What is Iodine Deficiency?

D. Jeffress

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.

A lack of iodine in a pregnant woman increase the chances of stillbirth.
A lack of iodine in a pregnant woman increase the chances of stillbirth.

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.

People who live far from the coast may be at risk of iodine deficiency.
People who live far from the coast may be at risk of iodine deficiency.

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.

Iodized salt, which can help with an iodine deficiency.
Iodized salt, which can help with an iodine deficiency.

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.

Very small amounts of iodine are found in the body.
Very small amounts of iodine are found in the body.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


The pharmacist at my pharmacy gave me an iodine test the other day. He put some iodine in liquid form on my skin and asked me to see how long it took for it to be absorbed into my skin.

Apparently, if it is absorbed very quickly, it's a sign of iodine deficiency. And if it is applied every day, it will take longer and longer for it to be absorbed over time because it is treating the deficiency.

Mine absorbed in about fifteen minutes which is a sign of a deficiency. But I'm not so sure about this. I'm going to ask my doctor during my next visit but has anyone heard of this test before? Is it something that is dependable? Do doctors use this test at all?


@simrin-- There is a lot of Americans with iodine deficiency too. It's not chronic iodine deficiency and not bad enough to cause goiters (although it used to in the past). But a lot of people are suffering from thyroid problems and we know that deficiency of iodine causes hypothyroidism.

I've heard that one milligram of iodine per day is plenty. And I'm sure most of us get that because iodine is in salt and also added as a supplement in many foods now like bread. So I wonder if one milligram daily is really enough?


I was invited to a fund raising event for Pakistan once. This NGO was raising money and traveling to Pakistan's mountainous regions regularly to provide health care and medical assistance to the people there. Since these areas are remote and unreachable, there isn't any medical care.

They showed a video of their past visits and there were so many people with goiters. I think almost everyone in these mountainous areas suffering from iodine deficiency. But the NGO was treating them with iodine supplements and their goiters disappear along with treatment.

I don't know about the other side effects of iodine deficiency, but goiters seems like an easily treatable problem. It just requires supplementation. This problem in Pakistan would probably be treated if the population could replace their salt with iodine salt wouldn't it?

Post your comments
Forgot password?