Olivia, age 36, dragged herself slowly into the consulting room. “I’m running on empty,” she said. She slumped in her chair and described how hard it was to get out of bed in the mornings and get through the ordinary tasks of daily life, much less motivate herself to do anything beyond them.
Olivia said she’d had to give up an interesting academic job that she loved. “My brain had turned to mush,” she said. “I can’t catch my own thoughts.” She had very little appetite and yet had put on a lot of weight, which she couldn’t shift, partly because she was too exhausted to exercise. She was cold, constipated and puffy—all the classic signs of low thyroid hormone.
In the preceding eight years, she’d had two cysts removed from a breast, a cyst removed from an ovary, and half her thyroid gland removed due to goiter. Goiter is a swelling of the thyroid gland due to deficiency of iodine. A hundred years ago, this would have been instantly recognized by any doctor. It was called “Derbyshire neck” in the UK because Derbyshire is an inland region very far from the sea, and foods containing iodine grow only in or near the sea. In the days when our food was all exclusively locally grown, people in Derbyshire (and Switzerland, for the same reason) were prone to iodine deficiency and to the resultant swelling of the thyroid.
Olivia had had half her thyroid gland surgically removed without anybody inquiring about her diet or measuring her iodine levels. When I examined the remaining half, it was hard and swollen, and she admitted that swallowing was painful.
I tested her urine iodine levels there and then, but I didn’t wait for the result; I started her on Lugol’s iodine 15 percent drops immediately, just two drops a day (Lugol’s is a formulation of potassium iodide with iodine in water).
When I saw her again six weeks later, the gland was somewhat smaller and softer, and swallowing was no longer painful. As a bonus, she told me she was beginning to be able to think clearly for the first time in years.
In the meantime, her urine test result came back showing an iodine level of essentially zero. I had guessed as much, but I limited myself to giving her only two drops initially even though she would need more; you have to proceed slowly in such cases.
Olivia’s other vitamin and mineral and essential fatty acid tests all showed deficiencies, but none so dramatic as the absent iodine. I supplemented them all, especially the B vitamins, selenium and zinc, which the thyroid gland needs to utilize iodine properly and to produce thyroid hormone. I explained to Olivia as gently as I could that her breast cysts and ovarian cyst had also probably been the result of long-standing iodine deficiency.
The breast and ovary, as well as the thyroid and most other organs, need iodine. If they can’t find any in the bloodstream, they expand as though in an effort to reach out and find some iodine. I have shrunk breast cysts simply by normalizing the patient’s iodine levels; it only takes a few weeks. But iodine is a naturally occurring substance. It cannot be patented, so there is no potential profit in it for the pharmaceutical industry, which dominates mainstream medicine.
That’s why you may not have heard of using iodine (cheap, safe and simple) as a treatment for such conditions—and, as it happens, for any infected wound (it kills germs on contact). It is a vital and much-neglected nutrient.
But how had Olivia become so desperately deficient in iodine? It turned out there were three reasons. First was her diet: she never ate fish, or any seafood, or any form of seaweed, all the main food sources of iodine. Most of us are deficient, although not so drastically as Olivia. (Her diet was also high in B-vitamin-destroying, mineral-depleting refined carbohydrates because she was too tired to cook and her fatigue made her reach for the instant energy of sugar and refined carbs.)
Second, she had been a keen swimmer before her illness and swam regularly in a highly chlorinated pool. Chlorine, a toxic halogen, pushes out iodine, particularly atomic iodine, the form needed by breast tissue (and prostate and stomach).
The thyroid, salivary glands and skin, by contrast, need the ionic form, iodide. (Swimming is wonderful exercise; just take an iodine tablet before you get in if the water is chlorinated. The iodine pushes the chlorine right back out). Olivia also didn’t have a water filter, so she was drinking chlorinated water from the tap.
Third, Olivia had been given fluoride tablets as a child by her parents, who believed it was good for her teeth. Fluoride is a toxic halide that pushes iodide out of the body, directly affecting the thyroid gland. It also damages the bones, brain, kidneys and ovaries. This waste product of the phosphate fertilizer industry has been foisted on us for thinly disguised commercial reasons, with the collusion of government. Teeth just need brushing and the avoidance of sugar.
Olivia continued to take her iodine and other supplements, and as her energy levels got better, she gradually became able to cook and therefore to eat a more healthy and varied diet, reducing refined carbs.
She recovered to the point where she was thinking about returning to work, but she still wasn’t quite well enough. I then tested her thyroid hormone levels thoroughly—T4, T3 and TSH. Mostly, the NHS just tests TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) and only diagnoses hypothyroidism if it is above 4.0, whereas I and most of my colleagues in ecological medicine think there is cause for concern if it is above 2.0.
Britain’s National Health Service doctors (and most other doctors) rarely test T4 unless you make a fuss, and almost never T3, which is the metabolically active form of thyroxine, the thyroid hormone. It is the “business” molecule that kick-starts your entire metabolism.
Olivia’s tests showed that TSH and T4 were fine, although they wouldn’t have been before the iodine supplementation, but her T3 was very low. Genetic tests confirmed she was unable to convert T4 to T3; this would have been slightly improved by my having given her selenium, needed for the conversion, but that couldn’t totally overcome the genetic glitch.
Conventional thyroid hormone replacement, the drug levothyroxine, would not have helped her (as it has failed to help so many people whom I see) because it contains only synthetic T4, which isn’t much use for people who can’t convert T4 to T3. However, natural desiccated thyroid, which contains T3 as well as T4, helps such people immensely.
A small dose of this daily, as well as her improved diet and her supplements (including a lower dose of iodine for maintenance) enabled Olivia to return to work and to a normal life after so many years of misery. The constipation, coldness, facial puffiness, excess weight, brain fog and fatigue all went away within a year.
However, what didn’t go away was the lasting trauma from years of neglect and misdiagnosis (or rather, no diagnosis), the needless surgery and the wasted opportunity; simple iodine supplementation many years earlier could have prevented all that. This is what breaks my heart about people like Olivia, who lost years of her youth because of conventional doctors operating on autopilot.
To learn more, check out two brilliant books by Dr David Brownstein: Iodine: Why You Need It, Why You Can’t Live Without It and Overcoming Thyroid Disorders.