Dental-Related Chronic Illnesses and Heavy Metal Toxicity

An excerpt from Chapter 10 of
Healing Is Possible: New Hope for Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Persistent Pain, and Other Chronic Illnesses
by Neil Nathan MD

The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing but the Tooth

Why did the Zen Buddhist refuse Novocain when he needed to have his tooth pulled? Because he wanted to transcend dental medication. This bad but clever pun will help to launch us into a discussion of dental toxicities.

Why Did the Zen Bhuddist refuse Novacaine?

It is curious that in the field of medicine–especially for family physicians like me who are trained in looking at all systems of the body–two areas of health concern are considered so “specialized” that most physicians know very little about them. Those areas are podiatry (the feet) and dentistry. In all of our medical education, these areas receive short shrift, and we are encouraged to refer every problem in these areas to practitioners of those fields. Consequently, most medical doctors know precious little about the feet or the mouth, and during our medical education and training, we almost get the sense that this information is an unnecessary part of our working knowledge base. This has always seemed a bit strange to me.

Over the past thirty years, largely from the work of pioneering dentist Hal Huggins, however, it has become clear that there are a number of dental problems that can greatly affect the whole body. These include mercury toxicity, electrical effects of the different metals that may be present in the mouth, metal allergy, root canal effects, occult infections, and the effects of dental appliances. Let’s delve into each of these areas, but be advised: most dentists are not aware of much of this information either. In fact, imagine the class action suits that would occur if the dental profession acknowledged that metal amalgam fillings (with a large percentage of mercury) have been harming us for years. In the current medical/legal climate that won’t happen. So if you attempt to discuss this with your dentist, more often than not your dentist will tell you that these concerns are silly or trivial. However, despite that attitude, the fact is that mercury is a seriously toxic metal for the body even when it is present in only miniscule amounts.


Symptoms of Mercury Toxicity
Cognitive impairment Headaches
Fatigue Joint pain
Dizziness Anxiety and/or Depression
Autoimmune diseases Metallic taste in the mouth
Peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the feet and hands)

We have known about the toxicity of mercury for many years. Calomel, a mercury-containing compound, was used in the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. When used “properly” in those times, calomel gradually made those who used it sicker and sicker, until their hair fell out and they began to salivate uncontrollably. Perversely, these symptoms were taken as a sign that the mercury was beginning to work. It was eventually, albeit slowly, recognized that mercury was truly toxic, and it was removed from the shelves as a dangerous material by the late nineteenth century.

When it was proposed in the 1930s that dental amalgams should utilize mercury as a major ingredient to more easily shape and work dental filling materials, the subject was hotly debated for several years at the American Dental Association’s annual meetings. Ultimately, it was decided that the convenience of adding mercury to other metals for the purpose of making dental fillings outweighed the known risks of toxicity. So for the past seventy-five years, the public has been exposed to these dental amalgams, which are usually and erroneously called “silver” fillings. I would venture to say that there are very few mouths in my practice that don’t have some of these metal fillings in them, with mercury as a significant component. As time has passed, we have begun to recognize that this process may not have been a wise one. Considering that mercury thermometers are no longer available to the public because of the danger that the mercury represents, and that dentists are required by federal agencies to dispose of their mercury as hazardous waste, it seems strange that the dental profession would be so reluctant to admit that mercury might be dangerous to one’s health.

Colorado dentist Hal Huggins has devoted his life to trying to share this information about mercury toxicity. He found that when he removed the fillings of people who were very ill, many of them recovered from a variety of medical conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and neurological impairments like Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Huggins also recognized that mercury sublimates, which means that it can move directly from a solid to a gaseous form, without becoming a liquid, just like dry ice. When mercury-containing amalgams are scraped with dental tools, significant amounts of this mercury gas can be released into the body. It can then move directly into body tissues, especially the brain and nerves, where it is bound tightly and directly poisons those tissues. Huggins’s pioneering work led, unfortunately, to his persecution and the loss of his dental license in Colorado. He has continued to practice and teach in Mexico. Fortunately, enough open-minded dentists had begun to heed his message and learn his techniques so that this research has continued to grow.

Levels of mercury in game fish

While I suspect that dental amalgams are the major source of mercury toxicity, there are other sources as well. Consumption of certain fish can contribute to mercury toxicity, and there are published lists of which fish should be avoided or limited. For example, there are signs posted in the remote, pristine White Mountains of New Hampshire telling anglers that they should limit their consumption of trout to one per month. For over twenty years, the health department of the state of Minnesota has published the mercury levels of the different game fish in the state, and this should information should be available from almost every state department of health as well. In the food chain, as small fish are eaten by bigger fish, we find the highest levels of mercury in the largest predatory fish, such as shark and swordfish.

Limit intake of mercury containing fish

We also come into contact with mercury in our environment. A small amount can be inhaled by those who live in close proximity to coal-burning plants, and it has recently been noted that the mercury produced by the coal-burning factories in China ascends into the atmosphere and comes down onto our soil as the prevailing winds blow east across the Pacific Ocean.

Yet another source of mercury is found in vaccinations. Since the 1930s, vaccine manufacturers have used thimerosol, a mercury containing preservative intended to fight off bacterial contamination. Although it is known that young, developing brains and nervous systems are much more sensitive to mercury and much less able to process or detoxify it, many of our children have been exposed to toxic levels of mercury from this source. Until recently, each thimerosol-containing vaccine has provided up to five parts per million (ppm) of mercury with each injection. This is the upper limit of exposure for mercury (as established by federal standards) for a child. However, the vaccine manufacturers, along with the pediatric profession, have encouraged the “bundling” of vaccines. This entails providing not one vaccine but a whole package of vaccines at one pediatric visit, so that until recently a child might receive up to 125 ppm of mercury at that visit! Many experts have come to suspect that the explosion of autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may, in part, be directly linked to these vaccinations. Although this connection has been denied, the amount of thimerosol in vaccinations has been sharply reduced in the past few years.

The impetus for this reduction is partly due to the influence of several physicians prominent in this area, most notably Stephanie Cave, M.D., who has published widely and spoken before Congress repeatedly, pleading that thimerosol be removed from these vaccines. In response to this call for action, vaccine manufacturers have minimized (but not completely eliminated) the amount of thimerosol in most vaccines. Concerned parents should really check into their children’s vaccinations to be sure they are safe. Flu shots, for example, still contain thimerosol, yet medical authorities now strongly encourage the use of that vaccine in small children. By countering the negative effects of mercury, pioneering physicians in the field of autism have helped many children recover or improve. (We will discuss this part of a comprehensive treatment program for autism in more detail in Chapter 22 of Healing Is Possible.)

Germany and Canada have discouraged the use of mercury amalgams. England has taken this problem so seriously that several years ago the country passed a law that requires that the mercury amalgam fillings of the deceased who await cremation be removed prior to cremation so that mercury vapor will not be released into the atmosphere.

If you need to have a filling replaced, please do not allow your dentist to use a mercury-containing, silver-colored amalgam. There are many viable alternatives to using mercury-based fillings. However, merely switching to plastic-based fillings may not be much healthier. One of the more common plastic replacement materials contains a great deal of bisphenol-A, a toxic chemical which can do just as much harm as the mercury. Should you need your fillings replaced, I would strongly advise that you look for a biological or holistic dentist specifically trained in using alternate dental-filling materials. Testing is available that allows us to know which potential plastic fillings would be best tolerated by an individual. But a word of warning: it has been my patients’ experience that when they bring this up for discussion with their regular dentist, they are usually told, “There is more mercury in a can of tuna fish than there is in your mouth.” Not only is this untrue, but keep in mind that when the dentist works on the fillings already present in your mouth, scraping them will release mercury vapors, which will add to whatever mercury burden is already present in your body.

Evaluating Mercury Toxicity

The only diagnostic tool we initially had to evaluate for mercury toxicity was hair analysis. I can’t count how many patients whose hair I tested who had false-negative results. It turns out that there are several problems with hair analysis, especially when testing for mercury. First, mercury tends to bind more tightly to other body tissues–so much so that if it is present in the body, we will not find it with simple tests of hair, urine, blood, or stool. That’s not where it’s present. Mercury tends to bind preferentially to nerve tissue: brain and neurons especially. Second, the results of hair analysis have always been difficult to reproduce. This means that if you cut some hair from your head, separate it into three different batches, and send those to the same laboratory, it is likely that the results will be quite different in all three specimens This lack of reproducibility has always cast a shadow over laboratory results, and I have found the results of hair analysis to be inaccurate to the point that I don’t use it anymore.

So how do we check for mercury toxicity? Since it binds so tightly to body tissues, what we need to do is use a chelating material (a chemical binding agent) to bind tighter to the mercury than your body tissues do, and then we can pull the chelated (bound) mercury out into the urine. If there is a significant amount of mercury in a patient’s tissues, we will find significant amounts of mercury in his urine as well.

The chelating procedure goes as follows: A patient receives a brief, fifteen-minute intravenous infusion with DMPS, a chemical that binds tightly to mercury (with the rather long and awkward name of 2,3-Dimercapto-1-propanesulfonic acid). The patient then collects all of her urine for a timed period of six to twenty-four hours, and this is mailed to a laboratory that can measure toxicity of heavy metals, of which mercury is a prime example. This is an accurate and elegant test. The amount of mercury measured in the urine is a clear measure of the amount of mercury present in the body, and hence an accurate measure of the mercury toxicity present in the patient.

Toxic Metals Test Results

As a result of this testing process, we can also learn about the presence of other heavy metal toxins: lead, aluminum, nickel, cadmium, arsenic, and others. If we find it, we can treat it, and the removal of other heavy metal toxins may be an important part of our treatment program. While the details of this testing and treatment process may vary from one clinician to another, this discussion represents an accurate consensus. For those patients, especially children, for whom we would prefer not using an intravenous procedure to deliver the binding or chelating chemical, we can use an oral chelating material called DMSA (meso-2,3,-dimercaptosuccinic acid). It is not as strong as DMPS in its ability to pull mercury out of the tissues, but it still allows us to perform the analysis on children safely, without being invasive.

Treatment for Mercury Toxicity

The treatment for mercury toxicity is similar to the diagnostic procedure–that is, we can use regular, monthly intravenous infusions of DMPS or regular oral doses of DMSA to pull mercury out of the body. A note: chelating agents are utilized for their ability to preferentially bind to heavy metal toxins, but to a small extent they will also bind to some of the essential minerals we need for good health and pull them out of the body, too. Therefore, patients should supplement chelation treatments with oral minerals that include trace minerals. When we refer to minerals, we generally mean the ones that are present in the body in the largest amounts, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc. “Trace” minerals refers to those minerals which are important but present in only tiny amounts such as chromium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, boron and vanadium. The point that I am trying to make here is that minerals should not be taken on the day of, or the day after, chelation treatments. We don’t want the binding properties of the chelator to remove the good minerals, and we don’t want to waste the chelation effects by binding the good minerals in lieu of the heavy metal toxins. During chelation, it is also helpful to add some weaker, natural chelating materials, such as vitamin C, chlorella, alpha lipoic acid, and garlic, to the treatment. By themselves, these supplements will not remove adequate amounts of heavy metal toxins, but when combined with the stronger chelators such as DMPS or DMSA, they will enable those chelators to be more effective, and to help remove from the body those heavy metals as they get mobilized by treatment. Those who are interested in chelation-related diagnosis and treatment should seek help from physicians trained in the chelation process. The American College of Advancement in Medicine (ACAM) and the International College of Integrative Medicine (ICIM) train physicians in the correct use of these materials; contact them for a list of physicians in your area who do these procedures properly.

Several years ago, a forty-year-old gentleman presented to me with the sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis. He was working in a difficult environment, several states distant from our office, and for financial reasons, he really needed to keep working at his job but could barely do so. I scrutinized his health history and could not quite understand the sudden onset of his arthritis until I asked about recent dental work. Yes, just two weeks before the onset of his arthritis, he had had extensive dental work done. When I did the DMPS test on him, not only did it show the highest mercury level of any patient we’d ever measured, but he experienced marked relief of his joint pains for the next three days–simply from the DMPS chelator used in his test, which pulled a small fraction of mercury out of his body! Unfortunately, as he worked a long distance from our office, and because his family was not supportive of this form of treatment, he pursued more conventional methods of treatment and was lost to follow-up.

I suspect that if we could have removed all of the mercury from his body, he would have done well. It is my experience that rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases (such as multiple sclerosis, lupus erythematosis, and scleroderma), chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, autism, ADHD, and a variety of neurological impairments (such as Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, and other cognitive difficulties) are often linked to mercury toxicity. Many other physicians have made similar observations. One of the tip-offs in a patient’s history that suggests that mercury may be part of the problem is the sudden onset of memory loss. A patient presented to our office several years ago with just such a problem.

Ed’s Story

Ed was a million-dollar-a-year realtor, very sharp and focused in all of his work activities. But all of a sudden, his memory began to fail him; he couldn’t think clearly or even remember his own phone number. He simultaneously developed the onset of fatigue and headaches. He was very frustrated and worried by this sudden turn of events, and visits to several physicians’ offices had provided no answers. On our initial testing for Ed, along with having a DHEA deficiency, he had significant levels of mercury in his urine on DMPS testing. With a mouth full of old “silver” amalgam fillings, I felt his symptoms were most likely caused by mercury toxicity. So we treated him with DHEA, 50 mg each morning, and intravenous DMPS on a monthly basis. We also referred him to a biological dentist for proper removal of his amalgam fillings. DMPS typically pulls 1 ng/DL of mercury out of the body per treatment, so the number of treatments usually depends simply on the initial level of mercury, which we obtain at our first analysis.

After six months of treatment Ed had greatly improved, and within a year he was back at work at full capacity. Not only could he think clearly again, but his headaches and fatigue had also disappeared. This improvement from the treatment for mercury toxicity is a fairly typical occurrence in our office, and it underscores the importance of looking for this diagnosis when the appropriate symptoms are present.

Please understand: I am not suggesting that everyone run out and have all of their amalgam fillings or root canals removed. This process would involve considerable expense and pain, and the inappropriate removal of amalgam fillings could make some individuals worse. If the removal of your amalgams is even a consideration, first get your mercury levels measured and have the electrical potential of your teeth checked. If these tests are negative, there is little reason to pursue the removal of your fillings.

If we do find elevated levels of mercury in an otherwise healthy individual (which we do find, on occasion), what does this mean? I believe that if a patient is basically healthy, her body can “throw off” or handle the negative effects of that toxicity. However, if that same patient gets sick, or is exposed to additional toxins or severe stress, she may become overwhelmed by cumulative toxicity. Now her toxic level of mercury comes into play as an additional weakening factor, which may make it more difficult for her to heal. She has become not only sick, but mercury-toxic as well. We see this component in some of our sickest individuals with Lyme disease, in which the mercury toxicity affects their abilities to remove the toxins produced in their bodies when we are actively killing the Lyme bacteria.

You can see that the subject of dentistry is indeed important to your health. It is my intention to provide helpful directions to explore, but I cannot hope to cover all of dentistry within this book. Finding a good holistic dentist may be the first step in this segment of your journey. (Visit the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT) for a listing of holistic dentists in your area.)

You will find more about the impact of dental issues (Dental Related Electrical Imbalances, Root Canal Toxicity, Metal Allergy, Dental Appliances, Occult Infections in the Jaw) in the rest of chapter 10 of Healing Is Possible: New Hope for Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Persistent Pain, and Other Chronic Illnesses by Neil Nathan MD.

Further Reading

Cave, Stephanie, and Deborah Mitchell. What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About(TM) Children’s Vaccinations
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2001. This book is an updated and excellent discussion of vaccine safety and usage.

Huggins, Hal A. It’s All in Your Head: The Link Between Mercury Amalgams and Illness. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing, 1993. This book provides a wonderful overview of mercury fillings and toxicity.

International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology. This site includes information about biological dentistry and will help you find a knowledgeable holistic dentist in your area.

Meinig, George E. Root Canal Cover Up Ojai, CA: Bion Publishing, 1993. This book includes an in-depth discussion of the problems following root canal procedures.

Seafood Watch Program. Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation. This site provides comprehensive information about the mercury content of seafood and makes recommendations for consumption.