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Heavy Metal Toxicity and Mineral Assimilation Status

Hair Element Analysis

Elemental Analysis of Hair

The quantitative measurement of elements in biological samples such as blood, urine, and hair has been used clinically for decades. Historically, elemental analysis has been used primarily to determine whether a person has had excessive exposure to toxic elements such as lead, mercury or arsenic: the heavy metals that are known to cause serious health problems. Toxic elements concentrate in soft tissue rather than blood or urine, so hair analysis is uniquely suited for measuring toxic elements. Elemental analysis also provides information on the absorption and assimilation of nutritionally important elements (e.g. iron, copper), making it useful for assessing nutrient deficiencies and imbalances as well.

Essential Element Distribution

The graph below shows a normal distribution pattern of essential elements from the hair of a healthy individual. A normal pattern exhibits a fairly balanced distribution of results above and below the mean, with most results reporting within one standard deviation.

The essential element pattern is considered normal if there are <1 red bar and <6 orange bars appearing.

Heavy Metal Test

A careful review of essential element distribution is crucial to the overall interpretation of hair element analysis. Andrew Hall Cutler PhD, in his book Hair Test Interpretation: Finding Hidden Toxicities, analyzed thousands of hair element analysis reports and concluded the major cause of abnormal distribution of essential elements is toxic element accumulation. In other words, abnormal essential element distribution is symptomatic of a larger problem: disrupted transport of elements into hair from elevated levels of toxic elements in the body. Thus, an initial review of essential element distribution is important to interpreting the overall results.

Causes of Disrupted Essential Element Distribution

Understanding how essential element disruption occurs is vital to interpreting hair element analysis reports. Elements are transported into hair and other tissues via active transport systems. Active transport requires specific nutrients and essential elements as cofactors to produce energy to accomplish transport. Therefore, any disruption in the normal distribution of essential elements or nutrients can affect active transport and further alter the distribution of elements to hair and other tissues. In addition to toxic element accumulation, nutrient deficiency and/or genetic abnormalities can also affect element transport. Thus, disruption of essential element distribution can arise from any of the following:

  • inhibition or induction of active transport systems by toxic elements
  • malabsorption of nutrients needed for active transport
  • excesses or deficiencies of one or more elements diverting other elements out of, or into, targeted tissues or fluids (e.g. excess Fe displaces Cr causing increased hair Cr)
  • a genetic predisposition to accumulate or excrete more than usual amounts of specific elements

Guide to Interpreting Results

When element transport systems are functioning normally, hair reflects body stores of most elements very well. A normal essential element distribution pattern is a good indicator that the transport system is functioning properly (Figure 1 above). Conversely, an abnormal distribution pattern may suggest a transport problem. Graphs and explanations of the common distribution patterns are provided below.

Abnormal essential element distribution patterns

There are several potential abnormal distribution patterns for essential elements and treatment indications may vary as a result. The abnormal patterns include the following:

  • too many essential elements reporting above and below the mean (scattered)
  • too many essential elements testing above the mean (right shifted)
  • too many essential elements testing below the mean (left shifted)

Toxic elements

Given the close relationship between essential elements and toxic elements, the precise cause of high or low values for toxic elements can be difficult to determine. For example, a finding of low hair mercury does not rule out the possibility that toxic levels of mercury are present in the body. Abnormal distribution of essential elements provides a clue that active transport systems have been disrupted, perhaps by toxic element poisoning of transport systems. Thus, high systemic levels of mercury could actually prevent transport of mercury into hair. In such a case, low hair mercury levels are a false negative as serum mercury levels would be elevated.

Ultimately, element distribution is a complex interactive system that can be affected by a number of variables. Consequently, all factors must be considered when interpreting the hair element analysis report.

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