Selenium Intakes and Health Outcomes

Selenium and good health. How much do we need? How do we get it? Generally speaking, our family and friends do not know just how important selenium is to good health. Our bodies cannot synthesize selenium. We are dependent upon food for an adequate daily intake of this essential trace element.

Salmon rich in selenium
Depending upon where we live, the selenium content of our food may be too low. Wang et al [2023] estimate that approximately one billion people worldwide lack sufficient selenium in their diet.
In many regions of the world, the soil and the foodstuffs have a poor selenium content. Accordingly, the daily intake of selenium varies considerably. Many people have an inadequate supply and thus risk poor health outcomes as a result. For example, in much of Europe, the UK, and the Middle East, there are widespread reports of suboptimal selenium status. Supplementation is necessary in selenium-poor regions [Stoffaneller & Morse 2015]. read more

Selenium Supplementation for Vegetarians and Vegans

Vegetarians and vegans, do they get enough selenium in their diets? It is an important question because the number of vegetarians around the world is growing for ethical and environmental reasons. How do we measure selenium status in various groups of people?

Vineyard in Germany with selenium-poor soil
The arable land in much of Europe contains a sub-optimal content of selenium, meaning that the plants grown there are also poor in selenium. Pictured: A vineyard in Germany.

Selenium is an essential trace element. Essential means that we have to get it from our food or from supplements. The human body does not synthesize selenium. What the body does synthesize is the selenoproteins, of which selenium in the amino acid selenocysteine is a key active component.

Particularly in much of Europe and the Middle East, the soil and the plants have relatively poor selenium content. In many countries, the farm animals are supplemented with selenium to improve their nutritional intakes and their health and to avoid selenium deficiency syndromes. read more

Selenium and Immune Function and DNA Repair

Selenium is a trace element essential for for DNA repair, for  good immune function, and for reduced mortality risk.

DNA double helix
Cell studies, animal models, and human clinical trials suggest that an optimal supply of selenium is required to enhance the process of DNA damage repair.

The Micronutrient Information Center maintained by staff members at the Linus Pauling Institute of the Oregon State University provides reliable information about the vitamins and minerals and trace elements used in nutritional supplements.

Today, I want to summarize the information that the Center provides about selenium and supplement that information with the latest scientific research.

An Introduction to Selenium and Selenoproteins

Selenium is a trace element that is essential that humans need for the proper functioning of selenium-dependent selenoproteins. Free selenium is rare in the body. Instead, the selenium in the body is typically a component of selenomethionine, selenocysteine, and methyl-selenocysteine. read more

What is an Adequate Selenium Status?

Many people in the world live in regions with selenium-poor soil and, consequently, with selenium-poor food. The body cannot synthesize selenium, which is an essential non-metal trace element that we need in small amounts. A recent review of selenium status and the risk of cardiovascular disease suggests that serum selenium status below 100 mcg/L is associated with increased risk of heart disease, with reduced exercise capacity, with reduced quality of life, and with worse prognosis [Al-Murbarak].

  • Low intakes of selenium mean low selenium status.
  • Sufficient selenium is required for the formation of the amino acid selenocysteine, which is, in turn, an essential component of selenoproteins.
  • Low selenium status over longer periods of time can put individuals at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune thyroid disorders.
  • Adequate selenium intake and status are necessary for good immune function and protection against infectious diseases.Doctors' conference
  • Particularly vulnerable to have low selenium status are individuals who are vegetarians and vegans, pregnant and breastfeeding women, overweight or obese individuals, HIV-patients, kidney-dialysis patients, and individuals on parenteral nutrition as well as individuals living in selenium-poor regions.

Where is selenium status likely to be low?

Stoffaneller and Morse conducted a comprehensive study – 143 references – of selenium status in Europe, the UK, and the Middle East. They concluded that selenium intake and status are generally suboptimal in European and Middle Eastern countries, with somewhat more variation in the Middle East. They reported that suboptimal selenium status is widespread throughout Europe and the UK, with Eastern European countries having lower selenium intakes than Western European countries. In the Middle Eastern countries, they found varying results, which were possibly caused by different food habits and different imports in different regions and within differing socioeconomic groups [Stoffaneller & Morse]. read more

China and COVID-19 Virus: The Selenium Connection

Map of China
China has regions with selenium-rich soils and foodstuffs and regions with selenium-poor soils and foodstuffs. Researchers have compared the COVID-19 cure-rate and death-rate for infected individuals in selenium-rich and selenium-poor regions in China. They have found that regions with low selenium status have lower cure-rates and higher death-rates.

China and Corona Virus will be forever linked in our minds.  However, there is another important connection that we should be making: selenium status and its effect on COVID-19 virus in China.

Let me explain. Chinese and American and British researchers have published a letter in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which they report evidence of a significant association between regional selenium status and the reported cure-rate of COVID-19 infected patients in China [Zhang 2020].

The researchers’ data show a statistically significant association between the reported cure-rates for COVID-19 virus infections and selenium status in China [Zhang 2020].

The Selenium Status and COVID-19 Cure-Rate

Beginning in mid-February 2020, the researchers collected data from the Baidu website, which they describe as a non-governmental website that provides daily updates of reports from the health commission of each province in China. read more

Selenium and Longevity and Ageing

There are notable regional variations in the blood selenium concentrations in senior citizens. The differences range from 66 micrograms per liter in Brazil and Turkey to 126 micrograms per liter in Japan.  Below 85 micrograms per liter is poor selenium status.  The desirable range is thought to be 125-135 micrograms per liter.

We want, all of us, to stay as young and healthy as possible as late in life as possible.  Ageing is inevitable.  How can we delay the onset of ageing’s bio-chemical and physiological consequences?

  • Physical exercise?
  • Caloric restriction?
  • Ingestion of micronutrients?

Selenium Status and the Health of Senior Citizens

The authors of a 2019 review article have found that, overall, there is an inverse correlation between age and blood selenium levels. Higher age is associated with lower blood selenium concentrations [Robberecht 2019].

Inadequate dietary intakes of selenium and poor selenium status (< 85 micrograms per liter in blood) may increase the risk of following harmful health outcomes [Robberecht]:

  • oxidative stress (= imbalance of harmful free radicals and protective antioxidants)
  • destruction of nerve cells (neurons)
  • dementia

Selenium Status and Biological and Social Factors

A variety of factors must be taken into consideration when we investigate the relationship between ageing and selenium intake and status.  There are, first of all, considerable regional variations in the availability of selenium in the soil and in foodstuffs [Stoffaneller & Morse]. read more

Normal Serum Selenium Levels

Dr. Margaret P. Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Science, University of Surrey at Guildford, said in 2002: ” Se deficiency is defined by Baum et al (1997)  as  a  plasma  level  ≤ 85μg/liter,  a  level  not  attained  in many northern European countries.”

Selenium is an important trace element that is needed for the proper functioning of our cells.  It is needed in very small amounts, but it might be a good idea to have a blood test done to check the serum selenium level.

The Mayo Clinic Laboratories state that the normal concentration in adult human blood serum is 70 to 150 micrograms per liter (the same as 70 to 150 nanograms per milliliter). According to the Mayo Clinic, the US population mean value is 98 micrograms per liter [Mayo Clinic].

Variations in Serum Selenium Levels

Diet, geographic location, demographic factors, and environmental factors all influence serum selenium levels.

The following factors are independent predictors of higher selenium status in the United States [Park]: read more

Selenium Intake and Status Related to Health

The quantity of selenium in foodstuffs may be inadequate in many parts of the world.  Sub-optimal selenium status is reported to be widespread throughout Europe, the UK, and the Middle East [Stoffaneller & Morse]. Coastal regions in the US tend to have selenium-poor soil. Vast regions in China, Korea, Siberia, Tibet, and New Zealand are low selenium regions. Low selenium status is associated with increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease and thyroid disorders [Tolonen].
The research evidence to date suggests that there is a U-shaped relationship between selenium intake and health.  According to a recent report by the long-time selenium researcher Professor Dr. Margaret P. Rayman, University of Surrey, UK, both selenium deficiency and selenium excess have been associated with adverse health effects.

Conditions Indicating a Need for Selenium Supplementation

Professor Rayman lists a number of conditions that have been associated in the research literature with selenium deficiency:

  • Keshan disease (a heart muscle disease caused by a selenium deficiency together with a strain of Coxsackie virus)
  • Kashin-Beck disease (a bone disease for which selenium deficiency is a factor)
  • Increased viral virulence
  • Increased mortality
  • Poorer immune function
  • Problematic fertility/reproduction
  • Thyroid autoimmune disease
  • Cognitive decline/dementia
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Prostate cancer risk
  • Colo-rectal cancer risk (in women)
  • Increased risk of tuberculosis in HIV patients

Professor Rayman does not specify a plasma/serum selenium level for selenium deficiency

She does mention a US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that measured the serum selenium levels in 13,887 adult participants and then followed up for mortality for up to 18 years.  The mortality in that study showed a U-shaped association between serum selenium and death, with a serum selenium concentration of 135 micrograms per liter at the bottom of the U [Rayman 2019]. read more

We must not waste selenium

Selenium exists only in scarce quantities. Adequate dietary and supplemental intakes are vital for human health.  We need to use it carefully, and we need to begin to stockpile it for the use of future generations.

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. read more

Prostate cancer risk and selenium status

Selenium supplements in the form of organic high-selenium yeast tablets provide the best cancer chemo-protection. These supplements are made using the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae in a selenium-enriched growth medium. The yeast cells that produce the high selenium yeast tablets are rendered inactive. They are killed off by a heating process. Strains of the same yeast species are used to brew beer and bake bread.

Selenium supplementation and the risk of prostate cancer?  What do we know?  We need to be careful in interpreting the research results that we have (and we need more research), but, yes, there is evidence for an inverse association between prostate cancer risk and selenium status [Hurst 2012].

As of this writing (April 2017), the protective effect of selenium supplementation against prostate cancer seems to be found in a relatively narrow range of plasma selenium status [Hurst 2012].  Furthermore, there seems to be a U-shaped relationship between selenium status and protection against prostate cancer.

If the concentrations of selenium in the plasma are too low, there is increased risk of prostate cancer.  This is a serious concern in many regions of the world. read more