Boron is a word that calls up images of grease-dirty hands, 20 mule teams, Death Valley, old Western movies. In my mind. Borax, is still linked to the twenty mule team and images of Wallace Beery in Western movies, hauling borax in wagons. Until recently there was nothing much medical or nutritional about it; Boron was just a powdery cleaner, something to get out the dirt—a not very tidy cleaning agent. Boric acid has a bit more medical history as it has uses as an antibiotic, and a cleansing agent for mucous membranes and the eyes. More recently it has gained popularity as a bug-killer. Just dust the boric acid or borax powder in the insect runways and cracks in your house and they die—even cockroaches go away and it is safer than the other commercial pesticides.
Twenty years ago I read a report that boron is an essential mineral for plants, in particular enhancing their ability to attract and utilize potassium, enhancing its transport in the plant tubules. That sounded like a function that might apply to humans but I have heard nothing about it since. But now there is evidence that boron is probably essential for humans. Beyond that, some boron compounds have almost miraculous power against inflammation, vascular disease, and cancer. A symposium on Boron was held at University of California, Irvine, in 1992 and published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives in 1994 (volume 102, supplement 7). Here are a few excerpts to prepare you to appreciate the amazing progress regarding health effects of this mineral and benefits that might apply to you.
Most areas of the world have less than 5 mg in a pound of soil (454,000 mg in a pound) but large areas of Western United States, Mediterranean, and Kazakhstan have soils with 10 mg per pound (10-20 mg/Kg). All of the United States commercial supply is mined in the Mojave desert, headquartered in the appropriately named town of Boron for the past 75 years or so. In 1960 boron was discovered in Turkey and today Turkey is the largest producer in the world of borates for borax, boric acid, glass, fiberglass, cleaning agents, metal alloys, fertilizers, wood treatments, insecticides, and microbiocides. It works in life systems by chemical binding to hydroxyl groups (oxygen-hydrogen) and thereby influencing enzyme activity.
Human intake of boron ranges between 1.7 and 7 mg per day, mostly from fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables. It has yet to be recognized as an essential mineral; however it does have measurable effects on human biochemistry, physiology and performance . In studies comparing electroencephalograph (EEG) and performance2 testing (cognitive testing), low boron intake was associated with a significant decrease in fast frequency brain waves and increased slow waves. This represents a decreased arousal, as evidenced also by poor performance on tasks measuring attention, short term memory, long term memory, perception, eye-hand coordination, and manual dexterity. In other words, there was statistically significant decrement in performance reflecting impaired brain activity in the 28 adult human subjects in these studies.
Low copper status amplified the effects of boron deficiency, which were less apparent after 6 weeks than at 9 weeks, thus bracketing in the time required for clinical deficiency signs. However, tests of attention and memory were consistently impaired even in the shorter periods of deficiency.
Dr. Forrest Nielsen, also of the US Department of Agriculture, Grand Forks Station, was first to discover the probable essential role of boron in human health, particularly bone maintenance. Though the question of essentiality remains controversial, Dr. Nielsen's first study remains a landmark in this field. He fed 12 postmenopausal women a diet with only 250 micrograms of boron per 2000 dietary calories for 4 months. Then these ladies were fed a similar diet but with a boron supplement providing 3 mg per day for 7 weeks. Urine tests showed reduced amounts of calcium and magnesium being lost at the same time that the blood plasma was also reduced. This was associated with an increase in 17b-estradiol and testosterone. The implication was that youth-giving hormones were increased and calcium was going back into the bones.
In another experiment Dr. Nielsen studied men over age 45, postmenopausal women and postmenopausal women on estrogen therapy. Again they were fed a low boron diet, this time for 2 months; then supplemented with boron for 7 weeks. Testing showed significantly increased copper binding protein (ceruloplasmin) and plasma copper, as well as increased antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase (which depends on copper for its activity) during the period of boron repletion. The estrogen therapy women showed increased ceruloplasmin and copper—which increased further during boron repletion. Dietary boron led to increased ceruloplasmin, copper, and Superoxide dismutase in the non estrogen groups. Dr. Nielsen proposed that boron also affects cell membrane transport of calcium and thus affects "cell signaling."
Where Dr. Nielsen leaves off, Dr. Iris Hall and her co-researchers at the division of medicinal chemistry and natural products, University of North Carolina, set forth to evaluate medical applications of specific boron componds, called amine carboxyboranes. Their findings are exciting: boron compounds have beneficial medical effects in treating osteoporosis, inflammation, blood lipid disorders, obesity, and cancer!
These boron compounds, amine-carboxyboranes, were found to posses selective activity against single-cell and solid tumors from mouse and human leukemias, lymphomas, sarcomas, and carcinomas. In leukemia cells the boranes inhibited DNA and RNA nucleic acid synthesis, evidently by inhibiting enzymes, e.g. orotidine-monophosphate decarboxylase, and various nucleoside and nucleotide kinases (enzymes that add phosphorous to molecules). In addition the boranes proved useful to reduce edema and pain caused by inflammation. They also protected against septic shock from lipopolysaccharides (LPS) better than any other drug. They were effective against chronic arthritis (in rats) and pleurisy (rats). When tested against implanted lipopolysaccharide (toxic substances from bacteria) they were found to block the inflammation caused by myeloperoxidase enzyme activity of neutrophils.
The boranes were found to be dual inhibitors of both cyclo-oxygenase and lipoxygenase enzymes. By blocking cyclo-oxygenase, the gateway enzyme to prostaglandins and thromboxanes, as well as lipoxygenase, gateway to the pro-inflammatory leukotrienes, the boranes have the more profound anti-inflammatory effect than any other single compound that I know3.
Boranes also were found to increase excretion of cholesterol and triglyceride into the bile, which was increased in flow volume by almost 50 percent. Reabsorption of cholesterol from the intestinal tract was also reduced and the boranes were found to lower cholestesrol synthesis by blocking the enzyme HMG Coenzyme A reductase, an action comparable to the statin drugs. Boranes lowered cholesterol by 18- to 48 percent and triglycerides by 12 to 77 percent after only 16 days of treatment.
But this is really just the portal to one of the most exciting discoveries in cancer therapeutics, and that is the use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors as inducers of cancer cell apoptosis, i.e. programmed cell death. Pioneers, such as Robert Nagourney, founder of Rational Therapeutics, reports dramatic tumor involution after treatment with herbal molecules, such as the plant terpene, limonene, when combined with statin drugs. The combination triggers apoptosis in some types of cancer, leading to shrinkage and even disappearance of the tumors. It is possible that the carboxyboranes provide an even more potent avenue to make use of this effect.
Is boron a toxic mineral?
In medicine one must always question the safety of any treatment. Hippocrates left us with the admonition: "First do no harm." I am glad to report that boron is safe for ordinary usage but not something to be careless about. Toxicology studies in rats, mice and rabbits were performed by Jerrold Heindel and associates at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. In pregnant rabbits, abortions occurred with doses of 250 mg per kg per day. The lowest observed adverse effect level for neonatal offspring was 78 mg/kg/day for rats and 125 mg/kg./day for rabbits; while the lowest adverse effect level for the mothers was 163 mg/kg (rat) and 250 mg/kg (rabbit). In other words, a fetal rat is not noticeably affected by doses of boron, up to about 80 mg per kg (2.2 lb) an amount that calculates to 800 mg extrapolated for a 22 pound human baby. While that is a high dose, babies do the darnedest things and poisonings have occurred, though yet higher doses of 4.5 to 14 grams. It appears that human babies are more resistant to boric acid than rats; however itis important to know that boric acid can absorb through the skin and mucous membranes. It is not a good idea to bathe a child in it.
Toxicology studies have also been carried out on borax workers. A study by Dwight Culver and associates from the University of California, Irvine, identified blood and urine boron levels in workers at a borax packaging plant. The average dietary intake was 1.35 mg boron per day, very similar to the estimated 1.52 mg boron reported recently for the standard American diet. Total estimated boron plus exposure to borax dust on the job added up to about 28 mg per day.
I conclude from all this that supplementation with boron in the range of 3 to 6 mg per day is 1000-fold less than the no observed adverse effect level and that boron is remarkably safe. I predict that it will be recognized as an essential mineral in the not too distant future. But right now it should be used with doctor's instructions and it is important to remember that boric acid and borax compounds can absorb through the skin and mucous membranes—without even swallowing!
On the other hand, in adults the reality is deficiency, not toxicity. Testing of blood, urine and hair reveals that many of my patients are sub-optimal in boron. Supplementation seems to confirm the observations of Dr. Nielsen: patients feel better, libido and mood go up, and calcium loss is diminished.
The amine-carboxyboranes are a different story. These are not just nutrients; they are medical drugs and need to be further researched before approval by FDA. But I think it is such a promising area of research that you should know about it now. And the effects are truly remarkable: this combination of orthomolecular and pharmaceutical research promises to open a new era of "miracle drugs." Boron is a versatile candidate to lead this revolution in nutraceutical medicine.
Richard A. Kunin, M.D. ©2000