Minerals Versus Cancer

Wouldn’t it be great to have a “quick fix” for every disease – pill that would prevent or cure all health problems? No one would have to give a thought to diet, exercise, or other health habits.

It is an alluring idea. Some have even proposed that the quick fix already does exist – in the form of a mineral called selenium.

But the wishful thinking is a little premature. There is some evidence that the minerals in our food play a role in preventing cancer. More research is needed, though, before we can draw any conclusions.

The Minerals in Food

Food contains a wide range of minerals. We need some of them in large amounts. Other minerals are required in very small amounts.

Nutritionists refer to the minerals needed in large amounts as major minerals. Those that we need in small amounts are known as trace minerals or trace elements.

The most important major minerals are:

  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • sodium
  • chloride
  • phosphorous
  • potassium

There are many trace minerals. Scientists know a great deal about some of them, and very little about others. Some of the trace minerals include:

  • copper
  • chromium
  • fluorine
  • iodine
  • iron
  • manganese
  • molybdenum
  • selenium
  • zinc

When it comes to minerals and cancer, research has focused only on trace minerals. None of the major minerals have been the focus of cancer research.

Too Soon to Tell

Most cancer institutions and foundations, including Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer (U.S.), made no recommendation about minerals. In general, the scientists found too little evidence for making judgment.
Some of them cited selenium and iron as the best-studied minerals. But though they found evidence that selenium may protect both humans and animals against some forms of cancer, the evidence was ruled preliminary.
Similarly, they found evidence that an adequate iron intake protects both humans and animals against cancer in the upper part of the digestive tract. But this findings, too, were considered inconclusive.

In this case, the Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer said that no conclusions could be drawn at all about the role of the following minerals in cancer prevention:

  • copper
  • zinc
  • molybdenum
  • iodine
  • arsenic
  • cadmium
  • lead

It may surprise you to read the committee’s conclusions about these last three minerals – arsenic, cadmium, and lead. You may be aware that these minerals have long been linked to excessive cancer rates among workers who are heavily exposed to them. But occupational exposure to these minerals is many times higher than the levels that occur in food. For this reason, too, the committee declined to make any judgments.

The Selenium Story

Chances are that you have heard reports about the ability of selenium to prevent cancer. A few enthused promoters have inspired some people to take selenium supplements as a preventive measure.

The evidence that selenium helps to prevent cancer is promising but far from final. Research has shown, for instance, that:

  1. Areas of the world where selenium intake is high have lower cancer rates than countries where the diet is low in selenium.
  2. Blood selenium levels are higher in healthy people than in cancer victims.
  3. Selenium added to the diet or drinking water of laboratory animals helps to protect against cancer-causing chemicals.

One problem with these findings is clear. Scientists can rarely know whether a cancer patient always had a low blood level of selenium. It is possible that the disease, once developed, cause a normal selenium level to drop suddenly.
Some research has yielded opposite results, showing no relationship between the selenium in the blood and the risk of cancer. But on the whole, the research on this mineral must be considered promising.

Oddly enough, there were once concerns that selenium might promote cancer. These fear have not been supported by the most recent research.
But research has shown that selenium can be toxic in other ways. Scientists hardly want to advocate a measure that will help prevent one disease but cause others instead.

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( Next Story, the Part II )