Why do heavy metals affect mental health, even on a ketogenic diet?

Some people begin the ketogenic diet with a high burden of heavy metal accumulations. When this happens, even the increases in glutathione seen with a well-formulated ketogenic diet can be insufficient to completely resolve symptoms. Options include a focus on eating more nutrients or taking supplements that increase the pool of materials used for glutathione production, taking glutathione supplements directly, or seeking out a functional medicine professional to assist with advanced detoxification strategies.

Introduction

Heavy metal accumulation has both associational and causative mechanisms in the creation and worsening of psychiatric symptoms. Meaning having too high of certain heavy metals in your body that become stored can cause the creation of mental illness and neurological disorders. Some of these metals in which obvious psychiatric symptoms occur include accumulations of copper, lead, and mercury.

Accumulation of metals renders the brain susceptible to neurotoxic insults by mechanisms such as mitochondrial dysfunction, neuronal calcium-ion dyshomeostasis, buildup of damaged molecules, compromised DNA repair, reduction in neurogenesis, and impaired energy metabolism.

Ijomone, O. M., Ifenatuoha, C. W., Aluko, O. M., Ijomone, O. K., & Aschner, M. (2020). The aging brain: impact of heavy metal neurotoxicity. Critical reviews in toxicology50(9), 801-814. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408444.2020.1838441

Even if you do not feel the effects of heavy metal toxicity directly in the brain, it can undermine several underlying physiological mechanisms your body needs to stay well, which could cause secondary impairment of brain function, through anemia, thyroid disorder or immune system dysfunction.

If you are new to the blog and do not know what I am talking about when I reference glutathione, start here with this blog post.

If you are here to learn about how your upregulated glutathione on a well-formulated ketogenic diet helps you detox heavy metals specifically, and therefore helps heal your brain, you will have to wait. I haven’t written that one yet. But it’s coming soon. 

This article is about how a heavy metal burden might be undermining your results on your ketogenic diet for mental health and what you can do about it.  

Why am I still having symptoms?

If you have been using the ketogenic diet consistently for many months and you are having some stubborn symptoms that either will not go away or that still pop up, such as:

  • Chronic fatigue and brain fog
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mood symptoms

These are all symptoms that functional medicine providers report is associated with heavy metal burdens in the body. It might not mean that your ketogenic diet is not working. It just may mean that your current ketogenic diet is not sufficient for what is going on specifically with you. 

For example, let’s take a look at astrocytes (an important type of nerve cell). We know that astrocytes prefer ketones for fuel. And it’s great that you are giving them plenty of this excellent fuel source. That’s definitely helping your brain health. But what if your astrocytes have been under a heavy metal burden for years or are currently under an acute assault you have not identified yet?

Astrocytes are primary homeostatic cells in the central nervous system. They protect neurons against all types of insults, in particular the accumulation of heavy metals. However, this makes astrocytes the main target for heavy metals neurotoxicity. Intake of heavy metals affects astroglial homeostatic and neuroprotective cascades, including glutamate/GABA-glutamine shuttle, antioxidative machinery, and energy metabolism. Deficits in these astroglial pathways facilitate or even instigate neurodegeneration.

Li, B., Xia, M., Zorec, R., Parpura, V., & Verkhratsky, A. (2021). Astrocytes in heavy metal neurotoxicity and neurodegeneration. Brain research1752, 147234. DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2020.147234

Your astrocytes seriously take one for the team. While your astrocytes are trying to protect you, heavy metals are coming in and minimizing their effectiveness in that goal. And this is just one small example of how heavy metal burden can get in the way of your brain health. I am sure that everything you are doing with your ketogenic diet is helping. But I don’t know what your deficit was going in. And neither do you, possibly. And so this might be an important focus of your attention if you are trying to get your brain back.

But I’m doing all the things!

While a well-formulated ketogenic diet certainly upregulates glutathione, a powerful heavy metal detoxifier, you may not be giving your body enough cofactors it needs to detox fast enough or to deal with what is currently being detoxed through pathways in the liver. It may be that your heavy metal burden is very high, and you are going to need some additional nutrient support or work with a functional medicine practitioner to supervise and speed your healing along. 

And if that were the case, it would not be unusual. You may very well eventually get to wellness just by focusing on your ketogenic diet for longer and increasing precursors to glutathione production or by taking liposomal glutathione. But if you are still trying to live with difficult psychiatric and neurological symptoms, this is an essential avenue for exploration on your journey to wellness. And because I believe you have the right to know all the ways you can feel better, I am going to tell you about it. 

Let me begin by saying this topic is massive. And this blog post is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. The intent of this article is to put heavy metal toxicity on your radar, should you find that after being on a consistent and well-formulated ketogenic diet for several months, you still have persistent mental health and neurological symptoms.

Learning about heavy metal burdens could be another important puzzle piece in your quest to heal your brain and overcome mental illness and neurological symptoms. And it is for that reason it is included on this blog.

So let’s get started. 

Why hasn’t my doctor mentioned heavy metal burden?

Your regular doctor only has acute heavy metal toxicity on their mind (if you are lucky). But a functional medicine practitioner is going to be looking at your overall heavy metal burden. Because that burden really affects how your brain functions. A good way to look at total heavy metal body burden is to think of it as having a strong limiting factor in your ability to feel kick-ass. 

It plays a role in symptoms of ADD/ADHD, Depression, Schizophrenia, and Dementia, to name a few. 

“But wait a minute!”, you might say. “I haven’t been exposed to a bunch of lead or mercury all at once!” That might be true. But you have to understand that the burden is made up of multiple small exposures, sometimes happening over a lifetime, that the body cannot adequately deal with, that tips a brain and body over the edge in being able to protect you from that burden. And then symptoms happen, and biological processes are impeded. And your poor, trying to heal brain just can’t catch a break. 

So how do I get tested?

You can ask your doctor to do heavy metal testing as a blood test, but that is only good if you believe you have had an acute and current exposure.  

There is also something called a “provoked heavy metal test” that can be helpful. Your provider will give you a chelating agent (something that pulls metals out of the body) and then collect the urine for a specified amount of time. This gives people a better idea of the overall burden in the body (and brain). There has been some controversy about the use of this test (see Weiss, et al., 2022 in references). 

But I want to point out that your functional medicine practitioner will not be looking at just this one test. They will likely look at heavy metal comparison values via blood (serum), hair, and urine. Along with several other biomarkers of oxidative stress and looking at what nutrient levels are low in making an assessment. They will also look carefully at your symptoms, which are additional clues.  

So how would a heavy metal burden contribute to my psychiatric symptoms? 

Heavy metal burden can cause digestive issues, which can and often does have a direct effect on your mental health via neuroinflammation and increased oxidative stress. It perpetuates the creation of leaky gut by causing autoimmune problems, unfavorable microbiota ratios, and impairment of a particularly important thing your digestive system needs to do, namely absorb micronutrients you need for brain health and function! 

One particular way is that it increases oxidative stress. If you have read about any of the disorders on the Mental Health Keto Blog, you know that oxidative stress is an underlying pathological mechanism for almost all of the ones written about thus far.

While the precise mechanisms underlying each metal’s neurotoxicity still remain unclear, oxidative stress, competition with essential metals such as zinc and iron, and dysregulation of gene expression have been supported by many studies as common fundamental processes implicated in metal toxicity.

Gade, M., Comfort, N., & Re, D. B. (2021). Sex-specific neurotoxic effects of heavy metal pollutants: Epidemiological, experimental evidence and candidate mechanisms. Environmental Research201, 111558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2021.111558

There are huge individual variations in how easily people can detox from heavy metal exposures. Some people have genetic snips that make it very difficult, and so the heavy metal burden over a lifetime can really build up and impair physiology. 

And so, if you have been eating a well-formulated ketogenic diet for your mental health for many months and your progress feels slow when it comes to improvements in mood and cognition, I want you to pay attention to that. 

It may mean you need to increase your nutrient intake, supplementation, or even see a functional medicine practitioner for advanced treatment of heavy metal burden. 

I do not recommend people attempt advanced chelation therapies (e.g., edetate disodium) without the help of a functional medicine practitioner on board. Doing so without a proper evaluation first can set back your health and can be dangerous. They have to assess your kidney and liver function and assess your nutrient stores and intakes. They have to give you extra things to help your body handle the metals that will come out, or additional damage can result. If you are treating a mental illness or neurological disorder, you cannot risk becoming deficient or insufficient in micronutrients used to chelate the metals, such as calcium, copper, and zinc. You could experience a worsening of those symptoms. You deserve real medical care. So please, do not self-determine you need one of the more powerful chelation therapies or embark upon it yourself. 

A quick and dirty intro to exposure

…millions of people continue to suffer from chronic exposures to neurotoxic metals via food and water consumption or through other routes of exposure such as occupational inhalation, tobacco smoking, and more recently, electronic cigarette vaping.

Gade, M., Comfort, N., & Re, D. B. (2021). Sex-specific neurotoxic effects of heavy metal pollutants: Epidemiological, experimental evidence and candidate mechanisms. Environmental Research201, 111558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2021.111558

If you live or work in a building built before 1978, you likely have some lead exposure going on either via paint or pipes, and it is possible to even be in the soil around the property. 

Remember when some of us were little, and sitting in the back seat at the gas station in the 1970s and 80s, smelling fumes with the windows down? We were exposed to lead as the gas tanks were being filled. 

Before using a ketogenic diet to improve your mental health and neurological symptoms, your diet may also have played a role in increasing your heavy metal burden. Higher levels of lead and cadmium exposure exist with the consumption of cereal grains and dairy that are grown or processed through industrialized agriculture.

Cite: Suomi, J., Valsta, L., & Tuominen, P. (2021). Dietary Heavy Metal Exposure among Finnish Adults in 2007 and in 2012. International journal of environmental research and public health18(20), 10581. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182010581

Living and working near different industries can cause huge heavy metal burden accumulations. Do not assume that the industry has done adequate protections in the interest of your health or that the FDA levels of allowance make these types of exposures safe. It is not just one industry releasing heavy metals into the environment, and it is 100s. Or at least several just near you. And it is cumulative. 

Additional things you can do

If you find through testing or suspect you have a heavy metal burden, you can do the following steps in addition to your ketogenic diet.

Eat the fiber

I am not a huge fan of fiber because I see it causes a lot of digestive issues for some people and that tolerance for fiber is a very individual thing. Fiber will help with binding metals being liberated and excreted through detoxification processes. Luckily, low-carb veggies have a lot of fiber. Put a little extra fiber in your diet. But don’t give yourself a stomach ache. Pay attention to how you feel and any digestive issues. If you work with a functional medicine person for advanced detoxification of heavy metals, they will likely increase your fiber. That’s ok. Just let them know if it tends to bother you. 

Learn about sauna

Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and mercury (and many other environmental toxins that are not metals) come out in sweat. Here is a video discussing how it works to reduce the heavy metal burden.

Jumping down the rabbit hole about sauna is a worthy side endeavor for the person trying to heal their brain. Learning about the effects of heat shock proteins, vascular health in your brain, cognitive-enhancing effects, reductions in neurodegenerative aging, and the detoxification of additional toxic substances for brain health will only get your farther towards your goals. I own a sauna, but when I started out, I used one at the local gym for several years and made it a part of my daily routine to facilitate my own healing on the ketogenic diet.

Don’t trust your pipes

Drink water that has been passed through an activated charcoal filter, at the very least. And consider investing in a reverse-osmosis filter if you are financially able. Remember, we are not going to make “perfect” the enemy of making small and consistent improvements to heal our bodies. If you end up using reverse osmosis filters in your home, please remineralize your drinking water. There are trace mineral products that do this. Your brain needs lots of minerals to be happy. And reverse osmosis removes them in the cleaning process. 

Max out your glutathione

Maximize your glutathione precursors with food and consider supplementation with particular micronutrients and amino acids, or even liposomal glutathione itself, if you haven’t already. 

You need to have enough amino acids to detoxify. Make sure you optimize your stomach acid to break down your protein into amino acids and absorb all the nutrients possible from your food. 

You can learn more about these options in the following blog posts:

Conclusion

If you are trying to heal from mental illness and neurological issues, it’s important for you to know that your body is trying to take care of you. If you have a heavy metal burden, your body is doing everything it can to try to get rid of it for you. And that means it will use up a lot of your nutrients trying to accomplish this for you. It will use the nutrients you are bringing in to upregulate glutathione to get rid of these heavy metals. It just might need more than you are providing to both reduce your heavy metal load AND repair your brain and upregulate certain neurotransmitter systems.

I am a mental health counselor who practices functional and nutritional psychiatry principles, so feel free to contact me if you would like help on your healing journey. You can learn more about me, and my telehealth and teleconsultation work with clients here.

As always, this is an informative blog and not medical advice. I am not your doctor.

Like what you are reading on the blog? Want to learn about upcoming webinars, courses, and even offers around support and working with me towards your wellness goals? Sign up!

Because you have the right to know all of the ways that you can feel better.


References

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