Sodium is an essential constituent of every tissue in the body, whereas mercury is a toxin with no known role in physiology. Salt is so crucial to physiology that many mammals will actively seek it out in the form of salt licks and so important to humans that it was once used as currency, whereas mercury exposure is associated with neurodegenerative disease and is widely feared. But if a patient suffers from hypertension it is likely to be salt they are told to avoid, even though a drastic reduction in sodium intake has been shown to have only a minimal effect on blood pressure, resulting in average reductions in the order of 5.5/2.8 mm Hg[i]. It is rarely suspected that mercury exposure could actually be the culprit, though it would make more sense generally to suppose that a blatant toxin would contribute more to a derangement of health, like hypertension, than an essential constituent of every cell.
Hypertension often proves frustrating to treat using natural, holistic approaches. While it can be somewhat more easily managed with pharmaceutical drugs, these often have side effects, and artificially lowering blood pressure in this manner fails to address the root cause of the problem. But what is the root cause? The conventional view of hypertension assumes that some combination of excessive sodium intake, psychological stress, and any number of noxious influences damaging the circulatory system, with or without the added strain of obesity, is to blame. More holistic approaches have posited deficiency of magnesium and vitamin D to the list of potential causes. Even the FDA has recently acknowledged that adequate magnesium in the diet may reduce the risk of high blood pressure[ii], now allowing this statement to be used as a qualified health claim, though the evidence for this is mostly correlational and unfortunately, neither of these nutrients has proven in practice to be a standalone cure, as was hoped. As is usually the case with diseases whose etiology is multifactorial, like hypertension, it is unlikely that any single treatment alone can be effective in all cases, and so getting to the root cause of an individual’s hypertension may require a more thorough and thoughtful approach.
As far as natural treatments go for hypertension, one method that seems to provide remarkably consistent results is fasting. The use of a medically supervised water fast to treat hypertension has been recently popularized by Alan Goldhamer, D.C., who has pioneered this approach. According to published results of a trial which included 174 of his patients, almost 90% had their hypertension completely controlled within two weeks, with 10-11 days of strict water fasting resulting in an average 37/13 mm Hg reduction in blood pressure[iii]. Although fasting seems to be effective, not every patient is prepared to undertake a fast, and especially for patients with diabetes who may be on insulin, fasting without strict medical supervision can be dangerous. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to speculate on the mechanism by which fasting works for hypertension, since fasting is normally used for detoxification. Certainly some weight loss could be expected from a ten day fast, and obesity is a risk factor for hypertension, but it is unlikely that any substantial changes in weight could be effected in a span of only ten days, even in the complete absence of caloric intake.
One problem with using fasting as a treatment for chronic disease is that it’s obviously not sustainable. While a short fast may be useful to get hypertension under control, patients may quickly relapse unless the root cause has been properly addressed, possibly even despite their continued adherence to a healthier diet. One lesser-known cause of hypertension that is becoming increasingly recognized in the medical community is heavy metal toxicity, and especially mercury toxicity. In fact, because fasting initiates numerous detoxification processes, its salutary effect on blood pressure may in part be explained through this mechanism. Evidence for a link between chronic mercury exposure and hypertension has become increasingly abundant. As examples, a Spanish study of 4,000 mercury miners found they had an almost three times greater lifetime risk of developing hypertension[iv], and a four year prospective study performed in Finland found that elevated blood pressure was directly proportional to mercury hair content[v].
Other studies could also be cited, and it’s believed that mercury toxicity can induce hypertension through two separate mechanisms. Mercury’s primary toxic effect on the body actually involves selenium depletion and consequent oxidative damage from free radicals. Selenium is an essential cofactor in the chelating enzymes used to bind and remove mercury from the body, such that mercury exposure will rapidly deplete the body’s supply of selenium. Selenium supplementation is even an effective treatment for mercury toxicity[vi]. Many sources of mercury in the diet like tuna are also quite high in selenium, which can offset the risk of mercury exposure from eating these foods. This may be why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently revised its guidance to pregnant women about fish consumption, downplaying its risks and now encouraging them to eat more[vii]. The problem with mercury is that selenium, used to detoxify mercury from the body, is also used to power numerous cellular antioxidant mechanisms, especially in the nervous system, where mercury is consequently most toxic. When the body is overwhelmed by a high dose of mercury, selenium is depleted and the cells are rendered increasingly vulnerable to the effects of oxidation, and it is this subsequent free radical damage that accounts for mercury’s harmful effects. With respect to hypertension, it is proposed that mercury and other heavy metals create a potent source of oxidative stress throughout the circulatory system, resulting in widespread damage to the endothelium. Thus, their chronic toxicity increases the risk of hypertension, similar to cigarette smoke or any other risk factor associated with free radical damage.
Exposure to other toxic heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, or arsenic, would also be expected to raise blood pressure through the same mechanism, but mercury in particular has an additional harmful effect by which it can wreak an even more pernicious effect on blood pressure. Mercury has a special affinity for the enzyme S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), which it binds and deactivates. SAMe is an important enzyme which among other things is necessary to efficiently metabolize catecholamines, i.e. stress hormones. It is well known that epiniephrine and norepinephrine will increase blood pressure as part of the normal stress response, but to turn off this stress response involves SAMe deactivating these enzymes. It is believed that high mercury levels in the body interfere with this process by deactivating the enzyme, prolonging the effects of stress upon the body and potentially resulting in chronically elevated blood pressure[viii].
To briefly review mercury toxicity, all sources are harmful but an important distinction can be made between organic vs. inorganic sources. Organic mercury is far more bioavailable, and hence more toxic, the main sources being fish species that progressively accumulate mercury because they are high on the food chain. Shark and swordfish are considered to be the worst in this regard, though as mentioned above, tuna is no longer considered to be as harmful due to its high selenium content. In truth, it is not really eating fish that is harmful, but eating fish from polluted waters, such as near hydroelectric plants where mercury-laden combustion waste is prone to be carelessly dumped. A second source of organic mercury exposure is thimerosal in vaccines, an especially concerning route of exposure because the mercury is injected into the body directly. Since thimerosal is added to vaccines as a preservative, it is typically only used as an ingredient in the more cost-efficient multi-dose vials, and so depending on the vaccine, there may be mercury-free versions available. Compared to the organic forms, inorganic mercury is less bioavailable, however it is far more prevalent in the environment and can become quite an issue when exposure is excessive or prolonged. Mercury-containing dental amalgam fillings are perhaps the most ubiquitous source of exposure, though occupational exposure must of course be considered as well.
Most people associate chronic high blood pressure with chronic psychological stress, but it’s important to consider that it could just as easily be a case of chronic toxicity disrupting enzymes, causing normal psychological stress to exert an unhealthily prolonged effect. For this reason, when hypertension doesn’t respond to conventional pharmaceutical or natural treatments, it is well worth considering a detoxification program, especially one targeting heavy metals. Natural medicine offers numerous means to address heavy metal toxicity, and so any of these may prove to be useful, if unconventional, treatments for hypertension. Fasting, chelation therapy, and saunas can all be used to promote detoxification, and there are numerous natural ways to support the body’s antioxidant systems. Besides these general detoxification strategies, there are also natural therapies available that can specifically address heavy metal toxicity.
[i] Graudal NA, Hubeck-Graudal T, Jürgens G. Effects of low-sodium diet vs. high-sodium diet on blood pressure, renin, aldosterone, catecholamines, cholesterol, and triglyceride (Cochrane Review). Am J Hypertens 2011;25:1–15.
[ii]FDA Announces Qualified Health Claim for Magnesium and Reduced Risk of High Blood Pressure. Jan. 10, 2022. Accessed Feb. 25, 2022 at https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-announces-qualified-health-claim-magnesium-and-reduced-risk-high-blood-pressure
[iii] Goldhamer A, Lisle D, Parpia B, Anderson SV, Campbell TC. Medically supervised water-only fasting in the treatment of hypertension. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2001 Jun;24(5):335-9. doi: 10.1067/mmt.2001.115263. PMID: 11416824.
[iv] 68-Garcia Gomez M, Boffetta P, Caballero K, et al. Cardiovascular mortality in mercury miners. Med Clin (Barc). 2007;128:766–771.
[v] Salonen JT, Seppanen K, Lakka TA, et al. Mercury accumulation and accelerated progression of carotid atherosclerosis: a population‐based prospective 4‐year follow‐up study in men in eastern Finland. Atherosclerosis. 2000;148:265–273.
[vi] Li YF1, Dong Z, Chen C, Li B, Gao Y, Qu L, Wang T, Fu X, Zhao Y, Chai Z. Organic selenium supplementation increases mercury excretion and decreases oxidative damage in long-term mercury-exposed residents from Wanshan, China. Environmental Science and Technology. 2012 Oct 16;46(20):11313-8. doi: 10.1021/es302241v. Epub 2012 Oct 3.
[vii] Cassell, Peter. FDA In Brief: FDA revises 2017 fish advice for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children. July 2, 2019. Accessed Feb. 2, 2022 at https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-brief/fda-brief-fda-revises-2017-fish-advice-pregnant-and-breastfeeding-mothers-and-young-children
[viii] Houston MC. Role of mercury toxicity in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2011;13(8):621-627. doi:10.1111/j.1751-7176.2011.00489.x
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