Cysteine metabolism and metal toxicity

Altern Med Rev. 1998 Aug;3(4):262-70.


Chronic, low level exposure to toxic metals is an increasing global problem. The symptoms associated with the slow accumulation of toxic metals are multiple and rather nondescript, and overt expression of toxic effects may not appear until later in life. The sulfhydryl-reactive metals (mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic) are particularly insidious and can affect a vast array of biochemical and nutritional processes. The primary mechanisms by which the sulfhydryl-reactive metals elicit their toxic effects are summarized. The pro-oxidative effects of the metals are compounded by the fact that the metals also inhibit antioxidative enzymes and deplete intracellular glutathione. The metals also have the potential to disrupt the metabolism and biological activities of many proteins due to their high affinity for free sulfhydryl groups. Cysteine has a pivotal role in inducible, endogenous detoxication mechanisms in the body, and metal exposure taxes cysteine status. The protective effects of glutathione and the metallothioneins are discussed in detail. Basic research pertaining to the transport of toxic metals into the brain is summarized, and a case is made for the use of hydrolyzed whey protein to support metal detoxification and neurological function. Metal exposure also affects essential element status, which can further decrease antioxidation and detoxification processes. Early detection and treatment of metal burden is important for successful detoxification, and optimization of nutritional status is paramount to the prevention and treatment of metal toxicity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arsenic / metabolism
  • Arsenic Poisoning*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cysteine / drug effects
  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Endocrine Glands / drug effects
  • Heavy Metal Poisoning*
  • Humans
  • Leucine / metabolism
  • Mercury / metabolism
  • Mercury Poisoning / metabolism
  • Mercury Poisoning / therapy
  • Metals, Heavy / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction / drug effects
  • Poisoning / therapy


  • Metals, Heavy
  • Mercury
  • Leucine
  • Cysteine
  • Arsenic