SELENIUM AND ITS MIGHTY BENEFITS
From the journal Alternatives,12:14; 105-111, Aug 2008
With editorial notes by Lawrence Wilson, MD
– updated March 2011.
When it comes to human papilloma virus or HPV, or any virus problem for that matter, it is crucial that you are getting adequate amounts of selenium in your diet or using a supplement.
Glutathione requires selenium for its production. It is the granddaddy of all antioxidants. Every single condition we associate with aging has been linked to lowered glutathione levels.
Studies have shown that individuals who maintain the highest levels of glutathione remain the healthiest and live the longest. The very important relationship between selenium and glutathione has just recently come to light during the last few years.
Selenium is a trace mineral that the body incorporates into proteins to make over 25 different selenoproteins (like the enzyme glutathioneperoxidase). These are some of the strongest antioxidants that work to prevent cellular damage from free radicals. They also help regulate thyroid function and assist the immune system.
A few years ago, researchers working with the flu virus discovered that animals deficient in selenium were more susceptible to infectious diseases. This wasn’t earth shattering news-or unexpected. It’s well known that being malnourished or nutritionally deficient will result in an impaired immune system.
Their shocking discovery, however, was that where animals with a selenium deficiency were contaminated with the flu virus, the virus mutated into a far more virulent form when it was passed on to the next animal.
The researchers compared the initial virus to the mutated form, saying that the first would typically cause only mild pneumonia, while the latter would result in life threatening severe pneumonia.
In simple terms, they discovered that selenium deficiencies cause viral mutations that could turn a harmless flu bug into a worldwide life-threatening flu pandemic. Why the importance oj selenium wasn’t broadcast to the masses I’ll never understand. And the ramifications of having adequate selenium reserves in the body reaches far beyond the flu virus.
FURTHER VIRAL EFFECTS
It appears that selenium also has a very strong link to another viral disease: HIV/AIDS. The work is still ongoing into the exact details of how HIV utilizes selenium. Recent studies have shown that providing adequate amounts of selenium to the virus slows its replication. HIV requires selenium, and will invade other cells in an attempt to get more of the mineral. The virus’ need for selenium helps explain several aspects of AIDS.
Research has shown that one of the hallmarks oj AIDS progression is a decline in the patient’s selenium blood plasma levels. This is accompanied by a decline in the selenium-containing antioxidant glutathione peroxide as well. Not only this, but infection rates are highest in geographic areas of the world where soil selenium levels are the lowest and infection rates are lowest where selenium levels are the highest.
AIDS HIGHEST WHERE SELENIUM IS LOWEST
The AIDS infection rate is highest in those African countries with low levels of selenium in their soil: Zimbabwe, 25.84 percent; Botswana, 25.10 percent; Zambia, 19.07 percent; South Africa, 12.91 percent; and Cote D’Ivoire, 10.06 percent.
In contrast, Senegal in West Africa has the lowest levels of AIDS at 1.77 percent-and the highest levels of selenium-rich soil.
(Senegal also has one of the lowest rates of cancer in Africa, another benefit of their selenium-rich soil.)
SEX DEPLETES SELENIUM, PARTICULARLY IN MEN
It’s probably no coincidence, either, that males transmit the AIDS virus more easily than do females. Selenium is concentrated in semen, and sperm cells also contain high levels of the trace mineral. Not only can there be a significant loss of selenium during sexual intercourse. The invasion of these cells by HIV in its search for the mineral quickly transforms them into a carrier of the virus.
You might recall that in the early days of the AIDS epidemic there was widespread abuse of oxidant drugs in the form of nitrite inhalants. These produced an abundance of free radicals, which further depleted glutathione and selenium levels and sped up the disease process.
An individual’s selenium reserve, at the time of infection and subsequently, also helps explain the variable latency period between the time of HIV infection and the appearance of AIDS. For some it is rather quick, while for others it can be years-and some HIV-positive patients have never developed AIDS.
TREATING AIDS WITH SELENIUM, CYSTEINE, GLUTAMINE AND TRYPTOPHAN
Numerous doctors have started treating their AIDS patients utilizing either increased amounts of supplemental selenium or the four basic components of glutathione peroxidase – selenium, cysteine, glutamine, and tryptophan – and have seen remarkable results.
Increasing glutathione levels with the selenium and cysteine makes the immune system more responsive to viruses and cancer as well. Glutamine helps alleviate depression problems and helps heal the intestinal tract, resulting in better digestion and the elimination of diarrhea.
Advanced AIDS patients have been shown to have tryptophan levels at about half the amount of those with the disease. Increasing tryptophan helps protect against dementia by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
The idea has not been to “eliminate” HIV from the body, which many researchers now feel would be impossible, but rather to supply it and the rest of the body with adequate amounts of selenium. It’s more of an effort to live with the virus much like we can live with other potentially harmful pathogens in our body, but keep it in check to minimize any harm. The additional selenium and the antioxidants associated with it help stop the virus from replicating and invading other cells to “feed” its need for selenium.
Not only is this program very cost-effective at $10 to $20 a month, it has been instrumental in allowing patients to live normal, otherwise healthy, productive lives. I’ve spoken with many of these patients, and practically all of the long-term survivors are on programs that include selenium, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) to increase glutathione levels, and other antioxidants.
I have a report of one individual who has been HIV-positive for 21 years. After undergoing practically every known treatment, he still had detectible levels of HI V-until he took selenium. After taking a 200 microgram daily dose his viral load dropped from 20,000/mL to 49, which is considered undetectable. Additionally, he hasn’t been sick since taking the selenium and has experienced no side effects whatsoever.
IT KEEPS GETTING BETTER
Much of what I’ve discussed so far has had to do with HIV and AIDS. Keep in mind, however, that it also applies to any virus or viral infection.
This could be something as simple as the cold or as serious as the next pandemic influenza virus, bird flu, West Nile virus, Ebola, hepatitis, hantavirus, Marburg virus, smallpox, or some viral agent spread through bioterrorism.
Other than isolation and the use of questionable and unproven vaccines, there’s not much in the form of treatment for any of these problems.
Viral threats are certainly not the only reason you should make the effort to increase your selenium level.
LONGEVITY AND COGNITIVE DECLINE
Several studies have found that selenium blood levels fall as we age and those with the lowest levels experience shorter life spans. One study showed a drop of 7 percent at age 60 and 24 percent by age 75.
In one study involving 1,389 patients ages 60 to 71, it was discovered that, when compared to those with the higher selenium levels, those with the lower levels have a highest likelihood of experiencing cognitive and neurological problems. (Epidemiology 07;18:52-58) (Sci Total Environ 95;170:133-139) (Med Hypotheses 97;48:355-360)
Selenium prevents cancer. This has been proven time and time again. One study involved 1,312 patients with no melanoma skin cancer. Half received a placebo and the other half received 200 mcg of selenium for an average of 4.5 years.
Those who took the selenium had an overall decrease in all cancers of 35 percent compared to those on the placebo. Prostate cancer decreased by 63 percent, lung cancer by 46 percent, and colorectal cancer by 58 percent. The effect was so dramatic that the blinded part of the study was ended early so those on the placebo could be told the benefits of taking selenium (JAMA 96;276:1957-1963).
OTHER CANCERS AS WELL
Other research has now found that increasing levels of selenium could cut the incidence of bladder cancer by as much as 70 percent. It also appears that breast cancer is far more prevalent in individuals with low selenium levels – and supplementation could lower those rates as well (J SurgOncol 80;15:67-70) (Mol Carcinog 99; 26:213-225).
A study in Arizona of 1,763 individuals found that those with lower levels of selenium were more likely to have polyps in their intestinal tract than those with higher levels of the mineral (33 percent compared to only
9 percent). Polyps are considered pre-cancerous (J Natl Cancer Inst 04;96:1669-1675).
From common sense and all research indications, it seems apparent that selenium and the enzymes produced from it, like glutathione peroxidase and thioredoxin reductase, help prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. It’s the oxidation of LDL cholesterol that starts the inflammatory process leading to the development of plaques in arteries(Circulation 98;97:1930-1934).
There are other antioxidants that are needed to prevent heart disease, but keep in mind that selenium is one of the most powerful ones.
This is another area where there hasn’t been enough research concerning selenium. We do know that with inflammatory arthritic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis there are consistently lower levels of selenium in the blood, and oftentimes a low intake of the mineral.
Selenium is a part of not only antioxidant proteins, but anti-inflammatory ones as well. Along with omega- 3 fatty acids, selenium can prove to be a godsend to many with rheumatoid arthritis (Bioi Trace Element Res 96;53:51-56) (Ann Rheum Dis 94;53:51-53) (Semin Arthritis Rheum 97;27:180-185).
THE REST OF THE STORY
One of the primary reasons the public has never discovered the necessity and benefits of selenium stems from the fear of toxicity (a needless fear, as you’ll see). Selenium is definitely one of those compounds that, if its use became more widespread, would put a huge dent in the multi-trillion dollar health care system.
MANIPULATION OF SELENIUM RDAs
The common tactic to discourage the use of a vitamin, mineral, or other supplement is to exaggerate any possible dangerous side effects and then throw in a study or two showing that it doesn’t work. These are exactly the things that have been happening to selenium.
The US Food and Nutrition Board actually lowered the RDA for selenium in the year 2000 from 70 mcg for men and 55 mcg/day for women to 55 mcg/day for both. They obviously ignored the 1996 cancer study report I mentioned above showing the benefits of 200 mcg/day without any side effects. The same board set what is called the tolerable upper intake level (UL) at 400 mcg a day.
In China, where a large number of the selenium studies and treatment programs have been undertaken over decades (they have widespread selenium deficiencies there), the UL is set at 819 mcg/day with no adverse effects. The “low adverse effect level” is considered to be 1,054 mcg/day.
Toxic symptoms, by the way, are easy to recognize. The first indications are “garlic breath” and dry skin. Later the fingernails acquire white patches, become brittle, and fall off. Studies in China have found that the nail and hair loss occurs when selenium intake reaches 4,990 mcg/day (J Trace Elem Electrolytes In Health And Disease 94;8:159-165).
Obviously, taking the 200-400 mcg/day, which has been proven to help in cancer, AIDS, and other conditions, on top of whatever one consumes in their diet, wouldn’t be a problem. Research consistently has shown these levels to be totally safe and effective.
A bogus and rigged selenium study. A study is now underway on selenium, but it uses only the RDA level of 55 mcg/day for a phase III study of 32,500 men, funded by the National Cancer Institute, to test the benefits of selenium and vitamin E on preventing prostate cancer.
I suspect the results, which will be released after the 2013 completion date of the study, will be underwhelming and cited as proof that selenium is worthless. Honestly, they could save their money (actually our money), since research has already proven it will be largely ineffective at that dosage. Even worse, hundreds of decent, unsuspecting men will die needlessly, simply because they didn’t receive the amount of selenium they needed for cancer protection.
SOMETIMES A GOOD DIET ISN’T ENOUGH
Ideally we should be able to obtain all the nutrients we need from our diet, but that is becoming more and more difficult.
Food sources for each of the three amino acids I mentioned earlier (tryptophan, cysteine, and glutamine, used in the production of glutathione) are those rich in protein. This includes lamb, beef, poultry, fish, and soft-cooked eggs.
Also, whey protein found in raw dairy products is another way to raise and maintain higher glutathione levels in the body.
RUSSIA AND CHINA DEFICIENT IN SELENIUM
Regarding selenium in foods, it depends greatly on the amount of selenium in the soil. Russia and China have large areas of selenium-poor soil. We routinely see reports of selenium deficiency in those areas, since most of their food is grown and eaten locally. (As a side note, when you combine the low selenium content in China with the mutation of viruses in low-selenium hosts, it’s no wonder that so many nasty viruses originate in the part of the world.)
SOIL AVAILABILITY OF SELENIUM WORSENING
The soil conditions everywhere on earth in regards to selenium availability are worsening due to several factors. First, acid rain has been created from increased levels of sulfur and nitrogen in the atmosphere (due to pollution). This changes the PH of the soil, making it more difficult for selenium to bind to plant roots. Additionally, heavy metals such as mercury in rainfall quickly bind to selenium and form insoluble compounds. Both of these problems lower the amount of selenium entering the food chain.
EUROPE BANNED SOME SELENIUM SUPPLEMENTS
It will be interesting to see what will happen in Europe over the next few years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a significant decrease in their overall health picture.
The European Union has recently restricted the sale of some of the best forms of selenium supplements. Much of Europe’s soil is practically devoid of selenium.
Much of their selenium comes from imported wheat, but prices of the grain have skyrocketed and the drought in Australia has limited supplies. Australia, unlike the US, has severely selenium-deficient soils. This probably contributes to the high incidence of asthma, skin cancer and other problems in that country.
IMPAIRED DIGESTION AND SELENIUM DEFICIENCY
It is also important to note that individuals with more serious digestive problems, such as Crohn’s disease, stomach stapling or other difficulties, have a much higher risk of selenium deficiency.
This problem of absorbing and utilizing selenium also applies to a lesser degree to most Americans and many others in the world, thanks to their chaotic diets, hurried lifestyles, chemicals in their food, sugar-eating habits, fruit-eating habits, and other problems having to do with digestion.
WHERE TO GET YOUR SELENIUM
Selenium is becoming more difficult to obtain from our food supply. Plants take up selenium from the soil and propagate it through the food chain. The problem, however, is that the concentration of selenium in the soil varies tremendously around the globe, as mentioned earlier.
In America, for example, the soil in the Midwest, derived from ancient sea beds, contains as much as 50 ppm, which is as much as 1000 times the amount contained in the pacific Northwest, the great lakes area, the Northeast or Florida, where levels are less than 0.05 ppm. As a result, the average selenium intake varies from about 60-110 mcg daily in the US and only 11-67 mcg daily in Europe.
Currently, the best dietary source of selenium remains the Brazil nut. Nuts that you have to crack yourself have an average of 100 mcg of selenium each. Already-cracked nuts only contain about 1/8 to 1/4 that amount. (The processed nuts come from a different area of Brazil, where the soil levels of selenium are lower.)
(Dr. Wilson’s note: I find that better food sources of selenium are sardines, organic blue and yellow corn as tortillas or corn chips, and raw dairy such as raw cows or goat cheese. The problem with Brazil nuts is they are too yin, so please do not consume them.
Other fish, beef, turkey, seafood, mushrooms, eggs and brewer’s yeast are also food sources, but the selenium content can vary somewhat. So supplements are helpful.)
(Dr. Wilson’s note: For supplements, I prefer a food-based or food-grown selenium supplement. We use the one from Endomet Labs called Selenium or Selenase.)
For more on selenium, see the article on this website entitled Selenium, A New Mineral For Health.