The Chelation Phenomenon: A Natural Biochemical Process

In order to appreciate the truly remarkable potentials of chelation therapy it is necessary to examine briefly some of the chemical processes involved in the natural phenomena of chelation and free radical activity.

Our entire universe is made up of combinations of elements the smallest unit of which is the atom. Each atom consists of a central nucleus, made up of protons, which is positively charged electrically. The number of protons in an atom determines what the element is. In the case of hydrogen, for example, there is just one proton, whereas carbon has 6 protons, sodium 11, calcium 20 and uranium 92.

Spinning around the central core of protons – in orbit, so to speak – are precisely the same number of negatively charged electrons, or, in the case of hydrogen, one electron. Electrons are much smaller than protons; by weight it actually takes 1835 electrons to equal one proton. Despite this imbalance in weight, the negative electrical charge of one electron is just as powerful as the positive electrical charge of one proton. Thus in a stable, electrically neutral atom, the electrical charge of the proton(s) is precisely in balance with that of the electron(s).

Electrons (much like people) have a natural tendency to find partners so that they can become paired. When this does not happen, as during radiation or certain chemical processes, a ‘free radical’ or a molecule (combination of atoms) with an unpaired electron may evolve (see below for more on these miniscule troublemakers).

Shells of electrons

The electrons which spin in orbit around the protons are arranged in such a way as to form layers, or ‘shells’ each such shell being placed just a little further out than the previous one from the nucleus. The arrangement of electrons in each ‘shell’, or layer (in most atoms) is always the same, with two electrons in the inner shell and eight electrons in the next. In some instances atoms, instead of having their own complement of negatively charged electrons (which provide electrical balance and harmony to the positive electrical charge of the protons) actually share electrons with other atoms.

This is the way molecules (combinations of atoms) are formed, allowing, for example, the two gases hydrogen and oxygen to combine together to form water. Some atoms find that they can gain or lose anything from one to three electrons when necessary, thus turning themselves into ions. An ion is simply an atom or group of atoms which has lost or gained one or more of these orbiting electrons, for one of a number of reasons, and which has therefore in the process become capable of conducting electricity.

Technically, a cation is an ion with a positive electrical charge (this happens to an ion which has lost one or more electrons) and an anion is an ion which is negatively charged (this happens to an ion which has gained one or more electrons).

If we look at what happens when this process occurs between sodium and chlorine it should become clearer.

The process of crystallization of salt

The sodium atom (Na) has 11 protons at its core and therefore (since the number of protons equals the number of electrons) requires 11 electrons to balance it electrically.

As in other atoms the first ‘shell’ contains two electrons, and the second ‘shell’, eight. Simple arithmetic tells us that there is one more electron needing a home in the case of sodium, and this is found in orbit, on its own, in the third ‘shell’ This so-called ‘valency’, electron is therefore available to attach itself easily to any passing atom which might be in need of an extra electron to complete its own electrical balance.

Chlorine (Cl) has 17 protons and 17 electrons. Again the ‘shell’ system demands two electrons in the inner layer, eight in the next and in chlorine an unbalanced seven electrons (remember eight is the ideal) are found in the outer ‘shell’. When sodium and chlorine are brought together, the ‘odd’ electron in sodium latches on to the seven in the chlorine to create a perfect ‘shell’ of eight electrons.

This process of combination creates a salt in which sodium and chlorine are bound together (in this case as table salt, NaCI) in a crystalline form. The sodium which has lost its free spinning electron (see above) is therefore now a positive ion, and this is expressed as Na+, while the chlorine which has gained an electron has become a negative ion, expressed Cl-. Chelation (pronounced key-lay-shin) is a natural interaction between an organic compound which has two or more ‘available attachment points’ (scientifically termed ‘reactive sites’) in its outer shell, with which it can link (co-ordinate) with a metal which happens to have two free electrons in its outer shell. It is axiomatic that a true chelation reaction has two or more such bonds or links. Together the organic compound (chelating agent) and the metal form a stable ring-like structure when they combine.

Chelation – a constant natural process

You (or indeed any living thing) could not survive without the constant benefits of chelation taking place, all the time, throughout your body. Digestion and assimilation of foods involves, for example, the ongoing process of chelation in which your body uses protein substances (amino acids) to chelate with minerals for transportation to their destinations, or in which blood cells latch on to, and thus acquire, iron. Indeed, haemoglobin is a chelate of iron (as is the enzyme catalase, which your body uses to ‘switch off’ the free radical activity of hydrogen peroxide). When you eat meat or green vegetables which contain iron, after the digestive process has released the iron from the food in which it is bound it has to be combined (chelated) with amino acids (protein fractions) so that it can be carried through the intestinal mucous membranes into the bloodstream.

However, if you drink tea at the same meal, the tannin in the tea will chelate with the iron (forming insoluble iron tannate) before it gets a chance to be absorbed, thus depriving your body of the iron. Should you, though, take some ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or eat vitamin C-rich food at the same meal as an iron-rich food, this will chelate with the iron and actually enhance and speed its absorption. The iron, once in the bloodstream, is released from the proteins with which it was chelated for transportation, so that it can recombine, in another chelating process, with blood chemicals to form transferrin which is then stored for later use.

Literally tens of thousands of body processes, involving the formation and function of enzymes, hormones and vitamins constantly utilize similar chelation mechanisms. Similarly, countless examples of natural chelation are found in relation to plant life; for example, chlorophyll is a chelate of magnesium which has been processed during photosynthesis.

The word itself is derived from the Greek word (chela) which describes the prehensile claw of a scorpion or crab. This graphically evokes a picture of one substance grabbing or clutching and embracing another, as the chelation process takes place. Chelation therapy is the extension of this natural process to enable the removal from the body of undesirable ionic material by the infusion, or taking orally, of an organic compound which has suitable chelating properties.

One of the major substances being influenced during chelation therapy is calcium, as this process causes it to be removed from metastatic deposits while at the same time encouraging recalcification of bone (see description of atherosclerosis in Chapter 4). If calcium happens to be inappropriately present in certain body tissues (in a layer of plaque in the lining of an artery, or in excessive amounts on the surface of a joint in arthritis), it is of benefit, in health terms, to remove this, and chelation therapy safely allows exactly this to be done.

The number of electrons in a calcium atom is 20. This has an inner ‘shell’, of 2 electrons, two complete shells of 8 electrons each, and an outer shell of 2 ‘spare’, electrons, which are therefore free to attach to a suitable molecule or atom which may be in need of 2 electrons often called a ‘complexing agent’). The symbol for the calcium cation, because of its two free electrons, is Ca++.

In chelation therapy the ‘suitable molecule’, or ‘complexing agent’, with which this can link is a compound called EDTA (ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetic acid). Together EDTA and a metallic cation form a stable complex which can then be excreted from the system. The stability of this bond is vital to success in chelation therapy, for if there is a weak linkage other reactions breaking the bond could take place should the compound come into contact with suitable chemicals.

A chelating reaction which produces equilibrium, a strong and stable ring structure between the metal ion (calcium is a weakish link, iron, lead and copper are far stronger) and the chelating agent (such as EDTA), is effective in achieving the safe removal of the ion from the body.

When you use a water softener you are chelating calcium (and other minerals) out of the water. When you use a detergent in washing clothes or dishes, this chelates with minerals in the ‘dirt’ allowing the now soluble compounds to be washed away by water.

The brief survey of the early history of EDTA (see Chapter 3) will help to explain its tortuous route towards medical respectability as a means of removing unwanted mineral/metal substances. Before we look at the fascinating background to chelation therapy, one more facet of the imbalance which can result from unpaired electrons is worth examination.

Free radicals

Radiation is often described as ionizing radiation. This is because, by definition, it is able to dislodge individual electrons out of atoms and molecules, leaving unpaired electrons behind. This is one way in which free radicals are created. Some such molecules, with unpaired electrons, are extremely dangerous and can have very damaging effects on body tissues. Bleach (hydrogen peroxide), for example, does its damage to tissue (just think what it does to hair) through free radical action, as a deluge of these reactive entities chaotically bounce around, creating local havoc by grabbing on to any accessible electrons with which they come in contact (in this case from the hair itself).

Radiation is an example of how free radicals may be produced in the body when such an outside force acts on its cells. Perhaps more surprisingly there is almost continuous production of free radicals by some of the defending cells of the body. These are used as a means of destroying invading micro-organisms or cancer cells.

Since this is a natural process which is going on all the time in the body, there must exist control mechanisms to prevent undesirable effects from free radicals on healthy body cells, and this is the case when we are in good health.

Just as iron rusts, and an exposed apple or potato will turn brown when its surface meets the air, so do our bodies endure oxidation (ageing), for all of these are examples involving free radical activity. In the same way that the placing of lemon juice on an apple will stop it from turning brown by ‘mopping up’ the unpaired electrons, thanks to the antioxidant vitamin C in the juice, your body contains numerous antioxidant and free radical deactivating substances (specific enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, uric acid, etc.). The body can protect itself with these substances by quenching those free radicals which it produces itself, or which are created by radiation or from other sources. At least, it has these defensive substances to hand when it is well nourished. As we will see in Chapter 4, the processes which produce atherosclerosis have much to do with both free radical activity and with the accumulation of obstructive deposits, in which calcium acts as a cement or binding agent.

Free radical activity, now generally accepted to play a large part in the development of atherosclerosis as well as many other forms of damage to the body, including soft tissues, bone surfaces and nerve structures, is often associated with the presence in the body of heavy metals. Chelation can remove these metals before they do their damage. EDTA can also create the situation (low serum calcium, leading to parathyroid hormone production, leading to metastatic calcium removal, etc) which starts the process of dissolution of atheromatous deposits which may be obstructing an artery in an area where free radical damage has already taken place. If such an approach is combined with nutritional patterns which encourage the intake of antioxidant substances (vitamins A, C, E, minerals such as selenium and zinc, etc.) an even better end result should be anticipated.

Dr Elmer Cranton’s view

A leading American physician, Elmer Cranton, MD, states his expert view of the importance of using EDTA to counteract the free radical scourge (Cranton and Frackelton 1982):

    EDTA can reduce the production of free radicals by a million-fold, for it is not possible for free radical pathology to be catalytically accelerated by metallic ions in the presence of EDTA. Traces of unbound metallic ions are necessary for uncontrolled proliferation of free radicals in living tissue and EDTA binds these ionic metal catalysts making them chemically inert and removing them from the body.

He continues:

    Two essential nutritional elements, iron and copper, are the most potent catalysts of lipid peroxidation [the degradation of fats by free radicals]. Catalytic iron and copper accumulate near phospholipid cell membranes, in joint fluid, and in cerebrospinal fluid with age and are released into tissue fluids following trauma or ischaemia [lack of oxygen supply due to circulatory inefficiency]. These unbound extracellular iron and copper ions have been shown to potentiate free radical tissue damage.

We will learn more about free radical activity, the damage caused by toxic heavy metals (and some apparently useful ones such as iron when in excess of requirements) and of the many protective functions of EDTA chelation therapy in relation to both free radical activity and heavy metal toxicity in later chapters, especially Chapter 5.

Chelation demonstration

Acetic acid is a mild chelator, far weaker than EDTA. Nevertheless, you can demonstrate for yourself the chelation process in action using the organic acid in vinegar (acetic acid).

Take an eggshell and place this in a bowl with some vinegar. Over a period of several days the eggshell will become increasingly thin, as the acetic acid progressively chelates the calcium out of the shell. Add more vinegar and the shell will eventually have all of its calcium removed, leaving it in solution, bound (chelated) to the acetic acid.

It is just this process, much more efficiently performed, that EDTA achieves in the body when it acts on unwanted calcium deposits which are obstructing normal function.

Remember that EDTA only does this with ionic, unbound, calcium and thus will not leach calcium out of the normal bound sites such as the bones and teeth. By removing ionic, free calcium from the bloodstream, EDTA triggers parathyroid hormone to be released, which in turn compels the body to unbind metastatic calcium which may be cementing atheromatous plaque deposits in the blood vessels. In this way circulatory normality is encouraged.

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Written by Leon Chaitow ND DO MRO

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