As a thyroid expert, I get asked about iodine supplementation all the time. Many alternative practitioners endorse it, and some even recommend iodine “skin patch tests” to determine if levels could be low or not. There are some major red flags with this approach, as you’ll see here in a minute.
First, what does iodine even have to do with the thyroid at all? Well, in order to make hormones, the thyroid uses iodine, a rust-colored chemical element, and converts it into T4 and T3. The entire body relies heavily on these two hormones, and the unique thing is that the thyroid is the only organ in the body that can absorb and use iodine. So, too little iodine means the thyroid can’t manufacture hormones, but too much means the body gets an overabundance of iodine that has nowhere to go but cause problems. It’s a very fine balance.
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The best way to test for iodine levels is through a urine test. However, some alternative practitioners use iodine in a solution of alcohol to perform a skin patch test. If the redness of the patch disappears in 24 hours or less, it means you “need” iodine. If it stays strong in color, your iodine status is supposedly good.
When you supplement, you’re throwing big guns at a small problem, and are more likely to overdo it.
The problem with this method is that if the patient thinks they need more iodine and starts supplementing before undergoing more thyroid tests, it could put them at risk for increased inflammation and even an autoimmune response.
You see, iodine is one of those supplements that’s probably more harmful than helpful. This is because we really only need iodine in very small doses – the type easily achieved from dietary sources if you know which foods to eat. When you supplement, you’re throwing big guns at a small problem, and are more likely to overdo it.
While many supplements can offer benefits that dramatically increase a person’s wellness potential above and beyond diet alone, others overwhelm a person’s nutrient balance in the body and lead to bigger problems than the ones they’re aimed at fixing. Iodine is one of these.
You might be wondering if you should supplement if you’ve stopped using iodized salt. The answer is still, in most cases, no. Iodine is found in trace amounts in many foods and water, so even without iodized salt, you’re getting some in your diet. If you take a multivitamin, check it, because chances are you’re already getting a small amount there, too. Beyond that, if your levels are low and you’ve been told you need to get them higher, the best food sources for boosting iodine levels are seaweed, shrimp, tuna, and eggs. If you eat any of these foods a few times per week, chances are your levels are adequate.
If you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and are battling a current flare of autoimmunity, it is even more essential to address your iodine levels with caution. Because Hashimoto’s is a situation where the immune system is actively attacking the thyroid, boosting iodine intake could actually be like throwing gasoline on the fire. Beyond that, some people with Hashimoto’s may find that certain foods worsen their symptoms, like eggs.
I was put on high-dose supplemental iodine and I didn’t question it because I didn’t know better. Within days, my symptoms worsened, and I became physically ill with what felt like the mother of all viruses.
The most important thing is to work with a practitioner who is well-versed in all of the nuances of thyroid health. They should know which lab tests to run, should do a full round of testing before suggesting iodine supplementation, and should certainly not be throwing meds at your problem without investigating why your thyroid levels are compromised.
I know it can be hard to advocate for yourself when you’re feeling terrible. It’s part of the reason that my autoimmune thyroid disease went undiagnosed for nearly 10 years before I got the right answers. I was put on high-dose supplemental iodine and I didn’t question it because I didn’t know better.
Within days, my symptoms worsened, and I became physically ill with what felt like the mother of all viruses. In retrospect, it was probably my immune system ramping up its attack on my thyroid. By the time I found a doctor who knew how to run the right tests, my TSH was over 5,500 (the max “normal” number is 4, by the way) and my antibodies were several thousand higher than they should have been.
So, to recap: Before you would even consider an iodine supplement, you need to determine your actual iodine levels via urine testing, and then you need to work with a practitioner who can help make sure you get enough iodine naturally from food sources, which are significantly less likely to cause inflammation than supplements.
Remember, asking the right questions is one of the most crucial aspects of finding your way back to vibrant health.
Aimee McNew, Certified Nutritionist, MNT
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