Selenium is a trace mineral that’s considered essential to human health. Your body only needs small amounts of selenium to meets its needs. Selenium acts as a powerful antioxidant that can help your body fight disease, regulate production of thyroid hormones and protect against heart disease and cancer. Here’s what you should know about selenium and your diet.
Selenium’s Function in Your Body
Your body needs selenium in order to use oxygen effectively. Selenium combines with vitamin E to help detoxify the body. Selenium helps regulate the function of the thyroid gland, which produces hormones important to metabolism, and may support the function of most major body organs. Selenium helps regulate blood pressure to promote cardiovascular health, and it helps keep your skin healthy.
Selenium is a powerful antioxidant, and as such it can boost your immunity, slow the signs of aging and protect against certain cancers. Scientists believe that selenium supports the function and development of chromosomes with your body’s DNA, which can help protect against some types of hereditary cancer.
Symptoms and Causes of Selenium Deficiency
Common symptoms of selenium deficiency include chronic fatigue, decreased cognitive function and decreased sexual function and libido. Selenium deficiency is at the root of three separate diseases, which are:
- Myxedematous Endemic Cretinism, a type of mental retardation
- Keshan Disease, which causes decreased cardiovascular function and enlargement of the heart muscle, and is usually found in children suffering from selenium deficiency
- Kashin-Beck Disease, a condition which effects the bones and joints
Selenium deficiency occurs most frequently in regions where the soil contains little selenium. North American soil is rich in selenium, so selenium deficiency in the United States is rare. However, countries such as China experience problematic levels of selenium deficiency due to low levels of this element in the soil.
Those who rely on IV drips for their nutrition are at risk of selenium deficiency, since these solutions often don’t provide selenium. Doctors routinely add selenium to these IV solutions for patients who must rely on them over the long term.
Gastrointestinal disorders may disturb the body’s ability to absorb selenium. If you have a serious gastrointestinal disorder that interferes with your body’s ability to take in nutrients, like Crohn’s disease, your doctor may prescribe selenium supplements along with other nutritional supplementation.
Getting Enough Selenium in Your Diet
Selenium is most often found in plant foods, including rice, walnuts and wheat. Plant foods will contain differing levels of selenium depending on the selenium content of the soil in which they’re grown, so plant foods from different parts of the world may contain different levels of selenium. For this reason, selenium deficiency is rare in some countries and more prevalent in others.
Selenium can also be found in meat, especially if the animals were raised on grain with a high selenium content. Beef, chicken, eggs and tuna all contain selenium.
Too much selenium in your diet causes a condition known as selenosis. Symptoms include hair loss, white patches on the fingernails, garlic scented halitosis, irritability, fatigue, nerve damage and upset stomach. Adults should take no more than 400 micrograms of selenium per day.