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How Iodine Deficiency Increases Your Risk for Chronic Illnesses

Iodine is essential to your health. Unfortunately, data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has revealed a significant drop in median urine iodine values.1 The median iodine level measured in urine samples was 320 micrograms per liter (mcg/L) between 1971 and 1974. By 1988, it dropped to 145 mcg/L. Surveys taken in the years since show levels have stabilized, except in pregnant women whose median urine level dropped further to 125 mcg/L.

Many people don't know they need to consume a little iodine each day to maintain healthy levels of this essential micronutrient. Your body uses iodine across several organ systems, but it is most commonly known to synthesize thyroid hormones that regulate nearly every bodily system. Several thyroid hormones secreted by your thyroid gland are transported throughout your body where they control your metabolism and energy production.2

This means that every cell in your body depends on the production and function of thyroid hormones. Your thyroid gland is under the control of your pituitary gland that is located at the base of your brain. In turn, the pituitary gland is under the control of your hypothalamus. In other words, there are several steps needed to identify low thyroid hormone levels and to tell your thyroid gland to begin secreting more.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition3 evaluated the iodine levels of cow's milk and milk alternatives in search of a potential reason for this growing iodine insufficiency.

Milk Substitutes Are Low in Iodine

Researchers from the University of Surrey evaluated the iodine content in 47 milk alternatives and compared those levels to cow's milk. The researchers included almond, soy, coconut, rice and hazelnut milk alternatives, but excluded products marketed specifically for infant consumption.4 They discovered the majority of brands did not have adequate levels of iodine as compared to cow's milk. Most contained only 2 percent of that found in cow's milk.

Only three milk alternatives were fortified with iodine.5 This means that opting for a milk alternative may increase your risk of developing an iodine deficiency, as the milk alternatives tested only provided 2 mcg per serving,6 while 2 cups of cow's milk will cover your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iodine.7

Statistically speaking, you may have difficulty absorbing milk products, which means you would have a negative reaction when you drink cow's milk. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 65 percent of all people have difficulty digesting lactose after infancy.8 Lactose is the sugar found in cow's milk. This intolerance or allergic reaction to the milk sugar is the reason some turn to milk alternatives. Margaret Rayman, professor of nutritional medicine at the University of Surrey, said:9

“Many people are unaware of the need for this vital dietary mineral and it is important that people who consume milk-alternative drinks realize that they will not be replacing the iodine from cows’ milk which is the main UK source of iodine. This is particularly important for pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy.

A glass of a milk-alternative drink would only provide around 2 mcg of iodine which is a very small proportion of the adult recommended iodine intake of 150 mcg/day. In pregnancy, that recommendation goes up to 200 mcg/day.”

Iodine is an essential micronutrient that helps alkalize your body's pH, provides your thyroid with the necessary nutrients to produce thyroid hormones, protects against cancer and is a natural antibacterial agent. In this short video, iodine expert Dr. Jorge Flechas explains how iodine affects your health well beyond your thyroid gland.

Your thyroid hormones are essential for normal growth and development in children, neurological development in babies before birth and in the first year of life, and in regulating your metabolism.10 Deficiency may be most damaging to the developing brain and could result in miscarriage, preterm birth or neurological impairment in a newborn.

Before moving forward, let's clarify the difference between iodine and iodide. Iodine is the molecule that is taken up by cells in the body. However, iodine is not very available in food and supplements. Iodide, having greater stability, is the form typically found in supplements. In your body, the Iodide molecule is converted into Iodine, which is the active form needed by your thyroid gland.

The RDA is 150 micrograms (mcg) per day for adults, 220 mcg/day for pregnant women and 290 mcg/day for women who are breast-feeding.11 However, as evidenced by dropping levels of median urine levels, most adults are not consuming enough iodine each day to meet the minimum levels required for health.

The American Thyroid Association (ATA) defined iodine deficiency in large populations as urine levels of 50 mcg/L or less.12 These low levels of iodine would likely result in visible symptoms, such as a goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland), hypothyroidism or pregnancy-related problems. More insidious are problems with subclinical deficiency, or levels that can't support optimal health but are not low enough to create immediate life-threatening problems.

Your Risks of Subclinical Iodine Deficiency

Risks of subclinical iodine deficiency are not limited to pregnancy and infant neurological development or weight gain. Nearly 2 billion people worldwide don't get enough iodine in their diet, and 50 million suffer from brain damage caused by the deficiency.13 This may very well be the most preventable cause of brain damage in infants and children, and yet 36.5 percent of children are estimated to have an iodine deficiency.14

Even a small deficiency in an adult's iodine level may reduce your IQ by up to 15 points,15 which may affect your ability to get a job and keep it. Subclinical iodine deficiency is also known as iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) that are subtler than a goiter and may be more dangerous.

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