A Quick Guide to Selenium
September 7 2018
The trace mineral selenium functions primarily as a component of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase which works with vitamin E in preventing free radical damage to cell membranes. Low levels of selenium have been linked to a higher risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases, and other conditions associated with increased free radical damage including premature aging and cataract formation.
Selenium Provides Antioxidant Support
Maintaining proper selenium levels appear to be important in protecting against many health conditions due to its antioxidant effects. Some of the studies show some advantages to selenium-rich yeast in this activity. For example, in one double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 69 healthy men were given a selenium from a selenium-rich yeast known as SelenoExcell (200 or 285 μg/day) or selenomethionine (200 μg/day) for 9 months. While blood selenium levels increased by 93%, 54%, and 86% in the selenomethionine and low- and high-dose SelenoExcell groups, respectively, only the men receiving the SelenoExcell demonstrated a decrease in standard markers of oxidative damage.
Selenium Helps to Prevent Cancer
A very large body of scientific evidence indicates that cancer mortality goes up when dietary intake of selenium is low. The anticancer effects of selenium appear to be more significant in men than in women and appear to be most important in the prevention of cancers of the skin, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract.
The results from studies looking at selenium in prostate cancer prevention have brought conflicting results. These may be related to the form of selenium being used and the ability of selenium to be incorporated into prostate cells. In the Nutritional Prevention of Cancer (NPC) study, supplementation with SelenoExcell, a selenium-enriched yeast, was associated with a 52% decrease in prostate cancer incidence. In contrast, in the SELECT study, selenomethionine failed to show any protective effects alone or when combined with synthetic vitamin E. The difference in results may be entirely related to the form of selenium being used (see above in regards to antioxidant activity).
In addition to acting as an antioxidant, selenium-rich yeast may also offer protection against cancer by immune system effects, detoxification of antagonistic metals, inactivation of factors that stimulate cancer growth, and a host of effects on DNA and cellular replication.
Selenium Prevents Cataract Formation
Maintaining proper selenium levels appear to be important in protecting against cataract formation. Studies have shown the selenium content in the human lens with a cataract is only 15% of normal levels and levels of free radicals are up to 25 times the normal levels in the aqueous humour (eye fluid) in patients with cataracts.
Selenium Fights Heart Disease
Selenium appears to offer protection against heart disease and strokes as rates for heart disease are highest where selenium intake is the lowest although the association is not as strong as it is in cancer. Selenium supplementation has been shown to produce positive effects in preventing heart attacks. In one double-blind study, 81 patients who had a heart attack were randomly assigned to receive 100 mcg of selenium (from selenium-rich yeast) or a placebo. After 6 months, there were 4 fatal heart attacks and 2 non-fatal heart attacks in the placebo group compared with no deaths and 1 non-fatal heart attack in the selenium group.
Selenium Enhances Immune Function
Selenium affects all components of the immune system including the development and expression of all white blood cells. Selenium deficiency results in depressed immune function, whereas selenium supplementation results in augmentation and/or restoration of immune functions. Selenium deficiency has been shown to inhibit resistance to infection as a result of impaired white blood cell and thymus function while selenium supplementation (200 mcg/day) has been shown to stimulate white blood cell and thymus function.
The ability of selenium supplementation to enhance immune function goes well beyond simply restoring selenium levels in selenium-deficient individuals. For example, in one study selenium supplementation (200 mcg/day) to individuals with normal selenium concentrations in their blood resulted in a 118% increase in the ability of white blood cells to kill tumor cells and 82.3% increase in the activity of a type of white blood cell known as a “natural killer cell” because of its powerful ability to kill cancer cells and microorganisms.
Selenium is Important During Pregnancy
There is substantial evidence that selenium is essential for proper fetal growth and development. Selenium requirements appear to be increased during pregnancy as selenium concentrations in the blood tend to be lower during pregnancy, particularly during the later stages. Selenium levels tend to be very low in low birth weight babies.
Popular forms of selenium on the market include sodium selenite, selenomethionine, and yeast-derived selenium. Several studies have shown the inorganic salts like sodium selenite are less effectively absorbed and is not as biologically active compared to organic forms of selenium such as selenomethionine and selenium-rich yeast. In addition, several other studies have shown advantages with high selenium content yeast (e.g., SelenoExcel) making it the preferred form of selenium supplement.
The usual dosage recommendation is 50 to 200 mcg per day. At high intake levels (daily intake in excess of 900 mcg for several months), selenium can produce toxicity (see Side Effects).
The human body requires just a small amount of selenium. Dosages as low as 900 mcg per day over prolonged periods of time may produce signs of selenium toxicity in some people. Signs and symptoms related to chronic toxicity include depression, nervousness, emotional instability, nausea and vomiting, a garlic odor of the breath and sweat, and, in extreme cases, loss of hair and fingernails.
No adverse interactions are known. Selenium may increase the effectiveness of the chemotherapy drug cisplatin (Platinol-AQ®).