Selenium: An Essential Nutrient the Body Needs But Can’t Produce
To understand why selenium is crucial to our overall health, it helps to first examine its fascinating and controversial history. Largely misunderstood for decades, selenium was once thought to be harmful and even dangerously toxic. And not surprisingly, it was people like my father (Dr. Joel Wallach) who played a major role in revealing the truth behind this essential nutrient.
My dad’s experience with selenium began when he was a farm boy growing up in Missouri. He was very much aware of selenium at the time, because it was used to prevent muscular degeneration in farm animals. Back then, you could buy injectable antibiotics and injectable selenium in just about any feed store, and that led to something that stuck with my dad throughout his career. Once the animals with white muscle disease (a type of muscular dystrophy) were injected with selenium, they would, “pop up, run around, and act perfectly normal.”
Shaped by these childhood experiences, my father later earned degrees in agriculture and veterinary medicine from the University of Missouri, and then went on to do graduate studies in comparative pathology at Iowa State University. Soon after, he was contacted by his friend, mentor, and former boss at the St. Louis Zoo, Marlin Perkins, whose ongoing guidance had helped him get into veterinary school. Given my father’s distinct academic and research experience, Mr. Perkins believed he was uniquely qualified to join Operation Rhino and Operation Elephant, landmark conservation programs sanctioned by the South African government. Following his work in South Africa, my father was invited back to the U.S. by Mr. Perkins to spearhead a large research project, which would compare the health of zoo animals and study the effects of pollution around the world. While working on this project, which involved conducting thousands of autopsies on human beings and over 450 species of zoo animals, he recognized a significant pattern emerging; some of the baby zoo animals had the same white muscle disease he had seen on the farm as a child.
Monkeys, NASA, and the Controversial Breakthrough
Some years later, in 1977, my dad was hired to be an assistant pathologist at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta. At the time, the center was collaborating with NASA on a program that was using a small colony of monkeys for space research. It’s here he discovered the first non-human case of cystic fibrosis, as one of the babies in the colony had died of classic related symptoms. He then conducted liver biopsies on every monkey in the colony, all of whom came from different mothers and fathers, and determined each one had the disease. Even more remarkable was his conclusion that it was caused by a selenium deficiency. It turns out that the behaviorist monitoring the colony was adding and removing elements from the monkeys’ diet as part of the space travel research. Importantly, my father determined that some of the elements being added were effectively cancelling out the selenium in the monkeys’ diet, indirectly causing cystic fibrosis.
My father wasn’t surprised to have his findings sharply rebuked—after all, cystic fibrosis was always thought to be solely a genetically transmitted disease. What’s more, the idea that nutrient deficiency could cause cystic fibrosis, or any other disease for that matter, flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. In anticipation of how his research would be received, my father saved the tissue and bloodwork from his biopsies which he offered to his colleagues. He had hoped they would use this evidence to conduct their own research and confirm his results. Not only did they decline his offer, but he was summarily fired on the spot.
Over the previous three days, my father was featured in major news outlets all over the world, announcing the first non-human case of cystic fibrosis (all chronicled in Dead Doctors Don’t Lie). Among other revelations, he had proved the disease could be researched in animals other than humans. And he knew from his earlier research and published papers that selenium is needed by all cells and tissues in the body, including the heart, liver, and muscles. He also knew that a selenium deficiency could contribute to cystic fibrosis, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and heart disease, to name a few. Even the white muscle disease he had observed in his earlier years was subsequently proven to be caused by a lack of selenium.
All of which begs the question, what exactly is the root cause of these serious conditions? Surely, given my father’s research and those like him, it can’t be attributed to genetics alone. There’s simply too much evidence to the contrary, and the scientific consensus has been leaning towards nutritional deficiency as a major cause since the late 1970s. But perhaps this quote from Major-General, Sir Robert McCarrison (Honorary Physician to the King of England), sums it up best: “For the rapid increase in knowledge it becomes more and more apparent that the science of nutrition is the foundation of a more rational medicine. It is to be hoped that on future occasions the work of this section will not be limited to physiological, biochemical, pathological, and medical aspects of the subject, but that it will include those that are veterinary and agricultural.”
It’s also worth noting that discovering cystic fibrosis in the monkey colony inspired my father to attend the National College of Naturopathic Medicine (now called the National University of Natural Medicine), where he earned an ND degree that enabled him to begin treating human patients.
Indisputable Truth Changes the Conventional Wisdom
As far back as the Second World War, health experts advised against adding selenium to baby formulas, vitamins, and supplements because it was thought to be toxic. So the establishment wasn’t just discounting selenium, it was proactively telling people to avoid it. It’s important to note, however, that all minerals (even water) have some degree of toxicity—and, like water, the required amount of selenium has extremely low toxicity levels, far too low to adversely affect the human body.
In keeping with his forward-thinking approach, my dad defied the status quo nearly 40 years ago, firmly establishing him as one of the loudest voices in the emerging health and wellness industry. He developed a pioneering product that contained selenium. He lectured around the world on radio and TV, publicizing the crucial importance of selenium, including how a deficiency could contribute to a wide range of serious conditions. The word was out, people started listening, and parents even started supplementing their baby formulas with selenium and other essential nutrients.
My father’s work was further validated in 2002, when Youngevity successfully petitioned and received authorization from the FDA to use specific health claims when describing its selenium-related products. This petition was based on the principle that selenium is an essential trace element in human nutrition.
Despite decades of skepticism, health experts just couldn’t ignore the mounting data that corroborated my father’s findings. Over time, the death rate from cystic fibrosis started to sharply decline. And in 2013, Youngevity submitted official comments to the FDA, emphasizing the importance of adding selenium to baby food. As a result of these efforts, along with the efforts of many other like-minded health experts, the FDA now requires baby formula manufacturers to add selenium to their products. This is especially gratifying to my father, who has always been passionate about improving proper nutrition for unborn, developing babies, with the goal of preventing premature death.
Ultimately, my father’s work would help end years of misconception. As a result it’s now indisputable that a selenium deficiency, something we all fundamentally have because our bodies can’t produce it, contributes to numerous health conditions. This, of course, only reinforces the importance of supplementing your diet with this essential nutrient.
In our next blog, I’ll discuss Youngevity’s continuing effort to establish qualified health claims for other essential, plant-based elements, including omega-3 fatty acids.