Lead Heavy Metal Poisoning and Adrenal Fatigue – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Heavy metal poisoning deriving from lead.Many people have heard about the dangers of lead based paint and how lead poisoning can cause developmental delays in children. Lead is dangerous for adults as well, and isn’t only present in paints. It can come into the home from lead water pipes, food grown in lead-containing soil, and supplements made or grown with lead. Once in the body, it can cause heavy metal poisoning, although there are ways to reduce exposure and help remove lead from the system. This article explores the uses of lead, its toxicity, its effects on the body, symptoms of lead poisoning, its role in adrenal fatigue, environmental sources, and ways to reduce exposure and remove lead from the body.

Lead Use and Exposure Risks

Until the mid-1970s, lead was widely used as a paint additive because of its durability and resistance to moisture. Lead was also added to gasoline to boost octane ratings, reduce engine knocking, and to reduce wear and tear on the motor valves. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began phasing out leaded gasoline in the 1970s, but it wasn’t banned from all gasoline used in on-road vehicles until 1995.

Lead is still used in a variety of applications today, including lead acid batteries, solder, electrical and electronic components, x-ray shielding, industrial soundproofing, ceramics, crystal glass, ammunition, plumbing, and plastic. Lead can also still be found in some items imported from other countries, including cosmetics, folk medicines, crayons, and in the paint on imported goods.

Welders, construction workers, plumbers, and those who use leaded glazes in their work are among those with the highest exposure to heavy metal poisoning. These individuals may also bring lead residue home on their clothing, contaminating vehicles and homes.

At home, the biggest exposure risk is from homes built before 1978. These houses may still contain lead-based paint. If you live in an area with lead in the soil, this can also be an issue. Other sources of possible lead exposure in the home include decorative glazes on dishes, lead plumbing, and some supplements.

Lead Toxicity

Lead has no beneficial function in the human body, but it does have many harmful effects. Lead exposure in children can cause developmental delays and learning disabilities. Very young children are more susceptible to the effects of lead exposure and heavy metal poisoning due to the immaturity of their central nervous systems. However, anyone exposed to lead can experience a whole variety of ill effects.

In pregnant women, lead exposure can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, and children with developmental delays and slowed growth. In young children, lead exposure heavy metal poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, lead to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems, and can cause hearing problems, headaches, anemia, and seizures. In severe cases, lead heavy metal poisoning exposure in children can even lead to coma and death. There is also evidence suggesting that lead exposure may be a major contributor to ADD and ADHD in children. Fluoridated water, which is found in many municipalities, has been shown to increase absorption of lead, especially in children.

In adults, lead heavy metal poisoning exposure can damage vision and hearing, cause infertility in both males and females, damage the nervous system, cause problems in memory and concentration, inhibit muscle coordination, and cause muscle and joint pain.

Heavy metal poisoning can cause cardiovascular symptomsToday, governmental agencies have set the ‘safe’ levels of lead in the blood at ten micrograms per deciliter, but studies show that lead levels as low as two micrograms per deciliter are associated with increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death, even controlling for other cardiovascular risk factors.

Other studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest that high levels of lead in the bloodstream can lead to high blood pressure in postmenopausal women. Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that high lead levels can contribute to kidney failure, although chelation therapy can protect remaining kidney function.

Lead Heavy Metal Poisoning Symptoms

Symptoms of lead poisoning are often vague, can be easily mislabeled, and may not even show up until accumulation has reached dangerous levels. Symptoms of lead toxicity include:

  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue, lethargy, or occasionally hyperactivity
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Neuropathy (numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands or feet)
  • Headache
  • Forgetfulness
  • Metallic taste
  • Bluish discoloration of the gums, known as Burton’s line
  • Delirium
  • Tremors
  • Kidney failure
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Miscarriage, trouble conceiving, or premature birth
  • Low sperm count, low sperm motility, or other sperm abnormalities
  • Wrist drop or foot drop
  • Encephalopathy

The specific set of symptoms depend on the individual and the duration and level of exposure and the specific type of lead to which one is exposed. In cases of chronic, low level heavy metal poisoning exposure, symptoms may develop over a course of weeks or even months, while symptoms from high level heavy metal poisoning exposure may come on more suddenly. Organic lead is more soluble than inorganic lead, making it easier to absorb and potentially more toxic. Symptoms may also manifest more quickly after exposure to organic lead than inorganic lead.
How Lead Affects the NeuroEndoMetabolic System

Scientists have long known that the central nervous system and the endocrine system work together closely to manage the body’s responses to stress through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hormonal axis. These organs, combined with the brain, respond to stress by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters designed to help the body react to stressful situations. This response is commonly referred to as fight-or-flight. What scientists are now finding is that the metabolism plays a major role in these functions.

How the NeuroEndoMetabolic System Functions

The role of metabolism in the stress response starts with the chemical reactions that take place in the cells to convert food into energy. However, role of the metabolism goes beyond simple energy production to controlling the inflammatory response and detoxification.

When the metabolism is healthy, it is able to protect against oxidative damage from stress and reduce toxic load, protecting the cells. When the metabolism does not function optimally, it is unable to maintain balance in the microbiome. In turn, the cells become congested, the body is unable to excrete toxins efficiently, nutrient delivery to the cells is hampered, and recovery from trauma is slowed.

Cells can be traumatized by heavy metal poisoningEssentially, the metabolic system is critical to the function of the HPA axis. The necessary chemical reactions cannot be carried out without the help of metabolic processes, and we are left unable to respond appropriately to stress.

The conventional neuroendocrine model of stress places emphasis on the adrenal glands as the primary stress response organs. This is adequate for low levels of occasional stress, such as is seen in the early stages of adrenal fatigue. As stress levels increase and adrenal fatigue progresses, however, it is vital to look at the stress response as involving a full spectrum of systems, pathways, organs, and chemical reactions all functioning in cooperation. This model gives greater insight into how the body responds throughout the stages of adrenal fatigue.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response system is a more functional perspective on how the body responds to stress, describing the progressive nature of adrenal fatigue and providing a more holistic way of evaluating stress. By factoring the metabolism into the equation, it is easy to look at both the localized and the system-wide responses to stress. This functional model of stress considers the body as a whole entity with systems that work together and cannot be separated.

The metabolic component of the stress response is so subtle that it has been overlooked by scientists for decades. It has become clear that there is still much that we do not know about the metabolism and its role in the stress response.

The metabolism and its role in stress has been overlooked for so long simply because it is so well regulated that metabolic malfunctions are uncommon, and symptoms of metabolic issues, such as sugar cravings, often seem innocuous and easily managed. Other symptoms, such as obesity, are seen as the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Ignoring that stress is a significant factor in these issues will only lead to further problems, including hypersensitivity, crashes, and other symptoms. By the time these symptoms become noticeable, the neuroendocrine system has been compromised. By this point, it is not at all uncommon for sufferers to also have symptoms such as fatigue, reactive hypoglycemia, drops in blood pressure, lightheadedness, anxiety attacks, and gastric disturbances. These symptoms indicate the body has entered a catabolic state, when the body starts breaking down its own tissue.

By the time sufferers get to this point, they are virtually homebound, barely able to get out of bed. Most people are able to get help before they become this debilitated, but those that do get to this point are unable to function normally, requiring assistance with the most basic activities of daily living. Many sufferers find themselves going to one doctor after another, looking for help. They are often seen for a variety of different illnesses, with a variety of different medications, all proving unhelpful, and ultimately making the problem worse.

All of these symptoms are the body’s way of asking to be left alone to heal. Severe metabolic dysfunction is the final cry of a body that has been overcome by stress. However, these signs and symptoms are only clear in hindsight, as they begin quite subtly, making them easy to ignore, exacerbating the problem.

Gaining an understanding of the importance of the metabolism in the stress response and recognizing the early symptoms is important because it allows us to recognize what is happening, so the problem can be corrected before it becomes debilitating.

Detoxification Circuit

Many symptoms can be triggered by heavy metal poisoningAccumulated toxins and extreme or prolonged stress raises oxidative stress and inhibits normal cellular electron flow, leading to cell death and debris. Avoiding accumulation of toxins depends on efficient detoxification of metabolites and toxins. The liver, immune system, and extracellular matrix make up the primary system of detoxification, keeping the body’s systems clean. The liver in particular is the primary organ responsible for filtering and removing toxins and, as such, must be kept functioning optimally. The extracellular matrix, immune system, kidneys, and lymphatic system all support the liver in keeping the body clear of pollution.

Stress causes oxidative damage to the cells, and a heavy load of metabolites must be continuously processed by the liver in order to prevent an accumulation of toxins in the body. Everyday toxins from medications, processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and hydrogenated fats accumulate in and around the cells, preventing them from taking up nutrients and eliminating waste effectively. The toxins can also penetrate the cell walls, damaging mitochondria. Cell damage is inevitable when the body is full of toxicity.

Optimizing the cells both inside and out is critical to removing toxins. Lead and other toxic metals found in the water, food, and air all cause additional damage to the cells, while receptor sites are damaged with the use of drugs, whether prescription, over the counter, or recreational. The ability of the cells to send signals along with the structural integrity of the cell walls can become congested, inhibiting cellular respiration and energy production. As toxins continue to accumulate, the immune system is further degraded, leading to premature cell death, and increasing cellular debris, which can aggravate congestion, leading to a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.

It’s no wonder, then, that as the burden of toxins grows, more symptoms emerge, and symptoms become more intense, including hypersensitivity to stress, intolerance of medications and supplements, and sensitivities to chemicals.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Heavy metal poisoning