As a conservation biologist, I am innately passionate about our impacts on the environment and how they affect the animals and plants around us. But I’m also passionate because what we do innately impacts us. I can speak first hand of these impacts because I suffered them. I was poisoned by mercury.
In my mid-to-late 20s, I started to get migraine headaches. I was in graduate school, and under constant stress. To blow off steam and have fun with my friends, I often indulged in cocktails on the weekends like any normal student. I wrote off my headaches to getting older and not doing so well with alcohol as I had in my early 20s. But over time, my headaches were becoming worse: more frequent, lasting longer, and popping up without an alcohol-induced explanation.
I then started to write my headaches off to stress. I mean, what graduate student did not get migraine headaches? This all seemed very normal. During this time, I had transitioned from ibuprofen/acetaminophen to Excedrin Migraine.
I can actually remember the day I took my first Excedrin Migraine. I laid on the couch for hours with a heavy pounding feeling on my forehead that Advil could no longer alleviate. I went with my now husband to the pharmacy to get the strongest drugs I could legally buy. I remember walking into the drugstore with my sunglasses on and my palm holding my forehead, which somehow helped keep in the pain. There it was sitting on the shelf, my new my savior. In the car ride home, the pain lifted up and away as if someone had removed a weight from my forehead.
As much as I loved Excedrin Migraine, it eventually let me down like all my other medications to follow. My headaches would develop, frequently concentrating in a small area above or behind my eyes, and Excedrin Migraine would relieve it for an hour or two, but my headache would come back, now lasting days rather than hours. I now had to go above the drugstore to the gatekeeper of the good stuff, my doctor.
Getting prescription drugs was so easy. The doctors were always eager to give them to me. But I didn’t want the headaches in the first place. Talking to them about not getting headaches was much harder. They would shrug and say things like “Many things can cause headaches. Why don’t you keep a journal and see what your triggers are?”
So that’s what I did. I kept a journal of everything I ate and tracked my headaches and looked for common patterns. Triggers can occur within hours or days, so I backtracked my headaches and mapped it on to all of the foods that I ate and beverages that I drank over the course of 72 hours. Beer, wine, and liquor would sometimes appear, but other times not. Was it the cheese I ate? Onions? Chocolate? Peanut butter? There were too many foods and no patterns in sight.
Not to mention, there are other causes of headaches. Was it the lack of sleep? The constant stress? My recent international trip? How could I possibly figure out what was causing my headaches. There were too many variables.
Just like the Excedrine Migraine, my prescriptions started to wear off. I was now on my third prescription drug, and all would work for hours, and then wear off, and there my headache would be, just as I had left it. My headaches were now lasting sometimes as long as 3-4 days. I was having to stay home from work. It was affecting my job and my life.
I needed the headaches to stop, but no doctor would help me. Just track your life and take more drugs. Those were the only solutions. But my headaches were so intense and chronic, I knew it had to be something more obvious than a glass of red wine or a bite of cheese here and there. And now I wasn’t even really drinking anymore. What was it that caused my headaches and who could help me? I felt hopeless.
I decided to see a functional medicine doctor. The difference between this doctor and your traditional doctor is that the former tries to get to the root cause of your problem and not just treat the symptoms (funny, I thought the latter was supposed to do that too). Quite often, the treatment relies on you making lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, sleep, etc.) rather than prescription drugs (although they do do that too). The big downside to a functional medicine doctor is that they are not covered by insurance and I had to pay out of pocket.
When I saw the doctor, the first thing he said to me after I described all of my symptoms was “I bet you have mercury toxicity.” This seemed crazy to me, but such a clear and distinct response brought me comfort because all of the other doctors I had seen (at least 5 in the past few years) were flabbergasted by my headaches. At the time, I still had my old teeth fillings in my mouth and regularly ate tuna, a predatory fish that can accumulate mercury.
That was the very first thing I got tested for with this doctor and he was right. My mercury levels were extremely high. This was frightening, but I also felt a sense of relief because it was something. I always knew deep down that my severe headaches were not the result of a food or drinking. I knew something was wrong.
I went through treatment. I got my teeth fillings replaced (although I wished I had gone to a special dentist for this because removing the metal fillings can actually expose you to more mercury) and stopped eating fish. I also went through a supplement protocol and because I am extreme, I bought an infrared sauna (I did the math and it was cheaper for me to purchase a sauna rather than go through sessions individually at a clinic. Plus I love my sauna and still use it regularly). I wanted to get the mercury out. I wanted the headaches to stop.
After six months of treatment, the headaches started to stop. Now, several years later, I can tell you, I hardly ever get headaches any more. Maybe once a year if even that. There was definitely a correlation between my migraine headaches and mercury in my system.
Writing about this experience makes me angry. We know enough about the risks with tuna to warn pregnant women, but what about everyday people? Seeing how widespread mercury and other heavy metal are in the environment made me reassess all of the products I consume in my life. I do eat fish now, but I only eat predatory fish once in a great while. I also looked at other possible sources of mercury in my life, notably my lipstick and other cosmetics (for more on this, read “17 Reasons Why I Switched to Beautycounter Skincare.”)
I am passionate about these issues because I know how awful it feels to suffer the consequences. I have learned that there’s a better way, and that we as a society can do better.
The thing that makes me most angry is all of the time I lost. I lost time laying on the couch when I couldn’t do anything else, or all of the time I spent waiting in doctor’s offices and talking to doctors.
I never thought my headaches would be so black and white. I always thought they were brought on subtly, by changes in outside pressure, something I ate, or even scents like perfume. But I learned the strong connection between my migraine headaches and mercury and have felt the drastic difference once I removed mercury from my body.
Stephanie Manka, Ph.D. is a wildlife biologist with 20 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her story to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology.