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An article in the Journal of the National Cancer institute presents an example how you should respond to newspaper reports of scientific journal articles. This article reports men with low tissue levels of selenium are at increased risk for prostate cancer (1). Does that mean that lack of selenium CAUSES prostate cancer and that you should start taking selenium supplements? You should not take selenium pills indiscriminately because taking too much selenium causes nerve damage, vomiting, nausea, feeling sick, white ridges on nails, hair loss, mottling of teeth, and loss of nails. Therefore you need to interpret the data correctly or you could poison yourself and shorten your life.

The association between low tissue levels of selenium and prostate cancer could be that men are doing something that causes prostate cancer and also causes them to have low levels of selenium. Whole grains are a seed that has a thick coat called the husk. It is filled with endosperm that contains starch as a food for the germ that is the baby plant inside the seed. Selenium is found in the germ of grains. It is not found in the endosperm. Bakery products and pastas are made from flour that is made by removing the germ with its selenium and grinding the endosperm to make the flour. So commercial flour does not contain measurable amounts of selenium unless it is made from whole grains. So men with low tissue levels of selenium are the ones who do not eat whole grains. The germ also contains all the Energy B vitamins, almost all other minerals such as chromium, zinc, and so forth, and much of the phytochemicals that prevent disease. So the increased risk for prostate cancer in men with low tissue levels of selenium may be caused by lack of many minerals, vitamins and phytochemical , not just selenium.

I interpret this study to show that you should eat lots of whole grains and not single out lack of selenium as the major cause of prostate cancer. Incidently, several other articles show that low levels of selenium are also associated with increased risk for colon cancer (2,3). And the same thinking also applies to eating whole grains, rather than flour. I am not saying that flour is a poison. There is nothing harmful about bakery products and pastas. It is harmful to lack essential nutrients, so as long as you eat seeds, nuts, beans, whole grains, beans vegetables and fruits, it is perfectly alright to eat bakery products and pastas. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough selenium in your diet, ask your doctor to cut off a piece of your toenail and send it to a commercial lab to measure its selenium content. If your toenails are full of selenium, you do not lack that mineral.

1) J of the National Cancer Institute August, 1998.

2) JAMA 1996(December 25);276(24):1957-1963.

3) Russo, M.W.; Murray, S.C.; Wurzelmann, J.I.; Woosley, J.T.; Sandler, R.S. Plasma selenium levels and the risk of colorectal adenomas. Nutrition and Cancer - an International Journal. 1997;28(2):125-129. People in North Dakota have high blood levels of selenium and do not have reduced incidence of cancer.

4) Blot H et al. J Nat Cancer Institute 1993;85:1483-1492.

5) van Nord PA et al. Int J Epidemiol. 1987;16:318-322. Selenium does not reduce cancer of breast and bladder.

May 16th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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