Lupus and Selenium

Selenium may be the most important nutrient that you have never heard of.  Yet, it is vital for maintaining overall health and reducing the inflammation caused by autoimmune diseases like lupus. Read on to learn more about the relationship between selenium, inflammation and SLE.


What is selenium and why is it important for your health?

Selenium (Se) is a mineral found in soil and in a variety of foods.  It is considered an essential trace element – meaning that the human body requires very little selenium, but that small amount is absolutely necessary for life and good health.

Other essential trace elements in the human body include zinc, copper, chromium, magnesium, molybdenum, cobalt and iodine.

The element, selenium, does not exist in the body by itself.  It is attached to at least 25 known enzymes and proteins called selenoproteins.  These proteins are mainly involved in maintaining and protecting basic cellular and bodily functions.  For example:

  • Some selenoproteins act as antioxidants, like vitamin C, beta-carotenes, and CoQ10.  They help prevent damage from free radical oxygen (peroxides), which in turn can damage tissues in the body leading to inflammation. Inflammation of course, is an important concern for anyone living with lupus!
  • Some selenoproteins help with the replication of DNA and protect it from free radicals.
  • Other selenoproteins regulate the thyroid gland by activating or deactivating thyroid hormones. This can improve the immune system by helping to regulate overly aggressive B cells, and that in turn helps further reduce unnecessary inflammation.  Learn more about lupus and your thyroid here.
  • There is also evidence that selenium can reduce ischemic heart disease.

The human body does not produced selenium on its own. Though it is stored in skeletal muscles, it needs to be regularly ingested.  Low selenium levels in the blood can be caused by:

  • A selenium-poor diet;
  • Kidney dialysis, a procedure that may be required for lupus nephritis patients suffering from severe renal damage;
  • Chronic gastrointestinal diseases, like Crohn’s disease.

Symptoms of selenium deficiency include:

  • Myalgia of the lower extremities,
  • Heart myopathies, and
  • Nail bed whitening.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for selenium is 55 micrograms (mcg) for adult 19+ men and women.  This increases to 60 mcg during pregnancy and 70 mcg when breast feeding.

How does selenium affect lupus?

Low blood levels of selenium have been commonly found in patients with autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus.  Several studies have shown that increasing selenium levels reduce several clinical symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and lupus.

A recent study found that those with higher levels of selenium in their blood had a significantly lower risk for developing lupus.  Moreover, there is evidence of a genetic link between selenium blood levels and the risk for SLE.  Unfortunately, it is not known why this occurs, and more research on this relationship needs to be done.

Most of the positive impacts of selenium on lupus are associated with its general anti-inflammatory effects.  Additionally, however, increased selenium levels have been found to significantly reduce the number of B cells in the body.  Since overactive B cells produce the autoantibodies that cause tissue damage in lupus and lupus nephritis, decreasing their overall number is one way to limit that damage.  Interestingly, selenium does not seem to affect T cells and other cells of the immune system.


How can we get enough selenium? 

Selenium is found in a variety of foods.  The best way to maintain adequate selenium levels is by eating a healthy, varied diet.

Nuts, seafood and meat, and some cereals contain high levels of selenium. The most selenium-rich sources include:

  • Brazil nuts, which have the highest concentration of selenium – just one ounce of Brazil nuts holds 10x the amount of selenium you need each day;
  • Seafood like tuna, halibut, and shrimp;
  • Red meat;
  • Cooked brown rice, and
  • Eggs.

However, it isn’t all about animal products.  Vegetables can also provide some of your daily selenium, for example: broccoli, spinach, peas, beans and potatoes. Unfortunately, you cannot get enough selenium from vegetables alone.  If you are a vegetarian you will need to add supplemental selenium to your diet and/or eat selenium-fortified foods (or those Brazil nuts).

Selenium supplements are growing in popularity as the general public becomes more aware of its anti-inflammatory properties and its effects on chronic, autoimmune diseases.

Note:  Always check with your healthcare provider before adding selenium supplements to (or significantly changing) your diet.


Is it possible to have too much selenium?

Overdosing on selenium due to diet alone is not common.  However, it may be possible to take too much in the form of supplements.  The symptoms for selenium overdose include:

  • Nausea,
  • Tooth decay,
  • Brittle nails,
  • Bad breath and a metallic taste in the mouth,
  • Hair loss and skin lesions.

Additionally, high selenium levels have been known to increase the risk for type 2 diabetes.


Drug Interactions:  Selenium can also interact with some lupus medications, such as corticosteroids, as well as some chemotherapy drugs, antacids, statins and birth control pills.  So, again, make sure you check with your healthcare providers before adding these supplements to your treatment plan.


In Conclusion

Selenium is a critical nutrient for human health, and it plays a significant role in reducing the damage caused by autoimmune diseases like lupus.  To date, there is no recommended selenium dosage for treating SLE.  However, as we continue to learn more about this essential trace element, it reminds us all of the critical importance of a balanced diet in managing lupus.  So, eat well for health!



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Prado, R., Aires, P.P., Suano-Souza, F., Fonseca, F.L.A., Terreri, M.T., & Sarni, R.O.S. (2022). Selenium nutritional status and its association with SLEDAI-2K, HOMA-IR and lipid profile in Juvenile Systemic Lupus Erythematosus patients. Lupus, 31(2), 155-162.

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Ye, D., Sun, X., Guo, Y., Shao, K., Qian, Y., Huang, H., Liu, B., Wen, C, & Mao, Y. (2021). Genetically determined selenium concentrations and risk for autoimmune diseases. Nutrition, 91-92, Article 111391.


Author: Greg Dardis, MS

Professor Dardis was formerly the Chair of the Science Department at Marylhurst University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Portland State University.  His focus has been human biology and physiology with an interest in autoimmunity.

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