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NCI Pulls the Plug on Selenium and Vitamin E — What Do the Results Mean for Dietary Supplements?

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From the 1950s on, the American population has been culturally conditioned that a magic bullet exists for every symptom that afflicts the human condition. Every pharmaceutical firm dreams of a blockbuster medication—a Claritin, a Lipitor, a Viagra.

With more Americans than ever taking prescription drugs, more and more people are asking for natural alternatives. The average American under the age of 65 takes some twelve medications over the course of a year. For those over the age of 65 that increases to about forty-five medications in one year. But do supplemental nutrients function as “magic bullets’? Can you replace a drug like Neurontin for symptoms of neuropathy with alpha lipoic acid?
The National Cancer Institute has stopped the SELECT trial that studied whether synthetic vitamin E and selenium would prevent prostate cancer. They gave 35,000 men aged 50 and older one or both supplements or a placebo to test their power to prevent prostate cancer. The study was scheduled to conclude in 2011, but the conclusion was that these supplements don’t work and there may be a hint of a risk with their use.

While there are many nutrients with good news stories (backed by studies published and archived at PubMed), the results remain mixed in many circles. The studies are showing that replacing a prescription medication with a single nutrient, one natural magic bullet, often yields mixed results.
In biochemistry class, we learned about the Krebs cycle. It taught us that a complex milieu of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and cofactors work together in a delicate balance to maintain homeostasis. There is, therefore, no one magic nutrient that cures a disease, and there never will be. For many years antibiotics held the lure of a medical cure. Now, the increasing incidence of chronic diseases demands a multi-factorial approach that is frustrating for both clinicians and patients who are stuck in “magic bullet” mode.
What was the genetic profile of the 35,000 men in the SELECT study? Was their nutrition optimal, or were they the typical Americans—deficient in multiple nutrients as well as key macro nutrients like good fats? Up to 80% of Americans are fatty acid deficient, according to research quoted in Andrew Stoll’s The Omega Three Connection. And as many as 70% of Americans are magnesium deficient. We know from research done by Dr. Dean Ornish that the diet proven to regress atherosclerosis will also slow the growth of prostate cancer and lower the PSA.
That diet is rich in multiple vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and cofactors, and loaded with fiber, good fats, and other nutritional elements. Who is to say that one factor is better than another? Or which nutrients in what amounts are best suited to address their 35,000 individual genetic maps? We now see why many integrative physicians dedicated to the medical use of clinical nutrition realize that these studies are designed to fail.

The headlines that read “No Prostate Benefit from Vitamin E, Selenium” once again point out the many reasons to support the efforts of AAHF. Support physicians’ right to offer treatment that is individually tailored to each patient’s needs. Nutrition works, and well-done science backs that up.

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