Rethink Health - May 2011

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Starvation Amidst Plenty

I heard recently from a lady who was concerned that the hair mineral analysis she had just received had shown quite profound deficiencies of zinc and selenium. She pointed out that she eats all the right things, that her general health is good and that her skin and hair in particular were in good shape.

Minerals are substances that we dig out of the earth. There are over a hundred separate mineral elements, most of which exist in the earth in compounds with each other. Some 20-30 of these elements are vital to human health. Half of them are required in appreciable quantity for structural purposes. Some of these, and all the remainder, are required in  much tinier amounts to accelerate the major processes of the body. They behave a bit like keys for switching large enzyme systems on or off.

We only fairly recently became aware of how important these "trace elements" are. As usual, we discovered this through instances of deficiency. Even rather major elements like zinc and selenium have only been appreciated for about 50 years. 

The science of nutrition has developed alongside that of biochemistry, so there has been a keen impulse to identify each separate element or substance and determine its particular properties. That is why we understand food mainly in terms of the sum of the individual nutrient compounds it contains. We have as yet very little idea of the effect on these compounds of having been digested from the flesh of a plant or animal we have eaten.

Except in extreme deficiency, land animals in general and humans in particular gain no benefit from chewing mineral compounds, purified or otherwise, as they are found in the earth. (The exception is salt, and a few other sea minerals.) Bacteria and fungi in the soil don't have this limitation, and are able to digest minerals directly into their substance. Fungi also have the ability to transfer these digested minerals into the roots of plants, through a structure-process known as mycorrhiza (meaning root fungus). Otherwise plants struggle for minerals too. So humans depend on enlivening and compounding processes upstream in other forms of life if we are to gain any living nourishment from soil minerals.

Unfortunately the introduction of crop protection chemicals altered all these relationships. Substances designed to kill bacterial or fungal infections of plants also killed similar organisms in the soil - just as antibiotic treatment kills digestive germs and may cause diarrhoea. By reducing the microbiological workforce of the soil, we accidentally interfered with the supply of minerals to our food crops. Because of unique work begun during the 1930s by McCance and Widdowson at Cambridge, we know that this has reduced the mineral content of our common foods by 30-40%. Magnesium has been particularly badly hit.

So it is all too easy for well-fed, health-conscious modern citizens to become increasingly deficient as they age. The middle-aged ate better when they were younger when food contained more mineral, but have struggled increasingly as they grew older. Children born now or recently struggle from the beginning. Mothers struggle to replace mineral reserves shared with their first babies, in time before conceiving the second. This is a large part of the reason why so many children are hyperactive, asthmatic or allergic now. It also explains a good deal of the chronic fatigue epidemic, which was unheard of in the 1980s. To say nothing of sports injuries!

Until the 90s the difficulty was obtaining mineral supplements in a suitable form to replenish deficiencies reliably. The simple compounds sold by most shops, even now, have very little value - they are just purified soil. If we could usefully eat soil, we'd relish it and have it in our recipes!

But a few chemists, impressed by the different ways nature and chemists set about constructing substance, began to "grow" rather than synthesise their nutritional products. One in particular, Andrew Szalay of New Jersey, found a way to harvest minerals from the flesh of fungi and bacteria without disrupting the structure of the flesh containing them. He went on to demonstrate that their behaviour in the body is dramatically different from that of standard mineral salts and other purified nutrients. In particular, they are completely and efficiently absorbed, much more effective weight-for-weight, persist for longer and have more pronounced biological functions. 

This made honest replacement of mineral deficiencies at last a feasible project. In combination with hair mineral analysis it is now possible to replenish deficiencies, and then keep them topped up to prevent relapse. We also procured the manufacture of a mineral supplement providing enough of all the major minerals to replace the 30-40% deficiency of modern food, with room to spare for an extra helping of anti-oxidants (of which more another time). It is made by one of the very few British companies to rely on Szalay's inventions, and is called Replete. In my opinion, two tablets daily of Replete would improved the health of practically every citizen of Britain, though most of us also need replenishment of gross deficiencies.

The lady I started with is fortunate - and provident - in having arrived at 70 in good health. I believe she will stand a better chance of extending that health for a couple more decades if she replenishes her selenium and zinc deficiencies. Most of us don't do this well, and some need much more help than others. I need to take zinc and magnesium in replenishment amounts all the time - I just don't ever seem to top up. But I too have made it almost to 70, and so far do not feel I have lost any of my faculties. Indeed, I have decided after 60 years to study Grade 8 piano theory - and hope confidently to reap many years of benefit!