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Metals and the Mind
Copper Imbalance talk at Weston A. Price Foundation
This article was originally published in Wise Traditions, the publication of the Weston A. Price Foundation in 2008. I spoke at their conference on Nutrition and the Mind in the Bay Area, California and this article is based on that talk.
The focus of my talk was on copper toxicity or copper imbalance which is a stress induced bio unavailability of copper that famously affects the mind.
Metals and the Mind
The one thing we can say about the effect of toxic metals on the mind is that we don’t know much. These metals are hard to detect and difficult to get rid of once you know you have them. That is why you don’t hear much about this subject. I certainly didn’t, even after studying nutrition, herbs and all kinds of natural therapies for years and years. You often hear, “Well, you could have heavy metal toxicity,” but what does that mean? What do you do about it? All I had ever heard about for heavy metal toxicity was chelation and I didn’t like what I heard.
Fortunately, about seven years ago [now nineteen] I was contacted by Analytical Research Laboratories, which was founded by Dr. Paul Eck, a biochemist and nutritionist who addressed these issues in a very specific and unusual way. At that time, I had a patient who was not recovering, and I became convinced that she had serious metal problems, so we began doing his protocols, which included hair analysis. It turned out she had the biggest amount of aluminum I had ever seen in anybody. I now know that aluminum causes a lot of chronic pain; you often see it in fibromyalgia. The key fact about the metal toxicity is that it is always related to chronic fatigue and chronic adrenal fatigue.
All chronic illness includes chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue, whether you feel tired or not. A lot of my patients will say, “Oh, I have lots of energy,” but they do not or they would not be chronically ill. There is no conventional medical treatment for adrenal fatigue unless you have reached the point of total failure, at which time you are put on cortical supplements for the rest of your life. Therefore, like the issue of toxic metals, if adrenal fatigue is not tested for, it is not discussed.
These two problems—adrenal fatigue and toxic metal buildup—are strongly related because you cannot excrete metal without good adrenal function. Adrenal function needs to be pretty close to normal or you will start retaining metals, because the adrenal glands have such a big part to play in the proper handling of metals in the body. The first sign of adrenal fatigue is reliance on stimulants. If the idea of going without your stimulant is an issue, you have adrenal fatigue. There, you have taken the test, now you know.
If you need stimulants to feel good, you are already exhausted. In fact any drug that makes you feel better is a sign that you are already exhausted because ultimately their effect is a stimulant effect. Even alcohol or drugs that are said be sedative actually have a stimulating effect on the adrenals. Many people get by for years on stimulants, which can include behavioral and emotional stimulants like overexercise, workaholism and even constant worry, such as putting yourself in a fear state and indulging in anger. All of these will rev up your adrenals and keep you from feeling just how tired you really are.
Meanwhile your adrenal glands are not functioning normally and you are starting to retain all kinds of metal. Once you reach a certain threshold in the body, the metal itself becomes one of your major adrenal stressors. Now you are in a constantly poisoned state and the adrenals are getting weaker and weaker. Even if you are trying everything in the book—you are eating well, you are getting a lot of rest and doing tai chi—you cannot get well because by now you have toxic metal poison in the body, all the time taking your energy out of you.
What happens next depends on many variables— the types of metals to which you are exposed, and how much, and even where you live. I find very interesting variations in the hair tests, depending on where people live. In California, for instance, I primarily see aluminum toxicity; apparently there is a lot of aluminum in the area. Aluminum is a very common metal, comprising up to 14 percent of the earth’s crust, so it is in the dust and in the air.
Aluminum is also an additive in anti-perspirants. I have a theory that in warm climates, where people use a lot of anti-perspirants, they are exposed to a lot more aluminum than people living in colder climates. On the East Coast, I see more problems with cadmium, mercury and lead, the heavy metals. On the West Coast, if someone shows mercury, you can bet they have been eating fish twice a week and have been for a while. If they aren’t eating fish, they don’t show mercury even if it is in their mouth. I don’t know why, but that is what I have found.
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The Copper Problem
But the main thing that happens with metal retention is copper toxicity because everybody is getting copper constantly. Almost everything you eat has some copper in it. A lot of really popular foods like coffee, chocolate, avocado, soy, shellfish like shrimp and lobster, and certain beans and nuts like pecans are pretty high in copper.
This isn’t a problem with good liver, gall bladder and especially adrenal function. If adrenal function is strong, we just mobilize that copper and excrete it through the bile. Unfortunately, the way we live these days, that is not what is happening. Most people are not able to get rid of the excess copper. How many people have impaired liver function, congested gallbladder or adrenal fatigue? Probably the majority these days.
If adrenal function becomes impaired, the copper builds up in the liver, brain, joints and lungs. When this happens, you see very specific problems, including mental problems, liver problems and detoxification problems. Phase II liver impairment is often made worse by copper toxicity, if not actually caused by it. You also see a lot of copper toxicity with asthma and breathing problems, including emphysema. Copper also tends to build up in the joints, leading to arthritis. Chronic skin problems are also an indication of copper toxicity.
Vegetarian diets are very high in copper because the vegetable foods are a great source of this mineral. Since vegetarians don’t eat meat, and possibly not even eggs, they are not getting enough zinc, which is the natural antagonist to copper. Zinc naturally balances copper and keeps it from building up in the tissues. If you are not eating much in the way of meat and eggs, you will develop copper problems.
Excess copper interferes with energy production at the cellular level. It impairs various energy pathways in the cell so it contributes to the very fatigue that tends to make you retain copper, leading to a vicious circle. Once this pattern gets going, it is totally self-reinforcing and very difficult to break, even by adding zinc-rich foods back into the diet.
Copper is stimulating to the brain, causing it to produce high levels of the activating neurotransmitters, like serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. This is why you will see copper toxicity in manic states like paranoid schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. The so-called copper head tends to be very emotional, very intense, often very creative. Such individuals are prone to crash and burn because their overactive mind is being supported by a very fatigued body.
Copper toxicity is a major factor in irritable bowel syndrome because copper is excreted through the bile and certain things will cause you to suddenly dump copper. If you have been building up copper, anything that causes an increase in your metabolic rate will cause a copper dump and it comes out through the bile. If you are copper toxic and suddenly under a lot of stress, this may bring on an irritable bowel episode because suddenly excess copper is moving through your bowels and irritating them.
The tendency of copper to build up in the body is similar to iron, which is another essential nutrient that is also a heavy metal. They’re both highly electrical, very conductive metals that produce a lot of free radical activity and have to be bound by special proteins, such as ceruloplasmin and metallothioine. The production of these proteins is controlled by the adrenal glands, and they are produced in the liver. If the adrenals are not functioning properly and the liver is impaired, possibly from copper buildup, you will not produce these binding proteins, so copper remains in free form. That makes it a toxic and reactive free-radical generator capable of causing a lot of damage.
When this happens, the body starts to sequester it. It tries to stash it somewhere so it will do less damage. Thus, while you may be building up a lot of copper in your body, you may also have the symptoms of copper deficiency because the copper is bio-unavailable. The copper is not in a usable form so you will have both deficiency symptoms and symptoms of toxicity. When copper accumulates under stress, when you go into a fight-or-flight condition, your adrenals are on line and ready to go. This is a short-term mechanism that is beneficial. It helps the body cope with stress, at least initially.
The body has an intricate system of checks and balances which operate through the mineral levels and ratios. If you are deficient in one mineral, another mineral accumulates and can become excessive. For example, when sodium and potassium levels go down, calcium and magnesium rise. When copper drops, iron increases. If zinc rises, copper goes down. If iron rises, chromium goes up. There is a constant and complex dance of minerals going on in the body, and the body very specifically retains and releases minerals in order to control certain body functions.
When we retain copper, this makes sodium rise. Sodium is required to produce aldosterone, the adrenal cortex hormone that causes sodium retention and high blood pressure when produced in excess. An increase in aldosterone is a defense against stress—you need that high aldosterone production during a fight-or-flight state, when you are trying to guard yourself in some way against a threat. When aldosterone increases, the body retains copper and releases magnesium, which is a calming mineral that slows you down. That is why a lot of people use it to sleep or to relieve muscle cramping. So if you are going into fight or flight, your body drops the magnesium very quickly. It is the first thing to go, because the body is trying to rev up. Increased aldosterone production will also cause a drop in zinc, which allows the copper to be retained and the sodium to go up.
The increase in copper is stimulating, it gets you going, which is just what you need in the short term. But chronic unremitting stress never gives you time to recover, you never get to address your biochemical imbalance, you never have that down time to excrete the excess copper now.
When your adrenal glands are in great shape, you can excrete excess copper whenever you need to. But when your adrenal glands are just hanging on by their fingernails, just barely able to mount a stress reponse, you have an excess of stimulating copper. It becomes very hard to go to sleep and the mind races. You think, think, think, worry, worry, worry, and all of that makes it worse. You are always worn out. In fact, people with chronic fatigue often wake up tired because they don’t really ever rest.
We also use up tryptophan in these situations, as tryptophan is needed for seratonin production. Seratonin is used up under stress. You can’t replace your tryptophan by eating turkey when it is being used up so quickly. What this tells me is that the body is not designed to be constantly under stress. We are meant to spend time sitting in a hammock somewhere, or weaving a basket!
Loss of zinc and magnesium along with retention of copper temporarily serve the body and improve the adrenal’s response to stress. But with unrelenting stress or extreme catastrophic stress, these imbalances can start working against you. The copper toxicity reduces the ability to cope with normal everyday stress; it impairs adrenal function. A lot of adrenal activity requires zinc, which copper impairs. The result is a slowdown of your whole metabolism.
And your body knows when this happens, knows that you are not up to the challenge, not able to respond to stress properly. This is enough to make you feel anxious. You might feel fearful about taking on certain things because you know you are not up to it. This is the beginning of the mental disturbances that go with copper toxicity. You know that you are exhausted. You may be playing a lot of tricks to keep going. When presented with certain situations, you may panic or feel very nervous. Eventually, as you become exhausted, you may become apathetic and depressed and no longer desire to take on much of anything. So you build your little shell and get behind it.
But initially you will tend to overreact, everything is an emergency. “Oh no! I have to go buy food. . . Oh no! I have to go to the bank today.” Everything is a big deal. With a lot of my patients I have to say, “Pretend you are on vacation.” Instead say, “If I feel like it, I’ll go get some food,” because inside there is a constant sense of urgency. Automatically if anything has to be done, it’s a big deal. It keeps you in that revved-up state, always overreacting to every little life event.
And you are probably using many stimulants to keep you going, which has you on edge too. You are not calm, cool and collected. I very often recommend that people with this problem slow down— no fast walking, don’t drive fast, go below the speed limit. You have to send your body a signal that this is no big deal, there is no rush. If you don’t do it today, you can do it tomorrow. You have to take yourself away from the edge of the cliff because otherwise you will go over the edge into full adrenal burnout. When everything is a big deal, your body gets into a vicious circle of constant stress leading to loss of zinc and magnesium and retention of copper.
The other thing that happens with excess copper and adrenal exhaustion is hypoglycemia and blood sugar swings. Low adrenal output results in low production of glucocortocoids, cortisol and cortisone, which play a role in maintaining proper blood sugar levels. So when production is low, you are underproducing those hormones and constantly going into hypoglycemia, which can result in depression, irritability, mood swings, poor concentration, poor memory, dizziness, fatigue, sleepiness and many more unpleasant effects. A lot of people don’t realize they are hypoglycemics, but if their problems tend to start an hour or two after they’ve eaten, that is always a clue.
Depending on the severity of the toxicity and the susceptibility of the person, copper can affect the mind very strongly. Initially copper toxicity may make a person active, productive and creative. But eventually such feelings will be undermined by lack of energy. Then we see people who have a million ideas and are always making lists, but who do not have the energy to follow through. This leads to chronic frustration followed by depression.
After a while the combination of over-activity of the mind with lack of accomplishment can make people quite nutty. They tip over the edge into obsessiveness, compulsiveness, phobias and all kinds of fixations because the mind is so intense and it has to go somewhere. In extreme cases, people become psychotic. But most people tend towards mood swings, PMS and weird episodes that they cannot explain. “I don’t know why I did that or said that.” They lose control briefly and then pull themselves together. They may have ways of managing copper toxicity to keep a lid on inside, but they are a lot nuttier than anybody thinks they are. They just don’t let it show. They may look very calm but they aren’t.
Copper increases the electrical potential of the neuron, probably because of the enhanced movement of sodium. This leads to over-production of the activating neurotransmitters—dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin—leading to anxiety, racing mind and insomnia. Researchers Pfeiffer and Goldstein demonstrated that brain waves exhibit an equivalent central nervous stimulation from either 5 mg of copper or 5 mg of Dexedrine—so copper is equally as stimulating as Dexedrine to the mind. As we know, amphetamines can eventually make you psychotic if you keep using them.
The body will begin storing the excess copper in the brain as the liver becomes overloaded. Copper stimulates the diencephalon, which is the emotional brain. Zinc stimulates the cortex, the new brain, the rational mind, and is calming to the emotions. Thus, copper-toxic people often keep themselves in a state of high drama, and their symptoms can even mimic bi-polar syndrome. Carl Pfeiffer, PhD, MD, has found that one-half to two-thirds of schizophrenics have high levels of copper and low levels of zinc and magnesium, especially during acute phases. Copper has an adverse effect on methylation, a metabolic pathway that is essential for detoxification and for controlling free-radical activity. Poor methylation can be an important factor in cases of autism and schizophrenia.
A condition that can really put a person at great risk for copper toxicity is pyroluria. Pyroluria is characterized by excess krytopyrrole in the urine. Pyrroles attract aldehydes, and vitamin B6 is an aldehyde. Once the pyrroles bind to B6, that unit now becomes a real vacuum cleaner for any zinc you might have lying around. So if you have pyroluria, from a very young age you are developing a B6 and zinc deficiency constantly. It is hard to consume enough B6 to overcome the drain that is happening in pyroluria.
About 52 percent of schizophrenics, 42 percent of psychiatric patients and 40 percent of alcoholics are pyrolurics. If alcoholism is associated with nervous breakdowns, suicide or even migraines, pyroluria is likely involved. A sign of low B6 is lack of dream memory, or very disturbing dreams. And if your B6 is very low, you will find it hard to take zinc. Zinc will make you feel nauseated, bloated or uncomfortable.
Family tendencies seen with pyroluria include cluster headaches and migraines, depression, fatigue including chronic fatigue, sensitivity to cold, anemia, morning nausea and appetite problems, lack of dream recall, suicides and suicidal depression, motion sickness, blood sugar problems, glucose intolerance, sore lower back and upper left pain in the ribs.
Drug and alcohol intolerance, constipation, crowded upper front teeth, a lot of joint problems, growing pains might even be part of B6 deficiency. Tingling sensation, cramping, tremors, ticks, convulsive seizures and epilepsy are very strongly affected by the pyroluria, low B6 and zinc along with copper toxicity. Both can give you epilepsy and clearing them up can definitely get rid of seizure disorders. Neuralgia and sciatica are very common in these cases. A common symptom is pale skin that will not tan. Often the most pyroluric member of the family will be the lightest one. Other signs are late onset of puberty, low stress tolerance and prematurely gray hair.
The other thing that happens with high copper is slow oxidation, because high copper slows down both the adrenal and thyroid glands. Oxidation means to burn or mix with oxygen. Dr. George Watson, a researcher at UCLA, developed the concept of oxidation types. Those who burn food at a slower-than-ideal rate are slow oxidizers. If your thyroid and adrenal glands are very active you will be a fast oxidizer; if they are sluggish, you will be a slow oxidizer.
Stress from excess copper at first puts the body in a state of fast oxidation. Over time, however, the oxidation rate starts to decline and you go into the resistant stage. This can go on for years, where you have one foot on the platform and one foot on the train, and your body is in a constantly unstable condition of being overly stressed yet unable to fully respond. It is during that time that the copper starts to build up. You start to lose your ability to handle the metal. When exhaustion sets in, when your body can’t handle it any longer, that is when the oxidation rate becomes slow. This can be masked for a period if you take enough stimulants.
Slow oxidizers tend to have high calcium levels and fast oxidizers tend to have high sodium and potassium. When you see someone’s chart and they have high calcium, which means they are a slow oxidizer, along with a very high sodium and potassium, which is the signature of fast oxidation, it means they are pumping themselves up enough to overcome the slow oxidation but the calcium brake is still on. The underlying condition is slow oxidation, and buildup of copper, but these individuals are revved up on stimulants.
By the way, vitamin C can act as a stimulant. Often when people go on a nutritional program, they hate being told to take less vitamin C, because they’ve become so dependent on high doses and they don’t think they should take less. But that is what’s keeping them revved up and ultimately wiping them out.
People in slow oxidation are like people with low thyroid, because it is more or less the same thing. They have dry skin and hair, they sweat little and tend toward constipation, depression, fatigue, apathy, low blood sugar, adrenal insufficiency and low blood pressure. As with low thyroid, they tend to gain weight on the hips and have a low body temperature. Slow oxidizers tend to be withdrawn, introverted, less emotionally expressive and may exhibit depression, despair and suicidal thoughts. As the slow oxidation becomes more extreme, more and more of these symptoms will develop.
Copper and Calcium
Calcium and magnesium are part of the body’s braking system. These minerals help you get control and slow down, to avoid burning yourself out. You have to have a way to pull back, and calcium and magnesium are how the body does it. By contrast, sodium and potassium accelerate the metabolism, partly by increasing adrenal cortical hormones.
Newborns have a very high rate of metabolism and relatively low calcium levels. As we age the body begins to apply the calcium brake; as copper builds up, the calcium and magnesium levels rise while the sodium and potassium decline. Rising calcium in the tissues is a defense against the chronic stress which is the cause and effect of copper toxicity. So the body starts retaining calcium to buffer the effects of the copper and that calcium slows you down. That is the calcium brake.
Calcium and magnesium stabilize the body and prevent an excessive metabolism as a defense against stress. Slowing down metabolism can slow down the rate of collapse and allow the buildup of protective minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. This can initially be protective. It prevents the slow oxidizer from experiencing any acute, severe stresses. In essence, since the body can no longer handle stress, it builds a calcium shell and the calcium shell numbs and dulls your sensations and your emotions so you will not over-react. You will be impervious, but the calcium shell will preserve that spark of life that remains.
A high level of calcium is a sign that calcium is building up in the soft tissues. This calcium is being taken from the bones. Yet, just the way that toxic copper is bio-unavailable, this calcium that is building up and showing up very high in the hair analyses is not actually functioning, it is not in a usable, soluble, ionic form in the blood.
With ongoing imbalance, the body starts taking any metals that it might be retaining and using them as a substitute: lead can substitute for calcium, cadmium very readily substitutes for zinc, aluminum seems to substitute for just about everything. And the body will retain those metals; they get locked into the tissues, serving as place holders for the proper nutrients.
This is why chelation will not help the condition of toxic metal buildup. Chelation can only attach to a metal that is in free form, available to be picked up and carried out. If the toxic metal is in the body sequestered in the tissues, occurring at enzyme-binding sites or some other location, the chelators cannot get to it, it cannot be taken out and the body will not release that metal.
For instance if you have cadmium toxicity, the body very strongly retains cadmium in order to support a low sodium level because cadmium will push the sodium back up. That is part of the reason that high-cadmium substances like tobacco and marijuana can be very addictive—they raise the sodium level and make you feel more normal, as though you have good adrenal function. Your body will not release the cadmium unless it no longer needs the cadmium to support that low sodium level, which means you have got to rebuild the adrenal function until the adrenals are satisfied and say they no longer need this crutch.
Copper overload and heavy metal toxicity are some of the most difficult conditions to treat in modern medicine. However, recovery is possible— the right protocol involving diet, nutritional balance and gentle detoxification has helped many of my patients recover both physical and mental health. A healing protocol is outlined below. Meanwhile, it is imperative that we avoid this condition in coming generations by warning young people about the dangers of vegetarian diets and working together to reduce the toxic environmental load.