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To Fight Osteoarthritis & Multiple Other Chronic Diseases, Make Sure You Get Enough Selenium

Selenium, a trace mineral that is essential to health, is emerging as a nutrition powerhouse -- yet few people are aware of its importance, or where to get it.

The selenium level of the soil where your food is grown greatly affects its selenium content.

Most recently, a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill Thurston Arthritis Center found that low levels of selenium are linked to knee osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. The study, which began 15 years ago and involves 940 people, found:

  • For every additional tenth of a part per million of selenium, participants' risk of knee osteoarthritis decreased 15-20 percent.

  • Those with lower-than-normal levels of selenium in their systems had a higher risk of the condition in one or both knees.

  • The severity of participants' arthritis was related to how low their selenium levels were.

"We are very excited about these findings because no one had ever measured body selenium in this way in relationship to osteoarthritis," said study leader Dr. Joanne Jordan of UNC.

"Our results suggest that we might be able to prevent or delay osteoarthritis of the knees and possibly other joints in some people if they are not getting enough selenium. That's important because the condition, which makes walking painful, is the leading cause of activity limitation among adults in developed countries," Jordan said.

Selenium: An Antioxidant Powerhouse Against Disease

When you consume selenium, it's incorporated into proteins to make selenoproteins -- potent antioxidant enzymes that help prevent cellular damage from free radicals.

Selenoproteins also help regulate thyroid function and the immune system, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). It is also known to be protective against a host of chronic diseases, aside from osteoarthritis.

Cancer: Selenium is thought to protect against cancer through its antioxidant content. It also may slow or prevent tumor growth by enhancing the immune system and suppressing blood vessels to the tumor. Studies on the topic have yielded interesting results:

  • Death from lung, colorectal and prostate cancers is lower among people with higher levels/intake of selenium.

  • Nonmelanoma skin cancer occurs more frequently in areas of the United States that have little selenium in their soil.

  • In a 1983-1990 study, those taking a daily selenium supplement had a significantly lower rate of prostate, colorectal, lung and total cancers than those who did not.

Heart disease: As noted by the ODS, a lower antioxidant intake has been linked with a greater incidence of heart disease. Further, selenium may limit the oxidation of bad (LDL) cholesterol, which may help prevent coronary artery disease.

HIV: Antioxidant nutrients like selenium may help slow the progression of HIV/AIDS. A deficiency of the nutrient is also linked to decreased immune cell counts, increased disease progression and a high risk of death among people with HIV/AIDS.

Cognitive decline: Low levels of selenium have been linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease in the elderly.

Cataracts and macular degeneration: Selenium's antioxidant activity fights free radicals that may damage the eye's lens and macula at the center of the retina. This may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration, which are the two most common causes of blindness in elderly Americans.

Cold sores and shingles: Cold sores and shingles that erupt from the herpes virus may be suppressed by selenium because it boosts the immune system. One study published in Agriculture Research also found that mice with low levels of selenium were particularly susceptible to herpes virus outbreaks.

Want an easy way to eat more selenium? One Brazil nut contains almost twice the RDA!

The Best Ways to Increase Your Selenium Intake

"If you were just growing most of your own food in soil that did not have much selenium and not eating vegetables and meat from elsewhere, you could potentially get in trouble with selenium deficiency," Jordan said. That's because the selenium content of your food is highly dependent on the level of selenium in the soil where the food was grown.

In the United States, for instance, soil in northern Nebraska and the Dakotas have very high levels of selenium. So high, in fact, that people living in these areas typically have the highest selenium intakes in the country, says the ODS.

Soil in certain areas of China and Russia, on the other hand, are known to contain very low levels of the mineral, and deficiency is often reported in these regions.

Since most people in the United States generally eat food from a variety of regions, low soil levels of selenium usually don't present a problem. Still, there are certain foods to focus on if you want to be sure you have enough selenium in your system. Try snacking on:

  • Brazil nuts (one nut contains 120 mcg, about twice the Recommended Daily Allowance)
  • Tuna, cod and flounder
  • Oysters and shrimp
  • Chicken and turkey
  • Beef
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Eggs
  • Wheat germ
  • Sunflower seeds

The best way to get selenium is from foods, as it is possible to overdose on this nutrient.

High blood levels of selenium can result in selenosis, a condition that results in mild nerve damage, gastrointestinal upset, hair loss, fatigue, irritability, white blotchy nails and a garlic odor on the breath. The most selenium an adult should get in a day is 400 micrograms, according to the Institute of Medicine's tolerable upper intake level.

Recommended Reading

Magnesium: Why Your Heart is Begging You for More of This Essential Nutrient

How to Prevent Alzheimer's: The Most Effective Ways to Avoid this Rapidly Increasing Disease


Eurek Alert November 13, 2005

Office of Dietary Supplements: Selenium

Whole Health MD: Selenium

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