On October 21, we observe the Global Iodine Deficiency Disorders Prevention Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about iodine deficiency and its severe health implications. Despite the importance of iodine in our diet, iodine deficiency remains a global health concern. This deficiency can lead to a range of health problems, collectively referred to as iodine deficiency disorders (IDD). IDD can affect people of all ages, but pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable.
Iodine is naturally found in seawater and soil. Historically, iodine deficiency has been typically prevalent in inland (non-coastal) regions, such as central Asia and Africa, as well as central and eastern Europe. This has necessitated the inclusion of ioidzed salt in the diet of such populations especially. Many regions, particularly in some developing countries, lack access to iodized salt, which is a simple and effective way to ensure people receive an adequate amount of iodine. Iodine deficiency is currently estimated to affect over 2 billion people worldwide. This makes iodine deficiency one of the most common preventable causes of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
While this day sheds light on the global efforts to combat iodine deficiency, it also provides an opportunity to explore the vital connection between iodine and thyroid health. This connection makes this day all the more significant for us at ThyForLife.
The rest of this article will address the significance of iodine for thyroid function, the consequences of its deficiency, how this annual observance plays a pivotal role in raising awareness on iodine deficiency and thyroid health, and how best we can individually lend our efforts to the cause.
Iodine and the Thyroid: A vital connection
Before delving much deeper into iodine deficiency, let’s first understand the thyroid gland’s importance. This butterfly-shaped organ secretes hormones, primarily thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which control the body’s metabolic rate. These hormones influence everything from our heart rate and body temperature to energy levels and weight. To function optimally, the thyroid requires a trace element called iodine.
Iodine is a crucial micronutrient that plays a vital role in maintaining overall health, particularly in the proper functioning of the thyroid gland. The human body cannot produce iodine on its own, so it must be obtained through diet. Some food sources of iodine include seaweed, fish and other seafood. Iodine is also present in eggs and human breast milk. While dairy products also contain iodine, the level of this nutrient is dependent on factors such as how much iodine cows received from their feed.
Without enough iodine, the thyroid can become underactive, leading to a condition called hypothyroidism. Other health implications of iodine deficiency will be addressed in the next section of this article. It is important, however, to note that while iodine deficiency is a significant health concern, so is excessive iodine intake which could result in hyperthyroidism.
Iodine Deficiency: A threat to thyroid health and overall well-being
Insufficient intake of iodine causes the thyroid gland to struggle to produce sufficient hormones, leading to a cascade of health problems. Perhaps, it is not far-fetched to refer to iodine as the thyroid’s “best friend.” Apart from health complications such as a compromised immune system, stillbirth and infant mortality, iodine deficiency manifests in the form of iodine deficiency disorders, some of which include:
Insufficient iodine can result in an underactive thyroid, leading to hypothyroidism. This is characterized by low levels of thyroid hormones in the blood. Symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, cold sensitivity, and depression. Hypothyroidism can also be present at birth due to a variety of factors.
In an effort to compensate for the lack of iodine, the thyroid gland enlarges, causing a visible swelling known as a goiter. This not only affects appearance but can also lead to discomfort and difficulty in swallowing or breathing.
As mentioned earlier, pregnant women and infants are particularly vulnerable to iodine deficiency. Inadequate iodine intake during pregnancy can lead to cognitive impairments and developmental delays in children. An example of such conditions is cretinism (congenital iodine deficiency syndrome), which is characterized by a small stature, mild to severe mental delays, and deaf-mutism, among other clinical features.
Combating Iodine Deficiency: Global Efforts, Progress, and Challenges
To tackle the global health problem of iodine deficiency and its associated thyroid health issues, numerous global initiatives have been implemented.
One of the most successful strategies in the fight against iodine deficiency is universal salt iodization. By adding iodine to table salt, countries can ensure that their populations receive this essential nutrient through a common dietary staple. This ensures that even in areas with limited access to diverse food sources, people can still obtain sufficient iodine through salt consumption. This is a cost-effective strategy recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
- Public Awareness Campaigns
Governments and organizations run campaigns to educate the public about the importance of iodized salt and the risks of iodine deficiency.
The Iodine Global Network (IGN), formerly known as the International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD) Global Network, collaborates with major stakeholders such as UNICEF, WHO, Nutrition International (NI), and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in a variety of joint efforts aimed at eliminating iodine deficiency disorders. These include awareness and advocacy efforts to promote the fortification of staple foods with essential micronutrients such as iodine.
Annual awareness campaigns by government institutions are also common especially on October 21, or for an extended duration, usually in October. For instance, in October 2022, the State of Chhattisgarh in India announced the observance of the “Global Iodine Deficiency Disorders Control Week” from October 21 to 27 in bid to raise awareness on iodine deficiency across the state.
- Monitoring and Evaluation
Regular monitoring of salt iodine content and assessing the iodine status of populations helps identify regions where intervention is required. The WHO provides guidelines on the assessment of iodine status among populations and the monitoring of the elimination of iodine deficiency disorders. The IGN also uses a “global scorecard” system to monitor and evaluate worldwide iodine status.
Global Progress and Challenges
Over the years, significant progress has been made in reducing the prevalence of IDD. Many countries that once faced widespread iodine deficiency have successfully implemented prevention programs, resulting in improved public health. Through salt iodization programs in particular, countries have made significant progress in eliminating iodine deficiency. For example, China and the USA have implemented successful iodine fortification strategies.
It is also worth noting that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2.2 indirectly addresses the problem of iodine deficiency.
- SDG 2.2, “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, and older persons.”
However, challenges remain, particularly in remote or conflict-affected areas and underserved areas where access to iodized salt and healthcare resources is limited. In such regions, educating communities can also be difficult, especially during periods of conflict.
Additionally, the findings from a study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation in 2018 point to low income and limited access to healthcare as significant barriers to the prevention of iodine deficiency. The participants of this study were immigrant and Italian women living in poverty in Italy. Ensuring access to healthcare is crucial for the early detection and treatment of iodine deficiency disorders, particularly in vulnerable groups like pregnant women and infants.
How can you contribute your quota to the cause?
As individuals, we also have a role to play in preventing iodine deficiency and promoting thyroid health. Here are some helpful tips:
- Spread knowledge and support awareness campaigns
Share information on the importance of iodine and iodized salt within your community and on social media. Also make it a point to share information specifically about Global Iodine Deficiency Disorders Prevention Day on social media with friends and family to raise awareness about the importance of iodine. You can also support the awareness by volunteering with organizations combating IDD.
- Check your salt
Ensure that the salt you use is iodized, and encourage others to do the same. It’s a simple step that can contribute to your own health and go a long way to help reduce IDD globally. Most table salt contains added iodine, making it an easy and accessible source of this essential mineral. That notwithstanding, keep in mind that while iodized salt is beneficial, excessive salt consumption can lead to health issues like high blood pressure. You should therefore make it a point to maintain a balanced diet.
- Diversify your diet
Incorporate iodine-rich foods like seafood, dairy products, and seaweed into your diet. These natural sources can complement iodized salt.
- Regular check-ups
Consider regular thyroid function tests, especially if you experience symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, or mood changes.
If it is within your financial means, consider supporting organizations that work to combat IDD through donations. There are many non-profit organizations that can do much more, such as iodine supplementation and education in vulnerable regions, with adequate financial resources.
- Global Iodine Deficiency Disorders Prevention Day serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing battle against iodine deficiency and its profound impact on thyroid health.
- The proper functioning of the thyroid, including the production of the thyroid hormone, is closely tied to the availability of iodine in our diet.
- On this day and every other day, let us take individual responsibility for our thyroid health by embracing iodized salt, diverse diets, and a mindful approach to nutrition.
- By raising awareness, supporting education, research, and prevention programs, and making informed dietary choices, we can all contribute to a healthier, iodine-sufficient world where IDD becomes a thing of the past.
- It is our shared responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to this essential micronutrient and the opportunity for a healthy and fulfilling life. Together, we can!
Here at ThyForLife, as we observe this important day and spread awareness on the fight against IDD, we also remain steadfast in our commitment to helping individuals living with thyroid health conditions to better manage their thyroid health and overall wellbeing. Download the ThyForLife app today to gain access to your thyroid health digital companion.