Selenium – A Trace Mineral That Helps Prevent Heart Attacks, Cancer, and Arthritis

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Health NEWS BRIEFS – March 2012

New research links high levels of selenium with a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer

The following is an excerpt from Wenzel and Pataracchia’s new book The Earth’s Gift To Medicine: Minerals in Health and Disease, translated from German by Claudia Rank.

From a scientific standpoint, selenium has had an eventful history. Discovered in 1817, it was first used medicinally in the treatment of inoperable tumors, where it was surprisingly successful. In the 1930s and 1940s it was deemed to be extremely poisonous, and often was mistaken for arsenic. Intensive research began worldwide on a larger scale after 1957, when it was proven that selenium is essential to human life.

Selenium preparations have been used routinely in veterinary medicine for a long time, and not only for the infamous selenium deficiency disease of lambs – the “white muscle disease.” Selenium’s therapeutic benefit to humans is rarely recognized, however it has been used extensively in several countries. As a result of governmental decisions in Finland, selenium has been added to grain since 1984.

The adult human body contains about 10-30 mg of selenium. The highest concentrations are found in the kidneys, glands, liver, blood platelets, and in the lens of the eye. The daily requirement for adults is 50-200 µg (250-300 µg is optimal). The minimum requirement is estimated to be at least 1µg/kg of body weight. 50-75% of selenium contained in salts is absorbed in the intestine, while the absorption of selenium from organic compounds is 100%. In some cases, up to 1 mg doses have been applied therapeutically (individual cases have exceeded this amount). Some regions on earth have high selenium content in their soils. Even though poisoning symptoms can be expected among sensitive people taking prolonged daily doses of 2 mg, people living in these areas have been tolerating 3 mg/day for prolonged periods of time without complications.

In principle, selenium is consumed by humans following absorption from the soil by plants. These plants may then be consumed by other animals. Plants usually do not require selenium. However, selenium can be utilized by plants in metabolic processes in place of sulfur. Plant sources are the main way that animals and humans get selenium.

Many regions were washed out to a great extent during the Ice Ages, thus reducing the selenium content of these soils. Remaining selenium compounds become insoluble due to acid rain, hindering their ability to be absorbed by plants. Also, environmental pollution alters the acidity of soil and deposits heavy metals (in considerable amounts) into the soil. These heavy metals react with selenium to form insoluble compounds.

Heart Attacks and Big-Joint Disease

Human selenium deficiency diseases that occurred in the Chinese province of Keshan include Keshan disease and big-joint disease. In Keshan (population of ~50 million), up to 10% of the population had been dying of heart failure over many decades. This included a high proportion of young children, adolescents and young women. Eventually, the main cause was determined to be heart damage (and decreased immunity) due to selenium deficiency. Viral infection in the end stages often resulted  in accelerated death. Today, the people in this region are obligated to take a 1 mg selenium tablet each week. As a result of this large-scale administration, Keshan disease has almost been eradicated.

In the same region, an illness known as “big-joint disease” exists (named after the monstrous joint swelling that occurs). In some villages, the illness was so common that fruit was left unpicked because nobody could climb the trees. Selenium deficiency was also identified as a major factor contributing to this illness. X-ray results surprisingly confirmed that selenium intake improved arthritic conditions.

While Keshan and big-joint diseases may seem exotic, the importance of selenium in heart disease remains clear. Unfortunately it is not widely known that selenium deficiency increases the likelihood of heart attack (myocardial infarction). This fact was established through research conducted primarily in Finland (also in New Zealand and German). Finland once had the highest incidence of heart attacks in Europe, even though this country is certainly not stressed by politics.

Finnish people tend to be healthy thanks to their sauna. Selenium deficiency in this country can be considered a cause, or at least a significant factor in the increase in heart attack risk. Soils in this region were severely depleted of selenium when they were washed out during the Ice Age. Now, selenium levels in Finland are becoming further diminished by acid rain coming from middle Europe (which has also contributed to biologically dead lakes in northern Europe). The government of Finland began a selenium campaign in 1984, which involved increasing public awareness, selenium fertilization of soils, and the obligatory addition of selenium to grain.

The use of fertilizers that contain sulfur, such as ammonium sulfate, hinders the ability of plants to absorb selenium and should therefore be avoided. Unfortunately the success observed in Finland goes almost unnoticed in other countries. Perhaps if the incidence of heart attacks decreased due to selenium supplementation, waiting lists for coronary by-pass operations would not be as long (sometimes these waiting periods are fatal to patients). After all, selenium treatment is a much cheaper alternative to surgery, and cheaper than the cost of heart medication used following the operation.

Selenium deficiency increases the tendency of platelets to aggregate, which also plays a role in heart attacks. Blood thinning drugs have been used for many years to prevent the occurrence (or recurrence) of heart attacks. For these patients, plasma selenium levels should be 60µg/L (versus the 20 µg/L seen among Keshan patients) to obtain a protective effect.

Pancreatitis, Cancer, and AIDS

The list of diseases associated with selenium deficiency (which are treated by therapeutic selenium supplementation) has continued to grow. For example, in 1993 a large clinic in Germany reported that immediate selenium treatment prevented patients from dying of acute pancreatitis — a relatively rare yet often fatal disease. The following sections describe other important areas for possible therapeutic selenium use.

Extensive literature concerning selenium and the development of cancer dates back to 1920, when Watson-Williams successfully treated 72 inoperable cancer patients with colloidal selenium. Eight of these patients were reported to have completely recovered. Many examples provide evidence that selenium inhibits cancers of the skin, liver, lung, breast and intestine.

In other countries, selenium deficiency is regarded as an increased risk factor in the development of cancer. Vitamin E deficiency is considered to further increase this risk.

It is generally known that cytostatic treatment (i.e. chemotherapy) weakens the immune system, allowing otherwise minor disease agents to become life threatening. Some medical practitioners do not know that cytostatic treatment often leads to selenium deficiency. Selenium supplementation can diminish the toxic side effects of cytostatic treatment without compromising therapeutic benefits.

Animal research has shown that selenium supplementation can decrease the damaging effects of the drugs Adriamycin and Cisplatin on the heart and kidney, respectively. Some patients who did not respond to cytostatic treatment improved after selenium was incorporated into the treatment.

Therefore, a daily selenium supplement of 100-300 µg is often recommended for cancer patients.

The possibility of selenium deficiency should be considered in cases of aberrant immune function. Individual reports cite the role of selenium in hemolytic anemia, cardiomyopathy, chronic infection, and even in multiple sclerosis (research by the Danish MS society).

One of the main factors in the rapid spread of AIDS, in addition to sexual and other activity, is the deficiency of selenium from our soils, food and water. In those African countries with selenium-rich soils there is a lower incidence of AIDS. Current information on selenium and AIDS is described in the book What Really Causes AIDS by Professor Harold D. Foster.

Prolonged selenium supplementation in China has reduced the incidence of “big-joint disease” in children from 42% to 4% in areas where this illness was common. Various other illnesses of rheumatic nature have been successfully treated with selenium, in addition to vitamin E and several other vitamins and trace elements. In some cases, high selenium doses (1mg) have resolved symptoms that persisted for years.

Enzymes and Arteriosclerosis

Selenium is a component of glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme found in almost every cell. This enzyme is particularly abundant in red blood cells and is found primarily in platelets, phagocytes, liver cells and retinal cells. It is composed of four identical subunits, each containing one atom of selenium. Because glutathione peroxidase is active in the cytoplasm, its antioxidative effects are considered about 1,000 times stronger than those of the fat soluble antioxidant vitamin E.

Selenium is a significant protective and defensive factor against free radicals and oxidative damage from both external (radiation and environmental toxins) and internal sources (metabolic by-products). Its effects on arachidonic acid and prostaglandin metabolism in platelets are well-documented.

Selenium deficiency plays a significant role in the development of arteriosclerosis, including coronary heart disease (where we are increasingly finding chronic inflammation as a major pathogenic factor). Heart muscle cells seem to have special proteins that contain selenium; this is an area of continuing research.

Selenium and Thyroid Hormone

A selenium-containing enzyme responsible for the production of thyroid hormone was discovered in 1991. Therefore, selenium deficiency in addition to iodine deficiency can contribute to diminished thyroid hormone production (leading to thyroid problems such as goiter). It is possible that both selenium and iodine deficiencies can have simultaneous effects in some cases (more about this in the iodine chapter).

Free Radicals, SOD, and Neuropsychiatric Disease

Free radicals play an important role in many diseases, especially in chronic illnesses that are considered degenerative and/or rheumatic in nature. Some brain researchers are studying the significance of free radicals in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). In 1993, an autosomal dominant genetic defect, which disrupts the function of superoxide dismutase SOD1, was found to cause ALS. Treatment with antioxidants is being studied.

In 1994, an antioxidant (Freedox) was approved in Austria to treat subarachnoid bleeding in the brain — a rare but often fatal condition. Freedox is advertised as the first antioxidant to prevent progressive secondary damage, support the protective mechanism of nerve cells, stabilize cellular membranes and maintain their vitamin E content. One vial of the infusion (100 ml with 150 mg of the active ingredient) costs approx $115 US.

In 1994, a transplant centre in Munich reported that superoxide dismutase (given intra-arterially as 200 mg of rhSOD; rh=recombinant human) could significantly improve the long-term rejection rate of kidney transplants (by lessening organ-damaging vessel reactions caused by free radicals after reperfusion).

It has been noted that blood fats or cholesterol only become problematic for blood vessel walls (arteriosclerosis) after they have been altered by free radicals and peroxides. This also seems to play an important role in the development of liver cirrhosis among alcoholics, since alcohol influences liver metabolism leading to an increased production of peroxides. Due to the poor selenium content of alcoholic beverages and the unhealthy diet followed by many alcoholics, selenium-dependent protective mechanisms are ineffective.

Selenium also plays an important role in the detoxification of various heavy metals, especially mercury and cadmium.

Miscellaneous Other Indications for Selenium

• patients on kidney dialysis;
• serious infection (especially after surgery);
• serious burns;
• after long periods of fasting;
• people on restrictive diets (seniors);
• pregnancy or infancy (periods with an increased need for selenium).


This excerpt from The Earth’s Gift to Medicine: Minerals in Health and Disease, is reprinted with permission from the publisher, KOS Publishing Inc. To order a copy go to:

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