- Iodine is a chemical element that the body needs but cannot make. The needed iodine must come from the diet but there is very little iodine in food, unless it has been added during processing which is now the case with salt. Most of the world’s iodine is found in the ocean, where it is concentrated by sea life, especially seaweed.
- The thyroid gland needs iodine to make hormones. If the thyroid doesn’t have enough iodine to do its job, feedback systems in the body cause the thyroid to work harder. This can cause an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre), which becomes evident as a swollen neck.
- Iodine deficiency and the resulting low levels of thyroid hormone can cause women to stop ovulating, leading to infertility. Iodine deficiency can also lead to an autoimmune disease of the thyroid and may increase the risk of getting thyroid cancer. Some researchers think that iodine deficiency might also increase the risk of other cancers such as prostate, breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancer.
- Iodine deficiency during pregnancy is serious for both the mother and the baby. It can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy for the mother, and mental retardation for the baby. Iodine plays an important role in development of the central nervous system. In extreme cases, iodine deficiency can lead to cretinism, a disorder that involves severely stunted physical and mental growth.
- In 1990, iodine deficiency affected almost one-third of the world population and was the greatest single cause of preventable brain damage and mental retardation. Following a resolution adopted by the World Summit for Children in 1990, major programmes of iodine supplementation were implemented by the governments of the affected countries. Iodisation of salt was recognised as the method of choice. Nine years later, by April 1999, 75% of the affected countries had legislation on salt iodisation and 68% of the affected populations had access to iodised salt. The prevalence of iodine deficiency disorders decreased drastically in most countries and the deficiency disappeared completely in some such as Peru. This result constitutes a public heath success unprecedented with a non-infectious disease. Introduction of iodised salt to regions of chronic iodine deficiency may transiently increase the incidence of thyroid disorders, but overall, the relatively small risks of iodine excess are far outweighed by the substantial risks of iodine deficiency.
- Supplementation and adding dietary sources like seaweeds and greens can be a good alternative to iodised table salt, especially as many people try to reduce their salt intake.