One in 10 women in this country have been diagnosed with thyroid problems. Some endocrinologists believe that one in four women have an underactive or overactive thyroid. One reason may be because our thyroid glands are twice as large as those in men, creating a greater need for iodine. When we're under stress, our thyroids become even larger and more active, causing us to need even more.
This recent epidemic of thyroid problems appears to be due to a decline in dietary iodine. In 1940, our typical American diet contained 500-800 micrograms of iodine. By 1995, that amount had dropped down to 135 micrograms. But insufficient iodine intake isn't the only reason for low iodine. Thyroid problems are also caused by two other factors: exposure to substances that interfere with iodine levels, and an increased exposure to harmful radioactive iodine.
But don't think that all iodine is the same. It's not. There are two forms: iodine 127 (safe, natural dietary iodine) and iodine 131 (a harmful radioactive by-product of nuclear energy). Your body absorbs and retains any kind of iodine, depositing most of it in your thyroid gland or breasts. If you're deficient in the safe form of iodine, you'll absorb more radioactive iodine 131. But if you have enough dietary iodine, you won't absorb as much of the radioactive kind. The good iodine blocks the harmful type. Seaweed provides the dietary iodine you need for better thyroid function, and protects you from the harmful effects of radioactive iodine.
All of us have been exposed to radioactive iodine. Since 1945, radioactive material has been released into the air from nuclear testing and nuclear power plants all over the world. The ordinary day-to-day operations of these nuclear plants put harmful radioactive iodine into our atmosphere. Since we can't avoid it, we need to block its absorption. This exposure to iodine 131 is very possibly the origin of the increased amount of thyroid disorders we're seeing today. The regular consumption of seaweed may restore your thyroid function.
But iodine insufficiency goes far beyond its effects on the thyroid gland. Some of the iodine in your body is concentrated in breast tissues. When radioactive iodine breaks down in your breasts, it can contribute to breast cancer. Dietary iodine blocks the absorption of this harmful iodine. Researchers are finding that women with extremely low iodine concentrations are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Conversely, getting sufficient iodine seems to protect against this disease.
There's a strong association between low dietary iodine and an increased risk for breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancer. Low iodine can increase the production of estrogens, and your lifetime exposure to estrogens increases your risk for all of these cancers.
Interfering with Iodine
Anything that contains chlorine, fluoride, and bromine, like water, whether it's used internally or externally, interferes with iodine molecules and causes your body to excrete the iodine it needs so badly. Chlorine is present in most city water supplies. Unless you de-chlorinate your water, you are being exposed to thyroid-lowering gases whenever you bathe, shower, or have a drink of water. You can quickly and easily remove chlorine in your shower with a number of products, such as the Rainshow'r showerhead and the bath with the Rainshow'r Crystal Ball. (800-728-2288).
If you have a hot tub, you probably use chlorine or bromine to keep it free from bacteria. Both affect your iodine levels. Bromine is also found in some pesticides – another reason to eat organic food whenever possible – as well as dough conditioners (bread products).
Aspirin, blood thinners, and steroids all increase iodine excretion and can result in iodine deficiency thyroid problems. If you're taking any of these medications, ask your doctor to evaluate you for low thyroid function (hypothyroidism).
Seaweed is a food. This means you can eat as much as your body wants. Dr. Ryan Drum, a medical herbalist with a specialty in seaweeds, uses a variety of kinds to increase the body’s stores of iodine. For an underactive thyroid, he uses 5-10 grams of mixed brown and red seaweeds daily.
Brown seaweeds – higher in iodine – include all kelps, Fucus (said to be the best for underactive thyroids), Hijiki, and Sargassum. Red seaweeds include dulse, nori, Irish moss, and Gracillaria. Nori, used to make sushi, is easy to find in all Oriental markets and many health food stores. Some is toasted and packaged in small packets. It's delicious, but not particularly high in iodine. Most forms of kelp have 500-1500 ppm (parts per million) of iodine; nori has 15 ppm. Toasting doesn't affect seaweed's iodine content, so eat it in whatever form you like best, but don't depend only on nori to boost your iodine levels.
You can add powdered seaweed to your food; toast small pieces of seaweed for a tasty snack; or add larger pieces of a variety of seaweed to soups, grains, or vegetables.
Where to find seaweed
All types of seaweed are edible, but not all of them taste good and not all are safe to eat. Some come from polluted waters. Get them from reliable sources – directly from people who harvest them from the cleanest available waters, or from your local health food store.
Try various types of seaweed, either as a snack or added to foods during or after cooking. Toast some in the oven or in a dry frying pan to see if you prefer that taste. Seaweed should be an enjoyable addition to your diet, not an unpleasant experience. If you simply don't like its taste, you can get it powdered, in capsules.
James Jungwirth at Naturespirit Herbs in Oregon, has clean, good quality seaweeds, including capsules of powdered Fucus (best for the thyroid), as well as capsules of five powdered green and red seaweeds (for an overall nutritional approach). For more information: P.O. Box 150, Williams, OR 97544; 541-846-7995.
Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company (P.O. Box 1719, Mendocino, CA 95460; 707-937-0637, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) sells a variety of seaweeds in one-ounce packages. This is an inexpensive way to see which varieties you like. They also have a recipe booklet to help you integrate the different seaweeds into your diet.
Seaweed is a gift from the sea. It's also a gift to your thyroid and breasts.
Drum, Ryan, PhD. "Botanicals for thyroid function and dysfunction," Medicines From the Earth: Official proceedings, 3-5, June 2000.