What is chelation therapy?

Chelation therapy is a method for removing heavy metals, such as mercury or lead, from blood. It’s one of the standard treatments for many types of metal poisoning.

In recent years, some people have claimed that chelation therapy can also help to treat many other conditions, including heart disease, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.

We explain how chelation therapy works before diving into some of its less conventional uses to see whether it’s actually effective.

How chelation therapy works

Chelation therapy involves injecting a type of medication called a chelator or chelating agent. Some common chelators include ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), dimercaptosuccinic acid, and dimercaprol.

Some chelators are better at removing certain metals than others are.

Chelators work by binding to metals in the bloodstream. Once they’re injected into the bloodstream, they circulate through the blood, binding to metals. In this way, chelators collect all the heavy metals into a compound that’s filtered through the kidneys and released in urine.

Proven benefits of chelation therapy

Chelation therapy is a very effective way to remove several heavy metals from blood, including:

  • lead
  • arsenic
  • mercury
  • iron
  • copper
  • nickel

Many things can cause heavy metal poisoning, including:

  • drinking polluted water
  • breathing heavily polluted air
  • ingesting bits of lead paint

However, several conditions can also lead to a buildup of certain metals in the body. Some of these include:

  • Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder that causes copper poisoning in the body
  • hemochromatosis, a condition that causes the body to absorb too much iron from food
  • chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis, which can cause a buildup of aluminum in the body
  • blood disorders, such as thalassemia, requiring frequent blood transfusions, which can cause a buildup of iron in the body

Unproven benefits of chelation therapy

Heart disease

Some people advocate using chelation therapy to treat atherosclerosis, which causes a buildup of plaque in arteries. Over time, it can lead to heart disease. Proponents claim that chelators bind to calcium found in plaque, which helps to loosen and remove the buildup.

While this seems logical, there’s very little evidence that chelation therapy helps. For example, a large-scale clinical study involving participants who’d previously had a heart attack didn’t show enough evidence to support the routine use of chelation therapy for heart disease.

While some participants had a decreased risk of other heart problems, it wasn’t enough to justify the risks involved, which we discuss later.

Diabetes

Chelation therapy won’t treat diabetes. However, people with diabetes have a much higher risk of developing heart problems. Chelation therapy may reduce this risk.

A 2015 subgroup analysis found that EDTA did reduce the risk of heart problems in people with diabetes, but not in those without diabetes. While these initial findings are promising, several more large-scale clinical trials involving participants with diabetes are needed.

Autism

Some people believe that thimerosal causes autism. Thimerosal is a preservative that contains mercury and is used in some vaccines. However, this 2010 study debunked this. Vaccines don’t cause autism.

In addition, a 2012 review of studies looking at the link between autism and mercury concluded there wasn’t enough evidence that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for autism.

However, a newer NIH study suggests there may a link between high levels of lead in baby teeth and the development of autism. Still, using chelation therapy to treat autism in children appears to do more harm than good.

In 2005, for example, a five-year-old boy with autism died while receiving intravenous EDTA from his doctor as part of chelation therapy. In 2006, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health decided to cancel its study of chelation therapy in children with autism.

They made the decision after an animal study in rats showed that chelation therapy may increase the risk of cognitive impairment.

Read about other types of alternative treatments for autism.

Alzheimer’s disease

The use of chelation therapy for Alzheimer’s disease is based on the belief that it’s caused by a buildup of aluminum in the brain from aluminum pots and pans, water, food, and deodorant.

However, a review of existing studies didn’t find any evidence of a relationship between exposure to aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, though some researchers disagree.

Regardless of the relationship between the two, most chelators are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. This barrier acts as a kind of net that controls what enters and exits your brain. However, some researchers believe that EDTA may be able to enter the brain, though this isn’t confirmed.

Check out these other alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease

It’s known that iron builds up in the brain of people with Parkinson’s disease. However, researchers still don’t fully understand the role that iron plays in the disease. It’s also not clear whether removing iron from the brain provides any benefit to people with Parkinson’s disease.

A 2016 review concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to draw any kind of connection between chelation therapy and Parkinson’s disease.

Interested in other alternative treatments for Parkinson’s disease? Learn more about the role of nutrition in this disease.

What are the risks of chelation therapy?

Chelation therapy requires the use of powerful chelators that can produce a variety of mild to severe side effects.

One of the most common side effects of chelation therapy is a burning sensation near the injection site. Other mild to moderate side effects include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting

Riskier potential side effects include:

  • low blood pressure
  • anemia
  • cardiac arrhythmias
  • seizures
  • brain damage
  • vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • permanent kidney and liver damage
  • hypocalcemia, which can be fatal
  • severe allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock

Due to these dangers, chelation therapy is only recommended for use in treating metal poisoning where the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.

How much does it cost?

Chelation therapy usually requires intravenous medication several times a week for months at a time. This often includes hundreds of treatments, which cost between $75 and $125 each.

Keep in mind that most insurance plans only cover the use of chelation therapy for FDA-approved conditions, which tend to involve some type of poisoning. These treatments are given in a medical facility for poisoning.

The bottom line

Chelation therapy is a powerful treatment that’s used to remove heavy metals from blood. Some people claim that it can also treat other conditions, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, researchers still don’t fully understand if there is a relationship between these conditions and heavy metals. In addition, chelation therapy carries some serious risks.

So far, the possible benefits for these other conditions don’t outweigh the risks.