By Dr. Mercola
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an imaging study that allows your physician to see detailed pictures of your organs and tissues. Raymond Damadian invented the machine and performed the first total body image in 1977.1 This process has been called the one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.
The MRI machine uses a large magnet, radio waves and a computer to take detailed cross-sectional pictures of your internal organs and tissues.2 The scanner looks like a tube with a table that enables you to slide into the tunnel of the machine to gather data. Unlike CT scans or X-rays that use ionizing radiation known to damage DNA, the MRI uses magnetic fields.
Images from an MRI give physicians better information about abnormalities, tumors, cysts and specific organ problems with your heart, liver, uterus, kidneys and other organs. In some instances, your physician may want an enhanced MRI, one using contrast agents to improve the clarity of the images produced. In one of every three MRIs with contrast, the agent used is gadolinium.3
What Is Gadolinium?
This is a chemical contrast medium or dye that is injected to enhance the quality of the images. Gadolinium is bonded to a chelating agent that is intended to reduce the toxicity of the chemical to your body as gadolinium is a dangerous heavy metal known to cause neurological damage. There are several products that include gadolinium, called gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCA).4
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released guidelines on the use of GBCAs5 as they began an investigation into the potential health effects from brain deposits of the heavy metal. The FDA acknowledged that repeated use of GBCAs may result in gadolinium deposits in your brain and other tissues but has not determined if there are any adverse health effects from these deposits.
To reduce accumulation, the FDA recommends health care professionals limit use to circumstances where additional information garnered by the use of gadolinium is absolutely necessary.6 In response, institutional review boards responsible for the safety of patients in clinical trials or research studies developed consent forms that include a list of known risks, such as kidney damage and brain accumulation, with boxed warnings not to exceed recommended dosages.7
Johns Hopkins Office of Human Subject Research acknowledges specific challenges when using enhanced MRI imaging with GBCA as "there is potential severe toxicity related to a diagnostic procedure with no direct therapeutic value."8 GBCAs are sold under several different names based on the chelating agent to which they are bound and the drug company that developed them. These include:
Physiological Issues Associated With Heavy Metal Toxicity
Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements with a high atomic weight and a density five times that of water.9 They are widely distributed throughout the environment from industrial, agricultural, medical and technical pollution. Heavy metal toxicity has documented potential for serious health consequences, including kidney, neurological, cardiovascular, skeletal and endocrine damage.10
While your body requires small amounts of some metals, such as zinc, manganese, iron and copper, high amounts of these and environmental pollutants is dangerous.11 Metals that are most commonly associated with poisoning are arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium, which are also the heavy metals most commonly found in environmental pollution.
Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning vary based on the organ systems affected. Scientists have found that heavy metals also increase oxidative stress secondary to free radical formation.12 The health risks associated with heavy metal toxicity have proven to be a major health threat, especially those that do not have a biological role, as they often remain present in plants and animals.
Testing for heavy metal toxicity includes blood, urine and hair and nail analysis for cumulative exposure. Symptoms of accumulation of gadolinium will be related to the organ systems affected and may include nausea, vomiting, central nervous system dysfunction,13 headache and gastrointestinal disturbances.14
Chuck Norris Focuses Attention on Heavy Metal Risks After Enhanced MRI
After undergoing three MRIs with GBCAs to evaluate her rheumatoid arthritis, Gena O'Kelley, the wife of American film icon Chuck Norris,15 began experiencing severe physical symptoms that began with a burning sensation in her skin. She described it as if there was acid burning her skin, slowly covering her body.16 She reports that she visited the emergency room five or six nights in a row, while doctors ran multiple tests for ALS, MS, cancer and Parkinson's disease.
However, it was O'Kelley who made the connection between her burning skin, contracted arm and cognitive issues and the multiple MRIs she had undergone. She told Full Measure:17
"When we got to the hospital in Houston this last time, and I'm so bad and I said, listen, I am sober enough in my thinking right now, because I had such brain issues going on, I said I'm only going to be able to tell you this one time and I need you to listen to me very closely. I have been poisoned with gadolinium or by gadolinium and we don't have much time to figure out how to get this out of my body or I am going to die."
After five months of treatment in China and then in a clinic in Nevada, O'Kelley was able to return home to her seven children for continued treatment by a physician in Houston. Norris shared their tax return records documenting $2 million over three years in uninsured medical expenses to help O'Kelley return to health. Now Norris is suing 11 medical companies for the part they played in not warning the couple and others of the dangers of using a GBCA for MRI contrast.18
O'Kelley suffered confusion, muscle spasms, kidney damage and muscle wasting from a heavy metal contrast agent her doctors told her would be cleared from her body within hours after the MRI. The couple's attorney, Todd Walburg, told CBS News,19 "We have clients who have been misdiagnosed with Lyme disease, ALS, and then they've eventually ruled all those things out and the culprit remaining is the gadolinium."
Although the FDA has been aware of a strong association between gadolinium and kidney damage since 2006,20 and are aware GBCAs may deposit in organ and brain tissue,21 the agency insists the contrast dye is safe for use22 but states it will continue to assess safety. Norris states their intention is to draw attention to the problem and hopefully help others who suffer from the physical effects of the contrast agent.
Gadolinium Linked to Several Health Problems
In a comprehensive review of previous studies, researchers evaluated the effects of gadolinium and found that although the heavy metal was bound to chelating agents designed to help the chemical be eliminated from the body, gadolinium was found deposited in organs, bone and brain tissue.23 Their findings contradict statements from the FDA and pharmaceutical companies that only those with previous history of kidney damage may experience tissue deposits. Lead author and toxicologist Dr. Stacy Branch said:24
"Given the ever-growing toxicological and gadolinium tissue retention data, it is vital that the FDA promptly leads efforts, including retrospective and prospective clinical studies, to better define the connection between GBCA-exposure and adverse health events. This is needed to guide the choice of preventive methods, achieve accurate diagnoses, implement effective treatment approaches, and spark research for the design of safer contrast agents and imaging protocols."
These results were supported in a recent study from Case Western University, where researchers found gadolinium deposits in brain tissue of people who underwent more than one MRI with GBCA.25 The challenge faced by patients is that the symptoms they experience from the GBCA often result in the recommendation for another MRI with contrast to diagnose the problem. Repeated doses increase the risk for further health damage.
It seems ludicrous to imagine that deposits of heavy metal in your bone, brain and organs would not cause cognitive problems or other health damage, but that is exactly what the FDA is saying, as they acknowledge gadolinium is deposited but state they have no evidence these deposits are dangerous to your health.26
Recent research has also shown GBCA more easily passes the blood brain barrier in individuals who have neurological disease such as MS, stroke or a brain tumor.27 However, these neurological conditions are often a reason an MRI with GBCA is ordered, increasing the risk for further neurological damage to these individuals.
Support Your Body's Efforts to Eliminate Heavy Metal
It is vital you carefully review the recommendation to undergo an enhanced MRI with your physician and get a second opinion if you aren't completely satisfied. It is important to remember that you are the one who will experience the consequences of GBCA use and not your physician, radiologist or the FDA. If an MRI with contrast is absolutely necessary, there are several steps you can take that may help reduce gadolinium deposits and help your body detoxify.
Many of these steps will also help detoxify your body of other heavy metals and improve your overall health. Remember, if you do experience symptoms, a second MRI with contrast will only intensify the problem and not diagnose the issue. Seek out the care of an integrative medicine physician who can help guide your efforts to detoxify and consider the following steps:28,29
Optimize your gut microbiome
When your gut is functioning optimally without inflammation or leaking, toxins may be eliminated through your liver and gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which reduces the toxic load on your kidneys. Eliminate foods that commonly cause inflammation in your gut, such as wheat, refined sugar and corn.
Reduce your carbohydrate intake to 50 grams or less per day and eat fermented foods to help colonize your gut with beneficial bacteria. Add bone broth to your nutritional plan to help heal a leaky gut.
Optimize your nutrition
Healthy omega-3 fats, zinc and selenium help support your body during detoxification. Drink enough fresh, pure water so your urine is a light straw color to support your kidneys. Eat foods high in fiber to feed your beneficial bacteria. Broccoli, kale, garlic and onions support your liver during detoxification and add fiber to your diet.
Eat more fermented foods
Traditionally fermented food usually contains at least one cruciferous vegetable. Studies have now shown these vegetables are high in sulforaphane that protects your cells from inflammation30 and promotes healing and protection of the blood-brain barrier.31
Diatomaceous earth develops from fossilized shells of freshwater diatoms. It is found in large quantities across the earth. However, in order to use it on yourself or your pets it must be food grade. Nonfood grade is used in swimming pool filters and as an insecticide in around nonfood plants. Food grade diatomaceous earth binds heavy metals and other toxins in your GI tract, gently helping them pass out of your body.32
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, you may dissolve less than 1 teaspoon for every 100 pounds of body weight in a glass of fresh, pure water and drink just before bed. Over a period of weeks or months, gradually increase this amount to nearly 1 tablespoon. This gradual increase will help reduce any GI discomforts.
Used this way, the metal binding capacity is unlikely to hinder the absorption of other needed minerals, such as calcium, magnesium or zinc that are consumed during the day.
Sweating in a sauna may help eliminate heavy metals and other toxins such as BPA.33 Anytime you use a sauna, carefully clean the area where you are seated as toxins that were eliminated from the previous use could be absorbed as your pores open and you begin to sweat.
Cilantro and chlorella have long been used to help detoxify from heavy metals.34 Cilantro mobilizes toxins from your tissues, often faster than your body can eliminate them. Chlorella helps to bind the metals and improve elimination, thus reducing the possibility of experiencing the effects of retoxification when heavy metals have been mobilized but not removed.
The Lighthouse Project Gadolinium Toxicity35 gathers information from individuals who have been poisoned by gadolinium and the treatments they have used. While chelation seems to be a logical choice, when used alone they have no record of individuals experiencing a complete remission of symptoms, so be sure to implement a more comprehensive, holistic plan.
Medical chelation is a process where a chemical agent is administered that binds to the metal, making it a stable compound that can be excreted. Chemical agents can be administered orally, through an IV or rectally.