Selenium is a trace element. It exists only in rare quantities in the world. It is produced primarily as a by-product of the process of mining copper. It is not recyclable. It is very unevenly distributed in the soils of the earth.
Consequently, the availability of selenium in grasses and grains and, at the next stage of the food chain, in animals, varies considerably from region to region in the world. The human dietary intakes of selenium vary accordingly around the world.
Selenium a vital nutrient for humans Selenium is a necessary micronutrient that our bodies do not produce. We get our selenium primarily from our diets. Selenium is important for good immune system function, good thyroid function, good reproductive function, and good protection of our cells’ DNA.
Women who have first-trimester miscarriages or recurrent miscarriages have been found to have significantly lower selenium status than women who do not miscarry. Professor Margaret Rayman points out that blood selenium concentrations are typically lower during pregnancy, in part because there is an expansion of the volume of blood. However, increased inflammation – implicated in miscarriages – could also be a cause of reduced circulating selenium [Rayman 2012].
For this article, I have searched the Medline database for results from randomized controlled studies involving selenium supplementation of low selenium status pregnant women. There have been a number of interesting results.
Selenium and oxidative stress in pregnant women
Dr. Tara and a team of researchers did a simultaneous assay of pro-oxidant burden and antioxidant capacity in a total of 166 first-time-pregnant women. In their first trimester, the women were randomly assigned to an active treatment group receiving 100 micrograms of a yeast-based selenium preparation (n=83) or placebo (n=83) per day until delivery.
Selenium supplements – especially selenium supplements as a component of a multi-micronutrient cocktail – can help to delay the decline of the immune system and can reduce the risk of death in HIV-infected patients. Most of the data that we have comes from randomized controlled studies carried out in African countries, but the results are relevant to the United States and Europe. Moreover, the results from studies of HIV-infected patients speak to the issue of the anti-microbial protection and antioxidant protection that comes with adequate selenium status.
Selenium and HIV and CD4 counts
CD4 cells are white blood cells that are part of the immune system. Specifically, the CD4 cells fight infections in the body. The HIV virus kills CD4 cells. When a person has fewer CD4 cells, he or she is at greater risk of contracting an infection.
Authors of a recent meta-analysis of 69 studies of selenium exposure and cancer risk have concluded that high selenium exposure can reduce cancer risk, especially high selenium exposure that is reflected in high plasma or serum selenium status and/or in high toenail concentrations [Cai 2016]. Admittedly, higher selenium intakes (as compared to lower selenium intakes) can affect different forms of cancer differently. We still need more research to sort out which forms and dosages of dietary and supplemental selenium are most effective at reducing cancer risk. In this article, I want to summarize the findings of Dr. Xianlei Cai and colleagues.
What is a meta-analysis of selenium exposure and cancer risk?
A meta-analysis is a research method of combining the data from several selected research studies to reach conclusions that have greater statistical power. In the present case, Cai et al selected 69 studies that met their inclusion criteria. Each one of the 69 selected studies had the following characteristics:
There have been two noteworthy discoveries from a recent randomized controlled trial conducted by Dr. Urban Alehagen of Linköping University (Sweden) and his colleagues.
Firstly, people with low concentrations of selenium in their blood were found to be at significantly higher risk of death from heart disease.
Secondly, a combination of a patented high selenium yeast supplement and a proven Coenzyme Q10 supplement taken daily for four years provided significant protection against heart disease in people with low serum selenium status.
The KiSel-10 study of cardiovascular mortality
The study enrolled 668 healthy elderly individuals aged 70-80 years. The study was well-designed and well-executed. One group of 219 randomly selected individuals received 200 micrograms of selenized yeast tablets and 200 milligrams of Coenzyme Q10 capsules daily for four years. A second randomly assigned group of 222 individuals received matching placebos. The remaining group of 227 individuals received no treatment at all.
The heart muscle tissue is frequently the first tissue in humans to suffer damage caused by selenium deficiency. When the cell membranes in the heart muscle tissue are damaged by the action of harmful free radicals (this is called oxidative damage), many of the healthy heart muscle cells are replaced by fibrous tissue. The resulting condition is called cardiomyopathy.
Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle in which the heart is enlarged, thick, and rigid [Mayo Clinic]. As the cardiomyopathy worsens, the weakened heart muscle is less and less able to pump adequate quantities of blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the cells and tissues throughout the body. Eventually, symptoms such as shortness of breath, early fatigue, and swelling in the legs and feet and abdomen appear, the symptoms of chronic heart failure.
Statin medications: good news and bad news? On the one hand, statin medications are effective at reducing cholesterol levels, and, are good, apparently, at reducing the number of deaths from heart attacks. On the other hand, we have seen a very considerable rise in the number of cases of chronic heart failure … in the same period that statin medications have been prescribed. Drs. Okuyama and Langsjoen and their colleagues have explained the pharmacological mechanisms by which this medical paradox may be occurring [Okuyama].
Statins inhibit the body’s production of Coenzyme Q10
Okay, I was aware of the evidence from well-designed studies linking the taking of statin medications to decreased plasma levels of Coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 is an important factor in cellular energy production and is an important lipid-soluble antioxidant [Folkers, Littarru, McMurray]. And I knew that the energy-deprived heart is a failing heart [Folkers, Molyneux, Mortensen]. So, I knew that anyone taking a statin medication needs to talk to his or her cardiologist about taking a good Coenzyme Q10 supplement.
How much selenium from food and supplements do we need on a daily basis? Which bio-markers of optimal selenium status seem to be most useful to answer this question? Dr. Rachel Hurst and Dr. Susan J. Fairweather-Tait, Norwich Medical School, United Kingdom, and their colleagues set out to find answers. The design of their study is very interesting.
They enrolled 119 healthy British men and women aged 50 – 64 years in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that lasted 12 weeks [Hurst]. They excluded the following persons from the study:
people with already high plasma selenium status
people with long-term illnesses
people on various medications
people unwilling to discontinue taking vitamins and herbal remedies at least one month prior to the start of the study
selenium-enriched yeast tablets containing 50, 100, or 200 micrograms of a patented organic selenium (SelenoPrecise® preparation delivered by Pharma Nord, Denmark)
selenium-enriched onion meals that provided the equivalent of 50 micrograms of selenium per day
unenriched onion meals that provided the equivalent of less than 4 micrograms of selenium per day
Measurements of selenium
Remember: Selenium is a trace element. We measure its intake in micrograms per day, not milligrams. We measure selenium status in plasma and serum in terms of micrograms per liter (or equivalently, in nanograms per milliliter). Selenium in toenails or hair, then, we measure in micrograms per gram.
Selenium is an important micronutrient. It is essential for life for both people and animals. The body cannot synthesize selenium and is dependent upon the selenium that it can get from food. In many regions of the world, there is too little selenium in the soil and in the food, and supplementation is necessary for optimal health.
Regions with selenium-poor soil
In many regions of the world, the content of selenium in the soil is quite low. In large parts of Asia, China in particular, and in much of Europe and the Middle East, there are low levels of selenium in the soil.
Plants accumulate inorganic selenium from the soil and convert it to organic selenium. In that way, the selenium enters the food chain. For example, cows eat grass containing selenium, and the some of the selenium enters the meat and the milk of the cows. People eat the meat and drink the milk. Too little selenium in the soil means too little selenium in the food.
The trace element selenium is an essential component of the selenium-dependent enzymes called selenoproteins. We need these selenoproteins for the optimal biological functioning of our cells. Specifically, we need adequate daily intakes of selenium for the protection of cellular DNA, for successful reproduction, for proper thyroid gland function, for protection against infections, for anti-oxidative protection against the damage caused by free radicals, and for the prevention of cancer and heart disease.
What form of selenium is best?
Many of us cannot get enough selenium in our diets, especially if we do not regularly eat Brazil nuts (very high in selenium) or if we eat relatively little meat and fish. However, there are various supplemental forms of selenium available to us as consumers.