The Bind That Ties
Much is written about chelation, and as with any controversial therapy, much of this information is prone to misunderstanding and strong opinion. Since the primary use of chelation is for treating arterial blockage from atherosclerosis, most of the objections to its use come from cardiologists. They believe that there is inadequate scientific evidence to confirm its value, while ignoring the existence of medical books entirely devoted to providing this evidence. As this conflicting information brings us to a bit of an impasse, let us explore this subject in more detail.
The word chelation simply means “to bind,” coming from the root word, chela, which is Greek for “claw.” In general, the materials being bound are minerals, especially toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium, tin, and arsenic, among others. Usually, when lay people talk about chelation, they are referring to the use of ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA) chelation. This is by far the commonest form of chelation currently in use, and it utilizes the chelating agent EDTA to bind to heavy metals, especially lead, to pull them out of the body. EDTA binds more tightly to the metals than body tissues do. The body then eliminates the EDTA with the heavy metal attached, moving it through the kidneys and out of the body through the urine.
This has long been recognized by conventional medicine as the treatment of choice for lead toxicity.
EDTA chelation first became available during World War II, when it was used to detoxify workers who had excessive exposure to lead-based paints, most commonly from their work in the shipyards, where large quantities of these paints would be sprayed without adequate ventilation. It was discovered, however, that several workers with coronary artery obstruction (angina), had significant relief of their heart symptoms when their lead toxicity was treated with EDTA intravenously. Astute physicians who observed this wondered if EDTA might successfully treat other patients with coronary arterial blockages, and to their surprise it did. This launched the concept of “chelation” treatments in the management of arterial blockage from cholesterol plaques.
An EDTA treatment is fairly simple. We mix up a sterile intravenous infusion bag that contains an exact amount of EDTA, one that is calculated by precise measurement of the patient’s kidney function. Added to the EDTA are magnesium and usually additional materials that may include small amounts of heparin, potassium, sodium bicarbonate, procaine, vitamin C, and B vitamins. The main limiting factor as to how much EDTA can be given is how well the kidneys work. Before we start the chelation process, we obtain a twenty-four-hour urine collection coupled with a blood test that measures the creatinine clearance, considered the most accurate way to define how well the kidneys are filtering. A normal creatinine clearance is 80 cc/min to 120 cc/min. Any value that falls lower than this range indicates that the dosage of EDTA must be decreased so as not to overload the kidneys.
With the correct amount of materials, the person receives a series of twenty or more intravenous sessions, initially given once or twice per week. Each of these sessions lasts an average of three hours. Depending on clinical response, these treatments can continue until maximum improvement has occurred. What I typically see is that patients report fewer episodes of angina, less shortness of breath, improved energy, an overall improvement in their sense of well-being, lower blood pressure, and a decreased need for their cardiac medications.
At this point, we continue these intravenous treatments once every four to six weeks, as maintenance therapy, indefinitely. We have discovered that if the patient goes more than six months without receiving treatments, some of the benefits may disappear. For the relief of arterial blockages, I have personally seen fairly dramatic improvements in cardiac function, along with improved blood flow to the feet and legs from the relief of peripheral artery disease, and improved blood flow to the brain from relief of carotid blockages. These treatments are safe. In thirty years of providing thousands of these treatments, I’ve only observed a few minor side effects and nothing negative of any significance. That’s not a bad track record, especially when we compare it to the conventional medical alternative of surgery. There are well-known, life-threatening complications of cardiac catheterization (in which balloons or stents are inserted) and surgery (such as bypass operations), and the benefits may be short-lived. Balloon angioplasties often do not last for long, and stents often become blocked. While I don’t believe that chelation is for everyone, it is certainly an option for many. Let’s put it this way: if I were personally diagnosed with any arterial blockage, I would get chelated before I would undergo cardiac catheterization or surgery.
As previously noted, chelation has been accompanied by intense controversy over the years. Most conventional physicians believe that this treatment has no validity whatsoever and should never be attempted. Other physicians who have observed the effects of these treatments are convinced that this is a safe and effective process. As I write these words, several large, ongoing clinical trials are in place, attempting to clarify the answer to these important questions. Some observers of this controversy boil it down to economics: when you can charge $40,000 for a highly technical cardiac procedure, why would you consider an approach that only nets you $2,000? Many people who have benefited greatly from this procedure have been quick to point out this discrepancy.
Duncan first came to me when he was fifty-nine, in February 1997. He expressed his major concern very succinctly at our first visit: “I’ve got plugged up arteries.” Duncan related a long history of coronary artery disease that began in 1980, when he underwent a six-vessel bypass procedure. Then, in 1992, he had a second four-vessel procedure performed. He had become concerned with increasing symptoms of shortness of breath and chest tightness and with the results of an angiogram performed in December 1996 that showed 100 percent occlusion of his right coronary artery grafts and 75 to 90 percent occlusion of a second graft area. His cardiologist did not feel that he could reach that area of occlusion with a balloon or stent, and medications were not effective in improving his condition.
I began treating Duncan with EDTA chelation therapy, which involved twenty initial treatments and one treatment monthly thereafter. Duncan did extremely well with his program, noting marked improvement clinically, which was confirmed a year later on a follow-up angiogram. By the time he had completed the first ten treatments, he was no longer short of breath, no longer had chest pain, and was able to go to work all day with increased stamina and energy. His cardiologist was amazed by his improvement, but as is usually the case, was loathe to attribute this improvement to Duncan’s chelation efforts.
Duncan did very well on this program, and he was able to continue full-time work for many years until his expected retirement at age sixty-five. He continued his treatments but did have a minor setback in 2007, when he needed the placement of two stents by his cardiologist. Years later, continuing his chelation treatments, Duncan continues to be active and healthy and is convinced that he would not be alive today had he not undergone this form of treatment. I suspect that is true. Although his cardiologist still doubts the benefit of his chelation treatments, he has often commented to Duncan that his impressive improvement is baffling and admits that it cannot be explained by conventional medical concepts. But Duncan just smiles and shakes his head; he has no intention of stopping this treatment that has proven so effective.
You can read more about the treatment of heart disease via chelation in Dr. Nathan’s book, Healing Is Possible: New Hope for Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Persistent Pain, and Other Chronic Illnesses. In the chapter on chelation he also addresses the need for chelation for mercury toxicity, and problem that is more common than most physician’s and dentists realize.