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Iodine is an essential trace element; the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine contain iodine. In areas where there is little iodine in the diet—typically remote inland areas where no marine foods are eaten—iodine deficiency gives rise to goiter (so-called endemic goiter), as well as cretinism, which results in developmental delays and other health problems.
While reporting recent progress, The Lancet noted, "According to World Health Organization, in 2007, nearly 2 billion individuals had insufficient iodine intake, a third being of school age. ... Thus iodine deficiency, as the single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation, is an important public-health problem."
In some such areas, this is now combated by the addition of small amounts of iodine to table salt in form of sodium iodide, sodium iodate, potassium iodide, and/or potassium iodate—this product is known as iodized salt. Iodine compounds have also been added to other foodstuffs, such as flour, water and milk in areas of deficiency. Seafood is also a well known source of iodine. Thus, iodine deficiency is more common in mountainous regions of the world where food is grown in iodine-poor soil.
A low amount of thyroxine (one of the two thyroid hormones) in the blood, due to lack of dietary iodine to make it, gives rise to high levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which stimulates the thyroid gland to increase many biochemical processes; the cellular growth and proliferation can result in the characteristic swelling or hyperplasia of the thyroid gland, or goiter. In mild iodine deficiency, levels of triiodiothyronine (T3) may be elevated in the presence of low levels of levothyroxine, as the body converts more of the levothyroxine to triiodothyronine as a compensation. Some such patients may have a goiter, without an elevated TSH. The introduction of iodized salt since the early 1900s has eliminated this condition in many affluent countries; however, in Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries, iodine deficiency is a significant public health problem. It is more common in third-world nations. Public health initiatives to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease have resulted in lower discretionary salt use at the table. Additionally, there is a trend towards consuming more processed foods in western countries. The noniodized salt used in these foods means that people are less likely to obtain iodine from adding salt during cooking.
Goiter is said to be endemic when the prevalence in a population is > 5%, and in most cases goiter can be treated with iodine supplementation. If goiter is untreated for around five years, however, iodine supplementation or thyroxine treatment may not reduce the size of the thyroid gland because the thyroid is permanently damaged.
Iodine deficiency is one of the leading causes of preventable mental handicaps worldwide, producing typical reductions in IQ of 10 to 15 IQ points. It has been speculated that deficiency of iodine and other micronutrients may be a possible factor in observed differences in IQ between ethnic groups: see race and intelligence for a further discussion of this controversial issue.
Cretinism is a condition associated with iodine deficiency and goiter, commonly characterised by mental deficiency, deaf-mutism, squint, disorders of stance and gait, stunted growth and hypothyroidism. Paracelsus was the first to point out the relation between goitrous parents and mentally retarded children.
As a result of restricted diet, isolation, intermarriage, etc., as well as low iodine content in their food, children often had peculiar stunted bodies and retarded mental faculties, a condition later known to be associated with thyroid deficiency. Diderot, in his 1754 Encyclopédie, described these patients as "crétins". In French, the term "crétin des Alpes" also became current, since the condition was observed in remote valleys of the Alps in particular. The word cretin appeared in English in 1779.
In areas where there is little iodine in the diet, typically remote inland areas and semi-arid equatorial climates where no marine foods are eaten, iodine deficiency gives rise to hypothyroidism, symptoms of which are extreme fatigue, goiter, mental slowing, depression, weight gain, and low basal body temperatures.
Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation, a result which occurs primarily when babies or small children are rendered hypothyroidic by a lack of the element. The addition of iodine to table salt has largely eliminated this problem in the wealthier nations, but as of March 2006, iodine deficiency remained a serious public health problem in the developing world. Iodine deficiency is also a problem in certain areas of Europe. In Germany it has been estimated to cause a billion dollars in health care costs per year.
Iodine may also help prevent diseases of the oral and salivary glands.
Following is a list of potential risk factors that may lead to iodine deficiency:
Iodine accounts for 65% of the molecular weight of T4 and 59% of the T3. 15–20 mg of iodine is concentrated in thyroid tissue and hormones, but 70% of the body's iodine is distributed in other tissues, including mammary glands, eyes, gastric mucosa, arterial walls, the cervix, and salivary glands. In the cells of these tissues, iodide enters directly by sodium-iodide symporter (NIS).
The diagnostic workup of a suspected iodine deficiency includes signs and symptoms as well as possible risk factors mentioned above. A 24-hour urine iodine collection is a useful medical test, as approximately 90% of ingested iodine is excreted in the urine. If a 24-hour urine collection is not practical, a random urine iodine-to-creatinine ratio can alternatively be used.
Iodine deficiency is treated by ingestion of iodine salts, such as found in food supplements. Mild cases may be treated by using iodized salt in daily food consumption, or drinking more milk, or eating egg yolks, and saltwater fish. For a salt and/or animal product restricted diet, sea vegetables (kelp, hijiki, dulse, nori (found in sushi)) may be incorporated regularly into a diet as a good source of iodine.
Iodine deficiency resulting in goiter occurs 187 million people globally as of 2010 (2.7% of the population). Certain areas of the world, due to natural deficiency and unavailability of iodine, are severely affected by iodine deficiency, which affects approximately two billion people worldwide. It is particularly common in the Western Pacific, South-East Asia and Africa. Among other nations affected by iodine deficiency, China and Kazakhstan have begun taking action, while Russia has not. Successful campaigns for the adoption of the use of iodized salt require education of salt producers and sellers and a communication campaign directed at the public. The cost of adding iodine to salt is negligible—"Only a few cents a ton."
Iodine deficiency has largely been confined to the developing world for several generations, but reductions in salt consumption and changes in dairy processing practices eliminating the use of iodine-based disinfectants have led to increasing prevalence of the condition in Australia and New Zealand in recent years. A proposal to mandate the use of iodized salt in most commercial breadmaking was adopted there in October, 2009. In a study of the United Kingdom published in 2011, almost 70% of test subjects were found to be iodine deficient. The study's authors suggested an investigation regarding "evidence-based recommendations for iodine supplementation".
It is well known that micronutrient deficiencies change the development of intelligence and iodine is no exception. Lacking in iodine during human development causes a fall, in average, of 12 IQ points in China.
Scientists James Feyrer, Dimitra Politi, and David N. Weil have found in the U.S. that the proliferation of iodized salt increased IQ by 15 points in some areas. Journalist Max Nisen has stated that, with this type of salt becoming popular, that "the aggregate effect has been extremely positive."
With iodine supplementation, goiters caused by iodine deficiency decrease in size in very young children and pregnant women. Generally, however, long-standing goiters caused by iodine deficiency respond with only small amounts of shrinkage after iodine supplementation, and patients are at risk for developing hyperthyroidism. Following the adaption of iodised salt in the United States in 1924 there was a gradual increase in average intelligence of 1 standard deviation, 15 points in iodine-deficient areas, 3.5 points nationally, but also an increase in deaths of older people in iodine-deficient areas due to hyperthyroidism.