Are we going MAD from Mercury?

Mercury is RISING to an alarmingly toxic level in humans and may be making some people as mad as a hatter!

I’ve wondered whether certain celebrity “melt-downs” may in fact be attributed to mercury poisoning. Mercury poisoning is real and there is plenty of evidence to document its lethality in humans, from the Chinese Emperor Qin Shin Huang’s death in 210 BC, to as recently as 2010, when Russian journalists were deliberately poisoned as part of an alleged assassination attempt. However, the intention of this article is to expose the accidental overdosing that occurs due to the unintentional ingestion of toxic levels of mercury.

There was hardly any media coverage when actors Daphne Zuniga, Hillary Swank, and Jeremy Piven were diagnosed with mercury poisoning from eating sushi. Both Swank and Zuniga were diagnosed in 2004, Piven was diagnosed in 2008. Prior to diagnosis, Piven stated that he consumed sushi 2-3 times per week for over twenty years while Zuniga claimed she had eaten fish as her primary source of protein for several years prior to being diagnosed. During 2004, Hillary Swank was consuming an excessive amount of fish while training to play a professional boxer in the film MILLION DOLLAR BABY, a role for which she earned an academy award. Prior to filming, Swank was a strict vegetarian and had chosen fish as her primary protein source to build the necessary muscle for portraying a professional boxer. Swank said that she devoured huge quantities of fish and ended up with dangerously high levels of mercury. She claimed that her health suffered from mercury poisoning and that it took years to return her body “back to normal.”

Reading about these cases, I began to wonder just how many other celebrities have been the victims of accidental mercury poisoning, and discovered a growing number. Could mercury be the underlying cause of the outrageous behavior and drug problems of too many celebrities? What about everyone else? Could mercury toxicity become a silent epidemic? I began to seriously question that possibility back in 2007 when Britney Spears inexplicably shaved her head.

I first took notice of Britney Spears under the influence of an ex-boyfriend who was a big fan. I watched a DVD about her that included commentary by the producer, director, and writer. I learned some facts about Britney’s diet:

“Her favorite meal everyday was tuna fish, tuna salad and crackers. That’s what she loved.”

I wondered exactly how much tuna she consumed and the subsequent amount of mercury she ingested. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sets the limit for human mercury consumption at 0.1 microgram per kilogram of body weight per day. Britney is five feet, four inches tall (and I will assume she was about one hundred five pounds). If she had consumed three cans (five ounces) of tuna each day for a week, the level of mercury she consumed would exceed the EPA limit by 3,145%.

Consuming that amount of canned tuna for just one month would exceed the EPA limit by over 13,000%! If Britney really ate that much tuna, it was likely that she had heavy metal poisoning from all the mercury. I predicted that she would suffer problems from mercury toxicity in the future (but not to the degree that eventually unfolded).

My suspicion that Britney suffered the side effects of mercury toxicity grew as I began to research her descent from teen queen to total meltdown. I traced it back to January 3rd 2004, the date when Britney’s weird behavior went public as she suddenly got married to a childhood friend at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The marriage was annulled fifty-five hours later and a statement was issued to the media which explained that “Britney Spears lacked understanding of her actions.” Ironically, her hit song TOXIC was released on January 12th 2004, quickly becoming her fourth top-ten single in the US. Only six months after her annulled wedding, Britney married back-up dancer, Kevin Federline, whom she had met three months prior. Britney’s erratic behavior continued to surface over the next few years as she was photographed driving with her one-year-old son in her lap instead of in a car seat. She divorced Federline less than two months after the birth of their second son.

In early 2007, I was an instructor of Environmental Toxicology and working on my Environmental Medicine Fellowship at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences when Britney checked into a drug rehabilitation center only to check herself out the next day and then she shaved her own head at a hair salon. Although the media alluded to drug problems, I was convinced mercury poisoning was the underlying cause of her behavior. Because hair can be a reliable measure of exposure to methlymercury (the type of mercury found in fish), I admit I spent the next week searching e-bay to see if maybe the salon would auction locks of her shaved hair. (Attention TMZ, if you have access to the hair clippings from when Britney shaved her head, I will test it for free.) On January 3, 2008 Britney was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai while appearing to be under the influence of an illicit substance and on January 31, 2008, she was committed to the psychiatric ward of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center under an involuntary psychiatric hold after which she was placed under the conservatorship of her father.

Although I am not her doctor, I am a naturopathic doctor with a background in environmental medicine and my professional opinion is that Britney Spears’ erratic behavior at that time may have been the result of mercury poisoning. The most significant source of ingestion-related mercury exposure in humans is fish. The highest contamination levels of mercury are in large carnivorous fish: Shark, Swordfish, Tuna, Halibut, Orange Roughy, Mackerel, and Seabass. I still wonder what the results would have been if a trained environmental medicine doctor had tested Britney Spears for mercury toxicity. It might have explained her behavior.

I had all but forgotten about my speculation regarding Britney Spears until a few years later when I encountered a patient who had been fired from her job for erratic behavior. My patient had worked at a Scottsdale, Arizona spa which is well known for its culinary delights, particularly (as I later learned), swordfish. This was around the same time that Jeremy Piven fell under media scrutiny for claiming mercury poisoning as the reason he quit a Broadway play. While Piven blamed twenty years of eating sushi several times a week for his condition, swordfish has the highest mercury content of any fish, making it the most toxic for human consumption. One 8-ounce serving of swordfish contains 580% of the EPA limit for mercury consumed in one week. My 27-year-old female patient had been eating swordfish 2-3 times per week since her job at the spa involved entertaining clients, and after a few months her behavior changed. She became bipolar manic-depressive and dumped her boyfriend of 2 years for no apparent reason. She began acting erratically, partying one day, and shopping the next to fight off depression, until finally she drained her bank account and was fired from her job. She went from dressing in sophisticated high-fashion designer outfits to a disheveled punk-rock look. Her mother cried while sharing with me that she no longer recognized the formerly happy daughter who had gone from being student body president, cheer captain, honor roll student in high school and on the dean’s list in college to the miserable, manic, irrational person that she had become. She’d never had any behavioral changes in the past.

As an environmental medicine doctor, I screen almost all my patients for circulating levels of mercury in their blood, especially if they present with depression or erratic and unexplained behavior. I referred her for psychiatric evaluation and obtained initial laboratory testing. Her whole blood mercury level exceeded the EPA level of 5.8 mcg/L.

She was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, manic, severe, specified with psychotic behavior by the psychiatrist. In addition to conventional treatment, she was placed on a personalized naturopathic detoxification protocol based on her genetic and nutritional profile and within a year, she was healthier than ever before. She is considered in full remission and did not have any additional episodes of mania or depression. She no longer requires the use of psychiatric or anti-depressive medications. Her care was coordinated amongst several naturopathic doctors and psychiatrists. Her current psychiatrist recognizes that her diagnosis of bipolar disorder was a result of her elevated mercury level.

A few years ago, when Charlie Sheen was scrutinized for his behavior, illicit drugs were implicated as the cause, and while Sheen admitted drug use (extreme quantities of drugs), it is possible mercury toxicity led to his desire for drugs like cocaine. While there are no studies demonstrating the connection between mercury exposure and increased affinity for drugs, there is scientific evidence* linking methylmercury exposure and operant behavior to cocaine use in mammals. Therefore, the short-term effects of cocaine (mental alertness) could make its use attractive since mercury toxicity causes drowsiness, mental disturbances and depression. I was not surprised to learn that there was media speculation that Britney’s “career suicide” back in 2007 may have been the result of illicit drug use. Mercury can elevate blood pressure and mimic signs of anxiety and perhaps drive some people to obtain medication (both prescription and illicit drugs) to alleviate the symptoms. Drugs such as Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam) and Valium (diazepam) are typically prescribed for anxiety. Several of these drugs are listed in the post-death toxicology reports of celebrities Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Could mercury toxicity have led to their anxiety? Was mercury the underlying cause of the symptoms for which they sought medication?

In California, sushi is a dietary staple, which puts the “Hollywood” population at higher risk for mercury poisoning than the rest of the nation. However, even outside Hollywood, the popularity of high protein, fish-based diets is greater than ever.

To this day I wonder if Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen and other celebrities who had public meltdowns are the unknowing victims of mercury poisoning. Unless a doctor trained in environmental medicine tests any of them, we may never know.

Passionate about integrative and environmental medicine, together with my mentor, Dr. Lyn Patrick, we develop and led continuing medical education with a focus in environmental medicine. Share with your doctor about Progressive Medical Education. Courses are offered online in a live webinar format; your busy doctor does not need to take time away from the office to travel to a conference.


How many servings of tuna should a person eat?

Use this calculator to determine a safe amount: Mercury Calculator

This mobile app is a good guide on what are good and safe fish to eat. Seafood Watch

This is another great app to see how much mercury is in fish. It’s called Mercury In Fish by Nirvino.

What about other fish?

The following fish are high in mercury. Eat no more than one serving from this list per month:

Mahi mahi

Blue mussel

Eastern oyster



Great Lakes salmon

Gulf Coast blue crab

Channel catfish (wild)

Lake whitefish

The following fish are low in mercury. You can safely eat small servings per month depending on your weight:

Blue crab (mid-Atlantic)


Fish Sticks

Flounder (summer)


Trout (farmed)

Salmon (wild Pacific)


Are you at risk for mercury poisoning?

If you eat fish on regular basis, use skin lighteners or are exposed to heavy metals, you may want to contact a naturopathic doctor or physician trained in environmental medicine and get yourself tested.

What are the signs and symptoms of mercury toxicity?

Depression, memory loss, erratic behavior, infertility, weight gain, autoimmune problems, tremor, coordination, balance issues, anxiety, hypertension, headache, fatigue, trouble concentrating, hair loss, and intermittent stomach upset are among the symptoms.

If you believe that you may be experiencing the symptoms of mercury poisoning, seek the advice of a licensed naturopathic doctor or physician trained in environmental medicine. Beware of anyone who claims he or she can provide you with a dietary supplement to clear heavy metals or provides a “detox foot bath” as a primary method of pulling metals out of the body.


*Gestational methylmercury exposure selectively increases the sensitivity of operant behavior to cocaine. Reed, Miranda N.; Newland, M. Christopher. Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol 123(2), Apr 2009, 408-417.