Heavy Metals: How The Environment Affects Health
In this day and age, it is pretty much impossible to avoid exposure to toxic heavy metals like mercury, copper, lead, cadmium, and arsenic. These heavy metals enter our bodies through a variety of sources from farming and industrial practices, corrosive pipes and contaminated groundwater to personal habits like smoking cigarettes.
Unfortunately, researchers have linked the presence of these dangerous elements in the human body with heart disease.
When comparing people with the lowest levels of arsenic exposure to those with the highest levels, the latter group was 30 percent more likely to contract a cardiovascular disease.
A similar comparison found that the highest levels of lead exposure were 43 percent more likely to develop a heart condition. For cadmium, the increased risk was 33 percent, while copper exposure was linked to a whopping 81 percent higher risk of coronary illness.
Oxidation is the scientific term for the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. This molecular change is often destructive, as we see in rusting iron. In addition to oxygen, other agents (like chlorine bleach) can cause corrosion through oxidation.
It turns out that too much life-giving oxygen is actually bad for us. The body burns fuel with oxygen, combining digested food with oxygen from the air we breathe.
Metal poisoning is called oxidative stress. As the body processes oxygen, by-products called free radicals are produced which can harm tissues and cells. Free radicals are electronically unstable molecules with an uneven number of electrons that contain oxygen.
The odd number of electrons lets them react easily with other molecules. Free radicals can strip electrons from any other molecules they encounter in an effort to achieve stability. This creates even more unstable molecules that then attack their neighbors in domino-like chain reactions in the body.
The large chain chemical reactions that free radicals can produce can be beneficial – or not. By the time a free radical chain has run its course, it may have rampaged through cells like the running of the bulls in Spain, causing extensive damage comparable to that produced by ionizing radiation.
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Balanced oxidation is a natural and essential bodily function. Properly functioning free radicals can help infectious pathogens. It is only when the body can’t keep up with the free radical count and fails to counteract and neutralize surplus free radicals that oxidative stress occurs.
Oxidative stress can spell trouble for not only the heart but nervous system, kidneys, eyes, and brain.
Excess free radicals can damage the body’s fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins. Because these substances constitute a large part of the body, such damage can lead to many other unhealthy medical conditions gradually, over time. Among them are:
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the blood vessels)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s)
Free radicals come from the environment, as previously mentioned:
- Some pesticides and cleaners
- Cigarette smoke
Unfortunately, there isn’t much people can do about exposure to heavy metals since the sources are industrial, agricultural, and governmental.
However, we can add antioxidant foods or supplements to neutralize dangerous free radicals. The rule of thumb is to eat five servings daily of fruits and vegetables. Berries, cherries, citrus fruits, prunes, dark leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and olives are especially effective in reducing oxidative stress.
Other free radical-reducing dietary helpers are fish and nuts, vitamins E and C, turmeric, green tea, melatonin, onion, garlic, and cinnamon.
There are other “best practices” for neutralizing free radicals in your body:
- Exercise moderately but regularly
- Stop smoking tobacco
- Avoid chemical exposure (household cleaners and garden pesticides)
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Sleep more
- Avoid overeating
In other words, adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle will help your body keep balance free radicals and reduce the risk of oxidative stress.