Iodine deficiencies are being called a “silent epidemic”; it’s been estimated that approximately 74 percent of adults have iodine deficiencies worldwide. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD) are considered to be among today’s biggest health problems, affecting over 1.5 billion people around the world.
The health problems that can result from an iodine deficiency include:
- goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
- skin problems
- neurological issues
- gastrointestinal abnormalities
- cognitive impairment
Each of the above IDDs has its own set of symptoms, from puffiness and fatigue to heart and joint problems, as well as additional complications such as cardiovascular problems, peripheral neuropathy, and depression.
Children and teens with an iodine deficiency may experience poor mental or dental development, slower growth rate, and delayed puberty. Infants can also develop IDD if they don’t get enough iodine in their first year of life or if they didn’t receive enough iodine in utero—pregnant women actually require extra iodine, and if their intake is too low, it can cause an IDD in their unborn baby.
A well-rounded whole food diet that includes choices with naturally occurring iodine can help stave off IDD. These foods include:
- saltwater fish
- sea vegetables (kelp, seaweed, etc.)
- dairy from grassfed cows grazed in iodine-rich fields
Pure sea salt can contain some natural iodine, but not as much as iodized sea salt. (Processed foods contain high amounts of salt and sodium, but the salt used in these prepackaged products is unhealthy and is not iodized.) A pure iodine supplement in an amount recommended by your functional medicine doctor specifically for your body’s needs is another way to keep iodine levels where they should be.
What makes iodine so important to our bodies, and why must we make a concerted effort to eat foods rich in iodine? Iodine is an essential mineral, but our bodies don’t make it naturally, so we need to consume it in our diets. Iodine is critical for the production of thyroid hormones, which control bodily functions including metabolism. Recent research has shown that iodine may also function as an antioxidant, drawing free radicals away from tissue and lowering cancer risks. The Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia reported in 2005 that diets high in iodine are associated with lower breast cancer rates. Iodine is also used by the eyes, salivary glands, stomach lining and other organs.
During pregnancy, increased iodine intake is necessary for fetal brain development and to lower the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, low birth weight and stillbirth. The Lancet published a study in 2013 that followed the children of women who did not consume enough iodine during pregnancy. By the age of 8 or 9, these children scored poorly on tests for verbal and reading abilities. Another report in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism states that in early childhood, insufficient iodine levels can result in slower mental development and function, poor nerve development and learning abilities, and speech and/or hearing problems.
While there are general guidelines as to how much iodine people need based on their age from birth to adulthood, these guidelines vary greatly depending on the source; more importantly, your individual needs are likely to be different from generic numbers.