Iodine and You: The Oft Forgotten Nutrient


In case it’s been awhile since you’ve taken a Chemistry course (or you never took one at all!) you should know about a particular non-metallic trace element that has secretly been doing you quite a bit of good: iodine.

What is Iodine?Health Benefits of Iodine

It’s mostly found in oceans and rivers, but—more importantly—it’s an essential component of your thyroid hormones. Furthermore, it’s also needed by your body to facilitate the normal metabolism of cells (create energy!) —so while it is not often discussed; it should be. What people tend to discuss even less today however, is just how big of a problem iodine deficiency is in most of the word—even the post-industrialized areas.

Dr. Michael Bruce Zimmermann, M.D., of the Human Nutrition Laboratory at the Institute of Food Nutrition and Health in Zurich Switzerland decided to update the scientific literature on the status of iodine in the world today (2012 to be exact). He compiled the most recent data from the workings of UNICEF (and the WHO Micronutrients Database) and analyzed them. His results: “Thirty-two countries are iodine deficient based on the national median UIC. Globally, 29.8% of school-age children (246 million) are estimated to have insufficient iodine intake…Overall, ≈70% of households worldwide have access to iodized salt.” Thus, he concludes that nearly 1/3 of the population is currently iodine deficient. If you’re living in the United States or Europe you probably have access to iodized salt, the easiest and most efficient way to spread iodine into the population (when it’s added to the soil, natural erosion tends to make it “wear away rather rapidly—that’s why the Andes, Alps and other mountainous regions are some of the most iodine deficient in the world).

Let’s assume you’re receiving enough iodine from your daily salt intake, living in an industrialized world may mean that’s not enough. Dr. Olayiwola Alatise at the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, College of Health Sciences at Awolowo University looked at the suddenly high rates of breast cancer in modern Nigerian women. It turns out, their rates of breast cancer rose (in a correlational manner) over the past 3 decades in tandem with their rapid industrialization. Industrialization in their region meant exposure to Pb (lead)—which even in trace amounts is incredibly cancer tumor inducing. Low level (continued exposure) speeds the growth of tumors. Furthermore, according to the good doctor, it “also interact[s] with iodine, another vitally important essential trace element believed to protect against breast cancer development”—thus it has the ability to counteract the anti-carcinogenic effects of the good nutrients and minerals you do ingest.

Other industrial metals have similar effects, though not with such thorough results. . For many of us in the post-industrialized world we have a far more limited exposure to such toxins, but it isn’t nonexistent. If you’re job puts you in the presence of heavy metals frequently, or perhaps your neighborhood, it may be wise to ensure you’re getting enough iodine in a more proactive way than adding salt to your dinner dish.

Here’s another fascinating study from Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, on Urine Iodine, Estrogen, and Breast Disease.

Studies examining the health of Nigerian women aren’t the only ones looking into the potential benefits of iodine for women. Dr. Carmen Aceves of the Neurobiology Institute at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico used her research to ask the question “is iodine a gatekeeper of the integrity of the mammary gland?” Her findings revealed that iodine is “an antioxidant and anti-proliferative agent contributing to the integrity of the normal mammary gland”. She concluded that I(2) (a form of iodine) supplementation had a significant suppressive effect “on the development and size of both benign and cancer neoplasias”—finally suggesting that iodine be used in breast cancer therapy. Iodine doesn’t just play a role in preventing cancer, it also is linked with issues that result from diabetes mellitus type 2 (T2DM). According to the research of Dr. Os Al-Atlas of the Biomarkers Research Program at King Saud University “patients with diabetes mellitus are at an increased risk for thyroid disease”. It turns out that those with T2DM had significantly lower levels of iodine in their systems (and thus in their urine) than your typically healthy patient. These findings “negatively correlated” with hip and waist ratios as well as glucose and insulin levels. Such love levels of iodine was concluded to have “deleterious effects on metabolic function” and lead the good doctor to call for “a systemic approach for thyroid screening in diabetic patients”.

If you happen to be diabetic, or at risk it may be wise to increase your iodine intake—and more importantly, to get your levels test in the first place. If your tests show low iodine levels, or you happen to know you eat a more natural salt option that hasn’t been iodized (like some sea salts) there are other ways to get your fill without resorting to pill-popping or “supplementation”. Iodine rich foods abound, they just don’t often receive credit for their secret ingredient.

My top choices for iodine rich foods are as follows:

Health Benefits of Seaweed1. Seaweed– the “king” of iodine purveyors. According to the aforementioned Dr. Carmen Aveces (of Mexico) seaweed is a “rich source of iodine in several chemical forms”. Furthermore, “the high consumption of this element [in Asia] (25 times more than in Occident) has been associated with the low incidence of benign and cancer breast disease in Japanese women”. Do as the Japanese do (and they have the highest iodine intake in the world), and snack away on one of the oceans many treats!
2. Fish-speaking of ocean related goodness, fish are also a great source of iodine. Dr. Joerg Oehlenschlager of the Institute for the Safety and Quality of Milk and Fish in Hamburg German lists high iodine concentrations as one of the many scientifically backed benefits of fish consumption. The Office of Dietary Supplements (of the National Institute of Health) suggests eating, cod, tuna and shrimp for the biggest impact (though all fish are good sources).

Salmon Fish
3. Eggs- the work of Dr. M. Haldimann at the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health sought to examine the iodine contents in different food groups. While they concluded that the riches source of iodine was marine fish (concentrations were found between the 0.39-6.9 mg/g range) eggs were in hot pursuit—with a concentration of 0.15-2.1 mg/g (the suggested intake for the average adult is 150 mcg daily). Results in eggs can be even higher if the laying hens imbibe iodine enriched feed (though their meat concentration levels will be unaffected). If seafood doesn’t sound like something you can stand to eat, turn to the egg, it’s a winner in its own right.

4. Yoghurt- last but certainly not least, there’s the king of dairy products. The aforementioned Office of Dietary Supplements notes the importance of dairyproducts (milk and cheese are also on their list) but they don’t pack all the extra probiotic goodness that the live strains in yogurt do. Yoghurt can also be Health Benefits of Eggsfurther enriched based on the feed of the cow that produces the milk (cheese cannot—as most of the enrichment is found in the whey which is removed during processing) and is a great choice of snack if you’re not into a glass of milk a day, or want a snack that’s good for you on a variety of levels. Iodine has many benefits, and could be classified as an unsung nutrient that we all should be readily ingesting. It should be noted, that you can overdose on iodine (for adults anything higher than 1,100 mcgs can be just as harmful as not getting enough) so check with your doctor if you’re unsure about your levels. If it turns out you do need a boost, incorporate my top 4 into your diet and may you be iodine rich for the rest of your days!