As many people know, iodine is an essential mineral nutrient. “Essential” in nutrition means that to stay healthy we must get the necessary nutrient from outside our bodies; we cannot make it from other materials. The RDA is 150 micrograms (mcg or μg) per day. The most important and well-known use for iodine is in the thyroid gland. Without iodine the thyroid hormones cannot be produced.

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 infants and young 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/levothroxine (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
Weight gain
High cholesterol
Essential hypertension
Thin, brittle fingernails
Hair loss; thin, brittle hair
Puffiness in face and elsewhere
Depression; poor concentration
Muscle aches
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, and elsewhere.

It was because of the wide spread problem of goiter in the Midwest (the “goiter belt”) that in 1924 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.

Modern Iodine Issues

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 salt.

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 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.

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 and ovarian cysts.

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. Unfortunately, it has become easy to find iodine is excessive doses online and in stores, often in doses 75 to 100 times higher than we would recommend.

What to Do

If not using iodized salt or a supplement with at least 150 mcg of iodine supplementing with kelp (a natural source of iodine) is recommended. Sea vegetables are excellent sources of bio-available iodine. Kelp supplementation will go a long way towards protecting people from getting hypothyroidism and other problems associated with deficient iodine and, in some people, this will even correct milder forms of this disease. 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. Supplementing with one kelp capsule will supply between 200 and 400 mcg of iodine per day.

The causes of autoimmune disease, including thyroid autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s and Grave’s), are not well understood. Unfortunately, supplementing with iodine is not likely to resolved these types of thyroid disease. On the other hand we have found homeopathy can be helpful. If you have these issues consider a free introductory consultation to determine if we can help.