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Selenium


What is it?

Selenium is a mineral. It is taken into the body in water and foods. People use it for medicine.

Most of the selenium in the body comes from the diet. The amount of selenium in food depends on where it is grown or raised. Crab, liver, fish, poultry, and wheat are generally good selenium sources. The amount of selenium in soils varies a lot around the world, which means that the foods grown in these soils also have differing selenium levels. In the U.S., the Eastern Coastal Plain and the Pacific Northwest have the lowest selenium levels. People in these regions naturally take in about 60 to 90 mcg of selenium per day from their diet. Although this amount of selenium is adequate, it is below the average daily intake in the U.S., which is 125 mcg.

Selenium is used for diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including stroke and “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis). It is also used for preventing various cancers including cancer of the prostate, stomach, lung, and skin.

Some people use selenium for under-active thyroid, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an eye disease called macular degeneration, hay fever, infertility, cataracts, gray hair, abnormal pap smears, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), mood disorders, arsenic poisoning, and preventing miscarriage.

Selenium is also used for preventing serious complications and death from critical illnesses such as head injury and burns. It is also used for preventing bird flu, treating HIV/AIDS, and reducing side effects from cancer chemotherapy.

How effective is it?

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for SELENIUM are as follows:

Likely effective for...

  • Selenium deficiency. Taking selenium by mouth is effective for preventing selenium deficiency.

Possibly effective for...

  • Autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto's thyroiditis). Research shows that taking 200 mcg of selenium daily along with thyroid hormone might decrease antibodies in the body that contribute to this condition. Selenium might also help improve mood and general feelings of well-being in people with this condition.
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels. Some research shows that taking a 100-200 mcg of a specific selenium supplement (SelenoPrecise, Pharma Nord, Denmark) daily for 6 months can modestly reduce cholesterol levels. Many people in this study had low levels of selenium in their body before the start of the study. It is not clear if taking extra selenium would have any benefit on cholesterol levels in people with normal selenium levels in the body.

Possibly ineffective for...

  • Asthma. Research suggests that there is no link between selenium blood levels and asthma. Additionally, research suggests that taking 100 mcg of selenium daily for up to 24 weeks does not improve quality of life, lung function, asthma symptoms, or inhaler use in people with asthma.
  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis). Research suggests that taking yeast that is enriched with 600 mcg of selenium daily for 12 weeks, alone or together with vitamin E, does not improve the severity of eczema.
  • Heart disease. Taking 100 mcg of selenium in combination with beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E does not seem to prevent heart disease from becoming worse. Also, taking 200 mcg of selenium daily for almost 8 years does not reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
  • Neurotoxicity caused by chemotherapy drugs. Early research suggests that taking vitamins C and E with selenium does not prevent neurotoxicity or hearing loss caused by the chemotherapy drug cisplatin.
  • Critical illness (burns, head injury, trauma). Giving 500-1000 mcg of selenium intravenously (by IV) or 300 mg of selenium (ebselen) by mouth daily to critically ill people does not seem to reduce the risk of death or infection.
  • Diabetes. Some research shows that people with low selenium levels have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. However, other research shows that people who have high levels of selenium also have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the most reliable research shows that people who take 200 mcg of selenium daily for about 7.7 years have an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Hepatitis. Research shows that taking 200 mcg of selenium along with vitamin C and vitamin E for 6 months does not improve liver function or virus levels in people with hepatitis C.
  • Infertility. Research suggests that taking 100-200 mcg of selenium daily, alone or together with vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, for 3-4 months, does not improve sperm function in infertile men.
  • Low birth weight. Daily selenium supplementation, 7 mcg/kg by mouth or 5 mcg/kg intravenously (by IV), does not appear to improve health in low birth weight infants.
  • Lung cancer. Increasing selenium intake, either alone or along with vitamin E and beta-carotene, does not seem to lower the risk of getting lung cancer, except possibly in people who have lower than normal levels of selenium (selenium deficiency). Even in this group, the risk reduction is small.
  • Prostate cancer. There has been a lot of interest in studying whether taking selenium lowers the chance of getting prostate cancer. The interest was triggered by the observation that prostate cancer seems to be less common in men with higher selenium levels in their bodies. To date, there have been several large, long-term scientific studies. The majority of this evidence suggests that selenium does not reduce the chance of getting prostate cancer.
  • Red and irritated skin (psoriasis). Research suggests that taking yeast enriched with 600 mcg of selenium daily does not reduce the severity of psoriasis.
  • Skin cancer. Taking 200 mcg of selenium does not seem to reduce the risk of getting a certain type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma. In fact, some scientific evidence suggests that taking extra selenium might actually increase the risk of getting another type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Alcohol-related liver disease. Evidence shows that taking 200 mcg of selenium along with zinc and vitamin E daily can reduce the amount of time spent in the hospital and the risk of death in people with alcohol-related liver disease.
  • Arsenic poisoning. Yeast enriched with selenium seems to decrease how much arsenic the body absorbs in Chinese people exposed to high levels of arsenic in the environment.
  • Burns. Evidence suggests that taking 315-380 mcg of selenium along with copper and zinc daily can reduce the risk of pneumonia in people being treated in the hospital for burns. Other research suggests that this same combination might reduce the amount of time spent in the hospital but does not affect wound healing
  • Cancer. Some research shows that taking 400 mcg of selenium daily for 2 years or 100 mcg of selenium along with zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene daily for 7.5 years does not reduce the risk of developing cancer. However, other research suggests taking selenium might reduce the risk of cancer-related death. Additionally, when subdivided by gender, some research shows that selenium might reduce the risk of cancer in men only, while selenium plus allitridum might decrease the risk of cancer in women only.
  • Colon and rectal cancer. Evidence is conflicting about the effect of selenium on colon and rectal cancer. A population study suggests that low selenium blood levels are not linked with an increased risk of developing colon and rectal cancer. Some research suggests that taking selenium, alone or with antioxidants, might reduce the risk of colon and rectal cancer or precancerous sores. However, other research suggests that selenium has no effect.
  • Esophageal cancer. Taking selenium supplements does not seem to lower the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Stomach cancer. Taking selenium in combination with vitamin C and vitamin E for about 7 years does not seem to reduce the risk of developing precancerous stomach sores.
  • HIV/AIDS. There is contradictory evidence about the effect of selenium supplements on HIV. Some evidence shows that taking selenium daily for up to 2 years can slow how quickly HIV spreads and can increase immune function. However, other early research shows that selenium has no effect.
  • Low thyroid hormone levels (hypothyroidism). Some research shows that taking a selenium supplement might increase the conversion of thyroid hormones in older people. However, other research suggests that it has no benefit. Taking selenium can make hypothyroidism worse in people who are iodine deficient.
  • Stroke. Some research suggests that administering selenium (ebselen) within 24 hours of a stroke improves recovery.
  • Bone and joint disease (Kashin-Beck disease). Selenium does not seem to improve joint pain or movement in children with Kashin-Beck disease.
  • Liver cancer. Early research in China suggests that taking selenium for 2-5 years can reduce the occurrence of liver cancer. It is unclear if taking selenium will reduce the risk of liver cancer in Western countries.
  • Muscular dystrophy. Early research suggests that taking a water-soluble form of selenium daily for 6 months does not benefit people with muscular dystrophy.
  • Arthritis (osteoarthritis). Low selenium levels seem to be linked with an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. However, it is not known if selenium supplements can prevent osteoarthritis.
  • Ovarian cancer. Research suggests that there is no link between selenium consumption in the diet and the risk for ovarian cancer.
  • Overall risk of death. Some research suggests that taking 100 mcg of selenium along with zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene daily for 7.5 years might lower the risk of death from any cause in men, but not women. Other research suggests that selenium, taken alone or with other nutrients, does not reduce the risk of death.
  • Pancreatitis. Evidence is conflicting about the effect of selenium on pancreatitis. Some research suggests that selenium has no benefit. However, other research suggests that taking a water-soluble form of selenium daily might reduce the risk of death caused by severe pancreatitis.
  • Swelling in the arms and legs after surgery. Early evidence suggests that taking selenium supplements for 15 weeks might prevent bacterial skin infections in women with swelling in the arms and legs after breast cancer surgery.
  • High blood pressure caused by pregnancy. Research suggests that taking 100 mcg of selenium liquid daily for 6-8 weeks during pregnancy can reduce the occurrence of high blood pressure.
  • Destruction of the bile ducts in the liver (primary biliary cirrhosis). Taking selenium with vitamin A, vitamin C, methionine, and coenzyme Q10 for 12 weeks does not seem to improve fatigue or other symptoms in people with primary biliary cirrhosis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Evidence on the effects of selenium on rheumatoid arthritis is inconsistent. Some research suggests that taking yeast enriched with 200 mcg of selenium does not improve RA. However, other research suggests that taking 200 mcg of selenium daily for 3 months reduces joint swelling, tenderness, and stiffness in people with RA.
  • Sepsis. Some research suggests that administering selenium alone or with other antioxidants might reduce the risk of death caused by severe sepsis. However, other research suggests that administering selenium with L-arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, beta carotene, and zinc may increase the risk of death in people with sepsis.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis). Early research suggests that taking selenium with fish oil, natural sweeteners, gum arabic, vitamin E, and vitamin C does not benefit people with an inflammatory bowel disease called ulcerative colitis. However, taking this same combination does seem to reduce the need for medications.
  • Atherosclerosis.
  • Macular degeneration (eye disease).
  • Hay fever.
  • Gray hair.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Chemotherapy side effects.
  • Abnormal pap smears.
  • Cataracts.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
  • Bird flu.
  • Preventing miscarriage.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate selenium for these uses.

How does it work?

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Selenium is important for making many body processes work correctly. It seems to increase the action of antioxidants.

Are there safety concerns?

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Selenium is LIKELY SAFE for most people when taken by mouth in doses less than 400 mcg daily, short-term.

Selenium is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth in high doses or for long-term. Taking doses above 400 mcg can increase the risk of developing selenium toxicity. Taking lower doses long-term can increase the risk of developing diabetes. High doses of selenium can cause significant side effects including nausea, vomiting, nail changes, loss of energy, and irritability. Poisoning from long-term use is similar to arsenic poisoning, with symptoms including hair loss, white horizontal streaking on fingernails, nail inflammation, fatigue, irritability, nausea, vomiting, garlic breath odor, and a metallic taste.

Selenium can also cause muscle tenderness, tremor, lightheadedness, facial flushing, blood clotting problems, liver and kidney problems, and other side effects.

Special precautions & warnings:

Children: Selenium is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Selenium seems to be safe when used in the short-term in doses below 45 mcg daily for infants up to age 6 months, 60 mcg daily for infants 7 to 12 months, 90 mcg daily for children 1 to 3 years, 150 mcg daily for children 4 to 8 years, 280 mcg daily for children 9 to 13 years, and 400 mcg daily for children age 14 years and older.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Selenium use is POSSIBLY SAFE during pregnancy and breast-feeding when used short-term in amounts that are not above 400 mcg daily. Selenium is POSSIBLY UNSAFE in pregnancy and breastfeeding when taking by mouth in doses above 400 mcg daily, as this might cause toxicity.

Autoimmune diseases: Selenium might stimulate the immune system. In theory, selenium might make autoimmune disease worse by stimulating the activity of the disease. People with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and other should avoid taking selenium supplements.

Hemodialysis: Blood levels of selenium can be low in people undergoing hemodialysis. Using a dialysis solution with selenium might increase selenium levels, but selenium supplementation might be needed for some people.

Fertility problems in men: Selenium might decrease the ability of sperm to move, which could reduce fertility. If you are trying to father a child, don’t take selenium supplements.

Skin cancer: Long-term use of selenium supplements might slightly increase the risk of skin cancer recurrence, but this is controversial. Until more is known about the possible increase in skin cancer risk, avoid long-term use of selenium supplements if you have ever had skin cancer.

Under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism): Taking selenium can worsen hypothyroidism especially in people with iodine deficiency. In this case, you should take iodine along with selenium. Check with your healthcare provider.

Surgery: Selenium might increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery. Stop taking selenium at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.

Are there interactions with medications?

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Moderate

Be cautious with this combination.

Medications that decrease the immune system (Immunosuppressants)
Selenium might stimulate the immune system. By stimulating the immune system, selenium might decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune system.

Some medications that decrease the immune system include azathioprine (Imuran), basiliximab (Simulect), cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune), daclizumab (Zenapax), muromonab-CD3 (OKT3, Orthoclone OKT3), mycophenolate (CellCept), tacrolimus (FK506, Prograf), sirolimus (Rapamune), prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone), and other corticosteroids (glucocorticoids).

Medications that slow blood clotting (Anticoagulant / Antiplatelet drugs)
Selenium might slow blood clotting. Taking selenium along with medications that also slow blood clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.

Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), heparin, ticlopidine (Ticlid), warfarin (Coumadin), and others.

Medications used for lowering cholesterol (Statins)
Taking selenium, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E together might decrease the effectiveness of some medications used for lowering cholesterol. It is not known if selenium alone decreases the effectiveness of medications used for lowering cholesterol.

Some medications used for lowering cholesterol include atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), and pravastatin (Pravachol).

Niacin
Taking selenium along with vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene might decrease some of the beneficial effects of niacin. Niacin can increase levels of good cholesterol. Taking selenium along with these other vitamins might decrease how well niacin works for increasing good cholesterol.

Sedative medications (Barbiturates)
The body breaks down medications to get rid of them. Selenium might slow how fast the body breaks down sedative medications (barbiturates). Taking selenium with these medications might increase the effects and side effects of these medications.

Warfarin (Coumadin)
Selenium might thin the blood. Selenium might also increase the effects of warfarin in the body. Taking selenium along with warfarin might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.

Minor

Be watchful with this combination.

Birth control pills (Contraceptive drugs)
Some research shows that women who take birth control pills might have increased blood levels of selenium. However, other research shows no change in selenium levels in women who take birth control pills. There isn't enough information to know if there is an important interaction between birth control pills and selenium.

Some birth control pills include ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel (Triphasil), ethinyl estradiol and norethindrone (Ortho-Novum 1/35, Ortho-Novum 7/7/7), and others.

Gold salts
Gold salts bind to selenium and decrease selenium in parts of the body. This might decrease the normal activity of selenium, possibly resulting in symptoms of selenium deficiency.

Gold salts include aurothioglucose (Solganal), gold sodium thiomalate (Aurolate), and auranofin (Ridaura).

Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?

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Astragalus
Some species of astragalus accumulate large amounts of selenium, especially when grown in selenium-rich soils. Taking products made from these plants along with selenium supplements could cause selenium poisoning. However, most astragalus supplements contain Astragalus membranaceus, which is not a selenium accumulator.

Copper
Selenium might increase how quickly the body processes removes copper. In theory, taking selenium might reduce copper levels in the body.

Herbs and supplements that might slow blood clotting
Using selenium with other herbs that can slow blood clotting might increase the risk of bleeding in some people. These other herbs include angelica, clove, danshen, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, Panax ginseng, and others.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Taking selenium with omega-3 fatty acids might reduce how much selenium the body absorbs.

Vitamin C
Taking vitamin C might affect how much selenium the body absorbs from some supplements. However, it is unlikely that this potential interaction is a big concern.

Zinc
Zinc might make it more difficult for the body to absorb selenium from food.

Are there interactions with foods?

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There are no known interactions with foods.

What dose is used?

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The following doses have been studied in scientific research:

BY MOUTH:
  • Autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto's thyroiditis): 200 mcg daily.
  • High cholesterol: 100-200 mcg daily of a specific selenium product (SelenoPrecise, Pharma Nord, Denmark).
The daily recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of selenium are:
  • Children 1-3 years, 20 mcg; children 4-8 years, 30 mcg; children 9-13 years, 40 mcg;
  • People over 13 years, 55 mcg;
  • Pregnant women, 60 mcg; and lactating women, 70 mcg. Due to the demands of the fetus on the mother, the dietary need for selenium increases during pregnancy.
  • The RDA for infants has not been determined. For infants up to 6 months old, 2.1 mcg/kg is adequate intake (AI). The AI for infants 7-12 months is 2.2 mcg/kg per day.
The tolerable upper limit is:
  • Adults, 400 mcg per day for adults and adolescents 14 years and older.
  • The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for infants up to age 6 months is 45 mcg per day;
  • Infants 7 to 12 months, 60 mcg per day;
  • Children 1 to 3 years, 90 mcg per day;
  • Children 4 to 8 years, 150 mcg per day;
  • Children 9 to 13 years, 280 mcg per day.

Other names

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Atomic number 34, Dioxyde de Sélénium, Ebselen, L-Selenomethionine, L-Sélénométhionine, Levure Sélénisée, Numéro Atomique 34, Se, Selenio, Selenite, Sélénite de Sodium, Sélénium, Selenium Ascorbate, Selenium Dioxide, Selenized Yeast, Selenomethionine, Sélénométhionine, Sodium Selenite.

Methodology

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To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.methodology (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/methodology.html).

References

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To see all references for the Selenium page, please go to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/1003.html.

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Page last updated: 10 December 2014