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IODINE DEFICIENCY AND YOUR HEALTH:
As many people know, iodine is an essential mineral
nutriment. “Essential” in nutrition means that to stay healthy we
must get the necessary nutriment from outside our bodies; we cannot make
it from other materials. The most important and well-known use for
iodine is in the thyroid gland. Without iodine the thyroid hormones
cannot be produced.
Hypothyroidism, Thyroid Disease
and Fibrocystic Breast Disease
One of the most important functions of thyroid
hormones is to regulate the rate of metabolism. So without enough of the
thyroid hormones nothing works correctly in the body. The inadequate
hormone production and the symptoms this causes is called
hypothyroidism. If this continues without treatment eventually the
thyroid gland will swell and produce a visible goiter. In children
sustained hypothyroidism also leads to mental retardation and other
problems. In women it is associated with infertility, miscarriages and
breast and ovarian cancer.
Unfortunately, subclinical (i.e., mild and hard to
detect) forms of hypothyroidism can often be missed, even with
conventional blood tests. Even when hypothyroidism is identified and
treated with Synthyroid (the common pharmaceutical treatment), sometimes
the treatment is not addressing the underlying problem and the patient
continues to suffer from symptoms.
Early symptoms of hypothyroidism:
Cold intolerance, increased sensitivity to cold
Cold hands and feet
Thin, brittle fingernails
Hair loss; thin, brittle hair
Puffiness in face and elsewhere
Depression; poor concentration
Dry, itchy skin
It is important to note that iodine is also found
in every tissue in the body - not just the thyroid gland. The second
highest concentration of iodine is found in breast tissue. Low iodine is
associated with fibrocystic breast disease and in animal studies low
iodine increases the risk for breast cancer. Iodine is also normally
found in the prostate gland, gastrointestinal tract, salivary glands,
bones, connective tissues, brain, ovaries, thymus gland, adrenal glands,
It was because of the wide spread problem of goiter
in the Midwest (the “goiter belt”) that 80 years ago iodine was
added to salt. This worked. There was a significant drop in the amount
of goiter that was diagnosed in the years following the addition of
iodine to salt.
However, for many years now we have seen a growing
epidemic of thyroid problems. Hypothyroidism is more common than ever in
middle-aged women, and Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune form of
hypothyroidism) and Grave’s disease (an autoimmune form of
hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone production)) are increasingly
common. There also are increasing incidence of benign thyroid nodules
and thyroid cancer.
What is going on? Most salt has iodine in it so
there should be no iodine deficiencies in the USA. However, recent
studies have shown that over the last 30 years iodine levels in the
general population have decreased by 50%. Why?
There are two possible reasons for decreasing
iodine levels worth noting. The first one is salt consumption. A lot of
people are now on low-salt diets. This means they consume less iodine.
Also, in an effort to get away from the commonly used “refined”
iodized salt some people use sea salt or an “unrefined” form of salt
such as Celtic Sea Salt or Redmond’s Real Salt. While these
alternative forms of salt don’t have the unhealthy additives found in
common refined iodized salt, they also don’t have any iodine added.
Estimates are that less than 50% of the US population now uses iodized
The other reason for decreasing iodine levels is
not so obvious and requires more explanation. Iodine, along with
bromine, is in the halide family of minerals (fluorine and chlorine are
also halides). All halides have a similar molecular structure, which is
why they are in the same mineral family.
Bromine is often used as a sanitizer in pools and
hot tubs, is used as fumigant in agriculture, is in a few
pharmaceuticals and, most importantly, since the 1980s was added to
bakery products as an anti-caking agent, ironically replacing iodine.
What concerns us is that because of its similar size and structure,
bromine can compete with iodine for binding sites in our bodies. This is
especially a problem if a deficient amount of iodine is present.
What this means is that now many people are getting
more bromine exposure than iodine exposure. Unfortunately, bromine is
toxic and has no useful purpose in the human body whereas iodine is in
short supply and is essential to health. There is growing evidence that
this combination of low iodine and relatively high bromine is at the
heart of the epidemic of thyroid problems. It is easy to see how this
could lead to hypothyroidism, both overt disease and subclinical. There
are also strong suggestions that it could also be a factor in the
thyroid autoimmune diseases of Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s
disease (the mechanisms explaining how low iodine could stimulate
autoimmune thyroid problems is too complicated to go into here).
This situation of high bromine and low iodine
exposure is probably contributing to many other health problems as well
since iodine is normally found everywhere in the body and bromine should
not be found anywhere. The holistic doctors who work a lot with this are
finding that adequate iodine supplementation is - when the patient is
found to be deficient by testing - an important part of a holistic
treatment for many health problems. This includes, of course, all
thyroid problems, especially hypothyroidism and thyroid nodules, as well
as fibrocystic breast disease, ovarian cysts and breast cancer. There
are several studies showing iodine to be an effective breast cancer
treatment and probably should be added to any breast cancer treatment
However, iodine is one of those minerals that too
much can be a problem too. There are reports of high doses of iodine
actually causing hypothyroidism in sensitive people, as well as
hyperthyroidism. While this is rare, people do need to be careful with
taking too much iodine. With the larger therapeutic doses people need to
work with a health care practitioner who is familiar with iodine as a
In the meanwhile, most people would do well to
supplement with kelp, a natural source of iodine. Sea vegetables are
excellent sources of bio-available iodine. The coastal Japanese consume
large quantities of sea vegetables and have little thyroid disease.
Kelp supplementation will go a long way towards
protecting people from getting thyroid and other problems associated
with deficient iodine and, in some people, this will even correct milder
forms of this diseases. Plus anyone diagnosed with hypothyroidism or
fibrocystic breast disease should be supplementing with kelp. However,
don’t cheap-out here. It is really important that you buy kelp that
comes from unpolluted waters or you could end up with many dangerous
environmental toxins along with your iodine. We recommend supplementing
with kelp so that it supplies between 200 and 400 mcg (micrograms) of
iodine per day. Our office is now carrying a good high-quality kelp
supplement for a reasonable price.
For those of you who already have a diagnosed
thyroid problem, possible symptoms of thyroid disease, fibrocystic
breast disease or breast cancer we recommend that you make an
appointment with us (or a similarly trained health care professional -
see our Links page).
For these situations an assessment of iodine levels and monitoring the
progress by a professional is recommended. We can work with you with
therapeutic doses of iodine and can help you better manage your thyroid
health problems naturopathicly.