Keep An Eye On Your Iodine
Are you getting enough iodine? There was a time in America when this question was the subject of much hand-wringing. Nowadays, few of us give iodine a second thought. That’s primarily because of a national health crisis averted, long before most of us were born.
But let’s start at the beginning. Iodine is an element. It’s relatively rare in the earth’s crust, but it’s readily soluble in water, so its salts are often found in seawater and certain types of seafood. It’s also an essential trace element. By definition, we must have this nutrient in the diet, at least in small amounts; we cannot manufacture it in the body. The best-known use for iodine in the body involves its incorporation into some important thyroid hormones. These hormones, produced by the thymus glands situated in the neck, are responsible for regulating your basal metabolic rate. Think of it as keeping the pilot light on in the furnace. Without adequate iodine from the diet, the fires may all but sputter out and fail.
Seafood is the richest source of this nutrient. But people who do not eat seafood (including seaweed, such as kelp), or who do not live in an area where there’s adequate iodine in the soil (and thus in the crops grown there) may find it difficult to get enough through the ordinary diet. In the past, this resulted in a mini-epidemic of goiter (enlarged thyroid glands) among people living in the American heartland.
Besides the grotesque swelling caused by goiter, iodine deficiency can cause extreme fatigue, mental confusion, weight gain, depression, and low body temperature. Worldwide, about two billion people are affected by iodine deficiency. Many live in the developing world. In fact, iodine deficiency is considered the leading preventable cause of developmental and intellectual disabilities worldwide.
In the early 20th century, a progressive physician first convinced Americans to try adding iodine salts to commercially-prepared table salt. The Morton Salt Company began selling iodized salt nationally, and the collective intelligence of Americans rose significantly, depending on the degree of iodine deficiency among citizens in various regions. Deficiency had been especially great among people in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Average intelligence scores there rose by an astounding 15 points.
These days, few of us worry about getting enough iodine. Goiter has become a rare phenomenon, on a par with “dropsy” or “the vapors” in some peoples’ minds. But certain modern trends have raised the specter of iodine deficiency all over again. Ironically, it’s the rise in popularity of sea salt that has some concerned. Sea salt is all the rage now. Problem is, in most cases, it does not feature fortification with iodine salts, so some people who have switched to sea salt exclusively may no longer be getting iodine from table salt, as they did in the past.
Yesterday I wrote about the benefits of eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli. These vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. But they also contain compounds called goitrogens, which could, in theory, encourage thyroid problems if consumed in great enough quantities in the absence of adequate iodine. Most experts think the risk is minimal, but the fact remains that adequate daily intake of iodine is crucial for optimal health.