From ancient Greek historian Herodotus to Spanish colonizer Ponce de Leon, explorers have searched for the fountain of youth. But what if they were looking for water when they should have been focusing on soil?
That’s what an intriguing new study suggests.
In fact, researchers have discovered that a rare mineral found in soil may actually help increase longevity.
The study was done in animals, so there’s no indication yet that we’ve indeed found the proverbial fountain of youth. But when you consider that other research shows how effective this mineral is at fighting chronic diseases, it certainly makes sense that it could increase lifespan in humans as well.
So, let’s take a closer look at the evidence…
Study after study shows that selenium is a powerful antioxidant that can boost immunity and lower inflammation. So it’s no surprise that research shows it can also protect against chronic disease.
One review of 25 studies found that people who increased their blood levels of selenium by 50 percent had a 24 percent lower risk of heart disease.1
And a review of 69 studies that included more than 350,000 people found that those who had high blood levels of selenium had a lower risk of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers.2
Selenium has also been found to protect against Alzheimer’s disease—and some research shows it can help improve cognition as well.
Of course, all of these diseases can affect longevity. But the new study I mentioned earlier shows another way selenium may increase lifespan…
How selenium affects diet—and vice versa
A variety of diets can boost longevity. But some are so restrictive that they’re extremely difficult to follow. For instance, severe calorie restriction has been found in numerous studies to increase lifespan—but who wants to live longer if it means you’ll just be hungry all the time?
Another longevity diet includes restricting your intake of an amino acid in proteins called methionine. (This is traditionally done through a vegan diet.) But, as I’ve written before, vegan diets are onerous and unpleasant. Plus, they’ve been shown to be unhealthy in the long run as they don’t supply optimal nutrition—and can sometimes contribute to disorderly eating.
That’s what ultimately makes the new selenium study so interesting: Researchers looked at whether selenium supplementation offered the same longevity benefits as methionine restriction—without having to follow a vegan diet.3
The researchers found that supplementing with selenium dramatically protected against weight gain and fat accumulation in lab animals. This led them to suggest that because of its metabolic benefits, selenium could have the “anti-aging” effects associated with dietary restrictions—while still allowing people to eat normally.
Turning to a test tube lab model, the researchers found that selenium supplementation increased chronological lifespan by a whopping 62 percent in yeast cells. Of course, yeast cells aren’t human cells. But this opens up the possibility that selenium could have similar longevity effects in humans.
So, why not start taking advantage of its potential benefits?
Selenium is found in protein-rich foods like pork, beef, turkey, chicken, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Eating a balanced diet—like the healthy, Mediterranean diet—should provide you with adequate amounts of this mineral, but just in case, I also recommend supplementing with 100 mcg of selenium daily. It’s a simple way to protect against chronic disease—and perhaps even add years to your life.
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SIDEBAR: My early research into selenium and cancer
There have been decades of research on selenium. But, as is typically the case with any vitamin or mineral, initial medical research and concern focused on selenium’s toxic effects rather than its health benefits.
But early research also noted that in areas with low selenium in the soil, there were higher rates of cancer.
This became a topic of interest when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) finally researched nutrition and cancer. In the mid-1980s, I became a principal co-investigator on a grant awarded by the NCI to study the role of selenium supplementation in reducing the risk of cancer in a region of China that was extremely low in selenium.
At the time, there were dramatic differences in rates of chronic diseases among different regions of China. There was also limited food distribution within the country, so most people ate locally raised crops and animals, reflecting the mineral content of local soil and water.
My research team focused on the Yangtze River, which flows from the deep interior of China for thousands of miles east to the Yellow Sea (making it the longest river in Asia). The soil of the deep interior regions drained by the Yangtze is extremely low in selenium. This selenium-poor soil washes down to the delta at the mouth of the Yangtze River, forming an island called Chongming (the “isle of wisdom”).
During the “cultural revolution” of Mao Zedong in the 1960s (which was anything but “wise”), I was told educated people in nearby Shanghai were exiled to Chongming. They were made to become peasant farmers and cultivate their own crops (low in selenium content, due to the lack of the mineral in the soil).
Within 20 years, cancer rates in these displaced peoples were skyrocketing, and Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg (my faculty advisor at Penn) proposed that supplementing their diets with selenium would reduce their cancer risk.
We negotiated with Chinese researchers and got our project off to a great start in the spring of 1987. Then, two years later, in the middle of our multi-year study, the pro-freedom rebellion in Tiananmen Square occurred in Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party showed its true colors by brutally suppressing the rebellion with a massacre, and the U.S. cut off all ties with China in protest—meaning our project came to an end. As a result, we lost a real opportunity to establish the benefits of selenium supplementation decades ago.
1“Selenium and coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Oct;84(4):762-73.
2“Selenium Exposure and Cancer Risk: an Updated Meta-analysis and Meta-regression.” Sci Rep. 2016 Jan 20;6:19213.
3“Selenium supplementation inhibits IGF-1 signaling and confers methionine restriction-like healthspan benefits to mice.” Elife. 2021 Mar 30;10:e62483.