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From the Townsend Letter
January 2017

Mercury: The Quintessential Anti-Nutrient
by Sara Russell, PhD, NTP, and Kristin G. Homme, PE(ret.), MPP, MPH
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Elimination and reintroduction of suspect foods is the best way to assess whether these foods are problematic for an individual. The goal is the least restrictive nutrient-dense diet. For example, many children and adults with mercury toxicity benefit from a gluten-free, casein-free diet while others can tolerate one or both of these foods. Additional intolerances too numerous to list affect certain mercury-toxic individuals to varying degrees. The intake of alcohol, sugar, refined starches, processed foods, caffeine, medications, etc. reduces the body's ability to detoxify, causing unpleasant symptoms in many affected individuals. Additionally, the common intolerance to sulfites in wine suggests impairment of the sulfite oxidase enzyme needed to convert toxic sulfite to beneficial sulfate. This enzyme can be boosted by supplementing its cofactor, molybdenum. Also, because mercury blocks metabolic enzymes such as phenolsulfotransferases, certain food compounds, such as phenols, become partially metabolized into toxic intermediates, often resulting in reactions such as red cheeks and/or ears and hyperactivity after consuming foods high in phenol.84 Additionally, yeast overgrowth can increase sensitivity to high-thiol and high-oxalate foods.
Foods high in free thiols (which include legumes, dairy, the cabbage family, eggs) may be poorly tolerated by some mercury-affected individuals, particularly if the transsulfuration pathway is compromised, as can occur with molybdenum deficiency. Other sulfur-rich foods, such as red meat and organ meats, do not cause such problems. Of course it is important to consume a diet that includes all the essential amino acids, including those that contain sulfur. Andrew Cutler, author of Amalgam Illness: Diagnosis and Treatment (see Resources, below) and Hair Test Interpretation: Finding Hidden Toxicities notes that foods high in free thiol can provoke symptoms in a significant subset of mercury-affected people, in part by increasing plasma cysteine, which may rise in response to mercury and its biochemical effects. Vegetarian diets are particularly deleterious to a significant subset of people suffering from mercury toxicity because it is virtually impossible to obtain sufficient protein on a vegetarian diet that is modified to reduce free-thiol sources.

A problematic food for many mercury-toxic individuals is cilantro leaf, which contains a chelating substance capable of redistributing mercury, thus exacerbating symptoms in sensitive individuals. Unfortunately, within the alternative health community, cilantro leaf is sometimes recommended in large amounts in both food and supplement form. Also often recommended is chlorella, which is inadvisable as a supplement due to its potential for contamination from the environment in which it is grown and to its lipopolysaccharide content, which can cause inflammatory stress.85
Each mercury-toxic person has a unique combination of mineral imbalances that affect how mercury toxicity is expressed and what particular nutrient combination is likely to provide relief. Mineral dysregulation is significantly more pronounced in people with chronic mercury toxicity than in the general population,86 as are other nutritional deficiencies and food intolerances.

Testing for mercury toxicity is not straightforward. Mercury may accumulate in organs like the brain even while blood, urine, fecal and hair levels are low. Urine challenge tests should be avoided. They involve the administration of a chelator in a dosage high enough to cause significant oxidative stress due to redistribution of toxic metals to target organs such as the brain and kidneys. A porphyrin panel can reveal the footprint of toxic metals including mercury. Porphyrins are undesirable byproducts that occur when enzymes are blocked by toxicants. But since porphyrins are easily destroyed,87 the risk of false negatives is high unless the sample is handled carefully. A hair elements test can reveal apparent dysregulation of essential mineral homeostasis – i.e., essential hair minerals will appear abnormally high and/or low – and thus may serve as an economical screening test for chronic mercury toxicity. Note that when hair essential minerals are dysregulated, a high level of an essential mineral may not indicate adequate intracellular status but may simply mean high excretion in hair.
It is beyond the scope of this nutrition-focused article to discuss mercury treatment options, but we recommend caution when considering detoxification protocols. For the highly mercury toxic, many products may be either unsafe (such as chlorella and cilantro) or may be used in an unsafe manner (such as alpha lipoic acid). Alpha lipoic acid is added to many nutritional supplements without warning about its metal chelating properties. When taken by individuals who have mercury dental amalgams or a body burden of mercury, it can pull mercury from the teeth and other tissues in an attempt to equilibrate levels throughout the body and brain. This is especially tragic when fetal exposure is involved. We suggest that anyone wishing to deepen their knowledge of mercury detoxification read the books by Andrew Cutler listed in the Resources section. Cutler's work is the most useful compilation of science-based explanations of mercury toxicity and its myriad effects. It should be noted that Cutler's chelation protocol, though grounded in scientific theory, is controversial and is not without risk.

Because of mercury's powerful anti-nutrient effects, a nutrient-dense diet may alleviate many symptoms of chronic mercury toxicity. Moreover, the nutritional depletion caused by mercury is so pervasive that affected individuals often require nutritional supplementation as well as a nutrient-dense diet. At the same time, it's important to note that many mercury-affected individuals are quite sensitive to a large number of foods, supplements, and medications. Many people with a hidden mercury burden find relief by following a nutrient-dense diet, adapted as necessary to avoid gluten and/or dairy and to limit sugars and starches.
Mercury creates a biochemical train wreck in the body and has the toxic power to cause or contribute to most chronic illnesses. People who have multiple health problems may suffer from undiagnosed chronic mercury poisoning. Mercury depletes nutrients needed for vital functions and dysregulates mineral and neurotransmitter metabolism to a greater extent than any other common toxicant.
Yet chronic mercury toxicity remains underrecognized by both mainstream and alternative health authorities for a number of reasons. The scientific literature on mercury is complicated, incomplete, and easily misinterpreted. Mercury demonstrates a complex, nonlinear toxicity. Mercury susceptibility depends on genetics, epigenetics, and micronutrient status. The body's natural defenses may mask toxicity, creating long latencies between exposures and symptoms. Symptoms are varied and nonspecific and may be intermittent in the early stages. Mercury research is controversial because much exposure has been iatrogenic, via dental amalgams and vaccine preservatives. Toxicity testing is not straightforward, as described above. In summary, the combination of ubiquitous exposures, iatrogenic involvement, long latencies, broad toxic effects, nonspecific symptoms, and potentially irreversible damage renders chronic mercury toxicity an underrecognized epidemic.

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  • - International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, a professional dental association that provides fact sheets about mercury and describes the Academy's safe amalgam removal protocol
  • - a joint project of IAOMT and CoMeD (Coalition for Mercury-Free Drugs), which advocates removal of mercury from all vaccines
  • - Dental Amalgam Mercury Solutions, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating consumers about unhealthy dental practices
  • Amalgam Illness: Diagnosis and Treatment (1999) by Andrew Hall Cutler. This book is still the most complete, science-based, self-help book on chronic mercury toxicity to date. Available through the author's website at as well as online bookstores: .
  • Mercury Poisoning: The Undiagnosed Epidemic (2013) by David Hammond. This book provides more context and less physiology than Cutler's book in a rendition some may find more readable.
  • - a resource that explains why some people with mercury toxicity cannot tolerate thiols and how to identify thiol intolerance.
  • - the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep® searchable online consumer database of body care products ranging from basics such as soap and shampoo to sunscreen and cosmetics.

Sara RussellSara Russell is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Certified GAPS Practitioner, and Weston A. Price chapter leader residing in Italy. Sara works via phone and Skype with clients worldwide, specializing in fertility, pregnancy, and young children. You can learn more about Sara's work at

Kristin Homme, MPP, MPH, is a retired engineer turned science writer who has authored several scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.

The authors would like to thank Nori Hudson, NC, Andrew Hall Cutler, PhD, PE, Janet Kern, PhD, Marco Prina, PhD, Rebecca Rust Lee, and Lana Russell for their input and reading of the article at various stages of its drafting and revision.

References pdf

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