Research & Education

Mercury Exposure and the Autoimmune Connection

There has been a significant increase in the incidence of autoimmune disorders over the past several decades. If we know what causes the immune system to attack itself and we know some of the triggers that cause a malfunction in the immune system we can successful assist with these conditions. Autoimmunity can occur a few different ways. First there can be a mistaken identity and the body attacks itself. This can occur with a virus where there is tissue destruction and it appears to be foreign to the body. The second way is called molecular mimicry. This occurs when the body makes an antibody (a protein that attacks objects in the body that appear to be foreign) to a specific antigen. These antigens can resemble certain proteins in the body and the antibodies attack our body's own tissues. Third is the development of the T cells (the immune system). This can be affected by genetics stress and environmental triggers.

One of the main categories integrative doctors work with in functional medicine are environmental triggers. These can be food-oriented such as gluten or other food sensitivities that can trigger inflammation as well as anything coming in with the food such as toxins or molds. In addition we look at the nutrient status of the person. This can focus on antioxidant status vitamins essential fatty acids vitamin D etc. Also of great importance is gut health including leaky gut and dysbiosis. Finally there are toxins that can affect the status of the immune system such as heavy metals and xenobiotics as well as the total toxic burden in the body.


The connection between gut health and autoimmune disease has been constantly in the news however one of the greatest risk factors for autoimmunity is exposure to mercury such as through seafood according to a new study from the University of Michigan. This study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives found that mercury even at low levels that are generally considered safe was associated with autoimmunity. According to Emily Somers Ph.D. Sc.M lead author of the study In our study exposure to mercury stood out as the main risk factor for autoimmunity." 

Autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease lupus Hashimoto's thyroiditis Sgren's syndrome rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are among the top ten leading causes of death among women. Researchers analyzed data among women 16 to 49 years of age from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between the years 1999-2004. They discovered that a greater exposure to mercury was associated with a higher rate of autoantibodies which is a precursor to autoimmune disease. Most autoimmune diseases are characterized by autoantibodies where the immune system fails to distinguish between its own tissues and potentially harmful cells.

Most recommendations on fish consumption are targeted at pregnant women nursing moms and young children. Researchers note that while seafood offers many health benefits such as lean protein and essential nutrients their findings provide evidence that women of reproductive age should be cautious of the type of fish they consume. Fish such as swordfish king mackerel and tilefish contain the highest levels of mercury whereas shrimp canned light tuna and salmon have lower levels.

The presence of autoantibodies doesn't necessarily mean they will lead to an autoimmune disease. However we know that autoantibodies are significant predictors of future autoimmune disease and in many cases precede the symptoms and diagnosis of the disease by years. This is definitely a factor that should not be overlooked.  Various specialty laboratories offer panels that can assess current heavy metal exposure (whole blood) or heavy metals in the tissue (provoked urine challenge). Dental amalgam fillings are also a common source of mercury exposure.

There are many natural agents that can safely support the detoxification of heavy metals without the harsh side effects of common synthetic chelating agents such as chlorella glutathione N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) alpha lipoic acid garlic cilantro and modified citrus pectin.

by Michael Jurgelewicz DC DACBN DCBCN