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Tuesday 13 December 2022

The Prostate and its Discontents

This post originally appeared for subscribers only on my Patreon blog (October 31). If you appreciate my occasional writing on science and stuff subscribe here - it only encourages me to read more science and write about it more often!   

The location of the prostate is one of nature's mistakes - like the organization of the eye, it argues against "intelligent design" which in any case was only a philosophical fart that fundamentalist Christianity had to release in order to adjust itself to the widespread acceptance of the evidence for evolution. Because it's ended up wrapped around the urethra for no good reason, it can easily disrupt the flow of urine if it swells for any reason, and, though they don't really tell you this, pissing is essential for life.

This essay on the prostate is limited to conditions and cures I have some experience of, and I'll add a bit about cancer at the end.

I first became aware of the prostate when I found myself unable to pee after a dose of opium, that is to say, after drinking a tea or slurry made from boiled up opium poppies. I ended up catheterized and being investigated in hospital. I suspected I was allergic in this way to the poppies (though this hadn't happened before) or a pesticide. A quick google search finds no case study of prostatitis - acute urinary retention is a side effect of opioids but also affects women.[1}

So it's likely the diagnosis of prostatitis I was given was wrong - or not - I continued having urinary retention on opiates but it was never impossible to overcome as it was on that occasion. Splashing cold water on my abdomen was probably the most effective strategy.

But then later in life I came across a different sort of problem, inadequate urination so that the bladder doesn't fully empty and you keep having to get up at night. This the doctor diagnosed as either prostatitis or benign prostatic hyperplasia (if it persisted I'd presumably get a biopsy to differentiate) and I set out to manage it myself.
The hyperplasia makes sense retrospectively because I know now that I was highly insulin resistant and hyperinsulinaemic in this days, I'd regularly suffer tinnitus after meals, glaucoma, and various other symptoms. The prostatitis also makes sense because I still had Hep C and various autoimmune complications (eg Sjorgen's syndrome) related to a high viral load.
I took all sorts of prostate supplements such as saw palmetto without relief. I did hit on one herbal formula that seemed to work, it contained forskolin and dead nettle, but was expensive and hard to find. What finally worked best was treating the UTI aspect - urine backed up in the bladder, especially if there's glucose in the urine, is going to be a breeding ground for bacteria. I discovered d-mannose, this was expensive but sort-of worked. And then I hit the jackpot - hibiscus flower. Cheap as chips from Middle Eastern food stores, a strong dose worked magic.[2]
Around this time I was also going low-carb and staring to fix my hyperinsulinaemia and hep c related autoimmune issues.
How would hibiscus work? Its antioxidant phytochemical, the flavonoid or whatever that gives the flower its regal colour,, binds to surface proteins that UTI bacteria use to adhere to the wall of the bladder and urinary track where they can feast on passing nutrients. So you flush them out. And I think these bacteria irritate the prostate. Or maybe they just irritate the urethra and its mechanism for contracting or relaxing under will. PubMed says [3]

Chronic bacterial prostatitis is a subacute infection, may present with a variety of pelvic pain and voiding symptoms, and is characterized by recurrent urinary tract infections. Effective treatment may be difficult and requires prolonged antibiotic therapy.

So I think I'm right - a swollen prostate for any reason increases the risk of UTI, UTI increases the risk of swollen prostate, it's a vicious cycle and the UTI factor is easy to treat if you can find hibiscus flower (the dose in a tea bag is not enough), the overgrowth factor is easy to treat with a very low carb diet if you have hyperinsulinaemia (check the fasting TG/HDL ratio first as a good, cheap proxy for the 2-hour insulin level).

As for prostate cancer - it's said the risk of this is rising - I think there are 3 main factors - firstly, hyperinsulinaemia is a modern epidemic, it's a growth promoter and cancer promoter. Secondly, men are living longer and prostate cancer is something that's more likely to get you if you live long enough. Linus Pauling died of it at 93 and I think this can be considered a megadose vitamin C success story, especially considering he was a research chemist and had worked with carcinogens. Thirdly, diagnosis is more aggressive today and much prostate cancer is non-lethal or won't kill you faster than life will.

Low carb diets are a promising strategy for treating prostate cancer.[4]
In Europe, where cheese and organ meats are significant sources of vitamin K2, vitamin K2 intake is strongly associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer.[5]

The association was stronger for advanced prostate cancer (0.37; 0.16, 0.88; P for trend = 0.03).

That's a decent, Bradford Hill sized association - Vitamin K1 from plants had no association with risk.

ALA, the plant-based form of omega 3 fatty acid, is associated with increased prostate cancer risk.[6]

epidemiologic studies also showed an increased risk of prostate cancer in men with a high intake or blood level of ALA (combined relative risk 1.70; 95% CI 1.12–2.58).

I suspect this is due to this fatty acid being highly valuable as a synthetic substrate for cancer cells; it's a highly ketogenic fatty acid but only in a keto context, otherwise this same property of interconvertability is less desirable.

Postscript - H/T Mike Angel who added this comment to the original post:  

Here is the vulgarized version of the work being done in Israel: I think it's compelling. Apparently the idea came out of fertility treatments. This treatment is for testicular varicocele (I was screened for it at one stage) which is a mechanical cause of prostate hypertrophy and low testosterone (and probably the true, non-sexist cause of the "manspreading" phenomenon of a few years ago). A subject for another day perhaps.







Sunday 11 December 2022

The Last Days of the Internet

Before I started writing medical papers and such I was a musician and I'm a musician again. I'm also a big lover of the Internet which has given us many fine things and a place to stay but which one can see is no longer well. In a spirit of concern and heartbreak I wrote this song and recorded it with my band, The New Existentialists. The video was made by Andrew Moore and Hayley Theyers (who made the cover photo) and as you can has been doing fairly well, we even got a write up in the Australasian edition of Rolling Stone.

The complete 5-track Last Days of the Internet EP can be downloaded here, where you can also find the lyrics, and is available to stream in every cool place.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Vegetarianism, a warning from history, Pt 3 - John Hartford

John Hartford wrote one of the best songs ever written, Gentle on my Mind. For me, the best version of this is Elvis Presley's - The King turns it into an anthem of deluded masculinity, he's a loser who feels insulated from his deprivation and disorganization as long as he has one lover, out there somewhere too far away, being gentle on his mind.
The 1968 Hartford song that appeared on the Lady Bird soundtrack, This Eve of Parting, made the movie.
The usual Hartford album you'll find on Spotify may be one soppy love song after another, but they have a artful flow and playfulness that keeps them enjoyable - some are almost concept albums - and the playing is next-level, Hartford being a bluegrass exponent with few peers.

Neil Strauss interviewed Hartford shortly before his death in 2001, a fragment of the interview was included in his fascinating anthology of the telling bits of interviews from his career as a music writer, Everyone Loves You When You're Dead.

Strauss says of the interview setting, "It would have been a perfect moment if not for one thing; Hartford's doctors had told him he didn't have long to live. Complications from lymphomas (a cancer of the immune system), combined with anemia, a sinus operation, and a knee problem, had worn him down. In the little time he had left on this planet, Hartford had chosen to concentrate on one thing - fiddling"

John Hartford: I tried to get real healthy about twenty or thirty years ago, and I think that's why I got health problems now. I tried to be a vegetarian and all that crap. I think it hurt me: One of my big problems right now is that I have anemia. My daddy was a doctor and he told me to be real careful at the time, and his words have all come true. Cancer has just about emptied my phone book. And I've got it too.

A local banjo player enters the house and approaches Hartford, intending to shake his hand. But Hartford greets him by waving instead. Hartford hasn't shaken a hand for as long as anyone can remember. He is scared of someone bruising or breaking his bones.

Shortly after this interview, while on tour in Texas, Hartford lost movement in his hands. He continued to host picking parties, which he watched instead of played at, until his death several months later at the Centennial Medical Centre in Nashville. He was sixty-three.

What are the odds that Hartford was right? Non-Hodgkins lymphoma (the type Hartford had) is strongly associated with gluten sensitivity.[1] Arthritic conditions may be caused by cross-sensitive autoimmunity to the starch-eating bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae, or to gluten and related proteins (such as zein from corn or casein from unfermented milk). And anaemia is also a possible consequence of gluten intolerance (as well as vegetarianism in general). The vegetarian diet of the 1970s that Hartford and his friends might have followed was a high-starch, low fat diet based on dried grains and legumes.
"Even in non-celiac gluten sensitivity, anemia is present in 18.5-22% of patients and appears to be related to ultrastructural and molecular alterations in intestinal microvilli."[2]

Of course we'll never know exactly - but I'm willing to take Hartford's word for it.

[1] Kane EV, Newton R, Roman E. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and gluten-sensitive enteropathy: estimate of risk using meta-analyses. Cancer Causes Control. 2011 Oct;22(10):1435-44. doi: 10.1007/s10552-011-9818-4. Epub 2011 Jul 14. PMID: 21755296.

[2] Stefanelli G, Viscido A, Longo S, Magistroni M, Latella G. Persistent Iron Deficiency Anemia in Patients with Celiac Disease Despite a Gluten-Free Diet. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 22;12(8):2176. doi: 10.3390/nu12082176. PMID: 32708019; PMCID: PMC7468819.

Selenium reduces COVID-19 risk - a back-of-the-envelope Bradford Hill analysis [originally posted 28/09/20, last updated 13/06/22]

Bradford Hill introduced a checklist for assessing the strength of epidemiological evidence for causality, which is useful in the current pandemic when nutritional factors have been insufficiently tested by experiment in favour of drugs with, so far, relatively weak effects.[1]
Remember, a long time has passed and a lot of people have died while Evidence-Based Medicine was facing the wrong way.
And asking the wrong question. "What new treatment will save more lives in the ICU?" is an important question, but one with few answers and no great ones - "What can stop people who catch SARS-CoV-2 coming to the ICU?" is a better one in a pandemic, and one that might also lead to better treatment protocols.

Selenium reduces COVID-19 mortality: A Bradford Hill analysis

1) Strength of association. Very Strong.

a) On inspection of the Hubei data, it is notable that the cure rate in Enshi city, at 36.4%, was much higher than that of other Hubei cities, where the overall cure rate was 13.1% (Supplemental Table 1); indeed, the Enshi cure rate was significantly different from that in the rest of Hubei (P < 0.0001). Enshi is renowned for its high selenium intake and status [mean ± SD: hair selenium: 3.13 ± 1.91 mg/kg for females and 2.21 ± 1.14 mg/kg for males]—compare typical levels in Hubei of 0.55 mg/kg (10)—so much so that selenium toxicity was observed there in the 1960s. Selenium intake in Enshi was reported as 550 µg/d in 2013.
Similar inspection of data from provinces outside Hubei shows that Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, a notoriously low-selenium region in which Keshan is located, had a much higher death rate, at 2.4%, than that of other provinces (0.5%; P < 0.0001). The selenium intake was recorded as only 16 µg/d in a 2018 publication, while hair selenium in the Songnen Plain of Heilongjiang was measured as only 0.26 mg/kg (Supplemental Table 2).

Finally, we found a significant association between cure rate and background selenium status in cities outside Hubei (R2 = 0.72, F test P < 0.0001; Figure 1, Supplemental Table 2).[2]

Correlation between COVID-19 cure rate in 17 cities outside Hubei, China, on 18 February, 2020 and city population selenium status (hair selenium concentration) analyzed using weighted linear regression (mean ± SD = 35.5 ± 11.1, R2 = 0.72, F test P < 0.0001). Each data point represents the cure rate, calculated as the number of cured patients divided by the number of confirmed cases, expressed as a percentage. The size of the marker is proportional to the number of cases.

b) Serum samples (n = 166) from COVID-19 patients (n = 33) were collected consecutively and analyzed for total Se by X-ray fluorescence and selenoprotein P (SELENOP) by a validated ELISA. Both biomarkers showed the expected strong correlation (r = 0.7758, p < 0.001), pointing to an insufficient Se availability for optimal selenoprotein expression. In comparison with reference data from a European cross-sectional analysis (EPIC, n = 1915), the patients showed a pronounced deficit in total serum Se (mean ± SD, 50.8 ± 15.7 vs. 84.4 ± 23.4 µg/L) and SELENOP (3.0 ± 1.4 vs. 4.3 ± 1.0 mg/L) concentrations. A Se status below the 2.5th percentile of the reference population, i.e., [Se] < 45.7 µg/L and [SELENOP] < 2.56 mg/L, was present in 43.4% and 39.2% of COVID samples, respectively.
The Se status was significantly higher in samples from surviving COVID patients as compared with non-survivors (Se; 53.3 ± 16.2 vs. 40.8 ± 8.1 µg/L, SELENOP; 3.3 ± 1.3 vs. 2.1 ± 0.9 mg/L), recovering with time in survivors while remaining low or even declining in non-survivors.[3]

c) Vitamins B1, B6, B12, D (25-hydroxyvitamin D), folate, selenium, and zinc levels were measured in 50 hospitalized patients with COVID-19. A total of 76% of the patients were vitamin D deficient and 42% were selenium deficient. No significant increase in the incidence of deficiency was found for vitamins B1, B6, and B12. folate, and zinc in patients with COVID-19. The COVID-19 group showed significantly lower vitamin D values than the healthy control group (150 people, age/sex matching). Severe vitamin D deficiency (based on 10 ng/dL) was found in 24% of the patients in the COVID-19 group and 7.3% of the control group. Among 12 patients with respiratory distress, 11 (91.7%) were deficient in at least one nutrient. However, patients without respiratory distress showed deficiency in 30/38 people (78.9%, P-value 0.425). These results suggest that a deficiency of vitamin D or selenium may decrease the immune defenses against COVID-19 and cause progression to severe disease; however, more precise and large-scale studies are needed.[18]

100% of the patients in this study with severe outcomes, including death, were selenium deficient; 75% were vitamin D deficient; none were zinc deficient.

d) In regression models, serum Se levels were inversely associated with lung damage independently of other markers of disease severity, anthropometric, biochemical, and hemostatic parameters.[23]

e) The association between soil Se level and the incidence of COVID-19 was observed in different cities of Hubei Province. The incidence of COVID-19 was more than 10 times lower in Se-enriched cities (Enshi, Shiyan, and Xiangyang) than in Se-deficient cities (Suizhou and Xiaogan).[25]

See also refs 19 and 22, discussed below.

2) Consistency - Very Strong

All epidemiological data about selenium and COVID-19 is consistent in direction and effect size. However, tests that could be done comparing COVID-19 risk in high and low selenium regions of Brazil, Scandinavia (selenium is supplemented in the food supply of Finland), and the USA would establish consistency further.

[edit 13/06/2022] - New study from the USA shows a two-fold higher mortality rate in low-selenium regions.[30]
Discussed in more detail on my Patreon blog - the only way I make any part of a living from this work, so help a brother out!

[edit 16/11/202o] - New study from South India is consistent with those from Germany, China, and South Korea:

We analysed the blood serum levels in apparently healthy (N=30) individuals and those with confirmed COVID -19 infection (N=30) in the southern part of India. Patients showed a significantly lower selenium level of 69.2 ±8.7 ng/ml than controls 79.1 ± 10.9 ng/ml, the difference was statistically significant (P=0.0003). Interestingly the controls showed a borderline level of selenium, suggesting that the level of this micronutrient is not optimum in the population studied.[19]

[edit 14/12/2020] letter from Finland in BJN compares death rate with Sweden's.

[edit 15/12/2020 deficiency of both zinc and selenium predicts COVID-19 severity in EPIC data]
"This combined deficit was observed in 0.15% of samples in the EPIC cohort of healthy subjects, in 19.7% of the samples collected from the surviving COVID-19 patients and in 50.0% of samples from the non-survivors."[22]

Statistically significant and often very strong associations between selenium intake, selenium status, and various COVID-19 outcomes have been reported from China, South Korea, Germany, South India, Russia and Europe. No null association has yet been reported.

Rigorous re-analysis of updated Chinese pandemic data published recently confirms the original observations, this time using the case-fatality rate:

A total of 147 cities each reporting over 20 cases were included in the current analysis. In these cities, 91% (14,045) of total cases and 85.8% (103) of total mortality from COVID-19 in China had been reported.
Totally, 14,045 COVID-19 cases were reported from 147 cities during 8 December 2019–13 December 2020 were included. Based on selenium content in crops, the case fatality rates (CFRs) gradually increased from 1.17% in non-selenium-deficient areas, to 1.28% in moderate-selenium-deficient areas, and further to 3.16% in severe-selenium-deficient areas (P = 0.002). Based on selenium content in topsoil, the CFRs gradually increased from 0.76% in non-selenium-deficient areas, to 1.70% in moderate-selenium-deficient areas, and further to 1.85% in severe-selenium-deficient areas (P < 0.001). The zero-inflated negative binomial regression model showed a significantly higher fatality risk in cities with severe-selenium-deficient selenium content in crops than non-selenium-deficient cities, with incidence rate ratio (IRR) of 3.88 (95% CIs: 1.21–12.52), which was further confirmed by regression fitting the association between CFR of COVID-19 and selenium content in topsoil, with the IRR of 2.38 (95% CIs: 1.14–4.98) for moderate-selenium-deficient cities and 3.06 (1.49–6.27) for severe-selenium-deficient cities

UPDATE 23/11/2021

A recent review of in-hospital selenium data shows consistent associations between lower Se and adverse outcomes in 9/10 comparisons where the population selenium level is below the optimal range of 130-150 mcg/dL. The outlier is an n=9 study (the smallest) in which length of hospital stay is the outcome and supplementation during the stay may be a confounder. In the one study where Se went over the optimal range a higher Se was found in more severe cases.[26]

3) Specificity - Strong

Selenium has much weaker or less consistent associations with other diseases, except those caused by other RNA viruses, e.g. when risk of hepatocellular cancer in viral hepatitis patients is compared with risk of osteoporosis.[4, 5]

4) Temporality - Strong

Prospective ecological comparisons are temporal by design.[2] In the German study, the temporal association between low serum selenium levels and COVID-19 symptom severity was closely tracked.[3]

Nutrients 12 02098 g003 550

5) Dose-response gradient - Very Strong

A strong, consistent dose-response is seen, even at levels where the risk of selenium toxicity exists, and despite the fact that toxic levels of soil selenium are often a legacy of industrial pollution in China.[2]

6) Plausibility - Very Strong

Reading references 2 and 3, as well as this review of the evidence written before reference 2 was published, should be persuasive.[6] See also ref 17 for antiviral effects. The effects of selenium and selenite align to support the associational results across multiple mechanisms.

7) Coherence - Very Strong

Selenium is well-studied and nothing in its story seems to contradict the idea that higher intakes will protect against COVID-19 mortality and reduce the severity of disease.
Dexamethasone, a drug which can reduce COVID-19 mortality in the ICU, enhances 1α,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 effects by increasing vitamin D receptor transcription.[7] 
Selenium sufficiency is essential for the function of vitamin D in peripheral blood monocytes.[8] Vitamin D status also correlates with COVID-19 survival.[9]

[Edit: 20/11/20] Two conditions which are associated with selenium depletion through effects on tubular mineral resorption, sickle cell disease (aOR, 1.73; 95% CI, 1.21-2.47), and chronic kidney disease (aOR, 1.32; 95% CI, 1.29-1.36), are the comorbidities most strongly associated with COVID-19 mortality in a large US MEDICARE patient analysis.[20] Selenium status in sickle cell disease is inversely associated with markers of hemolysis, a feature of severe COVID-19 pathology.[21]

8) Experiment - Weak (Neglected)

This is an area of sufficient neglect to make you despair about medical humanity, if you know that there have been thousands of trials of potentially useless drugs for COVID-19 already. However this criteria overlaps with the next section as there are several trials of selenium supplementation in other viral diseases, and animal experiments in analogous conditions, and many mechanistic experiments that are non-specific. The interaction between SARS-CoV-2 and selenoproteins has been confirmed by experiment.[10]

UPDATE 23/11/15

This team in Wuerzburg Germany have ben steadily researching selenium in COVID-19 patients in ICU and have got to the stage of testing an intervention.
There's no control arm but we have proof of safety for 1mg sodium selenite and proof of concept in that people in whom the intervention raised SelenoP did better.
We don't yet know that this effect isn't an artifact of disease severity, but such careful work brings the needed RCT closer.

"According to intensive care unit (ICU) standard operating procedures, patients received 1.0 mg of intravenous Se daily on top of artificial nutrition, which contained various amounts of Se and Zn. Micronutrients, inflammatory cytokines, lymphocyte subsets and clinical data were extracted from the patient data management system on admission and after 10 to 14 days of treatment. Forty-six patients were screened for eligibility and 22 patients were included in the study. Twenty-one patients (95%) suffered from severe ARDS and 14 patients (64%) survived to ICU discharge. On admission, the majority of patients had low Se status biomarkers and Zn levels, along with elevated inflammatory parameters. Se supplementation significantly elevated Se (p = 0.027) and selenoprotein P levels (SELENOP; p = 0.016) to normal range. Accordingly, glutathione peroxidase 3 (GPx3) activity increased over time (p = 0.021). Se biomarkers, most notably SELENOP, were inversely correlated with CRP (rs = −0.495), PCT (rs = −0.413), IL-6 (rs = −0.429), IL-1β (rs = −0.440) and IL-10 (rs = −0.461). Positive associations were found for CD8+ T cells (rs = 0.636), NK cells (rs = 0.772), total IgG (rs = 0.493) and PaO2/FiO2 ratios (rs = 0.504). In addition, survivors tended to have higher Se levels after 10 to 14 days compared to non-survivors (p = 0.075). Sufficient Se and Zn levels may potentially be of clinical significance for an adequate immune response in critically ill patients with severe COVID-19 ARDS.[27]

In comparison to patients with a fatal outcome (n = 8), survivors (n = 14) significantly responded to supplementation with an increase in Se (p = 0.008), SELENOP (p = 0.004), GPx3 (p = 0.039) and Zn levels (p = 0.020) over the course of the ICU stay (Figure 5). Decedents had a median ICU course of 17.5 days (12–22), whereas patients with a favorable outcome were treated for significantly longer (40 days, 20–44; p = 0.025)."

There are also two tests of mixtures including selenium for COVID-19 with favourable results, the first is a survey of a clinic's patients already taking selenium, zinc, and vitamin D for  Hasimoto's thyroiditis.[28]

After adjusting for age, gender, BMI, smoking status, we found an association between the absence of supplements and the risk of hospitalization, and invasive mechanical ventilation. Patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis who had COVID-19 infection and who had previously taken supplements such as selenium, zinc, and vitamin D had milder clinical outcomes, or no symptoms compared to those who did not receive supplements who had a moderate or severe outcome (P <0.05)

The next is an RCT from the South Indian doctors cited earlier, of a mixed supplement supplying 40 mcg selenium (a very modest dose in this context, but not insignificant), n=100.[29]

ImmuActiveTM 500 mg capsule containing curcuminoids (100 mg), andrographolides (50 mg), resveratrol (50 mg), zinc (10 mg), selenium (40 mcg), and piperine (3 mg) or placebo was administered orally to subjects once daily after breakfast.

Results. The ordinal scale at the end of the study was significantly lower in COVID-19 patients supplemented with ImmuActive (0.57) than placebo (1.0), with a  value of 0.0043. The ordinal scale decreased by one unit within 2.35 days in ImmuActive-supplemented patients, while it took 3.36 days in placebo-supplemented patients. Days of hospitalization and time required to turn RT-PCR negative were comparatively lower in the ImmuActive arm than the placebo arm. Change in modified Jackson’s Symptom Severity Score and COVID-19 QOL were significant from screening to the end of the study in both ImmuActive and placebo arms. There were no adverse events observed during the study period.

9) Analogy - Strong

Selenium intake is protective, and selenium supplementation has been useful, in other viral illnesses.
However, the protective effect of high selenium intakes before infection in epidemiology appears stronger than the protective effect of selenium as a late intervention in disease.[6, 11]

Those are the nine canonical Bradford Hill criteria. The discussion about selenium suggests that an ad hoc 10th criteria will also be useful:

10) Risk - Weak in short-term, Well-Established in long term.

We can add the most relevant of extra questions to any given set of criteria - "strength of the alternative hypothesis" would be a good one for any lipid hypothesis.
Bradford Hill stated that some interventions are easier to justify than others.

On fair evidence we might take action on what appears to be an occupational hazard, e.g. we might change from a probably carcinogenic oil to a non-carcinogenic oil in a limited environment and without too much injustice if we are wrong. But we should need very strong evidence before we made people burn a fuel in their homes that they do not like or stop smoking the cigarettes and eating the fats and sugar that they do like. In asking for very strong evidence I would, however, repeat emphatically that this does not imply crossing every ‘t’, and swords with every critic, before we act.[1]

With nutrient intakes there is often an identifiable risk, with a J-shaped curve. With selenium the risk is selenosis, which is a condition that requires chronic high exposure (I have given myself mild selenosis with around 900mcg selenium a day and it was not a terrible condition to experience and was reversible). There could be other risks. Luckily we have an experiment that tells us where the limit is.
In a low selenium country, like New Zealand or Denmark, you don't want to take more than 200mcg of extra selenium long term.[12] Pity the low dose arms here weren't retained in the intervention.


During 6871 person-years of follow-up, 158 deaths occurred. In an intention-to-treat analysis
the hazard ratio (95% confidence interval) for all-cause mortality comparing 300 µg selenium/d to placebo was 1.62 (0.66, 3.96) after 5 years of treatment and 1.59 (1.02, 2.46) over the entire follow-up period. The 100 and 200 µg/d doses showed non-significant decreases in mortality during the intervention period that disappeared after treatment cessation. Although we lacked power for endpoints other than all-cause mortality, the effects on cancer and cardiovascular mortality appeared similar.

Howsoever that may be, taking extra selenium above 200mcg per day may yet be advised if one becomes ill with COVID-19,  but an inorganic salt of selenium like sodium selenite (which is anyhow probably safer than the selenomethionine form long-term, as I'll discuss below) is preferable, according to the selenovirus expert, Ethan Will Taylor. 
(this video link does not show in the mobile version of this post but can be reached through the web view option at the bottom)

[Edit: 1/09/20] There is also very good evidence that intravenous high dose selenite is safe in the ICU setting.

Totally 19 RCTs involving 3341 critically ill patients were carried out in which 1694 participates were in the selenium supplementation group, and 1647 in the control. The aggregated results suggested that compared with the control, intravenous selenium supplement as a single therapy could decrease the total mortality (RR = 0.86, 95% CI: 0.78–0.95, P = .002, TSA-adjusted 95% CI = 0.77–0.96, RIS = 4108, n = 3297) and may shorten the length of stay in hospital (MD −2.30, 95% CI −4.03 to −0.57, P = .009), but had no significant treatment effect on 28-days mortality (RR = 0.96, 95% CI: 0.85–1.09, P = .54) and could not shorten the length of ICU stay (MD −0.15, 95% CI −1.68 to 1.38, P = .84) in critically ill patients.[13]

This, and an earlier analysis which found less benefit, did not single out viral illnesses as a subgroup - this is only evidence for safety - but the earlier analysis did find a) slightly lower mortality in trials without an initial bolus dose, b) no increased risk in patients with renal disease.[14]

I will hypothesize briefly on selenium increasing mortality at 300 mcg/day in the Danish intervention study, a dose far too low to cause selenosis.
(The conventional signs of selenosis result from selenocysteine replacing cysteine in proteins, and the relative weakness of the Se-Se bond compared with the S-S bond.)
[Edit - hypothesis improved, 23/09/20]
The question of selenium causing insulin resistance and increasing mortality in high-dose supplements, not mirrored as far as I can see in natural high-dose populations, may have a simple explanation - supplements allow us to consume micronutrients without protein.
If you have no cysteine or methionine coming in when you take Se (either because you're not eating protein, or perhaps it can happen naturally if the Se level is high in a low-protein food and diet) then the selenocysteine formed will be incorporated into all proteins, not just the ones that require it. Including the insulin receptors, which will suffer a relative loss of function.
(similarly, though for different reasons, pyridoxine toxicity can be triggered by supplementing on a low-protein diet)

If we think that insulin resistance causes CVD, then the increased risk from (mostly) natural high Se levels is not great, see fig 5 here [15], but the intervention studies have more alarming results, and I think the competition of selenium- vs sulphur-amino acids in protein fed vs unfed states can explain this. There is next to no evidence of Se toxicity from Brazil nuts, which are high in both Se and protein.

It makes sense to me that selenomethionine, very useful as it will increase selenoprotein levels quickly if you don't have much time, should be replaced with sodium selenite for long-term coverage.

Brazil nuts are a variable quantity, a sample of nuts sold in NZ in 2008 had an average of 19 mcg per nut and increased selenoprotein levels more than selenomethionine.[16]

Plasma selenium increased by 64.2%, 61.0%, and 7.6%; plasma GPx by 8.3%, 3.4%, and -1.2%; and whole blood GPx by 13.2%, 5.3%, and 1.9% in the Brazil nut, selenomethionine, and placebo groups, respectively. Change over time at 12 wk in plasma selenium (P < 0.0001 for both groups) and plasma GPx activity in the Brazil nut (P < 0.001) and selenomethionine (P = 0.014) groups differed significantly from the placebo group but not from each other. The change in whole blood GPx activity was greater in the Brazil nut group than in the placebo (P = 0.002) and selenomethionine (P = 0.032) groups.

[Edit 02/09/20] - thanks to Mike Angell for this link; while all selenium sources are probably protective against death and ongoing harm from COVID-19, only selenite is likely to have an additional antiviral effect, and has low toxicity.[17]

A rational protocol for using selenium in prevention and treatment of COVID-19, fully consistent with the evidence discussed here, is described at the end of this paper:

All scientific work is incomplete - whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, or to postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time.

Austin Bradford Hill, 1965.


[1] Hill AB. The environment and disease: association or causation? Proc R Soc Med. 1965;58(5):295-300.

[2] Jinsong Zhang, Ethan Will Taylor, Kate Bennett, Ramy Saad, Margaret P Rayman, Association between regional selenium status and reported outcome of COVID-19 cases in China, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 111, Issue 6, June 2020, Pages 1297–1299,

[3] Moghaddam, A.; Heller, R.A.; Sun, Q.; Seelig, J.; Cherkezov, A.; Seibert, L.; Hackler, J.; Seemann, P.; Diegmann, J.; Pilz, M.; Bachmann, M.; Minich, W.B.; Schomburg, L. Selenium Deficiency Is Associated with Mortality Risk from COVID-19. Nutrients 2020, 12, 2098.

[4] Yu MW, Horng IS, Hsu KH, Chiang YC, Liaw YF, Chen CJ. Plasma selenium levels and risk of hepatocellular carcinoma among men with chronic hepatitis virus infection. Am J Epidemiol. 1999;150(4):367-374. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a010016

[5] Wang, Y., Xie, D., Li, J. et al. Association between dietary selenium intake and the prevalence of osteoporosis: a cross-sectional study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 585 (2019).

[6] Bermano, G., Méplan, C., Mercer, D., & Hesketh, J. (2020). Selenium and viral infection: Are there lessons for COVID-19? British Journal of Nutrition, 1-37. doi:10.1017/S0007114520003128

[7] Hidalgo AA, Deeb KK, Pike JW, Johnson CS, Trump DL. Dexamethasone enhances 1alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 effects by increasing vitamin D receptor transcription. J Biol Chem. 2011;286(42):36228-36237. doi:10.1074/jbc.M111.244061

[8] Schütze N, Fritsche J, Ebert-Dümig R, et al. The selenoprotein thioredoxin reductase is expressed in peripheral blood monocytes and THP1 human myeloid leukemia cells--regulation by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 and selenite. Biofactors. 1999;10(4):329-338. doi:10.1002/biof.5520100403

[9] Martín Giménez, V.M., Inserra, F., Ferder, L. et al. Vitamin D deficiency in African Americans is associated with a high risk of severe disease and mortality by SARS-CoV-2. J Hum Hypertens (2020).

[10] Wang, Y et al. SARS-CoV-2 suppresses mRNA expression of selenoproteins associated with ferroptosis, ER stress and DNA synthesis. Preprint, 2020/07/31. 10.1101/2020.07.31.230243

[11] Steinbrenner H, Al-Quraishy S, Dkhil MA, Wunderlich F, Sies H. Dietary selenium in adjuvant therapy of viral and bacterial infections. Adv Nutr. 2015;6(1):73-82. Published 2015 Jan 15. doi:10.3945/an.114.007575

[12] Rayman MP, Winther KH, Pastor-Barriuso R, et al. Effect of long-term selenium supplementation on mortality: Results from a multiple-dose, randomised controlled trial. Free Radic Biol Med. 2018;127:46-54. doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2018.02.015

[13] Zhao Y, Yang M, Mao Z, et al. The clinical outcomes of selenium supplementation on critically ill patients: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(20):e15473. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000015473

[14] Manzanares W, Lemieux M, Elke G, Langlois PL, Bloos F, Heyland DK. High-dose intravenous selenium does not improve clinical outcomes in the critically ill: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Crit Care. 2016;20(1):356. Published 2016 Oct 28. doi:10.1186/s13054-016-1529-5

[15] Angelica Kuria, Hongdou Tian, Mei Li, Yinhe Wang, Jan Olav Aaseth, Jiajie Zang & Yang Cao (2020) Selenium status in the body and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1803200

[16] Thomson CD, Chisholm A, McLachlan SK, Campbell JM. Brazil nuts: an effective way to improve selenium status. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(2):379-384. doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.2.379

[17] Kieliszek M, Lipinski B. Selenium supplementation in the prevention of coronavirus infections (COVID-19) [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 24]. Med Hypotheses. 2020;143:109878. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2020.109878

[18] Im, JH et al. Nutritional status of patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Int J Infectious Diseases, August 11, 2020

[19] Majeed, M et al. An Exploratory Study of Selenium Status in Normal Subjects and COVID-19 Patients in South Indian population: Case for Adequate Selenium Status: Selenium Status in COVID-19 Patients. Nutrition. Available online 11 November 2020, 111053

Chen Dun, Christi M. Walsh, Sunjae Bae, Amesh Adalja, Eric Toner, Timothy A. Lash, Farah Hashim, Joseph Paturzo, Dorry L. Segev, Martin A. Makary. A Machine Learning Study of 534,023 Medicare Beneficiaries with COVID-19: Implications for Personalized Risk Prediction.
medRxiv 2020.10.27.20220970; doi:

[21] Delesderrier E, Cople-Rodrigues CS, Omena J, et al. Selenium Status and Hemolysis in Sickle Cell Disease Patients. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2211. Published 2019 Sep 13. doi:10.3390/nu11092211

[22] Raban Arved Heller, Qian Sun, Julian Hackler, Julian Seelig, Linda Seibert, Asan Cherkezov, Waldemar B. Minich, Petra Seemann, Joachim Diegmann, Maximilian Pilz, Manuel Bachmann, Alireza Ranjbar, Arash Moghaddam, Lutz Schomburg,
Prediction of survival odds in COVID-19 by zinc, age and selenoprotein P as composite biomarker, Redox Biology, Volume 38, 2021101764,

[23] Skalny AV, Timashev PS, Aschner M, et al. Serum Zinc, Copper, and Other Biometals Are Associated with COVID-19 Severity Markers. Metabolites. 2021;11(4):244. Published 2021 Apr 15. doi:10.3390/metabo11040244

[24] Zhang, HY., Zhang, AR., Lu, QB. et al. Association between fatality rate of COVID-19 and selenium deficiency in China. BMC Infect Dis 21, 452 (2021).

[25] Liu Q, Zhao X, Ma J, et al. Selenium (Se) plays a key role in the biological effects of some viruses: Implications for COVID-19. Environ Res. 2021;196:110984. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2021.110984

[26] Fakhrolmobasheri, M., Mazaheri-Tehrani, S., Kieliszek, M. et al. COVID-19 and Selenium Deficiency: a Systematic Review. Biol Trace Elem Res (2021).

[27] Notz, Q.; Herrmann, J.; Schlesinger, T.; Helmer, P.; Sudowe, S.; Sun, Q.; Hackler, J.; Roeder, D.; Lotz, C.; Meybohm, P.; Kranke, P.; Schomburg, L.; Stoppe, C. Clinical Significance of Micronutrient Supplementation in Critically Ill COVID-19 Patients with Severe ARDS. Nutrients 2021, 13, 2113.

[28]  Zelija Velija Asimi, Almira Hadzovic-Dzuvo, & Djinan Al Tawil. Selenium, zinc, and vitamin D supplementation affect the clinical course of COVID-19 infection in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Presented ePosters 14: COVID-19 Endocrine Abstracts (2021) 73 PEP14.2 | DOI: 10.1530/endoabs.73.PEP14.2

[29] Muhammed Majeed, Kalyanam Nagabhushanam, Kalpesh Shah, Lakshmi Mundkur, "A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of a Nutritional Supplement (ImmuActiveTM) for COVID-19 Patients", Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2021, Article ID 8447545, 9 pages, 2021.

[30] JinsongZhanga, EthanWill Taylorb, KateBennett, Margaret P. Rayman. Does atmospheric dimethyldiselenide play a role in reducing COVID-19 mortality? 
Gondwana Research, 
Available online 6 June 2022

Tuesday 24 May 2022

The case for Red meat - a Marxist defense of meat-eating

New Zealand schools have introduced a climate change resource that suggests children “eat less meat and dairy”, even though teachers will not know how much meat or dairy any child in their care has eaten. Opinion pieces in the papers have called for the reduction of meat and dairy in hospital menus, not usually generous sources of such foods, despite the well-known risks of undernutrition, especially of protein, in the frail and elderly. Globally, the influential and once-objective medical journal the Lancet has hosted Eat Lancet, a coalition of vegan and vegetarian technocrats backed by processed food manufacturers, and promoted their agenda. The Guardian newspaper accepted an $886,600 grant from the backers of Impossible Foods to run a series of articles against animal agriculture.

These initiatives, aimed at remodelling our food supply in a way that favours the multinational food processing and seed-and-chemical corporations, whose control of many aspects of farming and diet is already problematic, have run far ahead of the scientific community’s efforts to understand the health effects of such dietary change.

Our hunter-gatherer past

The Neolithic Revolution was the first alteration in human affairs that is generally considered worthy of the term Revolution. In Marx’s terms, it saw a change in the means of production sufficient to form new classes aware of their identities, and thus a change in the relations between people. Early humans had fed themselves in an opportunistic, hunter-gatherer fashion that tended to favour a diet of animals supplemented with plants where and when these were available. Large animals made the best meals but gathering activities could collect many smaller ones, as well as eggs, grubs etc.

The people of the Mesolithic era discovered that some animals could be herded and some plants grown in gardens (not usually by the same community, because one activity favours nomadism and the other favours a sedentary habit) but these activities, which greatly improved food security after the decline of the prehistoric mega-fauna due to hunting and climate pressures, tended to occur at the communal level and probably did not create major class differences between the people involved.

The invention of farming

The Neolithic Revolution, which unleashed the human potential for war, creativity, and social division, resulted from the identification of the germs of plants (specifically grains and legumes) as durable sources of energy. If grains were grown (I will use grains in the wider sense of “cereals”, after Braudel, including other dried germs such as peas) and there was a surplus, this surplus would still be edible over the next year, a year when drought or pests or diseases might wipe out the other food sources that hunter-gatherers depended on. This advantage was offset by the nutritional poverty of grain-based diets, so that tuberculosis probably became an endemic disease during this period,[1] but the existence of a less-perishable surplus allowed the diversion of part of the population away from food gathering for large parts of the year, and saw the creation of armies and other workforces.

In Europe, the Neolithic Revolution is dated at around 10,000 BC and its arrangements are a matter of prehistory, but in China this change occurred later and the written record around Bi-gu or grain avoidance includes folk-memories of conflict between grain eating and grain avoiding peoples.

The history of colonisation is the history of the conquest of lactose-intolerant peoples by lactose-tolerant populations, and of non-grain eaters by grain-eaters. In the Indian sub-continent, a combination of dairy herding and a cereal diet high in legumes uniquely allowed the survival of a substantially vegetarian population, and saw the conservation of genes favouring reproduction on such a diet, including genetic polymorphisms still rare in European populations (adaptive mutations only predominate where many individuals without them have failed to survive or reproduce).[2] That the Indian social system became more aggressively class-based than any other is probably no co-incidence; prejudice against meat-eating is still used as a tool of social control against minorities, while meat-eating is one way young Indians today identify as modern and egalitarian. However there were some important exceptions to the trend – the Aztecs were a hunter-gather people who conquered and dominated the Mesolithic agriculturalists of Mexico, and the Mongols were nomadic herders and hunters whose greater stamina and independence allowed them to defeat the rice-fed armies of the Chinese Emperors (after conquering this breadbasket, the successive Mongol Khans seem to have eaten and drunk themselves to death).

Early vegetarian ideology

In the European and Asian cereal-based societies the poorest classes went without meat, supplementing cereals when possible with buttermilk or blood pudding which were more economic replacements. The rich ate as much meat as they could. The idea that an entire society might avoid meat is a recent one with its roots in religious practice, and, insofar as it has any political basis, this flows in two distinct streams – the eco-fascist, in which meat avoidance is a sign of “purity”, most humans are a burden on the Earth, and the Indian vegetarians are of course Aryans. This is something like the vegetarian vision that Adolf Hitler picked up while studying anti-Semitism with Wagner’s heirs at Bayreuth.

And then there is a Marxist-Anarchist, and latterly Intersectional, version, founded on a valuation of animal rights as inseparable from, and a logical extension of, human rights. Vegetarianism was a frequent obsession of the early British Socialists; G.B. Shaw, who derived most of his energy from dairy fat and lived to the age of 94, made himself into a well-known example, and the idea was sufficiently entrenched among the British Socialists and their milieu that H.G. Wells preserved its internal contradictions for posterity in The Time Machine. In his far-future vision, humanity has evolved into two separate species. The Morlocks are descendants of working-class meat-eaters, the Eloi of leisure-class vegetarians – all Wells’ loathing is reserved for the Morlocks, yet it is obvious they are (still) the engineering brains keeping their world running and the Eloi fed. The Eloi are useless for anything but enjoying the sunshine and feeding the Morlocks, and the discordance in Wells’ progressive values as he describes both species is as shocking as anything else in the story.   "But gradually the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages."

The first large-scale experiment in plant-based protein was attempted by the Bolsheviks. As usual, it’s hard to separate the roles played by idealism and cynicism in the story, but the bare bones are that the Soviets found their initial attempts to remodel the countryside rebuffed, blamed this on the recaltricance of the kulak class, and set out to destroy them. The problem being that the kulaks, owning most of the cattle and sheep across the Russian Republics, helped to feed the people. Beginning in the 1920s, soy experts from the USA (then the Western world’s leading soy producer) were among the many foreign technicians imported into Russia, and soy processing plants were built and soy production increased to 283,000 tonnes in 1931, the year Stalin unleashed enforced collectivisation and the terror against the kulaks (and also the Kazakhs, a herding people who suffered the largest proportionate loss of life during this period). This led to the loss of millions of animals, either killed by their dispossessed owners or mismanaged by their inexperienced new owners. The soy project was hardly able to prevent the massive famines that followed, and by 1935 soy production had dropped to 54,000 tonnes. Though soy milk would later prove useful during the siege of Leningrad, by the 1930s soy had probably only served one purpose, as a statistic needed aforehand to quell the objections of pragmatic delegates to the destruction of the kulaks and their livestock.

Today we face the revival of this idea, of plant protein that will create a world with no need for animal protein, and the remodelling of life in the countryside, with the new impetus of climate change as its driver. Livestock cycles natural carbon, meaning there is no net addition of C02 to the atmosphere – and its contribution to the shorter-lived methane precursor has not changed since 2000 (methane rises have been due to fracking, methane itself AKA “natural gas”, landfill, and rice production; methane-emitting animals have always existed on Earth in substantial numbers, and have not created a novel situation in the sense that the discovery of coal, oil and gas did). We have recently seen how much global disruption is required to reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions to 2006 levels, levels which will still warm the planet if they continue. It could be still be worth reducing agricultural cycling of CO2 through methane, which is more warming than CO2 if this is cost-free, but is it?

Why humans evolved as meat eaters

  Animal foods, and especially red meat, supply a constellation of nutrients not found together (if they are found at all) in any plant food. Nutrients are those chemicals essential for the functioning of the human organism, and plants, but not livestock, can survive well without nutrients such as amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that are essential to humans. Surviving as a vegetarian or vegan is possible for some (perhaps assuming the genetic variants referred to earlier are present) but to thrive requires knowledge of these nutrients, where to find them, how to process the foods that supply them, or how to supplement them. Thriving as an omnivore or even a complete carnivore does not – nutritional sufficiency is the reason we evolved eating meat and other animal foods long before we learned there were such things as essential nutrients.

The reasons for avoiding meat or all animal foods can have a class basis – veganism may be taken up by educated middle-class adults, more likely to be exposed to “health food” ideas and aware of the need to supplement, some of whom then commercialise their habits as social media “influencers”. Meat avoidance is also being adopted increasingly by educated middle-class children for identity or compassionate reasons, but the poor may also avoid meat because of its cost when a loaf of bread or a packet of flavoured noodles can be bought for a dollar; these two motivations sometimes coincide when students in temporary poverty make a virtue of what they perceive to be a necessity.

Does the meat-avoiding behaviour of young people have unintended costs? Several observational studies have looked at the characteristics of meat-avoiding populations and found alarming increases in depression, anxiety and self-harm.

“The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.”[3]

How can we explain these correlations? Why should we assume that they are causal? There are several lines of evidence to support a causal link:

1) several nutrients found in meat and animal foods are important factors in mood and cognition; vitamin B12, iron, carnitine, DHA, choline and tryptophan are some examples.[4]

2) the fatty acid mix in dairy and red meat has a similar composition to that of amniotic fluid and breast milk which has anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects in young animals.[5]

3) soy is a convenient and cheap replacement for animal protein; soy processing in Western diets results in a 10-fold higher level of the estrogenic contaminant isoflavone than that found in Asian diets.[6] Soy isoflavone causes anxiety behaviour in young female animals, and there is evidence supporting psychotropic and hormonal effects in humans.[7,8,9.10] Interestingly, while right-wing critiques of soy eating focus on effects it can have on young men, the scientific evidence for adverse effects in younger females, converting to HRT-like benefits after menopause, is stronger.[11]

4) other toxins found in plants, such as salicylates and oxalates, as well as problematic proteins such as gliadin/gluten and zein, may be present at higher levels in meat-free diets (but are not unique to them). A vegan mince sold in Countdown supermarkets is simply a coloured blend of soy protein and gluten, a protein linked to the risk of schizophrenia.[12]

In the New Zealand context it would be relatively easy to confirm or dispute some of these associations. Everyone admitted to hospital for longer than a day supplies their dietary preferences. The dietetic preference data from psychiatric admissions could be both linked to outcomes over time and compared with the population average distribution, or the distribution in a ward where diet is least likely to play a role in admissions.

Iron deficiency in women

Young women in New Zealand are the most likely to report being vegan or vegetarian in surveys, as elsewhere in the world. Vegans in the Gender Studies field generate papers linking meat to masculinity, with the implication that this masculinity is toxic and might be improved by a plant-based diet.[13] The corollary of this belief – that women may therefore be weakened by meat-avoidance – is never considered. In a 1980 essay by Gloria Steinem called The Politics of Food (in the collection Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions) she describes some of the cultural constructs by which women are deprived of the good nutrition which men use to stay dominant. The belief that men need to eat red meat more often than women may have been valid when the average man was more likely to have to survive an attack by a wild bear than the average woman, but today it is mainly women who suffer from serious iron deficiency. The rate – and the cost to the health system – is increasing in New Zealand as more women give up meat. Iron deficiency anaemia in early pregnancy is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders in children, not an outcome that will increase the mother’s autonomy.[14]

In Georg Büchner’s 19th century “working class tragedy” Woyzeck, filmed by Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski in the leading role and the subject of an opera by Alban Berg, the title character, a soldier, is subject to experimentation by a sadistic army doctor. The experiment involves Woyzeck living on nothing but peas. Peas may supply a complete protein, but Woyzeck goes insane; the deprivation being the final straw in his alienation. James Cameron, the film-maker responsible for Avatar and Titanic, is investing heavily in pea protein as if this were his gift to New Zealand. I am not sure whether he has watched Woyzeck – one would think he has.

Plant-based vs meat-based

Again, we have the specificity of plant germs as commodity; their low cost of production, long storage life and versatility of processing outcomes makes them an ideal investment and a robust one, as poverty and adversity increases their consumption, as we saw during the 2020 Lockdown Event. However, a plant-based burger is nutritionally greatly inferior to a meat burger, and that burger is often the most nutritious single food item many will people eat in the course of their day. The current push to eat a plant-based diet for “planetary health” is something that all the multinational food processors have signed up and provided funding for, and why not – Coca Cola, Unilever, Nestlé have always sold us plant-based foods. We notice that while iron-deficiency anaemia increases in New Zealand with the reason in plain sight, Nestlé scientists here in NZ are developing a more potent form of supplemental iron to add value to their products as their parent company backs the push to reduce meat.  (As usual, it’s hard to separate the roles played by idealism and cynicism in the story).

But, you may well ask, isn’t eating meat linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease? These associations are small to begin with, but they are also intensely confounded by social class and educational status. Supposing a factory that makes a carcinogenic chemical is hiring. Who is more likely to apply for that job – a meat eater (who will likely have a bigger family to support, among other considerations) or a vegan? Who, so to speak, eats all the pies, and needs food that is filling and nutritious without having to give it much thought? Who is more likely to work two jobs and be exposed to the disruptive metabolic effect of shift work? Carcinogen exposure and shift work are just two of the confounding variables ignored in diet epidemiology.  (That meat-eating in Western populations may symbolise or associate with labour itself – as it did for H.G. Wells when he wrote The Time Machine – is not a consideration I have found discussed in the epidemiological literature.)

Certainly one can think of mechanisms that might link meat to disease, as one can with any food, but one can also think of protective mechanisms; several of the nutrients found mainly or only in animal foods are required for various antioxidant and immune defensive enzymes, and some like carnitine and EPA even have a place in the management of heart disease.

The argument against meat-eating should not be confused with the argument for sometimes rationing a valuable food that is in short supply. The wartime rationing of meat in the UK is thought to have improved the health of the poorest by guaranteeing a greater supply than they had had previously, at a more affordable price. In Europe, the peasants who supplied the cities with meat, dairy and luxury foods such as oysters were sometimes forced by network disruptions to consume these foods – which many of them had never tasted before – with benefit to their own health.

The plant-based agenda can scarcely be expected to recognise these benefits, or understand the argument summarised by Williams and Dunbar (with regard to the vitamin nicotinamide and amino acid tryptophan in their tuberculosis paper), that if better data collection and analysis resulted in us ”…returning to our egalitarian past and redistributing meat or its components that supply NAD (avoiding both the highs and the lows between individuals and over individual lifetimes) [this] may be more effective than subsidizing corn grain (while the increased prosperity from unlocking human potential should pay for the intervention).”[1]

Progress – which includes unlocking human potential from the chains of preventable mental and physical disease – depends on good data, and we do not yet seem to collate the data required to know whether or for whom plant-based diets are safe in New Zealand.

George Henderson works as a researcher for Professor Grant Schofield and the team behind the What The Fat books and the social enterprise PreKure, which has been running free lifestyle and health programs through the lockdown. He is the author or co-author of several scientific articles and letters published by the BMJ, Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, the JAMA, and other journals, including an influential review of low carbohydrate diets in diabetes management for the New Zealand Medical Journal. A musician, songwriter and amateur musicologist, he has recently presented a series of podcasts on 20th century women composers for Karyn Hay’s Lately show on RNZ.


[1] Williams AC, Dunbar RI. Big brains, meat, tuberculosis, and the nicotinamide switches: co-evolutionary relationships with modern repercussions?. Int J Tryptophan Res. 2013;6:73‐88. Published 2013 Oct 15. doi:10.4137/IJTR.S12838

[2] Kothapalli KS, Ye K, Gadgil MS, et al. Positive Selection on a Regulatory Insertion-Deletion Polymorphism in FADS2 Influences Apparent Endogenous Synthesis of Arachidonic Acid. Mol Biol Evol. 2016;33(7):1726‐1739. doi:10.1093/molbev/msw049

[3] Urska Dobersek, Gabrielle Wy, Joshua Adkins, Sydney Altmeyer, Kaitlin Krout, Carl J. Lavie & Edward Archer (2020) Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1741505

[4] Frédéric Leroy & Nathan Cofnas (2019) Should dietary guidelines recommend low red meat intake?, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1657063

[5] Contreras CM, Rodríguez-Landa JF, García-Ríos RI, Cueto-Escobedo J, Guillen-Ruiz G, Bernal-Morales B. Myristic acid produces anxiolytic-like effects in Wistar rats in the elevated plus maze. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:492141. doi:10.1155/2014/492141

[6] Fernandez-Lopez A, Lamothe V, Delample M, Denayrolles M, Bennetau-Pelissero C. Removing isoflavones from modern soyfood: Why and how?. Food Chem. 2016;210:286‐294. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.04.126

[7] Hicks KD, Sullivan AW, Cao J, Sluzas E, Rebuli M, Patisaul HB. Interaction of bisphenol A (BPA) and soy phytoestrogens on sexually dimorphic sociosexual behaviors in male and female rats. Horm Behav. 2016;84:121‐126. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.06.010

[8] Tillett T. Full of beans? Early soy exposure associated with less feminine play in girls [published correction appears in Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jan;120(1):A17]. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(12):A525. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a525b

[9] Adgent MA, Daniels JL, Rogan WJ, et al. Early-life soy exposure and age at menarche. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2012;26(2):163‐175. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3016.2011.01244.x

[10] Hibbeln, J.R., SanGiovanni, J.P., Golding, J., Emmett, P.M., Northstone, K., Davis, J.M., Schuckit, M. and Heron, J. (2017), Meat Consumption During Pregnancy and Substance Misuse Among Adolescent Offspring: Stratification of TCN2 Genetic Variants. Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 41: 1928-1937. doi:10.1111/acer.13494

[11] Patisaul HB, Jefferson W. The pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2010;31(4):400‐419. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2010.03.003

[12] Čiháková D, Eaton WW, Talor MV, et al. Gliadin-related antibodies in schizophrenia. Schizophr Res. 2018;195:585‐586. doi:10.1016/j.schres.2017.08.051

[13] Jessica Greenebaum & Brandon Dexter (2018) Vegan men and hybrid masculinity, Journal of Gender Studies, 27:6, 637-648, DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2017.1287064

[14] Wiegersma AM, Dalman C, Lee BK, Karlsson H, Gardner RM. Association of Prenatal Maternal Anemia With Neurodevelopmental Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(12):1294–1304. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.2309

This article originally appeared on the Redliner blog

Sunday 15 May 2022

Vegetarianism - a warning from history Pt 2 - Shelly's vegetarian experiments.

Vegan diets and the risk of deficiency diseases – the story of Shelly

One of the earliest objective accounts of the effects of a vegetarian diet in English is Thomas Love Peacock’s observations of his friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly. I think these are interesting because Shelly’s ordeal is very similar to what enthusiastic young people subject themselves to today, and because Peacock’s dry humour can speak for the rest of us.
Quotes are from Thomas Love Peacock’s Memoir of Percy Bysshe Shelly.

Shelly had come under the influence of JF Newton, author of The Return to Nature, or A Defense of the Vegetable Regimen.

Peacock wrote of Newton “He was an estimable man and an agreeable companion, and he was not the less amusing that he was the absolute impersonation of a single theory, or rather of two single theories rolled into one. He held that all diseases and all aberrations, moral and physical, had their origin in the use of animal food and of fermented and spirituous liquors; that the universal adoption of a diet of roots, fruits, and distilled water, would restore the golden age of universal health, purity, and peace ; that this most ancient and sublime morality was mystically inculcated in the most ancient Zodiac, which was that of Dendera…”[I will spare you Peacock’s lengthy exposition of this astrological system]

“At Bracknell, Shelley was surrounded by a numerous society, all in a great measure of his own opinions in relation to religion and politics, and the larger portion of them in relation to vegetable diet”
Shelley had published the treatise, A Vindication of Natural Diet, in 1813.
But Peacock was skeptical of Shelly’s claims to superior health;

His vegetable diet entered for something into his restlessness. When he was fixed in a place he adhered to this diet consistently and conscientiously, but it certainly did not agree with him; it made him weak and nervous, and exaggerated the sensitiveness of his imagination. Then arose those thick - coming fancies which almost invariably preceded his change of place. While he was living from inn to inn he was obliged to live, as he said, ' on what he could get '; that is to say, like other people.  When he got well under this process he gave all the credit to locomotion, and held himself to have thus benefited, not in consequence of his change of regimen, but in spite of it. Once, when I was living in the country, I received a note from him wishing me to call on him in London. I did so, and found him ill in bed. He said, ' You are looking well. I suppose you go on in your old way, living on animal food and fermented liquor ?' I answered in the affirmative. ' And here,' he said, ' you see a vegetable feeder overcome by disease.' I said, ' Perhaps the diet is the cause.' This he would by no means allow ; but it was not long before he was again posting through some yet unvisited wilds, and recovering his health as usual, by living ' on what he could get '.

In Edinburgh he became acquainted with a young Brazilian named Baptista, who had gone there to study medicine by his father's desire, and not from any vocation to the science, which he cordially abominated, as being all hypothesis, without the fraction of a basis of certainty to rest on. They corresponded after Shelley left Edinburgh, and subsequently renewed their intimacy in London. He was a frank, warm-hearted, very gentlemanly young man. He was a great enthusiast, and sympathized earnestly in all Shelley's views, even to the adoption of vegetable diet. He made some progress in a translation of Queen Mab into Portuguese. He showed me a sonnet, which he intended to prefix to his translation. It began — Sublime Shelley, cantor di verdade !
and ended — Surja Queen Mab a restaurar o mundo.
I have forgotten the intermediate lines. But he died early, of a disease of the lungs. The climate did not suit him, and he exposed himself to it incautiously.

On our way up, at Oxford, he [Shelly] was so much out of order that he feared being obliged to return. He had been living chiefly on tea and bread and butter, drinking occasionally a sort of spurious lemonade, made of some powder in a box, which, as he was reading at the time the Tale of a Tub, he called the powder of pimperlimpimp. He consulted a doctor, who may have done him some good, but it was not apparent. I told him, If he would allow me to prescribe for him, I would set him to rights." He asked, ‘What would be your prescription ? ' I said, ' Three mutton chops, well peppered/ He said, ' Do you really think so? ' I said, ' I am sure of it." He took the prescription; the success was obvious and immediate. He lived in my way for the rest of our expedition, rowed vigorously, was cheerful, merry, overflowing with animal spirits, and had certainly one week of thorough enjoyment of life.

(There is a confirmation of Peacock’s statement above in a letter Shelly wrote to Hogg in September, 1815, 'on my return from a water excursion on the Thames,' in which Shelley remarks that 'the exercise and dissipation of mind attached to such an expedition have produced so favourable an effect on my health, that my habitual dejection and irritability have almost deserted me.’)

At the time of publishing A Vindication of Natural Diet, Shelly was subject to bizarre hallucinations and phobias, an example of which is given below by Peacock

About the end of 1813, Shelley was troubled by one of his most extraordinary delusions. He fancied that a fat old woman who sat opposite to him in a mail coach was afflicted with elephantiasis, that the disease was infectious and incurable, and that he had caught it from her. He was continually on the watch for its symptoms ; his legs were to swell to the size of an elephant's, and his skin was to be crumpled over like goose-skin. He would draw the skin of his own hands, arms, and neck very tight, and if he discovered any deviation from smoothness, he would seize the person next to him, and endeavour by a corresponding pressure to see if any corresponding deviation existed. He often startled young ladies in an evening party by this singular process, which was as instantaneous as a flash of lightning. His friends took various methods of dispelling the delusion. I quoted to him the words of Lucretius : —

Est elephas morbus, qui propter flumina Nili Gignitur Aegypto in media, neque praelerea usquam. *

He said these verses were the greatest comfort he had. When he found that, as the days rolled on, his legs retained their proportion, and his skin its smoothness, the delusion died away.

* the gist of this quote seems to be that elephantiasis is only generated from the waters of the Nile.