There is no doubt that a diet low in processed foods, sugar, and higher in vegetables is good for you. While all of these changes can be a good thing, many people who try to eat better may actually miss an essential element in their diet.

Iodine doesn’t make the news very often—even though it is an important and essential nutrient. The most common sources of iodine in our American diet are salt, milk, and grains. Iodine is added to commercially prepared salt and is used in the processing of grains and milk. Specifically, iodine is used as a preservative for grains, and is used in the dairy industry in the milking process as well as in the storage process.

Many people who are on low sodium diets, or limit their salt intake for other reasons, don’t realize that this may result in having an iodine deficiency.

Iodine and Health

Iodine supplementation is one of the great public health success stories of the last 100 years. In the early 1900s, iodine deficiency was a serious concern, especially in certain areas of the country where there was a very high prevalence of goiter—which is an enlarged thyroid gland. This was ultimately determined to be due to overworking the thyroid gland as a result of iodine deficiency. The Swiss were the first to start adding sodium or potassium iodide to table salt to combat iodine deficiency. In the United States, David Murray Cowie, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, championed the cause and iodized salt was first available in 1924.

Numerous studies have shown that adding iodine to the diet leads to increased intelligence—as much as 12-14 points increased IQ (intelligence quotient). This is most likely related to support of adequate thyroid function. Today it is standard protocol to screen for hypothyroidism in every newborn infant in the United States.

Why You Need Iodine

Not only do infants and children need iodine for normal brain development, but it is an important nutrient for pregnant women and growing children. A new study out of Sweden has shown that most pregnant women aren’t getting enough iodine. (Iodine needs increase in pregnancy).

Adults also need iodine. Iodine is found in the thyroid, skin, breast, and muscles and is important for the normal functioning of these body systems.

Probably the most important use of iodine is the thyroid gland. Iodine is necessary for the manufacturing of both thyroid hormones (T3/T4) in the body. Thyroid hormone is responsible for overall metabolism, and it also plays a role in brain, heart, muscle, and even bone metabolism.

Proper intake of iodine is especially important for women as hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone) affects more women than men (nine to one). This is probably due to estrogen’s role in the absorption of iodine. Iodine may also play a role in breast cancer as well.

How to Get Enough Iodine

Getting enough iodine is not that hard, but here are some tips:

  • Iodine is abundant in seafood. Try eating shellfish and ocean species of fish a few times a week, seaweed is another good choice.
  • The most reliable (and probably safest) way to assure adequate iodine intake is to take a high quality multivitamin-multimineral every day. Check the label to be sure it delivers 150 mcg. This eliminates the concern of contaminants that probably exist even in wild-caught fish.

How much should you get? The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 150 mcg. Remember that this RDA was determined to support thyroid functioning to prevent the development of goiter, but not necessarily the optimal amount of iodine for your needs. There has been some suggestion to raising the level higher, but a recent study suggests over 800 mcg may be too much. If you are dealing with hypothyroidism, it may be reasonable to have your physician check your iodine levels.