Selenium is considered an essential dietary mineral that helps protect the body from oxidative stress. Plant-based foods are typically the major source of this mineral in the diet, and the exact selenium concentration in a given food is determined by the soil in which it is grown.
Although rare in the United States, selenium deficiency is common in China, where the soil is lower in selenium. Scientists estimate one billion individuals worldwide are currently living with a selenium deficiency.
Individuals who have Crohn’s disease are at an elevated risk of this particular issue, and individuals who are undergoing dialysis are also more likely to develop it. To prevent a selenium deficiency, doctors recommend individuals consume fifty-five micrograms of selenium each day.
Ideally, selenium should be consumed through food instead of supplements. Foods rich in selenium include Brazil nuts, whole-wheat bread, beans, rice, and some types of tuna.
5 Signs and Symptoms of Selenium Deficiency
Selenium deficiency can be difficult to diagnose, and doctors may use a blood test that measures levels of an enzyme known as glutathione peroxidase.
This enzyme needs selenium to function properly, and low enzyme levels may suggest low selenium. In evaluating patients for this nutritional deficiency, doctors will check for the symptoms outlined below.
1. Weak Immune System
Patients with a selenium deficiency will often present with a weak immune system. When the immune system is weakened, this can result in a greater risk of infection.
For example, patients with compromised immune systems may get frequent colds or other respiratory illnesses, and they are also more at risk of pneumonia. They may also exhibit constant fatigue, and may have slow to heal wounds or swollen lymph nodes.
In particular, patients who have cancer or thyroid conditions, including Grave’s disease, are already living with weakened immune systems due to these conditions, and they should be especially vigilant about getting adequate selenium in their diet.
To check for the possibility of a weakened immune system, doctors can perform a series of blood tests, and they will conduct a physical examination to look for signs of infection.
2. Muscle Weakness
Patients who have a selenium deficiency may notice weakness in the muscles, and the muscles may become increasingly weak if the deficiency is not corrected quickly. A feeling of weakness in the muscles can cause problems with standing, sitting, and walking, and patients may feel they need to stay in bed for long periods.
Depending on the severity of the muscle weakness, some patients may struggle to walk without support, and they may also have problems with bathing, getting dressed, cooking, and writing.
To help increase muscle strength, patients may wish to try gentle exercises such as swimming and yoga. However, anyone who notices muscle weakness should visit a doctor to receive a proper evaluation and diagnosis.
The clinician can check the patient’s range of motion and strength in the major muscle groups and recommend the most appropriate treatment. Some patients may also wish to consider a course of physical therapy to improve muscle strength, but this should only be done if recommended by a doctor.
3. Hair Loss
Individuals with a selenium deficiency frequently notice they are losing small amounts of hair. For example, a patient may notice more hair than usual is coming out when their hair is brushed or styled, and the hair may also be thinner than normal.
Rarely, some patients may notice a complete loss of hair in certain parts of the scalp. Since hair loss can be a sign of several medical conditions, patients should speak with a doctor about any persistent or unusual changes they notice in their hair.
To prevent further damage to the hair, patients experiencing hair loss may wish to modify their washing and styling routine. For example, it may be helpful to brush the hair less often and to use a gentle brush.
The use of curling irons and hair straighteners may stress the hair, and patients may wish to limit their use of these.
Styling products such as waxes and gels may make hair more prone to breakage, and patients could consider switching to alternative gentle products or eliminating some products from their hair care routine. Once the selenium deficiency is corrected, many patients find their hair growth returns to normal.
The fatigue associated with a selenium deficiency can range in severity. Patients who are only mildly deficient may simply notice they feel more tired than usual after a long day, and this pattern may persist for several weeks.
As the selenium deficiency becomes more severe, patients may start to feel they are never truly well-rested no matter how much sleep they are able to get.
Patients may struggle with getting out of bed in the morning, and some may have to be absent from work or school due to the severity of their symptoms. Patients struggling with these issues should visit their primary care doctor first, and they may be referred to a sleep specialist for further testing.
The sleep specialist can give advice about ways to reduce symptoms and increase sleep quality. If necessary, medications can be prescribed to reduce exhaustion and help make sleep easier.
5. Confusion or Mental Fog
Patients with a selenium deficiency may notice signs of confusion or mental fog. This includes problems with concentration, difficulty with focusing on a task or thought, short-term memory problems, and a general lack of mental clarity.
Individuals experiencing these symptoms may have trouble making decisions, and tasks at work or school may take longer than normal and seem more difficult. For patients low in selenium, the sleep problems and frequent infections they may experience will often make mental fog worse.
Since mental fog and confusion may stem from a number of medical conditions, doctors will conduct a thorough physical examination to rule out serious conditions, including a mental status exam and questions about the patient’s medical history and current symptoms.
Mental fog and confusion typically resolve with proper treatment to restore selenium levels to within normal limits.