© Whole Foods Magazine
Exciting New Studies Verify Health Benefits of Silicon
An interview with Dr. Dirk Vanden Berghe: Part 1
By Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.
Experience and anecdotal reports have taught us that some forms of the trace-mineral silicon improve skin, hair, nails and joint mobility. Animal studies added support to these observations, but until recently, there were few human studies. Now, the exciting news is that human studies including clinical trials, verify that at least one form of silicon, called silicic acid, or more specific, orthosilicic acid (OSA), is indeed significantly effective in these roles.
Silicon is essential to our health, but, unfortunately, few realize it. I have written about the role of silicon in human health several times in this column over the years and in my 1983 book, Trace Elements, Hair Analysis and Nutrition. In my August 1987 column, “Silicon: Soon to Be Essential,” I reviewed the evidence supporting that silicon was indeed a dietary essential in humans as well as other animals. In 1996, Dr. Forrest Nielsen of the USDA Grand Forks Human Nutrition Center and a longtime trace-mineral researcher, wrote in Present Knowledge in Nutrition, that “ample circumstantial evidence exists to indicate that silicon is an essential nutrient for higher animals, including humans.”
Human studies in 1979 showed that silicon supplementation increased bone volume. In 1990, it was shown that silicon had a positive effect on osteoporosis. Additional human studies in 1993, 1998, and 2000 showed that OSA supplementation improved bone mineral density.
Although no pronouncement of silicon’s dietary essentiality has been forthcoming, it is interesting to note that the group that sets the official USA nutrient recommendations, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, has quietly acknowledged the importance of silicon in human health without actually calling silicon “essential.” The 2001 report, Dietary Reference Intakes” states, “In the case of silicon, there is evidence that it has a beneficiary role in some physiological processes in some species. Measurable responses of human subjects to variations in dietary intake have also been demonstrated. However, the available data are not as extensive (e.g., dose-response data are absent) and the responses are not as consistently observed as they are for vitamins and other minerals. Thus, data are insufficient to determine an Estimated Average Requirement for silicon.”
This is akin to changing silicon’s official status from “most likely essential” to “essential, but since we don’t know how much is needed or how it works, we still can’t say it’s essential.” Can we claim silicon is essential if we don’t know how it works or how much we need? Well, we certainly can, because vitamin E is essential and we still debate how that works and how much is needed.
The exciting news is that we now have several new studies, including human clinical trials, providing important information and exciting practical results. The most recent are human studies showing that silicon improves skin and bones. One study was presented in October 2004 that showed OSA improved skin texture and resilience, while significantly reducing the depth of wrinkles. I have a feeling that we are going to hear a lot about this study and its follow-up study in the next few years.
Studies have shown that OSA is effective in restoring bone density in osteoporosis, and a larger study is far enough along to have shown obvious benefit. These data will be reported during the coming year. We’ll discuss the studies in detail in an upcoming column. The point I want to make here is that although we have been “aware” for decades that some silicon forms improve skin and bone health from anecdotal experiences and animal studies, we now have human clinical verification that OSA is very proficient at achieving this.
Indeed silicon is dietary-essential as the mounting evidence shows. The problem has been that silicon biochemistry is difficult to study for several reasons (as we will discuss later) and it has just been extremely difficult to compile the needed evidence. That is, until now. I believe that a new understanding of the role of silicon in human health has been achieved that will complete the upgrade in official status.
Like being on a raft in the ocean with water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink, one of the problems is that silicon is all around us, but little is in a form that we can assimilate and utilize. Silicon is the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, but it is not a matter of how much silicon is present, but how much absorbable silicon is present. This is dependent on how much of which silicon compounds are present. Just as I have repeatedly emphasized through the years that all selenium compounds are not equal, all silicon compounds are not absorbed or utilized. According to silicon expert Professor Dirk Vanden Berghe of Antwerp University, by far the most useful form of silicon in the body is orthosilicic acid.
Let’s chat once again with Dr. Vanden Berghe about how he has elucidated this fact. Dr. Vanden Berghe is a professor on the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He is also the holder of various international patents on antimicrobial compounds and food supplements and has authored more than 250 international publications with peer review. Professor Vanden Berghe is an also internationally recognized expert on the biological activities of flavonoids and other natural compounds.
Passwater: Why did you become interested in the nutritional role of silicon?
Vanden Berghe: Silicon is a main support element for life. I was drawn to it because it is so important to the strength of the structures of our blood vessels, organs, skin, hair and bones. There would be no life as we know it without silicon. Over the millennia, different physiological systems developed that are completely silicon-dependent. OSA is needed for absorption and transportation in the body. I wanted to study how silicon is involved in the strength of body components. My studies have led me to recognize OSA as the “anti-weakness compound.”
Passwater: How does OSA affect the strength of tissues and blood vessels and other body components?
Vanden Berghe: OSA provides links within and between polysaccharide chains of glycoaminoglycans (GAGs) and also helps link GAGs to their respective protein. GAGs include hyaluronic acid, chondroitin sulfate, heparin, glucosamine, heparan sulfate, keratan sulfate and dermatan sulfate.). OSA is the cross-linking agent for the GAG network in cartilage, bone and skin. OSA improves structural integrity. OSA thus contributes to the form, resilience and flexibility of all connective tissue and protein polymer structures in the body. OSA stimulates collagen and keratin synthesis. Silicon-dependent enzymes link together simple chains of amino acids into collagen fibers. OSA is an important component of the lubricating fluids such as synovial fluid and mucus. OSA also affects the extra-cellular matrices.
Passwater: Well that helps explain how some silicon compounds and especially OSA affects skin and joints. You mentioned extra-cellular matrices. This is the “ground substance” between cells that plays an important role in general health.
Vanden Berghe: The extra-cellular matrices contain macromolecules that anchor to cell surfaces and become cell receptors, which regulate the passage of hormones, nutrients, gases, growth factors, etc. These important substances migrate through the extra-cellular matrices and are influenced by OSA. Also, the OSA-linked compounds in the extra-cellular matrices sort of “fill the gap” between cells and affect the permeability of the skin and vessels. This, in turn, affects their defense against penetration by germs and pollutants, and also affects inflammatory processes.
Passwater: The 2001 “Dietary Reference Intakes” from the Food and Nutrition Board states “Concentrations of silicon are higher in plant-based foods than in animal-derived food products. Based on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Total Diet Study, beverages (55%) including beer, coffee, and water are the major contributors of silicon followed by grain products (14%) and vegetables (8%). Refining reduces the silicon content in foods. Silicate additives that have been increasingly used as antifoaming and anticaking agents can raise the silicon content in foods; however, the bioavailability of these additives is low.”
Wow, they are even considering very poorly absorbed silicates as part of the silicon content of foods. Are they also considering the non-absorbable silicon dioxide (sand) that is listed on labels as excipients as part of the silicon content? This is as disturbing to me as their consideration of all selenium compounds as equal components, when it has been shown that are variations of over tens-of-thousands-to-one in nutritional and health values of selenium compounds. The important fact is that absorbable silicon is actually declining in foods.
Vanden Berghe: Yes it is. This is becoming the “missing link” to good health. We need to get OSA from foods, but foods are becoming lower in OSA because soils are lower in OSA and higher in anti-OSA compounds that prevent plants from absorbing OSA. To restore optimal health, we should restore the natural silicon cycle and OSA balance. In the meantime, supplementation with OSA will be beneficial.
Passwater: Please tell us why OSA is the best form of silicon that you have found to be absorbed and utilized in the body.
Vanden Berghe: At physiological (body) conditions, silicon is present in plant and animal (including human) fluids mainly as OSA. Additional silicon is present as dimers and trimers of OSA. The main silicon transport molecule is OSA. Animal and human studies show OSA is highly absorbed and utilized.
Passwater: Let’s discuss that more fully in a later in a column on “Silicon Biochemistry 101.” Right now, lets’ just look at the experimental evidence. Is there a peer-reviewed comparison of silicon forms published in the scientific literature?
Vanden Berghe: Yes, Dr. Mario Calomme et al. published a comparison of OSA, horsetail extract and silica gel. (Calomme et al., JEPN 22:S12;1998). Volunteers took a single dose of 20 mg of silicon as OSA, horsetail or silica gel and their blood levels of silicon were measured over time. The study was a crossover design, which used the same subjects to take each form on different days, after a wash-out period. Figure 1 shows the blood levels of silicon at each time period and figure 2 shows the total amount of silicon absorbed as indicated by the area under the curve over eight hours, the time of silicon absorption.
Passwater: Is OSA available in supplemental form?
Vanden Berghe: Yes, a stabilized OSA supplement has been patented and is available under the trade name of “Bio-Sil.”
Passwater: Dr. Vanden Berghe, thank you for this brief introduction to the health benefits of OSA. I’m sure our readers want more details concerning OSA and the clinical evidence behind it. Let’s chat more about silicon biochemistry and OSA in future conversations. WF
© 2004 Whole Foods Magazine and Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.
This article is copyrighted and may not be re-produced in any form (including electronic) without the written permission of the copyright owners.