Selenium is one of those buzzwords that keeps popping up everywhere in the health world, but there’s not a whole lot of information regarding why this mineral is so important. With that said, selenium is, in fact, incredibly important for many bodily functions.

Selenium, a mineral, is naturally present all around our environment, from our water to our soil, and therefore passes into many of the foods we consume. Not only does selenium nurture and nourish our bodies, but this antioxidant-rich mineral is also linked to a healthier immune system, decreased bodily inflammation, and can even help maintain a happy metabolism! The health benefits don’t stop there! Proper selenium consumption has been linked to a decreased risk in various diseases and even cancer. Plus, as selenium is present in soil and water, you can consume it naturally through a variety of plant-based foods.

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So, let’s dive right in and get informed on selenium!

Selenium 101

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As mentioned, selenium is a “trace mineral found naturally in the soil that also appears in certain high-selenium foods,” plus it can also be found in smaller amounts in our water. While most vitamins and minerals are essential for the human body, selenium is actually categorized as vital. This is due to selenium’s role in “antioxidant activity that defends against free radical damage and inflammation.”

What’s selenium’s role in antioxidant activity?

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Without getting too deep into the science, selenium is made from various types of selenoproteins, which are thought to “increase antioxidant capabilities and the quality of blood flow, therefore enhancing the body’s resistance against diseases and stress.” It’s a champion in lowering free radical damage, as well as decreasing bodily inflammation. While inflammation is a natural response of your immune system, oftentimes certain factors can cause this protective reaction when it’s not actually needed. Focusing on decreasing inflammation is critical for overall health, as chronic or uncontrolled inflammation has been linked to “almost every major disease, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression.”

How Much Is the Right Amount

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As is similar with most macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, it’s important to get the right amount. While deficiencies may lead to unwanted side effects, symptoms, and even conditions, consuming too much of a good thing — such as selenium — can also impact your health in negative ways. In fact, researchers, nutritionist, doctors, and many other experts in the healthcare and nutrition field “warn that it’s crucial that the public understands that selenium benefits work best when levels are met through eating selenium-rich foods.” Consuming too much selenium may cause a toxic reaction in the body.

This is why it’s incredibly important to speak with your nutritionist or general practitioner before changing your selenium intake!

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The recommended daily intake of selenium depends on your age, gender, if you’re pregnant, or if you’re breastfeeding. Children the ages of one to thirteen require the lowest dose between 1 to 40 micrograms a day. For those 14 years of age and older, it’s recommended to consume 55 micrograms a day. For pregnant women, focus on getting 60 micrograms per day and breastfeeding women should up that even more to 70 micrograms a day.

Keep in mind, these are recommendations based on the average healthy American person. With that said, as I repeat constantly in my articles, every human body is different. Talk with your doctor or your nutritionist to figure out your personal selenium needs.

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The Dangers of Selenium Deficiency

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Getting too much selenium is toxic, but getting too little is just as dangerous.

If you’re not getting the right amount of selenium, you may experience some of the more benign symptoms such as fatigue and mental fog. When left unattended, a selenium deficiency can lead to incredibly severe symptoms such as infertility in both men and women, muscle weakness, hair loss, and even a weakened immune system opening the door for other sicknesses to take up shop.

Beyond simply not eating the right amount of selenium-rich foods, you may develop a selenium deficiency for other reasons. For example, if you happen to live in an area where the soil doesn’t have enough selenium that transfers to the foods you eat. Other medical conditions may also cause a selenium deficiency such as HIV, if you undergo dialysis, or if you suffer from a digestive disorder (such as Crohn’s Disease). On top of that, other medical conditions can be exacerbated by a selenium deficiency such as thyroid disorders — including Grave’s Disease — any type of cancer, or if you have a weakened or malfunctioning immune system — including a myriad of autoimmune disorders.

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Health Benefits of Selenium 

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By now, we get that consuming the appropriate amount of selenium is the trick to getting all of those wonderful health benefits. Once we figure out how much we need and where we’re going to get it from (natural plant-based foods are the best sources!), we can take a look at the benefits we should reap from our hard nutrition research!

Along with fighting cancer, boosting your immune system, and aiding in healthy metabolism processes, “consuming plenty of naturally occurring selenium has positive antiviral effects, is essential for successful male and female fertility and reproduction, and also reduces the risk of … autoimmune and thyroid diseases.”

Powerful Antioxidant and Defender Against Oxidative Stress

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As much as selenium is a buzzword, so is antioxidant and oxidative stress. Most likely, if you’ve done any nutrition or health reading, you’ve stumbled across these words. Antioxidants are actually fairly complicated parts of the human body that work at the molecular level. To avoid too much science talk, antioxidants are simply “substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental and other pressures.”

How does oxidative stress work into the process?

When the “body cannot process and remove free radicals efficiently, oxidative stress can result,” and in turn “this can harm cells and body function.” Oxidative stress is incredibly damaging and has been linked to “heart disease, cancer, arthritis, stroke, respiratory diseases, immune deficiency, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, and other inflammatory or ischemic conditions.”

Antioxidants help reduce oxidate stress, therefore selenium can play an integral role in protecting your body!

Selenium is known to reduce damage and has been found to have a “synergistic effect with other antioxidants like vitamin E, enabling the body to fight oxidative stress and defend against cancers like prostate and colon cancer.”

Protects Against Heart Disease

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The relationship between selenium and heart disease lies within selenium’s ability to “fight inflammation, increase blood flow, reduce free radical oxidative stress and help with antioxidant activity.” In fact, people with low selenium levels have actually been associated with an “increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Improves Thyroid Function

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One of the strongest connections regarding selenium consumption and health is with thyroid metabolism. A healthy thyroid is directly linked to a healthy body. This is largely due to the fact that the “thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate, as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood, and bone maintenance,” in short, many essential and vital bodily functions.

Selenium is important for thyroid function as it acts as a “catalyst for the production of active thyroid hormones.” Along with being a main determining factor in proper hormone synthesis via the thyroid gland, selenium protects the thyroid and “regulates the production of reactive oxygen within the gland,” as well as “protects it from antibodies that can create thyroid disease.”

Boosts the Immune System

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While more research is being conducted regarding the connection between the immune system and selenium consumption, current findings show a direct correlation. Recent studies have found that “selenium is needed for the proper functioning of the immune system and can also be a key nutrient in counteracting the development of viruses.” Some of these studies focused on patients with HIV and they discovered that selenium may actually slow “down the progression of the disease into AIDS.”

Plant-Based Sources of Selenium

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When it comes to plant-based sources of selenium, there is a handful to choose from including sunflower seeds, mushrooms, oatmeal, baked beans, spinach, lentils, and even bananas. All of these foods are staples in most plant-based kitchens and provide not only selenium but many other vital vitamins and minerals. Yet, if you’re looking to increase your selenium intake in particular, you’ll want to focus on those with the highest selenium content. Here are three of the richest selenium sources in plant-based foods!

Brazil Nuts

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Brazil nuts are by far the best source of selenium. One large nut offers up a whopping “140 micrograms or 254 percent of the RDA” of selenium. Therefore, just one of these nuts a day will do the trick! Brazil nuts are also a great source of “protein, fiber, vitamin E, thiamin, iron, magnesium, and zinc,” as well as heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Due to their lovely fat content and coconut meat-like texture, brazil nuts are easily break down into a wonderful ingredient for basic kitchen alternatives, such as this  Brazil Nut Milk and Brazil Nut Cheese, or can be used to create sweet treat concoctions such as this Raw Coconut and Brazil Nut Truffles or this Brazil Nut Fudge.

Portabella Mushrooms

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Mushrooms are great for a plant-based diet regimen! Their meaty texture and oftentimes neutral flavors make them perfect for meatless recipes. When it comes to getting your meatless “steak” on, portabella’s are excellent! They are thick and dense and naturally “juicy” with retained water. Plus, they are a great source of selenium. One cup of diced, raw portabella mushrooms has 9.5 micrograms of selenium, which is 14 percent of your daily value! Want to go completely meat-free without sacrificing your favorite meals? Try a few of these portabella-based staples: Portobello Mushroom Steaks, Portobello Mushroom Burgers, or these Stuffed Italian Portobello Mushrooms.

Cashews

These hooked little delights are not only a rich source of healthy fats and natural sugar, but they also happen to be a great source of natural selenium. In fact, 100 grams of cashews offer up 19.9 micrograms of selenium, which equals 28 percent of your daily selenium value.While cashew cheese — such as in this classic Cashew Cheese recipe — and cashew butter — like this easy Cashew Butter recipe — are great ways to utilize this sweet and selenium-filled nut, there uses don’t stop there! Try out a few creative cashew-based recipes such as this Mushroom Stroganoff with Cashew Cream, this Cashew Mayonaise, or these Orange Cashew Sesame Zoodles.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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