Johnny Depp’s brilliant portrayal of the orange haired Mad Hatter, Tarrant Hightopp, in Alice in Wonderland earned him a Golden Globe Award Nomination for Best Actor. Although there has been much discussion as to the origin’s of the phrase ‘Mad Hatter,’ Depp said of his character “(he) was poisoned … and it was coming out through his hair, through his fingernails and eyes;” indicating that he played Hightopp as a person suffering from mercury poisoning. In a way, the Mad Hatter has become iconic to me and some of my close associates in the respect that he represents what any of us could arbitrarily become as a result of chronic exposure to toxic heavy metals – such as mercury – that are so pervasive in our environment today. However, the more pressing question is, ‘what do toxic heavy metals have to do with addiction?’ Well, the simple answer is: plenty.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal and just one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a major public health concern. The heavy metals most commonly associated with poisoning of humans in the U.S. are lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and cadmium.
For this conversation, I’d like to focus on two neurotoxins, mercury and lead.
No one gets a free pass when it comes to mercury. It is known to bio-accumulate in humans, meaning it leaves the body at a slower rate than it enters. Mercury can produce harmful effects on the brain, nervous system, digestive system, immune system, heart, lungs, kidneys and has the potential to be fatal. Methylmercury has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Mercury is a natural occurring substance. It can be found in batteries, measuring devices, such as thermometers and barometers, electric switches and relays, lamps including some types of light bulbs, dental amalgam (dental fillings), cosmetics including skin-lightening products, pharmaceuticals (including vaccines) and in our food supply – primarily fish.
Coal-burning power plants are responsible for about half of atmospheric mercury, with natural sources such as volcanoes responsible for the remainder. Mercury rises up into the atmosphere and returns to earth in rain storms. Microorganisms in lakes, rivers and oceans consume the mercury and begin the trek up the food chain to large fish which humans often dine on.
Like many of the toxic heavy metals in our environment, there is no ‘safe level’ in the human body. The consequences of consuming mercury are devastating, especially for unborn infants. This heavy metal can easily cross the blood brain barrier and placenta and cause mental and physical damage to a developing human being.
More relevant to this discussion, mercury can have a destructive effect on our behavior. Once it enters the body, mercury acts as a neurotoxin that can traverse the blood/brain barrier and interfere with normal brain function.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO); Neurological and behavioral disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction.
Aimee Phillippi, a professor of biology at Unity College in Unity, Maine says that: “Mercury poisoning can result in hearing and vision changes, personality changes, memory problems, seizures or paralysis.”
A quick online search will reveal peoples’ stories of Clinical Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Bi-polar disorder as a result of mercury leaking from dental fillings.
We’ve known for quite some time that there is a direct connection between depressive disorders and substance abuse and addiction. Can we draw the conclusion that mercury may be a co-contributor to addiction? Unfortunately, there just is not enough research on the subject to make a decisive statement and I doubt any new research will be available any time soon. What I can do is share with you my own experiences in treating addiction over more than thirty-years. I can say without reservation that many people I treated in that time tested positive in blood, urine and hair testing for heavy metal toxicity.
However, lead is a slightly different story. It is a potent neurotoxin whose toxicity has been recognized for thousands of years. It is used in the U.S. for batteries, pipes, ammunition, cable covering, building material, solder, radiation shielding, collapsible tubes, fishing weights, ceramic glazes as a stabilizer in plastics and a host of other smaller applications.
Lead does not usually occur naturally in drinking water, but can be present from the use of lead-based solder or lead pipes, or from a contaminated water source.
In a study titled; Blood Lead Levels And Major Depressive Disorder, Panic Disorder, And Generalized Anxiety Disorder In U.S. Young Adults (Dec. 2009 NCBI) scientists and researchers concluded:
“The risks for major depressive disorder and panic disorder in young adults increased with higher blood lead levels. These findings suggest that lead neurotoxicity may be a contributing factor for adverse mental health outcomes, even at levels generally considered to pose low or no risk. Our findings, combined with a recent report of adverse behavioral outcomes in children with similarly low blood lead levels should underscore the need for considering ways to further reduce environmental lead exposures.”
What I find even more compelling is evidence that toxic heavy metals contribute to substance abuse, and, addiction is the direct impact lead has on dopaminergic function. This is important because, as my good friend and colleague Dr. Ken Blum – discoverer of the addiction gene (DRD2-A1) – always says: when it comes to the addictive brain, all roads lead to dopamine.
Dopamine (DA) is the primary neurotransmitter of reward and pleasure. It is one of the “Feel Good” brain chemicals. As a neurotransmitter, one of its responsibilities is to communicate messages of calm and well-being to other areas of the brain. In medical circles, Dopamine is known as “the reward chemical,” and/or the “pleasure molecule.”
A neurotransmission functions similar to an electronic transmission; in fact it’s not all that much different from you emailing a select group of friends. Emails use electricity to form, transmit and receive messages while the brain uses electricity and chemicals to do the same thing.
However, not all brains work the same. Everyone is unique in the way their brains produce and utilize DA. It’s a delicate balance.
Parkinson’s disease, depression and propensities to addiction are a direct result of too little Dopamine while too much can lead to a false sense of euphoria and schizophrenia. Any disruption of dopaminergic function will have consequences.
In a rodent study conducted by two Emory University Professors, Douglas C. Jones and Gary W. Miller, and titled; ‘The Effects Of Environmental Neurotoxicants On The Dopaminergic System: A Possible Role In Drug Addiction (Biochemical Pharmacology 76 – 2008)’ the authors found: “A large variety of studies have demonstrated that a vast assortment of environmental neurotoxicants have deleterious effects on the dopaminergic system, consequently enhancing or impairing DA neurotransmission and disrupting DA-associated behaviors including motor control, motivation and attention, and potentially, vulnerability to drug addiction. Heavy metals, including lead, manganese, and cadmium have differential effects on dopaminergic activity. However, all three metals have been shown to disrupt the behavioral response to drugs of abuse and may contribute to the addiction process.”
What this is telling us is that lead is directly affecting dopaminergic function in the same area of the brain associated with substance abuse and addiction – and may even be an unknown link in addiction development. Although the results of this study indicate lead to be a co-contributor to addiction, it is not conclusive. More studies need to be done before we can hang that label on lead. However, and as I’d mentioned earlier, I’ve treated thousand of people for addictions and many of those also suffered from heavy metal toxicity.
My concern regarding the study of toxic heavy metals is that studies are skewed toward the direct result of human exposure and not enough emphasis is being placed on the potential ripple ‘neurological disease’ effect; or more specifically, depressive disorders and addiction. With the pharmaceutical industry directing the research schedule at our research universities and hospitals, I can only hope that the subject becomes the passion of a young med student.
Flint, Michigan’s lead tainted water supply has renewed public interest in toxic heavy metals and their consequences on our bodies and minds. Most heavy metals have no physiological benefits to us whatsoever. These poisons are ubiquitous in our environment and cannot be avoided.
If you or your loved one suspects you might have heavy metal toxicity, don’t despair. The disorder is easily detectable through hair and/or urine analysis and in nearly all cases treatable with chelation. I’d strongly recommend that you contact a reputable integrative medicine doctor.
John Giordano, Doctor of Humane Letters, MAC, CAP, is the President and Founder of the National Institute For Holistic Addiction Studies, Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department and is the Second Vice President of the Greater North Miami Chamber of Commerce. He is on the editorial board of the highly respected scientific Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome (JRDS) and has contributed to over 65 papers published in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals. For the latest development in cutting-edge addiction treatment check out his website: