Iodine deficiency refers to a lack of the chemical element iodine in the diet. Iodine is important in promoting the development and release of thyroid hormones, which are essential in driving many mental and bodily processes. A shortage of iodine in the diet can result in mental impairment, hypothyroidism, goiters, and pregnancy complications. Iodine deficiency can affect anyone, though it is especially prevalent in geographic areas where available food resources lack necessary amounts of the element. Doctors usually treat deficiencies by recommending specialized diets and prescribing supplements and multivitamins.
Deficiencies are common in areas where iodine is not abundant in soil and food. Seafood and crops grown in nutrient-rich soil are typically the best sources for iodine, and people who live far from coastal regions and at high altitudes may not have access to such foods. In many places, iodine deficiency has been averted by fortifying cropland with the element and adding iodized salts to foods. The condition still exists in some regions of the world, however, and individuals from any location can experience iodine deficiency because of personal dietary choices.
Iodine stimulates the production of thyroid hormones, which aid in metabolic processes and brain functioning. Hypothyroidism, a lack of thyroid hormones, is a common effect of iodine deficiency. People with hypothyroidism usually experience some degree of fatigue, muscle cramps, dry skin, and many other symptoms. Iodine deficiency can also cause the thyroid gland in the neck to swell and bulge in the form of a goiter. A severe lack of iodine can eventually affect mental functioning, leading to problems concentrating, confusion, and potentially permanent brain damage.
Pregnant women who lack the necessary amounts of iodine can face many problems. A shortage of iodine in a mother's diet can cause the infant to be born with mental retardation and lifelong hearing problems. In addition to mental issues, a baby may not grow as quickly or fully as healthy infants. A lack of iodine in a pregnant woman also increases the chances of stillbirth.
Physicians usually diagnose iodine deficiency by checking for signs of hypothyroidism and goiters. Once a diagnosis is made, a doctor can encourage the patient to eat more seafood, dairy products, vegetables, and iodized salt. Prescription supplements and over-the-counter multivitamins can also help restore healthy iodine levels in the body. In some severe cases, doctors may decide to inject iodine-rich solutions directly into the bloodstream. With treatment and a healthy diet, most people are able to overcome iodine deficiency symptoms in less than one month.