Unraveling Your Mystery Illness: Is Time To Test for Metal Exposure?

While many of us might associate metal toxicity with industry-related incidents or high-profile cases like mercury poisoning from contaminated fish, the reality is more nuanced. Exposure to heavy metals can occur in everyday life, leading to a myriad of health issues, including chronic fatigue triggers, that can be perplexing and difficult to diagnose. This article aims to shed light on the often unseen threat of metal toxicities, their potential impacts on our health, specifically chronic fatigue, and how to identify them. We’ll also provide resources for testing for heavy metal exposure, which is a critical step toward finding better health.

The Mystery Illness Connection

Diagnosing metal-related health issues can be complex due to overlapping symptoms with other conditions. For instance, chronic fatigue, a symptom common in conditions like depression, anemia, or thyroid problems, is also a sign of lead and mercury toxicity. Similarly, skin rashes, often associated with allergic reactions, can result from nickel or chromium exposure.

There have been numerous cases where individuals suffered from unexplained symptoms for years before discovering their ailments were due to metal toxicity. In one case, a woman who experienced chronic fatigue and memory problems was found to have high levels of mercury from consuming a diet high in fish. In another case, a man working in battery manufacturing was diagnosed with lead poisoning after suffering from prolonged abdominal pain and irritability.

Toxins Bioaccumulate

Metal toxicities occur when heavy metals, due to environmental exposure accumulate to harmful levels. This accumulation can come from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, or even the occupation we work in. Tatoo inks contain various levels of metals that may add up. [PMC9846827] Rice, wine, and water are sources of arsenic in foods. [PMC5743452]

Bioaccumulation refers to the gradual accumulation of substances, like pesticides, chemicals, or heavy metals, within an person’s body. This happens when a person absorbs a substance faster than it can be metabolized or excreted.

Eating large species of fish such as tuna and shark can pose a risk because of “biomagnification” of mercury. Biomagnification refers to the increase in the concentration of a substance as it moves up the food chain, ultimately leading to higher levels within animals higher on the food chain.

Metal Exposure Through Tatoo Inks?

There’s no question that tatoos can be beautiful, but researchers have raised the question of how much exposure to metals there might be through tatoo ink–especially when tatoos are extensive.

Technically, the FDA regulates tatoo inks and determines the “safe” levels of metals that inks may contain. The problem is that a safe level for most people may not be a safe level for everyone. One example is nickel sensitivity where people of northern European descent may not even be able to tolerate the tiny amounts of nickel in foods [PMC4406458]. Then, there is the issue that each metal on its own may be safe, but the combinations, quantities and variability in ink quality and ink purity have never been studied.

When researchers have scratched the surface of this question, they have found a great deal of variability in the levels of various metals in commercially available inks depending on the color and the brand. PMC9846827

The Most Common Metals and Their Effects on Health

Various metals have different effects on our bodies, depending on their nature and the extent of exposure. Lead, for instance, can cause neurological and cognitive problems, especially in children. Mercury can affect the nervous system, leading to mood swings, tremors, and muscle weakness. Other metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Aluminum, Nickel, Copper, Chromium, and Iron, have a wide range of effects, from skin rashes and stomach upset to more severe issues such as lung and kidney damage or diseases of the bone and brain.

Symptoms can vary widely based on numerous factors, including the person’s overall health, how long they’ve been exposed, and the specific type(s) of metal involved. It’s important to contact a healthcare provider if you suspect metal toxicity. Some symptoms might overlap with other conditions, and accurate diagnosis requires professional medical evaluation and tests.

MetalCommon Symptoms
LeadAbdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, headache, memory problems, irritability, loss of developmental skills in children
MercuryMood swings, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, headaches, abnormal sensations, muscle twitching, tremors, weakness, muscle atrophy
ArsenicSkin changes (darkening or discoloration), white lines on nails (Mees’ lines), numbness, pain in hands and feet, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle weakness
CadmiumChest pain, cough, fever, muscle pain, sense of smell loss, shortness of breath, wheezing
AluminumBone diseases, brain diseases, iron deficiency anemia
NickelSkin rash, itching, difficulty breathing, chest pain, fast heartbeat, weakness
CopperMetallic taste in the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, fever, blood in urine
ChromiumLung problems, skin rash, upset stomach, kidney and liver damage, lung cancer, alteration of genetic material
Iron (overdose)Stomach upset, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, fainting, dizziness, weakness
This table contains only a subset of heavy metals.

How Heavy Metals Poison the Mitochondria

Heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, have the potential to poison the mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses responsible for all energy production in every cell of the body.

  • Firstly, heavy metals can increase the production of “free radicals” within cells. These are highly reactive molecules that can damage cellular structures, including mitochondria. This oxidative stress caused by heavy metals can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction.
  • Heavy metals can also directly damage the mitochondrial membrane. This damage disrupts the transport of electrons during oxidative phosphorylation, impairing ATP production and overall energy metabolism.
  • Also, certain heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, can interfere with the enzymes involved in mitochondrial respiration and ATP synthesis. By interfering with these enzymes, heavy metals disrupt the normal functioning of mitochondria.
  • Heavy metals can disturb calcium channels within cells. Calcium is a critical regulator of mitochondrial function, including ATP production and programmed cell death (apoptosis). Imbalances in calcium levels due to heavy metal exposure can impair mitochondrial function and compromise cell survival. This shows up as problems with muscle contraction, neurotransmitter release, gene expression, and cell signaling.

One of the most challenging aspects of health problems associated with mitochondrial damage is their lack of specificity. Mitochondria create almost all the energy in every cell of every organ system of the body, so when they aren’t working because of heavy metal damage, there are widespread consequences. The symptoms of mitochondrial damage vary greatly, ranging from fatigue, muscle weakness, and cognitive impairment to gastrointestinal disturbances, cardiac abnormalities, and neurological disorders.

This non-specificity stems from the fact that mitochondria are present in nearly all cell types, and their dysfunction can disrupt vital cellular processes, leading to diverse and sometimes overlapping health problems across multiple organ systems. This is why testing for metal toxicities makes so much sense when a person is dealing with long-term, chronic, multisystem mystery illnesses.

Ordering Lab Tests For Heavy Metals

The symptoms associated with metal toxicities overlap with those of other medical conditions, making diagnosis challenging. Common symptoms might include stomach upset, skin rashes, neurological problems, muscle weakness, and more. Time-constricted healthcare providers are often so busy thinking about the more common causes of all these symptoms that they may not consider the possibility of testing for heavy metals. Even worse, because complaints are so widespread across different body systems, physicians may even suspect these symptoms are the result of psychiatric problems.

So, if chronic illness is a part of daily life, it may help to rule out heavy metal toxicity as a potential cause. Tests that detect a broad range of potential metal toxicities can easily be ordered online through these affiliate links:

Prevention and Treatment

Reducing exposure to heavy metals is crucial. This could involve measures like ensuring safe drinking water, reducing the use of products containing heavy metals, or wearing personal protective equipment in jobs with high metal exposure risk.

As for treatment, it usually involves removing the source of exposure and sometimes using medications that can bind to the metals in your body, a process called chelation. However, every situation is unique and requires personalized medical advice.


Understanding the potential dangers of metal toxicities and their link to some mystery illnesses highlights how important it is to be aware and proactive about our health. What we eat and drink and what we are exposed to in our environment deeply impact our well-being, and seemingly inexplicable symptoms might have more tangible causes than we think.

About the Author

Stephanie Figon, MS, RDN, LD

Creator of Supplement Sciences and NutriScape.NET. As a dietitian since 1992, Steph has had experiences in consulting, 15 years in clinical, and has operated a private practice nutrition counseling office for since 2011. Log in to comment and save this article on your board or send your comments to reviews@supplement-sciences.com