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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Silicon: An Essential Nutrient of Good Bone Health
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Forrest H. Nielsen

Silicon has become a well-known chemical element in part because its properties allow millions of bits of information to be processed and stored in computers. The term silicon became popular when a large number of computer companies, which had converged in an area of California, became known as Silicon Valley. Now, based on some recent happenings, silicon may become familiar to the general public for another reason – as an element that has health-promoting properties.

Research at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center (GFHNRC) has shown that low dietary silicon decreases the bone and blood concentrations of substances that stimulate cells to form joint and bone cartilage and initiate bone calcification in experimental animals. Low dietary silicon also has been shown by the GFHNRC to increase the excretion of products resulting from collagen and bone breakdown and loss, which are used as markers of osteoporosis risk. The recent research confirms that silicon stimulates the formation of collagen, a protein that gives bones their strength and flexibility, joint cartilage its cushioning ability, and a scaffold upon which bone mineralization occurs.

Silicon was actually first reported as possibly being an essential nutrient more than 30 years ago. For the next 25 years, the battle of bringing attention to the nutritional importance was fought, not too successfully, by a scientist who promoted the hypothesis that inadequate dietary silicon could contribute to diseases associated with aging such as atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. After this scientist's death, studies examining the nutritional importance of silicon came to a standstill until about 2 years ago. Then several research groups reported new findings indicating that silicon is important for joint cartilage and bone formation and maintenance, thus boosting the suggesting that silicon is a nutrient of concern for osteoporosis, and perhaps osteoarthritis.

Scientists at King's College and St. Thomas' hospital in London, England in collaboration with scientists from Harvard and Tufts Universities in the United States reported that there is a "significant positive association" between the density of bone and silicon intake in men and in premenopausal women. In addition, scientists at the University of Mons-Hainaut in Belgium have found that silicon is an essential component in bioactive glasses or materials used as bone substitutes upon which new bone can grow in humans with serious bone injury.

Although evidence is accumulating that shows an inadequate intake of silicon may contribute to the risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, very little is known about its requirement. A daily intake of 5 to 10 mg of highly absorbable silicon probably will be found adequate. Not all food silicon is highly absorbable so a higher intake than this is most likely desirable. The richest sources of silicon are unrefined grains of high fiber content, cereal products and root vegetables. Because it is made from grains, beer also is a dietary source of silicon.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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