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Chances are that you have joined me in talking about iodine before. It is such an important part of our lives, and it comes up time and time again in medical conversations. Have you heard that you should be considering protective compounds in the event of radioactive iodine exposure? Today, I want to talk to you about whether or not you should be using iodine in this event. You might not see the answer coming, but it will definitely be good for your health in the long run…
Since the nuclear reactor disaster in Japan several years ago, countless people have wondered if they need to stock iodine supplements to protect themselves against the potential perils of radioactive iodine. What we do know about radioactive iodine is that it can build up in your thyroid, and that these buildups can result in thyroid cancer – this is scary stuff, but to what point should we be worrying about loading up our bodies against exposure?
The concept of mega-dose iodine is all about this act of prevention. A sizable number of folks have taken to loading up, because they hope it will protect them from exposure. Unfortunately, the sad news is that taking iodine at the wrong time is guaranteeing that it will not work when it is really needed. In fact, it might just be having the opposite effect.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was really the first time that we had a public outcry over the effects of radioactive iodine. People became more and more worried about exposure, which means that they also became equally as worried about how they can safeguard themselves. Ultimately, the better question that I want to ask is, if whether or not we need to be taking steps to safeguard ourselves from radioactive iodine at all.
Bottom Line: The effects of radioactive iodine are cause for concern, of course, because they have been linked to instances of thyroid cancer. But, in order to safeguard ourselves from it, we need to know more about iodine – and the role it plays in the functioning of your thyroid altogether.
Iodine and Your Thyroid
What we know about our thyroid is that it is a really strong concentrator of iodine in our bodies (1). It is true that every speck of iodine that gets into your bloodstream, is then eventually pulled into your thyroid. This means that any time you have iodine in your body, it is going to be interacting with your thyroid at some point.
When it does happen, it can also be more than 100 fold of the levels that were initially in your blood to begin with. Due to this fact, the dangers of radioactive iodine were even more pronounced when the events in Japan happened.
Key Insight: Because of your thyroid’s role in your body, if you ever get a lot of iodine into your system your body knows to shut off your iodine uptake. This is known as the Wolff-Chaikoff effect.
Paradoxically, a whole bunch of iodine at once actually shuts off all of the things that iodine provides. Ultimately, this is the rationale provided that explains why we are in this state of trying to protect our bodies from radioactive iodine.
Bottom Line: The thought process is that if your body receives a large influx of iodine at once, you are able to shut down the iodine uptake of your thyroid which would then protect yourself when you were exposed to radioactive iodine (keeping it out of your thyroid, and keeping your risk for thyroid cancer at bay).
Whenever we talk about magic bullets, and miracle cures, we should always be looking at with a level of skepticism. After all, when there is just one thing that can cure all of your problems, the possibilities that it is true are slim.
For that reason, there are a couple of wrinkles that I want to dive into here when it comes to these supplements of iodine. The first is all about the concept of timing. The exactitude required, between taking iodine and being exposed to radioactive iodine, has to be incredibly precise. It needs to be in your system between 4 – 24 hours before you are exposed for it to be effective.
At the same time, those that are taking it daily put themselves at substantial risk for side effects including strokes and heart attacks. This is most prevalent for those who are over the age of 40, which means that you might be taking preventative iodine for no benefit (and all of the risk) – but we will talk more about that later. Let’s get back to the concept of timing.
If you are exposed to radioactive iodine outside of this 4 – 24 hours, it just will not work. This means that if you knew when you were going to be exposed, right down to the hour, then you might be able to rely on a dose of iodine to help shut your thyroid off from harm. But, this sort of exact timing is equal parts impractical and impossible.
Key Insight: Potassium iodide, which supplies 65% iodine, can protect against radioactive iodine, but not other radioactive elements, for a 24-hour window. That is a very small amount of time, and there are few instances where you would know about your chances of exposure that much time in advance. It is impractical, and nearly impossible!
The other wrinkle, one that I had previously mentioned, is that the side effects of a large influx of iodine might be outweighing the preventative effects of this sort of practice. The two major issues that this sort of dose can precipitate are:
- Autoimmunity Issues
- Thyroid Issues
In fact, a large amount of iodine can shut down the thyroid in ways that make it very difficult to recover. In fact, it might not be able to come back properly at all – causing long-term damage to your thyroid’s ability to function.
Radioactive Iodine & Time
We might also look to avoid iodine because of the fact that the benefits of protecting yourself from radioactive iodine can take decades to manifest. What do I mean by all of this? Let me start with an example…
Let’s say that someone in their tweens, their late childhood, was going to be exposed to radioactive iodine. In fact, we’d need to be even more precise and know exactly when they were going to be exposed (or at least within one day).
In that context, potassium iodide could cut that person’s risk of developing thyroid cancer decades down the road. When I say decades, I mean many, many years (from their tweens into their elderly years). When we are dealing with this large of a stretch in time, it is easy to see why we might not necessarily be worried. If it takes so many decades to even show itself, at what point do we need to be concerned about protecting ourselves from it.
For those of us who are over the age of 40, and do not really fit into the mold of tweens anymore, this is probably not going to make any measurable difference. In fact, there is probably more harm than good being done to our bodies – even if we knew that we were going to be exposed, and even when we were going to be exposed to radioactive iodine.
Key Insight: Because of the fact that the effects of radioactive iodine are so delayed, and are not always guaranteed to happen, we might be doing much more unnecessary damage to our health by trying to “protect” our bodies using iodine.
There are also some exacting ideas out there about how much you would take. If you were to try to protect your body from the effects of radioactive iodine, the most common types of these supplements would be found in 100 mg tablets.
Again, this all comes down to age. 100 mg would constitute a full adult (age 12 – 39) dose. What about the other age groups? It gets smaller and smaller the younger you get, with the following chart providing a handy reference for you to see just how much less iodine one would need:
||Single Dose of Iodine (mg)
||Fraction of 100 mg Tablet
|12 – 39
|3 – 12
|1 month – 3 years
|Birth – 1 month
Bottom Line: As I said before, these doses only work within 4 – 24 hours of knowing when someone is going to be exposed. Outside of that, they provide no measurable benefit – no matter your age.
World Health and Preventative Iodine
With all of that to consider, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently recommended caution for this kind of treatment for those who have (2):
- A history of thyroid disease
- Active thyroid antibodies
- A history of iodine allergy
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (a chronic blistering skin condition)
These are all conditions where, even if you are going to be exposed to radioactive iodine, there is way more harm than benefit that you are doing to your body when you are going the iodine route in hopes of shutting off your thyroid to this radioactive substance.
Radioactive Iodine & Your Thyroid
The question has been posed to me many times in the recent past. People want to know whether or not they should be stocking up on protective iodine compounds in the event of radioactive iodine exposure. While I do appreciate the concern for your thyroid health, you really need to know about the risk involved.
In almost all circumstances, these doses of iodine are doing more harm than good. Not only are you only allowing yourself a very small window of protection, but you are opening up your body to so many other damaging factors. Iodine is important, but too much can spell disaster for your thyroid. The last thing we want to do is try to protect our thyroid, and end up doing more damage than we thought possible.
There are ultimately so few circumstances where these types of compounds would provide measurable benefit in your life, you are better off avoiding them altogether. Unless you know exactly when you were going to be exposed – with that magic number of 4 – 24 hours – then you do not need to worry about it. Consider it one less thing to worry about in life!
When it comes to radioactive iodine, please do not try to use any sort of protective iodine compounds that you think might provide a shield against exposure and eventual thyroid cancer. Not only are you not protecting yourself from exposure, but you are causing meaningful damage to your thyroid – and, ultimately, your body. Quite simply, the benefits do not exist unless in exact and extreme circumstances.
Get To Know Your Thyroid
After our conversation today, I hope you learned a little bit more about minimizing risk, and minimizing the potential harm that we might put our bodies through in order to protect ourselves in the future. More specifically, how the things we do to protect ourselves can often be the root cause of the damage being done to our bodies.
Have you been thinking of other ways of how to protect your thyroid? Do you even know that much about your thyroid at all? If you are concerned about thyroid health, and where your thyroid is at right now, you should be taking the Thyroid Quiz (3) right away. It will give you a great understanding, and the baseline knowledge you need to do the right things for your thyroid in the future. Be informed, and be well.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.