Selenium: What Is It, And Why Do Vegans Need It?

Selenium was discovered over 200 years ago – it's an element vital for health so long as you don't overdo it
Selenium deficiency can lead to health conditions including infertility (Photo: Vinicius Wiesehofer)

Selenium was discovered in 1817 by a Swedish chemist called Jöns Jacob Berzelius. 

It is similar to tellurium, which had been discovered in 1782 and named after the Latin word for earth 'tellus'. Berzelius kept the celestial theme going and named his new discovery selenium, after 'selene, the Greek name for the moon.

Selenium (chemical symbol Se) is now used as a glass dye, in fireworks to produce red smoke and as an antifungal agent in dandruff shampoos. It was the selenium sulphide in shampoo that killed the alien in the 2001 film Evolution.

Nutrition

In nutrition, selenium is described as an essential trace element, which means we only need a tiny amount of it in our diet, but that small amount is absolutely crucial. The Royal Society of Chemistry says that while our bodies only contain around 14 milligrams (0.014 grams) of selenium, every single cell in our body contains more than a million selenium atoms.

It plays a number of important roles in the body involving the immune system, thyroid function and reproduction and helps to form protective antioxidants which can prevent damage to cells and tissues. 

People with higher selenium levels appear less likely to suffer from certain cancers. However, there is no convincing evidence that selenium supplements can prevent cancer and it may be that healthy eating is the key to reducing your risk.

Deficiency

Selenium deficiency can increase the risk of infection and disease and is linked to a number of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and mood changes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

Deficiency has also been linked to reproductive problems, including male and female infertility, miscarriage, preeclampsia, foetal growth restriction (undersized unborn baby), premature labour, gestational diabetes and obstetric cholestasis (a liver disorder that can occur in pregnancy). 

Brazil nuts offer a good source of selenium

Selenium requirements

The recommended daily amount of selenium for adults is 75 micrograms for men and 60 micrograms for women, and as below for specific ages:

Age                     Selenium micrograms per day

0-3 months                    10

4-6 months                    13

7-9 months                    10

10-12 months                10

1-3 years                       15

4-6 years                       20

7-10 years                     30

11-14 years                   45

Men 

15-18 years                  70

19+                               75

Women 

15-18 years                  60
19+                               60

*Department of Health (1991) Dietary reference values of food energy and nutrients for the United Kingdom.

Selenium in food

Selenium is unevenly distributed in the earth’s soil as a result of ancient volcanic eruptions. Because of this, intake varies widely around the world, which makes it difficult to produce accurate food tables that show how much selenium different foods contain.

In parts of Europe, selenium levels in the soil can be low so farmed animals are often fed supplements so that their meat and milk will contain it - in the same way that vitamin B12 supplements are given to animals. 

However, surveys indicate that the average UK adult’s intake is 48 micrograms a day, lower than the recommended amount. So meat and milk are obviously not providing enough as most people still consume these. 

If you're concerned, you could cut out the middleman, avoid meat and dairy and take your own supplement, or just include more nuts and wholegrains in your diet. The NHS says that if you eat nuts, you should be able to get all the selenium you need from your daily diet.

Food (100g)                                     Selenium (micrograms)

RNI: 60 micrograms for women and 75 micrograms for men

Brazil nuts                                              254
Sunflower seeds                                      49*
Green or brown lentils, dried, boiled        40
Cashew nuts, roasted and salted            34
Pecan nuts                                              12
Mushrooms, fried in corn oil                    12
Wholemeal bread, toasted                      11
Wholemeal spaghetti, boiled                    6*
Red kidney beans, canned                       6
Mung beans, boiled                                  5
Brown rice, boiled                                     4
Soya milk                                                  4

The selenium content of selected foods

Source: Food Standards Agency, 2002. *Estimated value

Brazil nuts

Although selenium can be found in meat, fish and eggs, these foods also contain undesirable substances, including saturated animal fat and hormones while fish tend to be contaminated with toxic pollutants. 

The richest plant sources of selenium are cereals, grains and Brazil nuts, which can contain very high amounts of 68-91 micrograms per nut, according to the US National Institutes of Health, and too many of those could cause you to go over the upper limit. Fruit and vegetables also provide small amounts of selenium.

Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that consuming just two Brazil nuts a day for 12 weeks increased the amount of selenium in the blood by over 60 per cent. They said that including Brazil nuts in the diet could avoid the need for supplements.

A healthy whole food diet is the best way to get enough of the trace element

Nuts

Nuts are a healthy, nutritious food that provide an excellent source of vitamin E and magnesium. People who eat nuts have higher intakes of folate, beta-carotene, vitamin K, calcium, phosphorus, copper, selenium, potassium and zinc. 

Nuts provide valuable phytochemicals and their antioxidant power is similar to that of broccoli and tomatoes. Eating a generous handful of mixed nuts a day - about 42 grams can reduce the risk of heart disease.

But how much selenium you eat is just part of the story; older age, alcohol and smoking are all associated with lower levels, suggesting that these factors may affect how well you absorb and store selenium. One study found that coffee, dairy products, eggs and white rice were all linked to lower levels while bread was linked to higher levels. It seems a wholegrain diet offers the most benefit - again!

Too much

Hair, skin and nail supplements commonly contain selenium in levels as high as 100 micrograms and more. However, too much selenium can lead to a condition called selenosis, which can result in nausea, fatigue, garlic breathe and the loss of hair, skin and nails! 

In extreme cases, it can result in cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary oedema and death. Recent evidence suggests too much selenium may also increase cholesterol levels. The NHS says that taking 350 micrograms or less a day of selenium supplements is unlikely to cause any harm.

However, one study found that 200 micrograms a day of selenium supplements increased the risk of aggressive prostate cancer among men with high selenium levels. So concerned were the researchers that they stopped the trial three years early. 

They suggest that men over 55 should avoid taking selenium (and vitamin E) supplements at doses that exceed the recommended dietary intake. Another study found that people taking 200 micrograms of selenium a day had a higher risk of non-melanoma skin cancer. These negative effects of supplements appear greatest in those who already have high selenium levels in their blood.

Wholegrains, fruit, and vegetables

The belief that selenium can fight cancer and other diseases has boosted demand for supplements despite a lack of definitive evidence. For selenium, there’s a fairly narrow range between sufficient intake and toxicity. 

The recommended amount is 60-75 micrograms a day and the UK’s Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals set a safe upper limit for selenium at 450 micrograms a day. A quick search on the internet reveals that many supplements contain 100-200 micrograms of selenium; you can see how easy it would be to take too much. 

The best way to get your full range of vitamins and minerals is to eat a healthy, balanced diet with a wide variety of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables. If you are going to take supplements, stick to the recommended intake.

Find out how easy it is to go vegan by signing up to Viva!'s FREE 30 Day Vegan plan

This article was originally published by Viva! Health here

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are prepared in the author's capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Plant Based News itself. 

Reuse this content
PBN Contributor:

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researchers, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.

(c)2018 Plant Based News LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Join the conversation

Since you're here...
Plant Based News is a FREE service that receives millions of views each week on YoutubeFacebookInstagramTwitterour weekly newsletter and this website. This takes a lot of our personal time, money and hard work. But we do it because we KNOW it makes a difference. If those following our reporting helped by contributing, we could do even more. Please consider supporting us so we can create further awareness about animal rights, environmentalism, ethical consumerism and the plant-based lifestyle. Not a false narrative - but information that empowers people to make better choices.

Support Plant Based News

It's World Vegan Day