Health Illustrated Encyclopedia

Selenium in diet


Selenium is an essential trace mineral. Small amounts of selenium are good for your health.

Alternative Names

Diet - selenium


Selenium has a variety of functions. It helps make special proteins, called antioxidant enzymes, which play a role in preventing cell damage. Some medical information suggests that selenium may help prevent certain cancers, but better studies are needed.

There have also been mixed results regarding selenium's impact on cardiovascular disease.

Selenium seems to stimulate antibodies after you receive a vaccination. It also may help protect the body from the poisonous effects of heavy metals and other harmful substances.

Selenium may boost fertility, especially among men. The mineral has been shown to improve the production of sperm and sperm movement.

Food Sources

Plant foods, such as vegetables, are the most common dietary sources of selenium. How much selenium is the vegetables you eat depends on how much of the mineral was in the soil where the plants grew.

Fish, shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken, liver, and garlic are all good sources of selenium. Meats produced from animals that ate grains or plants found in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium.

Brewer's yeast, wheat germ, and enriched breads are also good sources of selenium.

Side Effects

Selenium deficiency is rare in people in the United States. However, selenium deficiency may occur when a person is fed through a vein (IV line) for long periods of time.

Keshan disease is caused by a deficiency of selenium. This leads to an abnormality of the heart muscle. Keshan disease caused many childhood deaths in China until the link to selenium was discovered and selenium supplements were provided.

Two other diseases have been linked to selenium deficiency:

  • Kashin-Beck disease, which results in joint and bone disease
  • Myxedematous endemic cretinism, which results in mental retardation

Severe gastrointestinal disorders may also affect the body's ability to absorb selenium.

Too much selenium in the blood can cause a condition called selenosis. Selenosis can cause loss of hair, nail problems, nausea, irritability, fatigue, and mild nerve damage. However, selenium toxicity is rare in the United States.


Selenium is often available in multivitamin and mineral supplements. The amount of selenium is listed in micrograms/day, or µg/day. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends the following dietary reference intakes (DRIs) of selenium:

  • 0 - 6 months: 15 µg/day
  • 7 - 12 months: 20 µg/day
  • 1 - 8 years: 30 µg/day
  • 9 - 13 years: 40 µg/day
  • 14 and older: 55 µg/day

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may need slighly higher amounts. Ask your health care provider what is best for you.


Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Carotenoids. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000.

Thomson CD. Assessment of requirements for selenium and adequacy of selenium status: a review. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2004;58:391-402.

Goldhaber SB. Trace element risk assessment: essentiality vs. toxicity. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. 2003;38:232-42.

Hathcock J. Vitamins and minerals: Efficacy and safety. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66:427-37.

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Review Date: 1/2/2007
Reviewed By: William McGee, M.D., M.H.A., Assistant Professor of Medicine and Surgery, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, and Chairman, Nutrition Committee, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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