Silica, also known as diatomaceous earth or DE for short, is less well-known but rapidly gaining popularity among the more health-conscious segment of the population.
But what exactly is DE, and what can it do for our health?
Currently enjoying a stint as the darling of the health supplement world is diatomaceous earth, which is about 80% to 90% silica. This mineral supplement has a strong following of loyal adherents who profess its powers to do many things, from warding off Alzheimer’s to preventing wrinkles.
Before we get to what it can and can’t do for human health, let’s sort out exactly what this mineral is, and where it comes from so you have an idea of what you’re dealing with if you decide DE is for you.
The “diatom” in the name of this mineral comes from diatoms, which are tiny algae that live in water. You can’t see them because they’re microscopic. When they die and become fossilized, their hard shells make up the bulk of what later becomes diatomaceous earth.
Because the resulting fossilized substance is highly porous, it’s been used for decades in all sorts of industrial applications from pool filters to dynamite. It’s even used as a mild abrasive in toothpaste and facial scrubs. In the food industry³(1) it’s used as an anti-caking agent in things like coffee creamer and seasonings.
A quick internet search will reveal that diatomaceous earth is a naturally-occurring rock dust that typically consists of a combination of these three things:
- silica (amorphous silicon dioxide)
- iron oxide
The alumina and iron oxide are found in trace amounts…around 3% and 1%, respectively. Various sources say DE also contains any of the following as well: calcium, sodium, magnesium, titanium, boron, manganese, copper, and zirconium.
The reason for the discrepancy is that the chemical composition of diatomaceous earth depends on where it was mined. According to Wikipedia, DE was discovered in the first half of the 1800s in Germany. Since then, deposits have been found in the following places as well:
- Czech Republic
- Skye, off the coast of Scotland
Freshwater deposits of Diatomaceous earth in the US are mostly in the western states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There, ancient lake beds supply significant amount of DE for industrial and food purposes.
Suffice it to say, when you’re exploring the health benefits of diatomaceous earth, you’re really looking into what silica can do for you. Therefore, many of the scientific studies cited in this article mention silica…amorphous silica, to be exact.
In fact, that brings us to the many names of diatomaceous earth…
- amorphous silica
- D Earth
- D Powder
- Silicon dioxide (SiO2)
- diatomaceous silica
Diatomaceous earth: ingesting vs inhaling
As you explore your options and consider whether taking DE is for you, you’re bound to run across some scary government warnings against amorphous silica. That’s because inhaling pure amorphous silica over prolonged periods can lead to respiratory problems. DE contains amorphous silica, but not in the form that’s toxic when breathed. You see, it must be crystallized through the process of calcination in order to become a threat to health.
OHSHA has issued guidelines and warnings on crystalline silica in workplaces where workers are exposed to the dust. It’s those who work in the milling process that are concerned with air quality.
When you purchase food grade DE as a dietary mineral supplement, unless you break open hundreds of capsules per day and snort them, you’re safe.
In fact, since DE has been used in the food industry for decades, we can cite studies dating back to the 1930s documenting the safety of ingesting DE or silicon dioxide as it’s called in the studies.
With that, we can move on to why people choose to ingest DE, and what they say it does for them. Then, we’ll see how that compares to what the science is telling us.
Here’s what people claim diatomaceous earth does for them, health-wise.
Go to Amazon and read a few reviews and you’ll get the picture: DE is supposedly a miracle mineral that does almost whatever you can imagine. Here’s a small sampling…keep in mind these are claims, not scientific fact!
- allows you higher energy levels
- absorbs E. coli
- cleanses the colon
- absorbs pesticide residues
- absorbs drug residues
- lowers cholesterol levels
- maintains healthy blood pressure
- helps with weight loss
- prevents osteoperosis
- promotes healthy hair, teeth, gums, and nails
- anti-aging properties
- treats urinary infections
- cures headaches
- helps with joint health
- stops tissue degeneration
- prevents baldness
- cures eczema and acne
- treats burns, rashes, warts, frostbite, abscesses, and bed sores
- prevents bleeding gums
- prevents tooth decay
- fades age spots
- sweeps bacteria out of the body
- protects your lungs from pollution
- prevents side effects of menopause
- reduces inflammation in the bowels
- prevents kidney stones
- cures bronchitis
- raises metabolism
- cures tinnitus
- cures insomnia
- helps diabetes
- alleviates symptoms of Alzheimer’s
The list could be much longer, since the claims for health benefits of DE seem to be infinite. These so-called “benefits”, of course, are based purely on user testimonials. People do actually seem to believe that DE cured them of all these things. As we all know, however, self-reporting in the health care industry has a lot of flaws. People may take DE and may indeed get better but they can’t really tell why they got better. In all likelihood it’s a coincidence.
Now, here’s what the research tells us.
Perhaps the most significant and exciting use for DE is in the area of bone health.¹ The National Institutes of Health tell us of research published in a health and aging medical journal showing the effect of silicon on bone health, one of the most crucial aspects of elder care we know of today.
In this study, it’s mentioned that several minerals are important in the diet for preventing osteoporosis, a disease which results in reduced bone mass and/or the body’s difficulty in recovering from fractures. Currently, we know for a fact that Vitamin D and calcium help along these lines. Minerals like magnesium, potassium, and fluoride also contribute to health bone mass.
Now, the scientific community is showing interest in the importance of silicon, which happens to be the third most prevalent trace element in the body after zinc and iron.
Doctors used to think that Silicon simply washed away in the urine (refer back to those studies from the 1930s from a few paragraphs ago and you’ll see evidence of this). Starting in the 1970s, however, research showed that silicon deficiencies resulted in health issues, mainly in the areas of connective tissue. Since then, much research has been conducted, the results of which suggest that silicon is important in the diet, specifically for bone health.
The positive effect of diatomaceous earth on the the blood cholesterol of humans has been known for almost twenty years now.4
Dating back to the late 1990s, a study was performed on 19 people who were given diatomaceous earth for 8 weeks. Each of these people had a history of high cholesterol, by the way. After taking 250 mg of DE three times a day, their serum cholesterol was reduced by a significant amount. Even four weeks after they stopped taking the DE, their cholesterol levels remained lower.
But the benefits of DE didn’t stop there. Researchers also found that low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels were reduced (also a good thing). In addition to that, triglyerides were reduced as well (again, that’s good).
A few DE myths, debunked.
If you look around, you’ll see claims of DE acting as a detox agent. This is explained by the fact that the shapes of the molecules are ragged, thereby acting as both scraper and sponge to absorb toxins (or, from the list previously cited…drug residue, pesticide residue, etc.
Where did such a notion come from, and is it true?
The shape of diatomaceous earth molecules are indeed jagged, which is where the cleansing theories may originate. The idea is that the jagged edges slash at toxins adhering to internal areas of the gastrointestinal system, and the porous quality of DE absorbs those toxins and carries them out of the body in the urine.
Farmers have been especially interested in using DE’s jagged edges to naturally remove internal parasites from their sheep and goats. Several studies have been carried out, but to no avail: none showed that DE had any beneficial effect in this regard.
The studies also showed no improvement in anemia either. There go a few DE claims.
But we still have better bone health and lower cholesterol levels to attribute to DE, which thankfully is available in supplement form from any drugstore. Just make sure it’s from a quality manufacturer that’s governed by quality standards and preferably in the US. Since there are significant DE deposits in the US, of food grade quality, this shouldn’t be a problem.
And if you’re looking for a new supplement to add to the daily regime, DE isn’t a bad way to go.
Just a few years back we passed an interesting milestone in the US. For the first time in history, more than half of Americans are taking dietary supplements. According to the CDC, the stats on vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements are even more impressive when you look at the female population.
A very high percentage of women in the US (59%) now take some form of supplement.
That represents part of a huge global trade in what’s known by insiders as the “VMS” industry. That’s “vitamins, minerals, and supplements” and it’s currently over $32 billion and expected to grow to even higher, mind-blowing figures by the year 2012.
As you can see from this world map, the US leads the way with interest in dietary supplements. Surprisingly, Philippines is a close second, according to Google:
Nowhere in the world is the market for mineral supplements stronger than in the United States. That would include big hits such as iron and calcium pills as well as chromium, selenium and silica.
If those ad-happy DE marketers would just stick to the truth, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that DE does good things for the body. Not satisfied with improved bone health, lower cholesterol or any of the other science-backed benefits of this mineral supplement that are sure to arise soon, they feel the need to proclaim its status as a miracle pill that cures absolutely everything.
As you can see from the studies cited here, there’s a lot going on the field of nutrition research in the medical arena. DE is promising in several ways…keep and open mind about taking DE as a dietary supplement, but also remember to keep your eyes open to the facts and not the myths. In good health!
- Jugdaohsingh R. Silicon and Bone Health. J Nutr Health Aging. 2007 Mar-Apr; 11(2): 99–110. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2658806/ June 8, 2015.
- Diatomite. Retrieved from http://geology.com/rocks/diatomite.shtml on June 18, 2015.
- Villota R. Hawkes JG. Food applications and the toxicological and nutritional implications of amorphous silicon dioxide. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1986;23(4):289-321. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3011357 on June 18, 2015.
- Wachter H1, Lechleitner M, Artner-Dworzak E, Hausen A, Jarosch E, Widner B, Patsch J, Pfeiffer K, Fuchs D. Diatomceous earth lowers blood cholesterol concentrations. Eur J Med Res. 1998 Apr 8;3(4):211-5. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9533930 on June 18, 2015.