Iodine for Health

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Iodine is a relatively rare trace element that often takes a back seat as far as medical considerations, but Iodine is essential for the wellness of all animal and human life. The entire body needs varying amounts of iodine, but the thyroid system is especially dependent on this element and needs a steady supply of it in order to operate properly. Treatment and supplementation with iodine has long been a mainstay of alternative and mainstream medicine. In recent decades, many allopathic providers have developed a paranoia and aversion to iodine therapy, but before it fell out of favor, iodine was an oft-used cure-all for a myriad of maladies. Let’s take a look at a bit of the history of iodine as a medicine, and reference some more recent research as well that has brought this old-fashioned remedy again into the spotlight.

Iodine deficiency is considered by some to be a modern epidemic in the United States today. Insufficient iodine levels can lead to thyroid problems, lack of energy, obesity, and other serious problems. A lack of iodine while pregnant can also lead to birth defects.  Before it fell out of favor, doctors prescribed iodine for many conditions ever since the 1800’s. Up until 1960, commercial bakeries added iodine to bread and other baked goods on a regular basis. Around 40 years ago, for reasons of which no one is sure, the food industry decided to replace iodine with sister element called bromine. Iodine and bromine appear similar to the thyroid gland, and bromine easily bonds to the thyroid’s specialized receptors that are designed to attract iodine. The problem is that bromine cannot supply what the thyroid is seeking and can only receive from iodine. So not only is the bromine not helpful to the thyroid, but it has some significant negative side effects as well. Some of the most common side effects of bromine include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Memory dysfunction
  • Unclear, foggy thinking
  • Irritability

Iodine has for many years been a favorite home remedy for cuts and scraped knees. Many a mother over the years has applied iodine to their children’s boo-boos. Long before antibacterial ointments, iodine was a resident of most of the medicine chests in this country. It is an excellent protector against infection, and it is not subject to bacterial resistance as are antibacterial medicines.

Iodine has been in the headlines recently as a recommended safeguard against exposure to radioactivity from nuclear power plant accidents or terrorist attacks. Potassium Iodide tablets are being recommended by health and home security officials as a protective measure to keep the thyroid from absorbing radioactivity in the event of such incidences. Iodine is also an excellent cleanser to rid the body of many toxic heavy metals.

Other uses for iodine include everything from pimple medicine to water purification. While iodine does a great job at fighting germs, some very encouraging research in recent decades has pointed to even greater applications for iodine that can combat major health issues as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and hormonal imbalances.

One of the most exciting uses of iodine is to treat and prevent endocrine cancers such as breast, prostate, and ovarian. Researchers began looking at some very interesting data concerning the Japanese people. They consume large amounts of seaweed, which is very high in iodine, on a regular basis.  Japanese women ingest more iodine (an average of 13.8 mg./day) than women anywhere on the planet, and they have the lowest incidence of breast cancer in the world. The Japanese people also have a very low rate of thyroid-related conditions such as hypothyroidism (an under active thyroid gland), goiter, and other iodine deficiency illnesses. Corroborating evidence is found in other countries as well. Icelanders, who also consume a lot of iodine in their diet, have a much lower rate of breast cancer as well. On the flip side, two countries that are known to have higher than normal breast cancer rates, Thailand and Mexico, also have a very low per capita consumption of iodine.

Another interesting statistic is the amount of breast cancer found in women who take “natural” or synthetic thyroid hormones prescribed by their physicians. These compounds greatly increase a women’s risk for breast cancer, and the longer they are taken, the greater the risk. Overall, the statistics tell us that if you are using these thyroid hormone replacement therapies, your risk for breast cancer is DOUBLE that of a woman who is not taking them!  And the risk goes dramatically higher if used for fifteen years or more. This tragic situation is only worsened by the fact that the use of iodine can also greatly reduce the risk of breast cancer, with out all the unnecessary risk. Correcting iodine deficiency is a natural and safe way to manage many hormonal imbalances and prevent related diseases.

Iodine therapy has also been clinically proven to be effective against fibrocystic breast cysts. These benign but painful lumps in the breast are thought to be caused by hormonal changes due to menstrual cycles. There have been numerous cases of women who have experienced excellent results from simply taking care of their insufficient levels of iodine. Again, a very safe and effective way to manage hormonal issues with out the use of artificial and dangerous hormone replacement therapy. There are also studies indicating the same results from ovarian cysts through the use of iodine supplementation.

How about heart disease? Do you think we could use some help in fighting this killer? Well, once again iodine has shown some great promise at preventing and eliminating clogged arteries and the resulting condition called atherosclerosis. Lipoprotein (cholesterol), a key component of plaque that is responsible for much of the vascular disease in this country, has been very positively impacted by iodine in clinical tests. Not surprisingly, data such as these are not commonly taught in medical schools. One Harvard chemistry professor makes a point of teaching and demonstrating to his pre-med students that iodine makes many fats, including cholesterol, more soluble in water. He tells them to remember this when they become doctors, because they won’t be taught about it in medical school curriculum. And he’s right…they aren’t.

How Much Iodine Do We Need Each Day?

The benefits of iodine are many and very significant. But just how much of this wonderful element do we need to be consuming?  This has been a very controversial subject over the years. A lot of the anti-iodine thought of today has been a backlash against what some people believe to be an irresponsible push for the use of iodine that has caused conditions such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) supposedly due to excessive amounts of iodine. But, we must be careful not to “throw out the baby with the bath water.”  There has to be a balance. Iodine deficiency is a serious health problem, but we don’t want too much iodine either. The best thinking seems to indicate a target of about 12.5 mg. of iodine per day. The type of iodine is important too. A formula known as “Lugol’s Solution,” which has been in use for almost two hundred years, provides both of the major types of iodine (iodine and iodide) in proper proportions:  5 mg. of iodine along with 7.5 mg. of iodide, for the recommended dosage of 12.5 mg. Iodine can be gotten through many food sources, but the vast majority of us, especially in the United States, will find it necessary to use a high-quality supplement in order to receive enough of the right kind of iodine. This is especially true for you vegetarians out there. It can be difficult to get enough iodine in your diet unless you have access to iodine-rich vegetables such as many types of seaweed.

What Foods Will Give Me Enough Iodine?

If you choose to get your iodine needs primarily met through your diet, here are a few tips. Foods that are high in iodine include:

  • Many species of fish have a high iodine content, but you have to be really careful about the amount of mercury you are ingesting as well. One of the best mercury-free fish to load up on are sardines. Sardines are small, and their life span is very short. Thus, they do not generally expose you to mercury.  When you do choose fish sources make sure the fish is not farmed.  Cold water fish seem to be the safest.
  • Seaweeds, especially red and brown varieties, are one of the best sources of iodine in the world. High consumption of these is the reason the Japanese get so much more iodine than most of us in the rest of the world. Ample amounts can be difficult for us to get our hands on here in the West, though.
  • The amount of iodine in dairy products also fluctuates greatly depending on the amount of iodine in what is being fed to the animals.
  • One note about iodized salt:  Despite what many people think, it is not a good source for iodine. First of all, the type of iodine found in salt is not very absorbable by the body. Secondly, you would have to consume a lot more salt than is healthy for you or that you would probably want to in order to get sufficient amounts.
  • The bottom line is that most people need to take a supplemental form of iodine. A combination of dietary sources and supplementation is the best  and most balanced alternative.

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