ISIS Report 20/07/04
Selenium Conquers AIDS?
Sam Burcher reports on a
nutritional hypothesis with possible implications for prevention and treatment
of the global pandemic
version of this article is posted on ISIS members website.
During the last decade, research has indicated an important geographical
link between regions of selenium deficient soils and peak incidences of
HIV/AIDS infection. AIDS disease appears to involve a slow and progressive
decline in levels of the trace element selenium (Se) in the blood along with
CD4 cells, which are both independent predictors of mortality.
AIDS infection in Africa has reached pandemic proportions with over a
quarter of the population said to be suffering from the disease in some areas,
although there is debate over how the WHO has extrapolated their statistics
(see "African Aids epidemic?" SiS 22). Figures from Harvard in the
United States put infection rates as follows: Zimbabwe 25.84%, Botswana 25.10%,
Zambia 19.07%, South Africa 12.91%, Côte DIvoire 10.06%, Tanzania
9.42%, Ethiopia 9.31%, and Congo 4.31%.
But Senegal in West Africa has the lowest numbers of AIDS prevalence at
1.77% in the general population, and 0.5% in antenatal clinic attendees along
with the highest levels of selenium-enriched soil. Geologically, Senegal is
situated in the desiccated or dried up Cretaceous and early Eocene Sea, and the
land is formed from sedimentary rocks from dissolved minerals in the
evaporating seawater. Consequently, calcium phosphates are one of the
countrys mined mineral products used for fertilizers, and are derived
from the selenium rich phosphorite. Senegal can also claim the lowest level of
cancers on the African continent.
Geographical disease pattern analogies made by Prof E.W. Taylor,
University of Georgia, suggest that AIDS, Karposi Sarcoma and cancers are rife
in regions of selenium depleted soils and that this has further implications in
the seemingly unstoppable spread of AIDS incidence worldwide.
Depleted selenium in soil creates disease
In China, selenium deficient regions are known as the Chinese "disease
belt". Here, the daily average intake of selenium is less than 10 micrograms.
This contrasts with parts of the US and Canada where daily selenium intake is
170 micrograms. Viral diseases such as Coxsackies B3, hepatitis B and C,
and HIV/AIDS are all on the increase. Coxsackie B3 is further complicated by a
heart condition known as "keshans", which is endemic in "disease belt" areas.
Since the introduction of selenium-enriched fertilizers onto soils and crops
and into feedstocks and table salt, there has been a decline in keshans.
A three year study of an entire town in Jiangsu Province where 20 847
residents were given table salt fortified with selenium showed that hepatitis
infection decreased to 4.52 per 1 000 compared to 10.48 per 1 000 in
communities using regular table salt. The same researchers concluded that a
200-microgram daily dose of selenium-yeast supplement significantly reduced
primary liver cancer associated with hepatitis B and C. It appears that death
rates from viruses such as hepatitis, Coxsackie B3 and associated heart
diseases like keshans can be greatly reduced by increasing dietary selenium
intake and would be similarly effective in slowing the progress of AIDS
The selenium CD4 T cell tailspin
Prof Harold Foster of the University of Victoria in Canada has named the
link between the viral diseases of HIV/AIDS, Coxsackies and hepatitis B
and C, "The selenium CD4 T cell tailspin", as a way of describing the
relationship between selenium and the human immune system. Adults and children
with advanced AIDS syndrome display both highly depleted selenium plasma stores
and reduced CD4 Cell counts. Foster argues that the fall of selenium levels
trigger the reduction in CD4 cells, which in turn cause further decline in
Retroviruses like HIV depress selenium levels in their hosts by encoding
the gene for the human selonenzyme glutathione peroxidase. This allows the
virus to replicate indefinitely by continuously depriving the host of
glutathione (an inhibitor of reverse transcriptase,) and the four basic
components of glutathione peroxidase: selenium, cysteine, glutamine and
tryptophan. As levels of selenium decline so do CD4 cells which allow
"opportunistic" pathogens to invade the immune system and further deplete
levels of selenium and CD4 cells in a positive feedback loop whereby if one
variable declines, it causes further depression in the other. This downward
spiral compromises the ability of the immune system to defend the body from
infection, which plays a significant role in AIDS mortality.
Foster is currently treating dozens of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa using
a protocol of the four nutrients - selenium, cysteine, glutamine and
tryptophan. He says that the treatment of HIV/AIDS with nutrition is similar to
"curing" type-1 diabetes with insulin. When high doses of all four nutrients
are administered to patients, deficiencies dissolve, as do the symptoms
associated with AIDS. Patients have been able to return to work within one
month of receiving nutritional treatments. Treating primary nutritional
deficiencies with selenium and essential amino acids costs approximately
$10-$15. See Box 1.
As HIV/AIDS sufferers are often extremely deficient in all four
nutrients associated with glutathione peroxidase, the "selenium CD4 T cell
tailspin" hypothesis which describes HIV/AIDS as a disease of nutrient
deficiency caused by a virus may explain how HIV progresses to AIDS.
The American AIDS expert Dr Roberto Giraldo said at a recent seminar in
South Africa that AIDS can presently be conquered and curtailed although not
totally cured through the adequate ingestion of appropriate micro-nutrients in
sufficiently large doses, such as vitamins, amino acids and minerals.
The cause of progression of HIV to AIDS is still unknown, but the role
of nutrition and supplementation in the prevention and treatment of the disease
cannot be ignored. Prof Luc Montagnier (the co-discoverer of HIV) states that
AIDS is characterised by a persistent oxidative imbalance and a decrease of
glutathione. Changes in biochemical markers cause systemic oxidative stress and
damage and Montagnier believes that antioxidants are useful in inhibiting viral
replication and associated apoptosis in HIV/AIDS patients.
The role of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) in boosting immunity
Glutathione (GSH) is the ubiquitous tripeptide essential for the
function of all cells. Studies show that low GSH levels increases HIV
replication and impairs T cell function that can lead to a progression of HIV
disease. And oral administration of the GSH-producing drug N-acetyl Cysteine
(NAC) improves survival rates in HIV/AIDS patients. NAC helps the body to
synthesise glutathione and is beneficial in protecting lung tissue through its
antioxidant activity as well as supporting nerve cells, and is effective in
treating liver failure where drug toxicity is indicated. NAC also counteracts
apoptosis (cell death) and helps maintain and replenish the HIV damaged CD4 T
lymphocytes, crucial for dampening the progression of HIV to AIDS.
NAC supplement is recommended to HIV/AIDS sufferers who are receiving
anti-retroviral treatments as well as those who are not. There is growing
evidence that HIV/AIDS patients want alternative and non-toxic immune-boosting
treatments, but would prefer them to be prescribed by the doctors or health
care professionals. Despite billions of pounds spent on AIDS research very
little funding or research is allocated for the provision of these types of
treatment on the NHS.
Raising glutathione levels encourages the immune system to go into
anti-cancer and anti-viral mode by replacing decreased levels of plasma
cysteine, a major source of sulphur. Patients with advanced HIV infection have
tryptophan levels at less than 50% of those in age and gender matched controls
and boosting levels of tryptophan can enable to body to synthesise serotonin
and niacin which protect against dementia. Improving glutamine levels can
alleviate depression and improve digestion by increasing intestinal cell
proliferation, and intestinal fluid/electrolyte absorption, which can help
The cause of selenium depletion in soil
Three major factors have contributed to selenium depletion in the soil.
Acid rain is caused by large quantities of sulphur and nitrogen that convert
into sulphuric and nitric acids in the atmosphere and changes the capacity of
soil to bind elements at pH neutral or slightly alkaline. The altered pH
balance increases bioavailability of certain elements and decreases that of
others including selenium. Heavy metals in rainfall also contain mercury, which
can combine with selenium to produce the insoluble mercury selenide. Soil
acidification therefore lowers the abundance of selenium in the global food
chain, which may have contributed to the rapid increase of cancers and
Chlorofluorocarbons are unique to the latter half of the 20th
Century and have contributed to the thinning of the ozone layer, which causes
an excess of ultraviolet B radiation. Overexposure to ultraviolet light
decreases helper T-lymphocytes and increases suppressor T-lymphocytes making
the individual more susceptible to diseases.
Chemical pollutants also play a role in altering the immune function and
lowering host resistance to pathogens. The World Health Organisation estimate
that there are 500 000 pesticide related illnesses and 20 000 deaths per year.
Scientific studies on PCBs show that glutathione peroxidase activity is
depressed and induces apoptosis of pre B-lymphocytes in the plasma of
Whey protein, a derivative of milk production routinely discarded by
the diary industry contains all the essential and non-essential amino acids
necessary to improve immunity by increasing glutathione levels in the blood.
Oral supplementation of whey proteins can also help to combat wasting
associated with AIDS.
A wide variety of nutrients, vitamins, amino acids, herbs and minerals
such as copper, zinc, and selenium are clearly beneficial in slowing death
rates in the HIV infected individual. And vitamins A, C and E can help to
reduce the oxidative stress and viral load that characterises HIV/AIDS
sufferers. This is especially important in areas where combination therapies
Worryingly in Europe, moves are afoot to prohibit the sale of fourteen
forms of selenium including organic forms, selenium yeast and selenomethionine
if the EU Directive on Food Supplements comes into force in August 2005.
A geographical perspective into the possible causes for the late
20th century phenomenon of AIDS is welcome adjuvant in the absence
of a conventional vaccine or safe affordable treatments for all.
For a healthy person a daily supplementary
intake of 50-200mg of selenium (Se) is safe, but for someone with a compromised
immune system an increase of 100% may be necessary to improve selenium plasma
levels. Where soil quality is good and produce fresh, the four essential
nutrients in preventing and fighting HIV/AIDS and other viral diseases are
found in these foods:
Selenium - Brazil nuts, garlic, mushrooms,
liver, round steak. Lobster, shrimp, cod, crab, herring, oysters, tuna. Barley,
whole wheat, egg noodles, Brewers yeast.
Cysteine - Duck, turkey,
pork, wheatgerm and yoghurt.
Glutamine - Sausage meats, ham, bacon,
cottage cheese and ricotta cheese, wheatgerm
Tryptophan - Ham and
beef, eggs, almonds, salted anchovies, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses.