In my 1983 book on trace minerals, I focused on silicon and artery health (1). In atherosclerosis, the concentration of silicon in the aortic wall decreases and this decrease precedes the appearance of fat and cholesterol deposits. Silicon, in the form of orthosilicic acid (OSA), stimulates the production of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) in the extra-cellular matrices to fill the gap between cells, thus decreasing the permeability of blood vessels (2). This inhibits inflammatory processes, and fat and cholesterol deposition. It also maintains the normal quality of elastic fibers (2). GAGs are sometimes called polysaccharide chains and are a rather large family of fairly large molecules including hyaluronic acid, chondroitin sulfate, heparin, glucosamine, heparan sulfate, keratan sulfate, and dermatan sulfate.
Today, the interest in silicon is more on skin, hair, joints, and nails. Skin is an organ that reflects the health status of other organs. Nutrition certainly affects the appearance and youthfulness of skin, but more importantly, healthy skin protects the health of the other organs. Sometimes people overlook the fact that skin is an important organ.
It is hard to believe that we have not discussed the mineral silicon in this column in 15 years! And it is not because there has been no news or that silicon is not important to overall health. The last time we discussed silicon in this column was in 2005. Rich Passwater Jr. and I, along with Professors Dirk Vanden Berghe of Antwerp University, Belgium and Andre Barel of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, discussed how bioactive silicon in the form of stabilized orthosilicic acid (OSA) improved aged skin and reduced wrinkling (3).
Let’s update and discuss the latest research on healthful, radiant skin and making bones strong, as well as building healthy nails, hair, arteries, and tissues. Many readers may be surprised to learn that silicon’s role in the body is not as a structural component, as is calcium, in bone. Instead, silicon is a gene-activator and enzyme-activator that assists in producing more skin and bone proteins such as collagen and elastin. This discussion is about the biological roles of silicon, the fact that most diets lack optimal amounts of absorbable silicon and how the highly bioavailable and efficacious form, choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid (ch-OSA) has been clinically proven to improve skin, hair, and nails, among other benefits
The element silicon has unique chemical and electrical properties that when used by the body imparts unique actions that other elements can’t provide. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (27.2% by weight) after oxygen at 45.5%, and the seventh most abundant element in the Universe. Yet, most of this abundant mineral is not in a form that can be used by the body. It reminds me of the sailor on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who laments “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” Yes, silicon is plentiful, but the forms of silicon that can be absorbed are in short supply in most diets. The silicon forms used for semiconductors in Silicon Valley do not help either. Neither do the compounds called “silicones,” which are large polymeric compounds with a silicon-oxygen-silicon (Si-O-Si) backbone that form rubber-like materials.
Since the element silicon has a strong affinity for oxygen, the vast majority of our planets’ silicon is in its most stable oxidized form, insoluble silicon dioxide (SiO2). This is commonly called “silica.” In its crystalline form it is called “Quartz.” Quartz is the primary material in Earth’s several quintillion grains of sand.
Silica is useful as an excipient in producing vitamin pills as it is an anti-caking agent, adsorbent, disintegrant, and glidant to allow powder to flow freely. Silica is often listed as an “Inert ingredient” on the label, but sand will not help you. Silicon dioxide (silica) is essentially insoluble, but a miniscule amount can be converted into compounds that are absorbable.
Some plants can take up silica and convert it into forms that are bioavailable. Principle sources of dietary silicon are whole grains, fruits, beverages, and vegetables, in that order (4).
Unrefined cereals and grains have high silicon content, especially oats and oat bran. Rice hulls and husks are rich sources of silicon. Beer has a relatively decent silicon content due to the processing of barley and hops (5). Meats, dairy products, and refined flours have little silicon content. Drinking water can be a source of soluble silicon depending on the source (volcanic preferred) and method of processing.
To be utilized by the body, silicon must be converted into the bioavailable orthosilicic acid (OSA). OSA simply designates that this is a molecule of silicon dioxide that also has two molecules of water incorporated into it and has the chemical formula of Si(OH)4. The conversion of other forms of silicon into OSA occurs in the intestinal tract. The conversion varies greatly depending on the form of silicon and the person taking it, and it generally declines with age.
Also, orthosilicic acid is rather unstable. Orthosilicic acid molecules generally quickly react with one another or with positively charged proteins or other minerals to form inactive complexes with no use to the body and which will be quickly excreted. It is not merely a matter of how much soluble silicon is put into a supplement at manufacture, but a matter of how much soluble silicon is present when the supplement is taken. For this reason, along with the supporting clinical studies, my preferred form of silicon for supplementation is choline-stabilized-orthosilicic acid (ch-OSA).
I have called upon one of the World’s leading experts on silicon supplementation, Richard Passwater, Jr. (my elder son), to discuss some of the clinical studies with stabilized orthosilicic acid (OSA) regarding skin, hair, nails, and overall health. Rich has been involved with silicon supplementation and its research for more than 16 years. He is the education director for the Belgium-based dietary supplement research and dietary supplement production company, Bio Minerals NV.
Richard A. Passwater (RAP): Rich, just what is the correlation between healthy skin and healthy bones?
Richard Passwater Jr. (RPJr.): Fuller Albright, M.D., is the first person I’m aware of who established a correlation between skin and bone health. Back in the 1930s and 40s, Dr. Albright was a leading endocrinologist. While treating patients, Dr. Albright observed women with osteoporosis generally had thinner, more transparent skin on the back of their hands compared to women with healthy bones. He further noted that compounds such as estrogen improved both skin and bones. Over time, he became convinced there was some structural component found in both the skin and in bones with closely related metabolisms.
Some people were quite skeptical and even questioned his sanity. Now Dr. Albright is often considered as one of the top five most influential U.S. physicians of all time and is widely credited for creating the initial understanding of the relationship between menopause and osteoporosis. Each year the Fuller Albright Award is given by the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research in recognition of meritorious scientific accomplishment in the bone and mineral (6).
In the 1960s, University of Birmingham professor B. McConkey determined that strong flexible type-1 collagen fibers form the fundamental framework of both skin and bones. His research group also noted elderly people with senile osteoporosis also had transparent skin. Additional clinical research studies led to the hypothesis that transparent skin is the consequence of a change in the connective tissues of the skin and that a similar change might be taking place in the connective tissues of the bones (7).
In 1987, Professor Mark Brincat published research documenting how skin collagen content, skin thickness, metacarpal index, and forearm bone mineral content in postmenopausal women showed a similar decline per year after menopause (8). Metacarpals are the long bones within the hand that are connected to the carpals (wrist bones) and to the phalanges (finger bones).
Dermatology Prof. Sam Shuster, sometimes considered the Godfather of collagen research, also spent a great deal of time investigating and making game-changing discoveries related to bone and skin health. He observed how some compounds such as corticosteroids similarly decrease skin and bone collagen, while androgens, such as human growth hormone (hGH or HGH), similarly increase skin and bone collagen production. He also noticed that genetic disorders negatively impacting collagen production (such as osteogenesis imperfecta and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) and genetic disorders increasing collagen destruction (such as homocystinuria) led to similar negative changes to both skin and bones. And nutrition related, he noted how scurvy similarly impacted both skin and bones.
In my opinion, Prof. Shuster’s paper titled, “Osteoporosis, a unitary hypothesis of collagen loss in skin and bone” published in Medical Hypotheses in 2006 was a huge advancement in bone research. He presented articulate arguments as to why collagen loss was not a result of osteoporosis but was, in fact, the very cause of osteoporosis. In this article, Prof. Shuster also suggested using the skin as a screening tool to test treatments and compounds that can potentially improve bone health (9).
Around that same time, a group of Japanese researchers lead by Prof. Sumino H. Ichikawa, documented that the postmenopausal decrease in skin collagen correlated with the age-related decrease in bone mineral density in a group of Japanese women (10).
More recently, Prof. Lubna Pal, M.D., from Yale Medical School, lead a research team investigating the link between skin and bones. The researchers examined facial skin of a group of women between 50 and 60 years old. They also measured Bone Mineral Density (BMD) and Bone Mineral Content (BMC) at several critical areas in the body. Dr. Pal’s team found more skin wrinkling was associated with having lower bone density throughout the total body. They also observed that greater skin elasticity was tied to greater BMC throughout the body. Conversely, greater skin wrinkling was associated with having lower bone density at the spine, femoral neck, and total body (11).
Professor Pal felt the correlation was so strong that she developed a test for primary care providers to screen for hip health by looking at the glabellar region (the area above the nose) on a woman’s forehead. She picked the glabellar region because it is the area that best correlates with bone health at femur neck at the critical hip area.
RAP: Excellent points indeed.
RPJr: Yes, in my opinion, there’s clear evidence of a correlation between skin health and the health of all collagen-based tissues such as bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and blood vessels. As an example, in the 1960s and 70s, some orthomolecular doctors noticed a correlation between the health of skin and another collagen-dependent tissue, blood vessels. The human body has over 60 million miles of blood vessels, which are about 40% collagen and elastin (a closely related protein).
RAP: I mentioned the basis for the protection of blood vessels by silicon in the introduction, but it is interesting to know that physicians could see the correlation between skin and arteries.
RPJr: These doctors often would look at a patient’s earlobe, which is about 75% collagen. Their thinking was that a deep wrinkle—or crease—on an earlobe was a warning sign of potential collagen metabolism problems. They speculated that the person likely would also have similar problems with collagen generation and/or collagen destruction throughout their body.
In 1972, Dr. Sanders T. Frank reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that a diagonal earlobe crease (ELC) was a potential indicator of coronary artery disease. The ELC is now known as a “Frank’s sign.” It’s still a controversial diagnostic tool but, in my opinion, is proving to be useful and more accurate than initially given credit. As an example, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Medicine on 241 patients showed Frank’s sign could predict ischemic cerebrovascular events. Patients with classical cardiovascular risk factors had Frank’s sign at a higher frequency (12).
Also related to blood vessel health and cardiovascular disease, in 2018, research from Dr. Yolande Esquirol and colleagues was presented at the European Society of Cardiology meeting. Researchers examined forehead wrinkles in 3,200 healthy adults, aged 32–62 at baseline and followed them for about 25 years.
People with numerous deep forehead wrinkles (score of 2 or 3) were almost 10 times more likely to have died a cardiovascular death than people with wrinkle scores of 0 (13).
RAP: Wow, between earlobes and foreheads, facial skin can give a quick suggestion as to cardiovascular health after allowing for sun exposure. Anything else?
RPJr: As another example, prior to her study investigating the correlation between skin and bones, Professor Pal conducted a study on the correlation between Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP) and bone fracture risk. POP occurs when the muscles and or collagen-based tissues supporting the uterus, bladder, or rectum become weak or loose (14).
Professor Pal’s 2009 study showed women with moderate to severe POP were significantly more likely to have reported suffering a broken bone compared to women with mild or no POP. In addition, women with moderate-to-severe prolapse had significantly lower total body and total hip BMD, compared with women with a mild or no POP. In a press conference she said, “And the connection is biologically plausible, given that 90% of [the living part of] bone is collagen (thus making deficiency a risk factor for fracture) and that qualitative or quantitative deficiencies of tissue collagen may be more common in women with POP, than in women without.”
RAP: Is there a common link?
RPJr: Yes. The production of several structural proteins such as collagen and elastin is dependent on the actions of enzymes requiring cofactors for activation such as bioactive silicon in the form of OSA and other nutrients such as vitamin C.
People often seem skeptical when I talk about bone, skin, and joints as being related to one another. But strong, flexible collagen fibers form the fundamental framework of skin, bones, joints, and as you mentioned, even blood vessels. Accordingly, skin, bone and joint health are significantly influenced by the quantity and quality of the collagen they contain. It’s what gets deposited into their collagen framework that makes these tissues appear and function so differently from one another.
RAP: Well, collagen is almost a household word these days, but there are several misconceptions about it. Let’s chat about building collagen in skin, cartilage, bones and other tissues in the next column.
- Passwater, R.A. and Cranton, E. Trace Elements, Hair Analysis and Nutrition. Keats Publ., New Canaan, CT (1983)
- Loeper J., Loeper J., Fragny M. (1978) The Physiological Role of the Silicon and its AntiAtheromatous Action. In: Bendz G., Lindqvist I., Runnström-Reio V. (eds) Biochemistry of Silicon and Related Problems. Nobel Foundation Symposia, vol 40. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4613-4018-8_13
- Passwater, R.A. Bioactive Silicon (OSA) Improves Aged Skin and Reduces Wrinkling. Whole Foods Magazine. (April 2005) http://www.drpasswater.com/nutrition_library/Nov_05/Vanden_Berghe_Silicon_Skin_Part_1a.html
- Jugdaohsingh, R. “Silicon and bone health,” Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 99–110, 2007.
- Price, T., Koval, K.J. and Langford, J.R. Silicon: A Review of Its Potential Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis Volume 2013 |Article ID 316783 https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/316783
- Manring M.M., Calhoun J, Fuller Albright, MD 1900–1969. Clin Orthop Relat Res (2011) 469:2092–2095
- (McConkey, Fraser, Bligh, and Whiteley, 1963).
- Brincat et. al. A study of the decrease of skin collagen content, skin thickness, and bone mass in the postmenopausal woman. Obstet Gynecol.1987 Dec;70(6):840-5.
- Shuster S. Osteoporosis, a unitary hypothesis of collagen loss in skin and bone. Hypotheses (2005) 65 (3): 426-432.
- Sumino H, Ichikawa S, Abe M, Endo Y, Nakajima Y, Minegishi T, Ishikawa O, Kurabayashi M (2004). Effects of aging and postmenopausal hypoestrogenism on skin elasticity and bone mineral density in Japanese women. Endocrine Journal 51 (2): 159-164.
- Pal L, et. al. Severity of facial wrinkles may predict bone density in early menopause. presented at The Endocrine Society’s 93rd Annual Meeting in Boston. June 2011.
- Frank, S. N Engl J Med 1973; 289:327-328 DOI:10.1056/NEJM197308092890622
- Esquirol Y, et. al. “Forehead wrinkles and risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality over 20-year follow-up in working population: VISAT study” European Society of Cardiology Congress 2018
- Pal, L. Pelvic organ prolapse and relationship with skeletal integrity. Womens Health (Lond).2009 May;5(3):325-33. doi: 10.2217/whe.09.19.