Iodine is an essential element for the proper functioning of the body. Even though it is not required in large amounts, deficiency of this substance can have many adverse health effects. We usually associate iodine with thyroid health. It is indeed a constituent of thyroid hormones, but other glands––pituitary, hypothalamus, thymus, adrenals, and ovaries––also need this trace element.
Iodine is particularly important for brain development in the fetus and in infants. In fact, iodine deficiency in the mother during pregnancy and lactation is the number one cause of preventable mental retardation in children. Due to higher awareness levels and the policy of salt iodization, severe iodine deficiency is now rarely seen in developed countries.
However, cutting on salt intake and certain otherwise healthy diet modifications may put you at risk of developing mild iodine deficiency. Exposure to more reactive halogens like fluorine, chlorine, and bromine can reduce your iodine stores as they compete with it. Many foods, especially cruciferous vegetables, are called goitrogens because they prevent the absorption of this trace element from food.
Having sufficient iodine stores in the body is essential for good health. If you’re not convinced, take a look at some of the health benefits of iodine.
1. Iodine optimizes thyroid function
Iodine is necessary for the synthesis of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 because they carry iodine. Not having enough thyroid hormones results in a condition called hypothyroidism which has symptoms like lethargy, weight gain, lack of concentration, cramps, dry skin, and fatigue.
Iodine deficiency can cause the enlargement of the thyroid gland, which is the condition commonly referred to as a goiter. Including sufficient amounts of iodine-rich foods or iodized salt in the diet helps improve thyroid function and prevent hypothyroidism and goiters.
2. Iodine increases metabolic rate and energy levels
The thyroid gland controls how energy is obtained from food. Low levels of thyroid hormones reduce the metabolic rate, or the rate at which calories are burned and energy is released for the functions of the body. It lowers heartbeat and body temperature, slows down digestion and absorption of food, and affects sleep cycles.
When lack of thyroid hormones prevents calorie burning, they get stored as fat in the adipose tissue. That is why a lower metabolic rate is associated with weight gain and the inability to lose weight.
Increasing iodine intake helps the thyroid gland produce sufficient amounts of thyroxine and triiodothyronine which increase heart rate and body temperature. More calories are burned to make energy available for metabolic functions and physical activities.
3. Iodine protects the thyroid
An iodine deficiency results in greater oxidative stress due to high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide in the thyroid gland. Apart from helping the gland produce hormones that use up some of the reactive ions, iodine protects it from free radical damage by acting as an antioxidant.
Low levels of iodine are associated with increased risk of thyroid cancer. You can protect you thyroid gland by ensuring sufficient dietary intake of iodine.
4. Iodine detoxifies the body
Iodine supplementation is known to increase the excretion of heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium through urine. This is a relatively immediate response to iodine availability as these metals start appearing in the urine within a day or two of taking iodine.
Higher iodine levels displace fluorine and bromine from body tissues and aid in their removal from the body, but it is a much slower process taking several months to 2 years.
5. Iodine is essential for healthy skin, teeth and hair
Iodine is important in the formation of healthy skin and teeth and growth of hair. Twenty percent of the iodine in the body is found in the skin. That should tell you how important this element is for the normal functioning of the skin. Lack of iodine makes your skin coarse and the sweat glands become unable to produce sweat.
Iodine deficiency retards hair growth, and may even accelerate balding and graying in severe cases. If you find your hair growing much slower than usual or find thinner patches, it could be due to mild iodine deficiency. Increasing iodine intake may solve the problem.
6. Iodine improves reproductive health and fertility
Iodine is essential for the normal development of the reproductive system. It plays a specific role in the maturity of the sexual organs. Iodine deficiency affects female fertility in more ways than one. Hormonal insufficiency, anovulatory cycles, increased risk of abortions in the first trimester, gestational hypertension, and stillbirths are possible outcomes of iodine deficiency in women. Testing for iodine deficiency and increasing iodine intake may help you have a successful pregnancy.
The prognosis of babies born to mothers having iodine deficiency is grim. It can cause mental retardation and stunted physical growth. Brain development seems to be most affected by iodine deficiency.
Deficiency in the mother may result in congenital thyroid insufficiency in the child, which can progress to cretinism, if left untreated. Eating an iodine-rich diet or taking iodine supplements during pregnancy and lactation can promote the health of both the mother and the baby and avoid unnecessary complications.
7. Improves cognitive function and fine motor skills in children
Children born with congenital hypothyroidism or born to mothers having iodine deficiency during the gestation period may benefit from iodine supplementation from early infancy onwards. But many children with decreased cognitive function due to mild iodine deficiency often go unnoticed, especially in areas prone to goiter. Statistics have shown significantly lower IQ in such children.
Adding extra iodine to their diet has been shown to improve their learning potential, ability to concentrate, and visual and motor coordination.
8. Iodine boosts immunity
Iodine has specific roles in the functioning of the immune system. The antimicrobial activity of iodine is strong and immediate, and wide ranging too. Iodine is antibacterial and antiviral. Even today, iodine solutions are used topically to disinfect wounds and to prepare body parts for surgical procedures.
Iodine can also work from the inside to kill pathogens and cancer cells. It induces selective apoptosis of cancer cells in the thyroid and the breast. It brings down the Helicobater pylori populations in the gut. These bacteria are associated with stomach cancer. It can offer you protection from vaginal infections and cold and flu viruses.
9. Iodine prevents fibromyalgia
Iodine is necessary for the proper functioning of muscle tissue. That is why 32 percent of the iodine stores in the body are concentrated in the muscles. Depletion of this element causes musculoskeletal problems like fibromyalgia. This disorder is characterized by painful muscles without any apparent reason. It is often accompanied by mood swings, sleep problems, and severe fatigue.
Iodine seems to have a protective effect against fibromyalgia. Increasing iodine intake has been found to reduce the symptoms of this condition.
10. Iodine can protect you from many cancers
The anticancer property of iodine is proven by clinical and laboratory studies as well as epidemiological evidence. Higher incidence of cancer is seen in areas where goiter is common. This is especially true in the case of stomach, breast, and thyroid cancers. Mortality from the disease is also higher in these populations.
Other cancers associated with low iodine levels are ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer. The deficiency of iodine, as well as the hypothyroid state it precipitates, could be the reason for the increased risk.
Iodine therapy has been shown to reduce mortality and improve outcomes when administered along with other anticancer treatments. The strong antioxidant property of iodine ion might be the one of the reasons for its anticancer property.
Iodine Deficiency Symptoms
It is not easy to recognize mild iodine deficiency since its symptoms like weight gain, low energy level, constipation, slow hair growth, irritability, and depression can be attributed to any number of reasons. Moderate to severe deficiency may precipitate fatigue, abnormally high weight gain, low fertility, uncharacteristic balding, coarse skin, goiter, cognitive decline and mental retardation.
How To Get More Iodine Into Your Diet
Severe iodine deficiency is not as common as it used to be a hundred years ago, but if you suspect that you are not getting enough or suffer from many of the symptoms of mild deficiency, you should try to include iodine-rich foods in your diet. Supplements are usually unnecessary. You shouldn’t take iodine supplements without a doctor’s supervision.
Seafood is the best source of iodine because seawater has high iodine content. That’s why goiter has been a problem of inland and mountain areas before iodization of salt became a common practice.
Some of the best sources of iodine are:
- Seafood– fish, shrimp, lobsters, clams, oysters
- Sea vegetables– kelp, seaweed, Kombu, Dulse
- Animal protein– eggs, dairy, turkey
- Fruit- bananas, strawberries, prunes, cranberries
- Vegetables – spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, garlic, sesame seeds, lima beans, soybeans, potato
How Much Iodine Do You Need?
The RDA for iodine recommended in the US is 150 mcg (micrograms) per day for adults. Pregnant women and lactating mothers are advised to get higher amounts, 220 mcg and 290 mcg respectively. Many nutritionists consider it the bare minimum requirement and recommend higher amounts.
The Japanese traditionally have high amounts of iodine in their diet because of regular seaweed consumption. The average intake is around 13 grams. Extremely low levels of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer in women,and prostate cancer in men, are attributed to their iodine-high diet.
Even if you don’t go as high as the Japanese in iodine levels, most people can benefit from 3-5 mg daily of this element.