What is selenium and are you getting enough of it as a vegan? | Totally Vegan Buzz

What is selenium and are you getting enough of it as a vegan?

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Here’s everything you need to know about this critical micronutrient...

Selenium is a trace mineral, which means humans don’t need a huge amount to stay healthy.

But don’t underestimate its powers; it’s an essential nutrient and critical for the proper functioning of our bodies.

According to The Royal Society of Chemistry, our bodies contain around 14 milligrams (0.014 grams) of selenium. However, every single cell in our body contains more than a million selenium atoms.

The micronutrient is important for our bodies’ defense mechanism aka the immune system.  It helps to form protective antioxidants, which can prevent damage to cells and tissues. It is also involved in DNA synthesis. Plus, our heart, thyroid and reproductive organs also bank on selenium for optimum  functioning. 

The recommended daily intake of selenium for adult males is 75 ug and females 60 ug. The RDAs for children and adolescents are:

  •     2-3 years –15 micrograms
  •     4-6 years – 20 micrograms
  •   7-10 years –30 micrograms
  •   11-14  years – 45 micrograms
  •     15-18 – 70 micrograms for males and 60 micrograms for females

Where does selenium come from?

The trace mineral is found primarily in Earth’s soil where it is unevenly distributed as a result of ancient volcanic eruptions.

This is why intake varies widely around the world and even the same crops grown in different parts of the world will have different levels of the mineral.

So in countries like America and Canada, where the soil tends to be rich in selenium, reaching the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is relatively easier in comparison to the UK, Europe (particularly Eastern Europe), and parts of China that have fairly low levels of selenium in the soil.

In some European countries, selenium levels in the soil are so low that livestock 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.

So, if the selenium content of soil is low, it can put the people in that area at higher risk of selenium deficiency regardless of the diet they are on.

According to data, in the UK, an average adult’s selenium uptake is 48 micrograms per day from food (or 51 micrograms including supplements).

How does selenium deficiency affect humans?

Selenium deficiency could lead to a host of bodily issues and derangement of organ functions.

It could manifest as fatigue and brain fog, hair loss, nail discolouration, a compromised immune system, muscle weakness and male and female infertility issues.

Extreme cases of selenium deficiency, although rare, can lead to more serious side effects, such as cardiomyopathy.

Excess selenium intake implications

Meanwhile overdoses of selenium can also have deleterious effects.

The safe upper limit for selenium is set at 450 micrograms (µg) per day. However, the RDA is set at a much lower limit.

According to NHS guidelines, taking 350 micrograms or less a day of selenium is unlikely to cause any harm. This is especially important whilst taking supplementation.

Excess selenium can lead to a condition called selenosis, which can result in nausea, fatigue, garlic breath and the loss of hair, skin and nails.

Severe cases of selenium toxicity can result in cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary oedema and even death. Research also suggests too much selenium may increase cholesterol levels.

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends avoiding a selenium supplement unless there is evidence of a deficiency.

However, if your diet does not include foods containing selenium, it is highly advised to consult a healthcare expert to see whether selenium supplementation is required for you.

Which foods are high in selenium?

Selenium is available in a host of plant-based options. Brazil nuts along with cereals,  and grains are the richest sources of selenium.

Other selenium-rich foods include green and brown lentils, couscous, barley, mushrooms, wholemeal bread, pasta, basmati and brown rice, and cashew nuts.

Foods such as kidney beans, baked beans, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pecans, flax seeds and soya milk also have selenium levels, albeit, in smaller quantities.

Do I need a supplement?

No, a healthy vegan diet containing the above foods on a daily basis will provide you with enough of this nutrient.

Of course people with gut conditions such as Crohn’s disease, or people receiving dialysis are at a higher risk of deficiency.

Those who are unable to meet selenium requirements can avail  various supplements on the market. The most popular forms are selenomethionine or selenite. Selenomethionine has been shown to offer a higher absorption rate, meaning it may be a preferred source. However, it is important to work closely with a health professional before commencing any supplementation regime to rule our toxicity or related complications.

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