Are probiotics something that can help the body fight off heavy metals? A number of researchers are looking into ways that the right probiotics might aid people exposed to certain heavy metals such as mercury or arsenic. Medical science already understands how critical a diverse gut microbiota is to overall health, but they are shining a new light on how bacteria can provide additional health benefits related to heavy metals.
Heavy metals are elements that occur naturally in nature. They get their name from their atomic weight, which is five times more dense than water. Although heavy metals are a natural substance, they are also a form of environmental pollutant distributed by various industries including agriculture, medical and technology.
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when toxic amounts of these elements accumulate in the body. Some common heavy metals that lead to toxicity include:
Heavy metals are found naturally in the earth’s crust, however, they are viewed as a form of a contaminant when they find their way into our ecosystem. Environmental contamination is generally associated with mining activities and smelting and industrial and agricultural use of the metals. Some contamination occurs as metals corrode, evaporate or are leached into the soil. Natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions contribute to heavy metal pollution, as well.
It can be confusing because some of these metals are also essential to body functioning like iron or zinc. When the concentrations of metal build up in tissue, however; it can lead to poisoning. For certain heavy metals like copper, the window between helpful and toxic is very small.
The symptoms of heavy metal poisoning depend on the type of metal involved. For example, lead poisoning can lead to:
Symptoms of copper toxicity are similar but would also include vomiting blood and a copper-colored ring around the iris. Long-term exposure to most heavy metals can cause organ damage that is often irreversible.
In 2014, Dr. Gregor Reid, a professor of microbiology, immunology, and surgery at the University of Western Ontario, published a paper in the journal for the American Society for Microbiology that looked at ways yogurt infused with probiotic bacteria could protect pregnant women from the effects of the heavy metals mercury and arsenic. Reid found that the bacteria were able to bind to the metal while still in the gut, eliminating it through waste. This was the first study to test the idea that probiotics could play a role in controlling heavy metal buildup. This pioneering attempt opened the door for other researchers to consider using probiotics in this fashion.
A 2016 study published in the Environmental Science and Pollution Research International looked at how specific bacteria affects the accumulation of the heavy metal lead in the brains of rats. Lead is a metal found in a number of food products, and even at low levels, can have toxic consequences. Lead is one of the few elements that can pass the blood-brain barrier allowing for a buildup in the nervous system.
The study found that the bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis when used in proper amounts protect against acute lead toxicity in the animals. The researchers exposed rats to lead and these two probiotic bacteria both separately and together. The best results were in the group that took both types of bacteria.
Another study published in the Egyptian Journal of Environmental Research in 2016 examined lactic acid bacteria’s ability to bind to heavy metals and remove them from the system, especially associated with cadmium and lead. They are the two most toxic heavy metals found in food and water.
The results showed that lactic acid bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, had a high tolerance to these toxic heavy metals and even some antioxidative abilities. The authors of the study stated that a supplement containing probiotic bacteria might work as part of an overall strategy to treat and prevent heavy metal poisoning in certain high-risk groups.
Heavy metals are becoming one of the top environmental concerns in this country. Are probiotics the solution? There is not enough information available at this point to make that conclusion but there are clinical studies that show promise in this area.
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