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Do you need seaweed for your thyroid?

Last year, I attended a conference where I heard a talk that stunned me. The lecturer, Ryan Drum, PhD, was talking about the probable causes, and possible cures, for low thyroid function. His talk included easy testing methods and a simple, affordable solution to stimulate the thyroid gland naturally.

Ryan is a former university professor and researcher in cell biology and chemistry. He teaches herbology in workshops and at John Bastyr University (naturopathic college), and is a practicing medical herbalist. Ryan's specialty is seaweed. I haven't found anyone who knows as much as Ryan Drum about seaweed's role in thyroid function.

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.

A recent epidemic of thyroid problems appears to be due to a decline in dietary iodine. In 1940, the typical American diet contained 500-800 micrograms of iodine. By 1995, that amount had dropped down to 135 micrograms. Thyroid problems are also caused by exposure to substances that interfere with iodine levels, and an increased exposure to harmful radioactive iodine.

All iodine is not the same

There are two forms of iodine: 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 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. 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 many thyroid disorders we're seeing today. The regular consumption of seaweed may restore your thyroid function.

Some iodine in your body is concentrated in breast tissue. When radioactive iodine breaks down in your breasts, it can contribute to breast cancer. Dietary iodine blocks the absorption of this harmful iodine.

There's an 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 these cancers.

Substances that interfere with iodine

Water containing chlorine, fluoride, and bromine, used internally or externally, interferes with iodine molecules and causes your body to excrete the iodine it so needs. Chlorine is present in most city water supplies. Unless you dechlorinate your water, you are 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 the Rainshow'r showerhead and the bath with the Rainshow'r Crystal Ball. Call 800-728-2288 for more information.

If you have a hot tub, you probably use chlorine or bromine. 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).

Test your iodine level

There's a simple way you can test your body's need for iodine that can give you an idea of whether or not to supplement your diet with seaweed.

Buy a small bottle of USP Tincture of Iodine from your drugstore. Paint a two-inch circle with the iodine on an area where your skin is soft. I use the inside of my elbow or the inner portion of my upper arm. If you are deficient in iodine, this patch will disappear in 20 minutes to two hours. If it disappears in two to four hours, your body may need more iodine temporarily. But if the iodine is visible for more than four hours, you could benefit from supplementing your diet with seaweed.

Boosting your iodine level with seaweed

Seaweed is food. This means you can eat as much as your body wants. Dr. Drum counsels many people with various thyroid disorders by phone (call between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. EST; his fee is $75/hour). 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 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. I get them from reliable sources--directly from people who harvest them from the cleanest available waters.

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.

Dr. Drum harvests, dries, and sells different forms of seaweed. For more information, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to him at: Island Herbs, 1525 Danby Mountain Road, Danby, VT 05739; 802-293-5996. These seaweeds are not powdered.

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: 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.

For anyone who has been told that their thyroid is borderline-low, eating seaweed makes sense. If you're on thyroid medication and want to try seaweed, you may want to call Dr. Drum first for a consultation. The protocol for taking seaweed while on thyroid hormone replacement is different from the one I've described. Or write and ask him if he has any informational booklets on the subject.

One heaping teaspoon of small pieces of seaweed is about five grams--a daily dose. Dr. Drum uses one to three grams of powdered Fucus or three to five grams of small Fucus pieces (about a teaspoonful) for hypothyroidism. Measure the seaweed in a spoon or on a small postal scale.

Drum, Ryan, PhD. "Botanicals for thyroid function and dysfunction," Medicines From the Earth: Official proceedings, 3-5, June 2000.

Persky, Victoria W., et al. "Effect of soy protein on endogenous hormones in postmenopausal women," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 75, no. 1, 145-153, January 2002.
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Author:Fuchs, Nan Kathryn
Publication:Women's Health Letter
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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