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The Connection Between Mercury & Autism Explained

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In nature, toxic metals generally are bound with other elements rather than being present in their pure form. However, with the advent of large-scale industrial processes to extract metals from naturally occurring compounds, humans let the genie out of the bottle, contributing significantly to the distribution of mercury, aluminum and other heavy metals in the environment. When released from nature’s semi-protective hold, these “invariably toxic” metals wreak havoc on living systems, including humans, animals and plants alike.

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Modern-day scientists have been amassing evidence of mercury’s toxicity for decades, with a growing focus in recent years on the metal’s association with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A new review article in the multidisciplinary journal Environmental Research pulls together a wide body of literature with the aim of summing up current research and emerging trends in mercury toxicology. Geir Bjørklund, the study’s lead author, is the founder of Norway’s non-profit Council for Nutritional and Environmental Medicine and has published prolifically on topics related to heavy metals, autoimmune disorders and ASD.

Multiple avenues of exposure

Exposure to mercurial compounds remains widespread, despite feeble attempts to ban some uses. Bjørklund et al.’s review covers all three categories of mercury: elemental, organic and inorganic. Exposure to volatile elemental mercury can come about as a result of occupational contact or vapor from dental amalgam fillings. Organic mercury—the most frequent form of exposure, according to Bjørklund and colleagues—exists as methylmercury (in fish) and ethylmercury (in the vaccine preservative thimerosal). Coal-fired power plants send inorganic mercury into the environment, where the toxic metal works its way up the marine food chain.

Because mercury plays no constructive metabolic role whatsoever, humans have not evolved effective mechanisms to excrete it. Children with ASD have a particularly hard time detoxifying and excretingmercury.

Interconversion between various forms of mercury also occurs. For example, elemental and organic mercury can cross the blood-brain barrier and bioaccumulate in the form of inorganic mercury. Studies also have described “mixed exposure” in the brain to both organic and inorganic mercury compounds. Because mercury plays no constructive metabolic role whatsoever, humans have not evolved effective mechanisms to excrete it. Children with ASD have a particularly hard time detoxifying and excreting mercury.

Multiple mechanisms of toxicity

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Mercury exerts toxicity through a number of different mechanisms and has effects at both the molecular and cellular levels. For their purposes, Bjørklund and coauthors zero in on eight interrelated mechanisms, although there are others. Every single one of the toxic mechanisms that they describe has a documented association with ASD.

  • Sulfur: A key and widely recognized fact about mercury is that it is “thiophilic,” meaning that it has an affinity for biochemically important sulfur compounds called thiols. Mercury binds to the sulfur-containing amino acid cysteine (which contains a thiol group); this allows mercury to piggy-back into brain cells and other target cells through a phenomenon known as molecular mimicry (meaning that the problematic mercury-cysteine entity “mimics” the useful amino acid methionine). According to leading toxicologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mercury then “blocks or attenuates [the] protein molecule’s range of availability for normal metabolic function.” Mercury also reduces sulfate absorption. Individuals with ASD frequently have low levels of sulfate.
  • Immune activation and autoimmunity: Bjørklund et al. outline numerous mercury-related immune system effects, including “immunostimulation, immunosuppression, immunomodulation, delayed-type hypersensitivity…, and autoimmunity.” These effects occur largely due to mercury’s influence on immune cytokines—proteins that are important in helping cells communicate. Chronic elevation of inflammatory cytokines and other immune abnormalities such as activation of microglia (immune cells in the brain) are hallmarks of both mercury exposure and ASD.
  • Protein synthesis: Researchers have reported since the late 1960s that mercury inhibits protein synthesis (a fundamental cell process that involves both DNA and RNA), interfering with cells’ ability to build new proteins. Bjørklund and coauthors report that inorganic mercury is particularly disruptive in this regard. Investigators have postulated that dysregulated protein synthesis, which disrupts the balance between excitation and inhibition in brain cells, plays a causal role in ASD.
  • Brain microtubules: Neuropsychiatrist Jon Lieff describes microtubules as “the brains of the cell” and suggests that cerebral microtubules may be “the seat of consciousness.” Microtubules form the scaffolding required by axons (nerve fibers that transmit neuronal signals). Mercury preferentially targets axonal microtubules, leading to their “depolymerization and derangement,” according to the Environmental Research Moreover, mercury is unique among toxic metals in having these microtubule effects. Axonal disturbances and the altered brain connectivity that these disturbances promote are widely documented features of ASD.
  • Membrane transport: Cell membrane transport refers to the process whereby molecules (such as amino acids) pass into or out of a cell. Mercury can disturb amino acid transport and also “penetrate” across biological membranes. The authors note the need for “approaches to inhibit [mercury’s] transfer both at the placental border and at the blood-brain barrier.” An international research group recently described the relationship between ASD and impaired amino acid transport at the blood-brain barrier.
  • Glutathione: Numerous researchers have described how organic mercury, in particular, impairs glutathione activity, thereby lessening protection from oxidative stress and weakening the body’s detoxification capacity. The relationship is bidirectional, according to Bjørklund and coauthors, because when brain glutathione levels drop, the uptake of mercury in brain tissue increases substantially. Lowered glutathione levelselevated oxidative stress and a higher body burden of mercuryhave been repeatedly documented as core characteristics of ASD.
  • Metallothioneins: Metallothioneins (MTs), a family of proteins, are antioxidants and metal chelators that work to maintain metal homeostasis. MTs also play an important role in neuroprotection and regeneration. Although MTs are present to “protect the brain and gastrointestinal tract against overload by toxic metals,” Bjørklund and coauthors cite evidence showing that common genetic mutations and variations in MTs may increase some individuals’ susceptibility to mercury-induced neurotoxicity, including individuals with ASD. Studies have identified “a significant increase in both metal content and metallothionein expression” in autistic children.
  • Zinc and copper: Appropriate metabolism of zinc and copper is important for healthy neurological functioning. When mercury binds to metallothioneins, it can substitute for zinc and copper, “interact with [zinc] and [copper] availability” and thereby disturb the normal zinc-copper ratio. In a previous publication, Bjørklund described mercury’s role in disturbing zinc and copper metabolism and the typically low zinc-copper ratio in autistic children. Other researchers have measured the zinc-copper ratio in plasma as a biomarker for mercury toxicity in ASD children.

Reducing mercury toxicity

Bjørklund and coauthors also devote several paragraphs to a discussion of the essential trace element selenium, which plays an important antioxidant role, among other functions. The authors note that mercury is highly “selenophilic,” binding to selenium “with an extraordinarily high affinity…when compared with the affinity for sulfur.” The welcome implication spelled out by the authors—which has been known to researchers for nearly half a century—is that selenium has a “high capability…to reduce the toxicity of [mercury] compounds.” The authors list several mechanisms whereby selenium can minimize mercury-induced toxicity, such as by improving mercury’s excretion or sequestration and strengthening antioxidative activity. Autism researchers have identified “a significant elevation of [mercury]…together with a significant decrease in the [selenium] levels in [red blood cells] of patients with ASD when compared to…healthy controls.” These researchers agree that selenium has an important role to play in reducing mercury toxicity in ASD patients. 

Translating research into action

It has been over a decade and a half since a seminal publication in Medical Hypothesesdescribed autism as “a novel form of mercury poisoning” and showed how “every major characteristic of autism has been exhibited in…cases of documented mercury poisoning.” Ten years later, Kern and colleagues published a detailed consideration of “parallels between mercury intoxication and the brain pathology in autism” in Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis. A 2017 publication in Molecular Neurobiology by autism expert Dr. Richard Frye and others reviews “associations between mercury exposure and ASD subtypes,” even “at doses well below the current reference levels considered to be safe.” Thus, Bjørklund and coauthors are far from alone in synthesizing the evidence base and drawing attention to the global public health epidemics of mercury toxicity and autism.

The CDC authors concluded that there are “many commonalities [and] similarities in the mechanisms of toxic action of methylmercury and ethylmercury,” particularly regarding their association with neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD.

Last year, CDC toxicologists published a comprehensive review that specifically focused on the two forms of organic mercury. The CDC authors concluded that there are “many commonalities [and] similarities in the mechanisms of toxic action of methylmercury and ethylmercury,” particularly regarding their association with neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD. Both forms of organic mercury cause DNA damage (or impair DNA synthesis), affect cell division, decrease glutathione activity and increase oxidative stress, among other similar effects. These findings are particularly noteworthy in light of Bjørklund and coauthors’ observation that “co-exposure with [ethylmercury] and [methylmercury] might induce more adverse neurotoxic effects than each agent alone.” Bjørklund’s team calls on researchers to actively investigate these additive toxicological effects.

At the end of the day, as noted by mercury expert Philippe Grandjean, there is a need to move beyond simply generating “endless replications” in the form of “thousands of toxicology publications every year” on mercury and other well-understood toxic metals. The Bjørklund team’s broad review of over 200 studies—including recent findings as well as articles dating back several decades—shows that we already know more than enough about mercury’s hazards to take decisive action.

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We explored why things are moving a little more slowly with the shift at times, what is stopping certain solutions from coming forward and the important role we all play.

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Boy or Girl – Baby Gender Selection Issues

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Some parents have the possibility to opt for gender selection; however, being able to decide whether to have a baby boy or girl is a controversial issue.

Many couples expecting a baby do not think it’s a big issue whether they have a boy or a girl; however there are several medical, social, and personal reasons that could influence parents to recur to some form of gender selection.

Like many other controversial practices, the legality of gender selection, also known as sex selection, varies from country to country.

The Legality of Baby Gender Selection

The United States has perhaps some of the most relaxed laws regarding baby gender selection in the world. Most European countries and Australia, on the other hand, have bans on sex selection and only allow it for medical reasons. For example, if a parent is a carrier of a mutation or gene with more chances of manifesting itself in a certain gender, baby gender selection is valid. However, if parents simply wish to balance the ratio of boys and girls in their family, they are not allowed to recur to sex selection.

This has generated a form of medical tourism in which couples from countries where gender selection is illegal, like the UK, travel to the US in order to be able to choose whether to have a baby boy or girl.

On the other hand, sex selection is illegal in the two most populated countries on Earth, China and India. In these countries, baby gender selection has been performed clandestinely for many years and for reasons other than family balancing or avoiding genetic diseases. In these societies, having a baby boy is preferred mainly for cultural and economic reasons. Parents believe that boys have better chances of earning income and eventually support them when they reach an old age.

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Methods of Baby Gender Selection

There are two major types of gender selection methods: the first one is called sperm sorting, and involves separating X-chromosome sperm from Y-chromosome sperm by flow cytometry, a purification technique in which chromosomes are suspended in a stream of sperm and identified by an electronic detector before being separated. Intra-uterine insemination or in-vitro fertilization can then be performed with the enriched sperm. The success rates for this method vary from 80% to 93%.

The other method, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, consists in generating several embryos through in-vitro fertilization, which are then genetically tested to determine a baby’s gender. The chosen embryos can then be implanted. This method has a success rate of almost 100%; however, it can be quite expensive, costing up to $15,000.

Issues Regarding Baby Gender Selection

While there are few objections against baby gender selection when it is performed for medical reasons, it has become a highly controversial issue when it is used for balancing the number of boys or girls in families. Some people raise the obvious ethical question of whether people who opt for gender selection are “playing God” by manipulating whether to have a baby boy or girl. Others believe that new parents will raise a baby more appropriately if he or she belongs to their preferred gender.

Gender Imbalance Caused by Baby Gender Selection

Gender selection has caused demographic concern in China and India since it has contributed to generate a gender imbalance in the populations of those countries. In some regions of China, for example, the sex ratio for newborns is 118:100, boys to girls. This phenomenon has in turn been associated with social problems such as an increase in violence and prostitution.

It seems like a logical solution for governments around the globe to legalize baby gender selection but to analyze the personal reasons why each couple intends to select a baby boy or girl. Gender selection for medical reasons should even be encouraged, since it could prevent serious genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and Haemophilia A. Balancing the gender ratio of a family should be accepted if by doing this, a healthy family environment is created. On the other hand, China and India have shown that baby gender selection as a result of a bias towards a particular gender can not only create a gender imbalance in the population, but contribute to social problems as well.

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We explored why things are moving a little more slowly with the shift at times, what is stopping certain solutions from coming forward and the important role we all play.

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Organic Certification: What the USDA Organic Label Means

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Organic and natural labels mean different things, and various types of labels tells you what percentage of ingredients are actually organic. We'll explore what to look for.

  • Reflect On:

    Do you sometimes buy products thinking they are organic or fully natural based on their wording? Have you later found out that those products aren't natural or organic at all? Read labels more closely at grocery stores to be aware.

Don’t get conned by fraudulent claims of “natural” or “organic.” Learn what to look for, and why it’s important, to ensure you’re getting the quality you are paying for.

The industrial age of the 20th century brought about changing agricultural practices that have generated increasing alarm about the effects of these practices on the environment and health. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, irradiated and genetically altered food and fiber products has created a groundswell of rightful concern. It has led to the growing demand for non-toxic, organic products that many are willing to pay a higher price for to ensure the healthful purity of food and clothing provided for their families.

With such profit opportunities, it’s little wonder that the lucrative organic product market has suffered abuse with so-called “organic” labels being fraudulently placed on products that have not earned the right. As a result of pressure from farming and consumer groups, legislation for the standardization of organic certification was introduced in the 1980s. It has been updated to include more vigorous enforcement and control methods since, with the current standards established in 2002 by the USDA.

The Standards of USDA Organic Certification

Specific standards must be met in order to legally claim a product as USDA certified organic. Organic producers must utilize methods that conserve water, maximize soil health, and reduce air pollution. The specific standards to earn USDA organic certification include:

Free of synthetic chemicals such as insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and additives

Free from irradiation and genetically modified organisms

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Agricultural products grown on land that has been free of prohibited substances for a period of three years

Animals used for meat, eggs, milk or other animal products must be exclusively fed foods that are organically grown, may not be given antibiotics or hormones, and must have access to outdoors.

Clean and sanitized harvesting and processing equipment throughout the process from harvest to finished, packaged product

Detailed chain-of-handling records from the field through final sales

Physical separation of certified organic products from non-organic products throughout the process of production

Regular on-site inspections from USDA-approved inspectors to ensure compliance

Understanding the Certified Organic Label

Once the rigorous process of certification has been completed, organic producers may place the USDA certified organic seal on their products. Currently, there are four levels of certified organic products, with a specific definition of the percentage of organic ingredients the final products contains. They are as follows:

• 100% organic: all production methods and ingredients are USDA certified organic.

• Organic: at least 95% of the production methods and ingredients are USDA certified organic with remaining ingredients included on the National List of allowed ingredients.

• Made With Organic Ingredients: at least 70% of the ingredients are USDA certified organic with remaining ingredients included on the National List of allowed ingredients.

• No organic wording or seal: less than 70% of the ingredients are USDA certified organic and no claims may be made on the front or back of the product.

Manufacturers or producers who knowingly label a product “organic” when it does not meet the USDA standards are subject to fines up to $11,000 per violation.

Why Organic Certification is Important

When you see the official USDA organic certification seal on food, clothing, and bedding products, you can be assured that these products have met the meticulous standards required and are free of chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, and hormones. When you see the USDA certified organic label, you will understand the value of the higher priced organic products as compared to non-organically produced products.

With the current stringent organic certification requirements enforced by regular inspections from USDA accredited agents, the USDA certified organic label has great meaning and importance to the consumer. Look for the label to know that you are getting the quality you are paying for.

Free Franco DeNicola Screening: The Shift In Consciousness

We interviewed Franco DeNicola about what is happening with the shift in consciousness. It turned out to be one of the deepest and most important information we pulled out within an interview.

We explored why things are moving a little more slowly with the shift at times, what is stopping certain solutions from coming forward and the important role we all play.

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WHO Finds Global Lack Of Inactivity Rising Especially In Wealthier Countries — What You Can Do

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Inactivity is on the rise and it's the cause of a wide range of health concerns. Our population is only becoming more inactive, not less, and it's time to change that.

  • Reflect On:

    There are many factors of our modern world that make us less active. Our jobs, driving rather than walking/biking, too much screen time. What can you do differently to bring more activity into your life? What story stops you from starting?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than a quarter of the entire population on this planet are not getting enough physical exercise, this number has barely improved since 2001. There are many factors that contribute to this, but just how much damage are we doing by failing to be active?

The lack of physical exercise raises the risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and various types of cancers.

Interestingly, according to their study published in The Lancet Global Health, higher income countries, such as the UK, were among the least active population. Women were also found to be more sedentary throughout the world, excluding two regions in Asia.

The study looked at self-reported data on activity levels from 358 population based surveys covering 168 countries and included 1.9 million people.

The populations of higher income countries, which include the UK and USA showed an increase in the proportion of inactive people and had actually risen from 32% in 2001 to 37% in 2016, in the lower income countries it remained at 16%.

Those who were classified as inactive did less than 150 minutes of moderate exercise and around 75 minutes of intense activity per week.

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It was found that women were less active than men overall, except for in South and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and higher-income Western countries. The authors believe that this was caused by a few different factors including extra childcare duties and cultural perspectives that may have made it more difficult for them to exercise.

Why More Inactivity In Wealthier Countries?

According to the researchers, in the wealthier countries, many of the jobs have transitioned to more office or desk jobs, meaning a more sedentary type of lifestyle. On top of that much of the population of these countries drive automobiles or take public transit to and from work which in many cases accounts for a lot of their time.

In the lower income countries, many of the jobs require the people to be more active, are physically demanding and people often have to walk to and from their jobs.

The WHO has had a goal to reduce the global levels of inactivity by 10% by 2025, the authors of the study feel that at the rate we are currently going, this target will be missed.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Regina Guthold said, “Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient physical activity are not falling worldwide, on average, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health.”

Regions with increasing levels of insufficient physical activity are a major concern for public health and the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases.”

Co-author, Dr. Fiona Bull added, “Addressing these inequalities in physical activity levels between men and women will be critical to achieving global activity targets and will require interventions to promote and improve women’s access to opportunities that are safe, affordable and culturally acceptable.”

According to the WHO,

Exercise guidelines for 19- to 64-year-olds

How much?

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week
  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles
  • break up long periods of sitting with light activity

What is moderate aerobic activity?

  • Walking fast, water aerobics, riding a bike on level ground or with a few hills, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, hiking, skateboarding, rollerblading, volleyball, basketball

What counts as vigorous activity?

  • Jogging or running, swimming fast, riding a bike fast or on hills, singles tennis, football, rugby, skipping rope, hockey, aerobics, gymnastics, martial arts

What activities strengthen muscles?

  • lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing exercises that use your own body weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups, heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling, yoga

What activities are both aerobic and muscle-strengthening?

  • circuit training, aerobics, running, football, rugby, netball, hockey

Final Thoughts

I was surprised to see that the WHO didn’t touch on inactivity due to too much screen time — watching television, Netflix, Facebook scrolling, messaging, texting, browsing etc. Certainly, the increase in screen time plays a roll with the amount of inactivity, especially in the higher income countries. If you are someone who spends too much time staring at a screen, then it is important to consider the above information. Can you limit your screen time and replace it with something active? Or would you consider jumping rope, or rebounding while watching the television? Our health is our greatest wealth and having awareness about an issue is the first way to create change and take responsibility for our lives.

Could you walk or bike to work instead of drive? What about trying a new sport? Could you commit to adding a few hours each week of physical activity? These small decisions could have a profound impact on your health, longevity and overall well-being.

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Free Franco DeNicola Screening: The Shift In Consciousness

We interviewed Franco DeNicola about what is happening with the shift in consciousness. It turned out to be one of the deepest and most important information we pulled out within an interview.

We explored why things are moving a little more slowly with the shift at times, what is stopping certain solutions from coming forward and the important role we all play.

Watch the interview here.
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