Chelation therapy is a controversial medical treatment that involves the administration of chelating agents to remove heavy metals from the body. Proponents of chelation therapy claim it can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions including heart disease, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. However, the treatment is not approved by the FDA for these uses and mainstream medicine considers it ineffective and potentially dangerous.
History and Origins of Chelation Therapy
Chelation therapy was first introduced into modern medicine in the 1930s when the chemical ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) was found to bind and remove calcium deposits from arteries. In the 1950s, some doctors began using EDTA to treat individuals suffering from atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque builds up in the arteries. It was hypothesized that EDTA could dissolve calcium deposits in arteries, reducing obstruction and improving blood flow.
Throughout the 1950s-1970s, chelation therapy was studied as a treatment for atherosclerosis. Some early trials found EDTA modestly reduced symptoms of angina and improved circulation. However, better-designed studies found chelation did not significantly improve mortality or objective measures of atherosclerosis progression. Mainstream cardiology largely abandoned chelation therapy as better interventions like cholesterol medications, bypass surgery and angioplasty gained acceptance.
In the 1970s-1980s, chelation therapy began being promoted in alternative medicine circles as a treatment not just for atherosclerosis, but for a wide array of conditions from Alzheimer’s to autism. Proponents claimed the therapy could “detoxify” the body of heavy metals like lead, mercury and aluminum that were hypothesized to contribute to these conditions. However, there remains limited evidence to support the use of chelation for these purposes.
Administration of Chelation Therapy
The most common type of chelation therapy administered today uses EDTA, though other agents like DMSA and DMPS are sometimes used. EDTA is delivered intravenously, with a full course typically consisting of 20-40 infusions of EDTA diluted in saline given 1-3 times weekly. Oral chelation supplements are also marketed, but these are poorly absorbed and unlikely to have significant efficacy.
Each infusion takes 1-4 hours. During administration, patients receive high doses of EDTA – around 1500-3000mg. For comparison, the recommended daily intake of calcium is only around 1000mg. High fluid intake is encouraged after infusions to wash out the chelating agent.
Proposed Mechanisms of Action
The purported mechanisms behind chelation therapy depend on the condition it is used to treat:
- For heart disease, the proposed mechanism is that EDTA binds calcium deposits in atherosclerotic plaques, dissolving and clearing them away. This is supposed to reduce atherosclerotic blockages in the arteries, improving blood flow.
- For autism and neurological conditions, the claim is that EDTA removes mercury, lead or other heavy metals that have accumulated in the central nervous system. Clearing these heavy metals is hypothesized to reduce neuroinflammation and neuronal damage, improving neurological symptoms.
- For Alzheimer’s disease, the rationale is similar – chelation proponents argue that EDTA removes aluminum, mercury or other metals that trigger neural oxidative damage and amyloid beta deposition in the Alzheimer’s brain.
However, there is limited evidence to back up these proposed mechanisms. Mainstream toxicology does not support the idea that autism, Alzheimer’s or most chronic conditions are caused by chronic low-level heavy metal exposure. The role of removal heavy metals in improving these conditions remains unsubstantiated.
Safety Concerns with Chelation
Chelation therapy is considered relatively safe when properly administered by trained personnel. However, there are risks associated with inappropriate use:
- Hypocalcemia: EDTA binds not just heavy metals but nutritional minerals like calcium. Low calcium during infusion can cause cardiac arrhythmia. Calcium levels must be monitored and supplementation provided.
- Kidney damage: EDTA is processed through the kidneys. With pre-existing renal impairment, high doses can further damage kidneys. Kidney function must be monitored during therapy.
- Fluid overload: Improper fluid management during infusions can lead to fluid overload and electrolyte imbalances. This can be life-threatening.
- Heavy metal toxicity: As it draws metals out of the body, EDTA itself can become contaminated with high concentrations of lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum and arsenic. If the patient’s urine is not properly collected and disposed of, this biohazardous waste can expose the patient and environment to heavy metal toxicity.
- Interactions with medications: EDTA chelation can interact with certain medications patients may be taking for chronic conditions. This can lead to side effects or imbalance essential medication levels.
Overall, while generally safe when properly done, inappropriate administration can pose serious health risks. Any usage should involve careful patient screening, frequent lab testing and monitoring under supervision of a trained doctor. Unregulated usage or oral supplementation is not recommended.
Efficacy of Chelation Therapy
The efficacy of chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease, autism, Alzheimer’s and other chronic conditions remains highly controversial. Here is an overview of what the evidence says:
After early promise, the accumulated evidence indicates chelation does not significantly improve mortality or other hard outcomes in atherosclerotic heart disease compared to placebo. The American Heart Association and other major cardiology groups do not recommend it. However, some practitioners insist EDTA chelation still has modest benefits for some individuals.
Numerous studies have shown removing heavy metals from the body does not improve core symptoms of autism. In clinical trials, chelation uniformly fails to produce cognitive, social or behavioral improvements compared to placebo. It also fails to reduce common autism biomarkers like oxidative stress markers or methylation metabolites. The evidence does not support chelation as an autism treatment.
Though some lab studies have associated metals with Alzheimer’s-like neural damage, clinical studies find metal chelation does not slow cognitive decline or dementia progression. The Alzheimer’s Association states that evidence does not support chelation therapy for Alzheimer’s.
Evidence is insufficient to recommend chelation for any chronic condition besides atherosclerosis. Claims about eliminating “toxins” remain scientifically unfounded. The modest short-term benefits sometimes observed likely reflect placebo, variable disease natural history or the body’s natural metal homeostasis mechanisms. Chelation’s efficacy beyond placebo for these conditions remains unproven.
Credible evidence supports the efficacy of chelation in removing heavy metals from the body. However, evidence for meaningful clinical improvements in cardiovascular disease, autism, Alzheimer’s and most chronic conditions remains lacking. Patients should be wary of grandiose claims around chelation therapy. For debilitating neurological and chronic illnesses, chelation appears ineffective as a standalone treatment according to current evidence.
Pros and Cons
|Can remove heavy metals from the body||Not approved by FDA for most uses|
|Generally safe when properly administered||Can cause side effects like hypocalcemia and kidney damage|
|Some practitioners claim modest benefits for some patients||Lacks evidence of efficacy for most conditions|
|Early studies showed mild promise for heart disease||Larger studies found no benefit for mortality in heart disease|
|Anecdotal reports of improvement in some cases||No evidence it can cure or reverse chronic neurological conditions|
|Remains an area of ongoing research||Controlled trials show no objective benefit for autism, Alzheimer’s, etc.|
|May help treat acute heavy metal poisoning||Unlikely to help long-term low-level “toxin” exposures|
|Can reduce lead levels in children with extreme exposure||Claims of removing “toxins” lack scientific basis|
|Some open-minded doctors willing to try it||Not recommended by mainstream medical groups|
Early promise has not been borne out. The accumulated medical evidence finds chelation does not significantly improve mortality, cholesterol, exercise capacity or other cardiovascular outcomes compared to placebo. It does not “cure” atherosclerosis. Major cardiology groups do not recommend it.
No, multiple controlled studies show chelation therapy does not improve symptoms, cognition or quality of life for autistic individuals. It also does not affect biomarkers. The evidence does not support chelation as an autism treatment.
Chelation with agents like EDTA can remove certain heavy metals from the body. However, there is no evidence “detoxifying” in this way reverses or cures chronic diseases like autism or Alzheimer’s that have complex causes. The role of metals in these conditions is overstated.
When properly administered by trained personnel, chelation therapy is generally safe, though side effects can include low calcium and kidney damage. However, inappropriate use can be dangerous. Oral supplements are not recommended as they are poorly absorbed. Chelation should only be undertaken with medical supervision.
No, chelation therapy is not approved by the FDA for the treatment of autism, Alzheimer’s or any chronic condition besides lead poisoning. The FDA has issued warnings about illegitimate claims surrounding chelation therapy.
While chelation therapy has an interesting history and it’s advocates make bold claims of health benefits, current medical evidence does not firmly support it’s efficacy for most conditions it is used for today. Clinical usage requires careful patient screening and administration protocols to maintain safety. Patients with chronic illnesses should be cautious of relying on chelation therapy alone and instead stick to evidence-based mainstream treatments. Research continues, but at present, chelation appears unlikely to be the revolutionary therapy it’s proponents claim it to be. More large rigorous trials are needed to definitively determine if chelation has any role supporting management of modern chronic diseases.