minimizing the Risk of Heavy Metal Exposure
Given the potential dangers of heavy metal exposure, it’s important to take steps to minimize your risk. First prize is to avoid exposure. The practicalities of this are fraught with difficulties, because they are EVERYWHERE.
And their levels continue to rise as they are widely used in agriculture and industrial processes.
But there is a biological lever that you can “exploit” to minimize your exposure : decreasing how many heavy metal ions you absorb and increasing how many you pee out.
Heavy metals are biological outcasts
Biologically speaking – the heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury have no known function.
This means the body has no infrastructure to move them about.
So………… to be moved, they have to hijack systems that are in place to move metals WE NEED.
A metal with a mission
One of the metals WE “need” is iron. The biology of iron is complex and there is still a lot of things “science” doesn’t know, but what is clear is that too little and you’re in heaps of trouble, but too much is also devastating.
To keep the iron levels JUST RIGHT, the absorbing of iron is TIGHTLY REGULATED, by a hormone known as hepcidin.
The focus on regulating absorption is because officially we don’t have a way to GET RID OF IRON. Don’t get me wrong, iron can be lost but this is NOT planned. Any time there is significant levels of bleeding, iron levels take a knock.
NOTE : This is why women during their reproductive years are especially vulnerable to iron deficiencies. Blame THE RED ROBOT !
Getting and keeping iron
The major iron transporter is a protein called DMTI (divalent metal transporter 1). This transporter is found in enterocytes, these are the cells that line the gut and are responsible for absorbing the nutrients we eat. It is also found in cells that line the tubules of the kidney.
In both cases it’s IMPORTING iron.
In the gut, the import is squirreling away the iron that came with dinner. Hopefully. If you’re following a plant based diet, the amount of iron up for grabs can be too little to meet the body’s needs.
In the kidney, DMT1 is frantically collecting the iron that spilled out as the kidney “cleaned” up.
Keeping iron is a priority
The way the kidney works, is it pours everything out : the good, the bad and the indifferent and then it sifts through the waste, picking and choosing what to keep.
Only SELECT items are reabsorbed. Iron is one of the things it chooses to keep.
In fact, DMT1 is not the only protein reabsorbing iron. ZIP proteins, specifically ZIP8 and ZIP14 do this, so does the transferrin1 receptor as well as the megalin cubulin complex.
In the healthy……………. NOT a molecule of iron is allowed to slip through.
So what does this have to do with heavy metals ?
Heavy metals steal the limelight
Well for the most part heavy metals are about the same size and “shape” as iron. Enough to create transporter “confusion”.
The iron transporters end up “transporting” heavy metals.
It’s an oopsie
In the gut, this means they bring in the heavy metals that came with dinner. And in the kidney, they end up re-absorbing any that happen to have made it into the circulation.
You want to keep the iron, BUT you want to pass on those heavy metals.
And you will……….. if iron levels are ADEQUATE.
The regulation benefit
You see, the number of those transporters at any given point in time is dependent on the body’s iron resources.
When iron levels are low DMT1 comes out in full force. IRON is NEEDED.
However, when iron levels are replete – the number of DMT1 transporters is kept to a minimum, because the signal to make them isn’t sent. As far as the body is concerned, there is no point in wasting resources making something that is not required.
A skeleton staff of iron transporters will get the job of iron absorption sorted.
Less in and more out
With fewer transporters on duty, the opportunity for heavy metals to hitch a ride is diminished so fewer heavy metals get absorbed in the first place and thus more are pooped out. Plus the lower circulating levels, combined with fewer transporters in the kidney tubule leave more being peed out.
Just what you’re looking for.
The phenomenon of higher heavy metal levels in people with iron deficiency has been observed multi times across the years.
Keep Your Iron Levels Optimal
So the take home message…………
To protect yourself from heavy metal toxicity, make sure your iron levels are not compromised.
Of course, this can sometimes be easier said than done. Insulin resistance, inflammation and COVID can all impact iron regulation, creating iron challenges. Know iron is your nemesis ? If you want to talk about it, sign up for a one-on-one health conversation .
And if you’re curious to learn more about metal biology, pop into the library to explore the topic further.
Heavy metal pollution in the environment and their toxicological effects on humans. Heliyon (2020) 6(9):e04691. Jessica Briffa, Emmanuel Sinagra, Renald Blundell
Low iron stores are related to higher blood concentrations of manganese, cobalt and cadmium in non-smoking, Norwegian women in the HUNT 2 study. Environmental Research 110 (2010) 497–504. Helle MargreteMeltzer, AnneLiseBrantsæter, BeritBorch-Iohnsen, DagG.Ellingsen, Jan Alexander, YngvarThomassen, HeinStigum, TrondA.Ydersbond
Prevalence and Relationships of Iron Deficiency Anemia with Blood Cadmium and Vitamin D Levels in Korean Women. J Korean Med Sci (2016) 31: 25-32. Young Ju Suh, Ji Eun Lee, Dae Hyung Lee, Hyeon Gyu Yi, Moon Hee Lee, Chul Soo Kim, Jeung Weon Nah, and Soon Ki Kim
Iron Deficiency Associated with Higher Blood Lead in Children Living in Contaminated Environments. Environ Health Perspect (2001) 109:1079–1084. Asa B. radman, Brenda Eskenazi, Patrice Sutton, Marcos Athanasoulis, and Lynn R. Goldman.
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