High-tech medicine in a natural world

Selenium made headlines years ago for its role in preventing cancer. Especially liver cancer in China, and prostate cancer closer to home. But the truth is, selenium has a more widespread role. New research shows that selenium affects many tissues, organs, and processes throughout the body. It even affects your immune system and fertility.

Unfortunately, research over the last several decades missed this point. We keep expecting a single nutrient to have a single action in the body. For instance, you may think vitamin D = bone health. But now we know vitamin D does so much more.

And, as we learned with vitamin D, we are now discovering that all nutrients have complex and interconnected roles in the body.

Dr. Larry Jameson brought some new findings about selenium to my attention last month. Dr. Jameson is the brilliant new Dean of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I had the opportunity for a rare private meeting with him during my 35th class reunion last month.

We began by discussing the importance of educating future physicians about natural medicine and nutrition. This is especially important at Penn, where they prepare large numbers of highly able students for research, teaching and practice in the medical profession.

I have always argued that getting physicians on board with natural and nutritional healing will help raise the standards of medical care. Patients will receive better care. And research into natural medicine will improve as well.

Dr. Jameson quickly turned the discussion toward recent research he has been following about selenium.

Three years ago, European researchers looked at the role of selenium in the human body. They published several studies that greatly expanded our understanding of how this micronutrient actually works in the body. And this blockbuster research continues to garner attention in the mainstream medical research community.

Selenium is a trace element or mineral that is fundamental to human health. As a mineral, it can be incorporated into many different protein chains in its organic form.

But sometimes, genes in your body make mistakes. And these mistakes lead to other mistakes in forming seleno-proteins.

The new European research found that defects in the genes that direct the formation of seleno-proteins lead to significant problems throughout the body.

For example, these defects affect the testes’ ability to make sperm. They also cause weakened muscles. And insulin problems. They also cause susceptibility to UV radiation. And photosensitivity in the skin. They even appear to compromise the immune system. And impair the multiplication of white blood cells.

We have always known that selenium has a key role as an “antioxidant.” This means it sweeps throughout the body, neutralizing harmful free radicals.

But this new genetic research suggests that selenium does much, much more. As I said earlier, when we look for a single nutrient to have only a single action, we end up missing the forest for the trees.

But this new era of high-powered, high-tech medical research has begun to change the way high-powered doctors look at vitamins and minerals. Such as selenium. And vitamin D.

These new insights also bring us closer to understanding the critical roles that all micronutrients play throughout the body. Rather than taking us away from natural medicine in favor of high-tech treatments.

Many natural remedies have long “historic uses.” But that is not enough for brilliant mainstream doctors like Dr. Jameson. It’s only an interesting starting point.

However, it can lead to important clinical research. This allows researchers to observe and document at the molecular genetic level how patients react to a natural remedy.

Only when doctors understand “how” natural medicine works are they ready to offer complete acceptance.

My guess is that our Dr. Jameson, who has been at the cutting edge of high-tech medicine his whole career, was ready to have our discussion partly because this new research proved the mechanisms by which selenium has its benefits. In the most high-tech, scientific terms. Solving medical problems using safe, effective, and “age old” nutrients is innovative medicine of the best kind.


1. “Mutations in the selenocysteine insertion sequence–binding protein 2 gene lead to a multisystem selenoprotein deficiency disorder in humans,” Journal of Clinical Investigation December 2010; 120(12): 4220–4235