Selenium is an essential component of glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that helps protect cells against oxidation damage and modulates the lipoxygenase pathway of arachidonic acid metabolism. Low selenium concentrations might therefore influence the inflammatory process in asthma by reducing the activity of glutathione peroxidase. Whole blood and plasma selenium concentrations and glutathione peroxidase activity have been measured in 56 asthmatic patients and 59 non-asthmatic control subjects in New Zealand, a country with a low dietary selenium intake and a high prevalence of asthma. When compared with control subjects the asthmatic patients had lower values for whole blood selenium concentrations (-4.9, 95% confidence interval -10.2 to 0.4 ng/ml) and glutathione peroxidase activity (-3.3, 95% CI -5.8 to -0.8 units/g Hb). There was a 1.9 and 5.8 fold increased risk of asthma in subjects with the lowest range of whole blood selenium concentration and glutathione peroxidase activity respectively (95% CI 0.6 to 5.6 and 1.6 to 21.2). Levels were lower in patients and control subjects without an atopic predisposition, but were not affected by prednisone use. Similar differences between the asthmatic and control subjects were not observed for selenium concentration or glutathione peroxidase activity measured in plasma, which reflects short term rather than long term selenium content. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that low selenium concentrations may have a role in the pathogenesis of asthma in New Zealand.
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