Mineral of the month – Iodine
Welcome to a new section of the blog – where I will regularly be discussing a new nutrient (a vitamin or mineral), including a few factoids regarding how certain nutrients work in the body, what kinds of foods you can eat to make sure you are getting what you need, and where certain supplements may help you improve your wellbeing.
I thought I would start this section with the wonderful iodine – simply because this is a mineral that I find many people could do with more of, particularly in our local area up here on the Great Dividing Range!
A lack of this essential mineral can cause you to feel pretty ordinary, in more ways than one.
Iodine is a mineral that is essential to life. You can’t actually do without it, because it forms the basis of the hormones your thyroid gland produces. And without thyroid hormones your body cannot unlock energy, use oxygen properly, or form necessary body tissues. Iodine also plays a role in the health of certain parts of the body – including the nervous system, reproduction and breast tissue.1 The majority of the iodine in your body is stored in your thyroid gland, ready for use as needed.
So, what does iodine actually do?
- It keeps the thyroid (and therefore, the metabolism) healthy. As I’ve mentioned above, the most important role iodine plays in the body is to do with the formation of thyroid hormones – so that your metabolism (the rate at which you use food for energy) keeps pumping away at a healthy rate. And we all want to be able to eat food and burn up the calories effectively, don’t we?!. If your thyroid is not functioning well because you aren’t getting enough iodine, you may experience a range of symptoms, including fatigue, weight gain, problems with your period or fertility, low moods, or even a goiter (a swelling in the neck – actually the thyroid gland bulking itself up to try to compensate for the lack of iodine).
- It’s important for breast health Some of your body’s iodine stores are actually found in the breast tissue, and there is evidence to suggest that ensuring a good intake of iodine may help improve breast conditions (such as fibrocystic breast disease and breast pain). Iodine may also play a role in breast cancer prevention.2
- It’s absolutely essential during pregnancy. Iodine is crucial for healthy development of a baby. In particular, iodine is needed for the proper growth of the baby’s brain – and the baby is completely dependent on its mother for this. What is very worrying is that mild-to-moderate iodine deficiency is quite common in Australia, with studies showing that almost half of pregnant women have less-than-ideal levels of iodine. 3
What can lead to a deficiency?
Obviously, not eating enough iodine-rich foods (see below) will not help the situation, but you may be surprised to learn that some foods and chemicals can actually interfere with how well your body can absorb the iodine it does take in. In other words, even if you are eating enough of the right kinds of foods, you may not be able to absorb the iodine very well.
Eating too many of the foods that are classed as ‘goitrogens’ (ie foods that can trigger a goiter, or enlarged thyroid gland) can reduce the amount of iodine your body can utilize. Goitrogenic foods include:
- Members of the cabbage family (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower) eaten RAW (cooked is ok)
In addition, some chemicals and heavy metals can be detrimental to iodine uptake as well. These include mercury, bromides (often found as a component of pesticides and used particularly on strawberries and garlic), fluoride (found in treated tap water and toothpaste), chlorine and cigarette smoke. Things that are best avoided anyway!
How to ensure you get the right amount of this crucial mineral:
- Eat iodine-rich foods where possible. The very best source, without a doubt,is seafood, as seawater contains high levels of iodine. Eating seafood several times a week is an easy way to ensure you obtain enough iodine to keep your body and thyroid happy. In particular, fish, shellfish and seaweeds (eg nori sheets used in sushi) are the best sources. Some foods are fortified with iodine these days (salt, and some bread). Dairy is often listed as a good source, and once upon a time this was the case, simply because milking equipment was sterilized with iodine, and some of this ended up in the milk. However, as technology has moved along, chemically-based sterilizers have mostly replaced the use of iodine in the dairy industry.
- Take a supplement – but with care. So, if you don’t eat fish, or are concerned about getting enough iodine, then popping a supplement is the way to go, right? Well, not necessarily. As with many other nutrients, more is not always better, and taking in too much iodine can actually do more harm than good, so it is important to get the balance right. Overdoing the iodine can cause some unpleasant side effects (such as digestive upsets) but can also trigger a permanent problem with your thyroid. Not too long ago there was legal action taken against a producer of soy milk after the iodine content of the milk triggered serious health problems in a number of people. As always, it is best to obtain professional advice from a qualified nutritional medicine practitioner, who can help guide you to the most appropriate supplement for your needs.