Selenium is an essential mineral that is required for several bodily functions. From maintaining our cognitive wellbeing to ensuring the smooth functioning of our immune system, selenium oils every wheel in our body.
Selenium deficiency often goes unnoticed. Therefore, it is important to understand and choose foods that help meet the demands. A 2020 ICMR report recommends 40mg to meet daily requirements.
Sharanya Shastri, chief clinical nutritionist at Apollo Spectra Hospitals, notes that the crash diets or fads people rely on to lose weight could cause selenium deficiency. “Cutting down on macronutrients in an imbalanced way will also take out micronutrients from the diet leading to deficiency,” she adds.
Ten per cent of the population is deficient in selenium, making it the second most prevalent micronutrient deficiency, says Srishti D Chatlani, sports nutritionist from Bengaluru.
The many functions
Shastri says that selenium is often under-rated but has an important role to play. “It helps to improve nail and hair health, boost immunity, and is a powerful antioxidant,” she adds.
Selenium is an essential component of various enzymes (compounds that help speed up chemical reactions in our body) and proteins. “Selenoproteins aka proteins that have selenium bound to them, play a key role in forming DNA. These proteins also protect against cell damage and are involved in reproduction,” says Shastri.
A 2022 study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, studied the effects of selenium supplementation and pregnancy outcomes. Selenium deficiency or its excess is associated with reduced libido, miscarriage, gestational diabetes, foetal growth restriction and more, the study found.
The study on sheep-based models found no toxicity from selenium supplementation. Further research is needed to determine its full potential during pregnancy, yet researchers concluded that supplementation is essential for healthy foetal development.
Moreover, this trace mineral plays a critical role in regulating the thyroid gland, according to Chatlani. “Selenium deficiency could lead to hypo or hyperthyroidism by decreasing the production of thyroid hormone,” she added.
Selenium keeps you sharp
Selenium also helps in maintaining cognitive health. Several studies have shown that selenium helps counteract the downsides of oxidative stress (build-up of highly reactive oxygen molecules that cause damage to the cells) in our body.
Oxidative stress caused by over exercising, smoking, and alcohol consumption can lead to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. To process the stress caused, our cells trap and destroy foreign particles, resulting in inflammation.
Continuous exposure to stressful conditions impairs cells’ ability to fight back, resulting in neuronal malfunction. As a result, neurodegenerative conditions such as cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease can manifest.
A 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients, found that selenium supplementation may help protect against symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). As an antioxidant, it combats cellular inflammation and bolsters immunity against oxidative damage.
Benefits of a selenium-rich diet
- Improves nail and hair health
- Boosts immunity
- Takes care of the thyroid gland and plays an important role in thyroid regulation
- It is an essential component of various enzymes and proteins that help make DNA and protect against cell damage
Selenium-rich foods to rely on
Although now out of fashion, water stored in matkas or pots made of selenium and copper help in the uptake of selenium, says Shastri. They were a good source of micronutrients before plastic bottles replaced them.
Some non-vegetarian sources are organ meat, sea food, eggs, and poultry. For vegetarian sources, including nuts such as groundnuts and Brazil nuts, and seeds like flaxseed, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds in your daily diet is a good option.
Shastri recommends adding a tablespoon of these seeds in the daily diet in the form of smoothies, yoghurts, or milkshakes.
However, T H Chan School of Public Health, Harvard, suggests mindful consumption of Brazil nuts as they are unusually high in selenium. An article cautioned against the regular consumption of these nuts as they can cause selenium toxicity leading to hair loss, an upset stomach, and light-headedness.
Chatlani points to barley, moong dal or green gram dal in the form of barley or moong dal khichdi, pulses, spinach, green peas, and beans as good sources of selenium.