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What Does Chelation Therapy Do? Is It Helpful?

Updated: Jan 30

Chelation is a process that helps get rid of specific metals from our body tissues. It uses a substance called a chelator, like EDTA, which binds to certain minerals and is then expelled by our kidneys or liver. For example, EDTA is attracted to minerals such as lead, cadmium, and calcium. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved a form of EDTA called edetate calcium disodium to treat lead poisoning and, in the past, emergency cases of too much calcium in the body.

Since 1956, some research trials have tested EDTA chelation as a way to address heart problems. At first, it was believed that EDTA could help by removing calcium buildup in artery plaque. However, new research has found that the idea that EDTA can unclog arteries and enhance blood circulation relies on an outdated understanding of the causes of heart disease. More recent studies have shown that EDTA may work by acting as an antioxidant, shielding blood vessel walls from harm caused by free radicals.

Two of the more common health conditions chelation therapy is studied in are kidney disease and cardiovascular diseases. The research around these two will be discussed below.

Does Chelation Therapy Help Kidney Disease?

Lead is a reasonably well established risk factor for kidney disease (research).[1] Hence why EDTA chelation has been tested as a way to remove lead from the body in those with kidney disease.

A 2014 study found substantially higher kidney function in those using EDTA chelation compared to placebo, however this benefit was only in individuals with high levels of lead that were confirmed by blood testing.[2] If lead levels are low already, it is unlikely this therapy would provide benefit.

Ironically, one of the most common side effects of chelation therapy is kidney injury (discussed below). Hence why in those with normal or low lead levels the risk of using EDTA chelation would likely outweigh any benefits of using EDTA. A person must have very high lead levels to justify using chelation therapy in kidney disease.

Does Chelation Therapy Help Cardiovascular Disease?

Generally speaking - research as a whole so far does not suggest any significant benefit in treating cardiovascular disease.

A 2020 study assessed all studies that look at the impact of chelation therapy for those with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (clogged arteries) and found:[3]

  • Two studies on those with coronary artery disease (CAD) found no difference in longevity (all-cause mortality) between chelation therapy and placebo

  • One study on those with CAD found no difference in rates of death related to coronary heart disease between chelation therapy and placebo

  • Two studies on CAD reported no difference in myocardial infarction (although a small trend towards improvement; 19% reduced risk)

  • Two studies (one on CAD and one on peripheral vascular disease) reported no difference in rates of stroke

  • Ankle-brachial pressure index is used to measure blood flow through the legs and assess the extent of atherosclerosis. Two studies found no difference in the treatment groups after three months, while one study found an improvement in the EDTA chelation group, but this study was at high risk of bias.

  • There was no improvement in the maximum pain-free walking distance between groups and quality of life was no different

  • Overall, certainty of the evidence was considered low due to the limited data available

A small 2014 study looked at EDTA in a very specific context - in those over the age of 50 with diabetes who have had a previous attack, and found improved longevity and reduced risk of serious cardiovascular complications (such as heart attacks and stroke).[4] This makes sense since older individuals may have had more exposure to lead in the past. In addition, those with diabetes are already at increased risk for hardening arteries due to a buildup of various metals in the vessels. Data suggests that high levels of lead appears to accelerate damage to the arteries.[5]

Side Effects of Chelation Therapy

Using EDTA can lead to various negative effects, and these outcomes depend on factors like the amount taken, how well the kidneys are working, and how often it's used. One of the most widely recognized issues is kidney toxicity, which can show up as problems like acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, anuria, and protein loss through the urine.

Another concern is that calcium EDTA has a strong attraction to zinc, potentially causing a zinc shortage. Some research has found that the loss of zinc was more significant in smaller children compared to larger ones, emphasizing the importance of keeping an eye on zinc levels during chelation therapy.

Other side effects include fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, fatigue, joint pain, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, tremors, headaches, lip inflammation, bone marrow issues, anemia, and too much calcium in the blood.

Concluding Remarks

Research has found that chelation therapy may improve kidney function in those with kidney disease who have been found to have high levels of lead in the blood. Some data has also found it may benefit cardiovascular disease in very specific contexts (older individuals with diabetes and past heart attacks). Given that there is some evidence of adverse effects with chelation therapy, it is important to test for high levels of lead before initiating chelation therapy to help determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks. At our clinic we have access to heavy metal testing and as well as another several hundred tests that can help determine underlying risk factors that contribute to many common diseases.

[1] Muntner P, He J, Vupputuri S, Coresh J, Batuman V. Blood lead and chronic kidney disease in the general United States population: results from NHANES III. Kidney Int. 2003 Mar;63(3):1044-50. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1755.2003.00812.x. PMID: 12631086.

[2] Yang SK, Xiao L, Song PA, Xu XX, Liu FY, Sun L. Is lead chelation therapy effective for chronic kidney disease? A meta-analysis. Nephrology (Carlton). 2014 Jan;19(1):56-9. doi: 10.1111/nep.12162. PMID: 24341661.

[3] Villarruz-Sulit MV, Forster R, Dans AL, Tan FN, Sulit DV. Chelation therapy for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 May 5;5(5):CD002785. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002785.pub2. PMID: 32367513; PMCID: PMC7198985.

[4] Escolar E, Lamas GA, Mark DB, Boineau R, Goertz C, Rosenberg Y, Nahin RL, Ouyang P, Rozema T, Magaziner A, Nahas R, Lewis EF, Lindblad L, Lee KL. The effect of an EDTA-based chelation regimen on patients with diabetes mellitus and prior myocardial infarction in the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT). Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2014 Jan;7(1):15-24. doi: 10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.113.000663. Epub 2013 Nov 19. PMID: 24254885; PMCID: PMC4111470.

[5] Navas-Acien A, Guallar E, Silbergeld EK, Rothenberg SJ. Lead exposure and cardiovascular disease--a systematic review. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Mar;115(3):472-82. doi: 10.1289/ehp.9785. Epub 2006 Dec 22. PMID: 17431501; PMCID: PMC1849948.



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