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Friday, June 17, 2011

3: Napoleon, Iodine, and the Troublesome Thyroid

In 1811 when Napoleon was sweeping through Europe with his powerful military campaign, his chemists were working overtime trying to keep his stores of gunpowder supplied. One of the ingredients of the process was ash from willow wood, and as the armies burned through quantities of powder, availability of willow wood diminished. In the coastal regions of western France where these chemists worked, seaweed was in ample supply, and someone hit upon the idea of putting this in their kilns and substituting the resulting ash for the other.

It was a man named Bernard Courtois who was pouring sulphuric acid into a huge cauldron of the potion, when a slip of the hand caused too much of the liquid to slop into the mix. There was a cosmic puff of purple vapour, and the chemist found, when the smoke had cleared, that there were violet-coloured crystals around the sides of his oversized pot. He suspected that he had stumbled upon a yet-unknown element, but the war had him too occupied to follow the lure of research. Instead, he sent samples to two different teams of French chemists, one of whom sent a sample to an Englishman, Sir Humphry Davy.

It was Sir Davy who verified that this was indeed a new element. He named it iodine, after the Greek word for violet, ioeides.

Research continued on various fronts. In 1860 a Swiss physician, Dr Jean François Condet, announced that ingesting iodine would reduce goitre, i.e., enlarged thyroid. The use of iodine for beneficial purposes really began to take hold. What was originally discovered in a military quest to destroy lives was now working for the good of mankind. This was also the first time that a substance was prescribed for a specific ailment, and so in a way, modern medicine was born here. But the difference between then and now is that this “medicine” was actually an essential nutrient welcomed by the human body, not a chemical that the body must treat as a toxin and strive to eliminate.

Iodine was used for the next one hundred years, with tremendous efficacy, to treat many different ailments, until a misled fear of iodine combined with (and possibly fuelled by) the rise to power of pharmaceutical giants caused iodine to be virtually sidelined. “Almost every single U.S. physician used Lugol (iodine) supplements in his or her practice for both hypo and hyperthyroid.” (Iodine: Bring Back the Universal Nutrient Medicine, www.health-science-spirit.com/iodine.html) Now patients are slapped onto Synthroid or some other prescription, often for life, and questions about iodine are usually silenced with a strong word of caution.

I have a dear friend who has been seriously overweight most of his life, weighing in at 420 pounds. For years he clamoured for thyroid treatment, but his doctor felt the tests were inconclusive. Finally my friend switched doctors and found help—albeit with Synthroid. The weight began to melt off. When he had lost 120 pounds, his wife said to me, “He’s lost the equivalent of almost an entire man. I’ve been thinking about phoning the police and submitting a missing person’s report.”

This friend’s case was extreme, but the complaint is common. It seems that every other person I meet now has issues with their thyroid, and although even school children used to learn that iodine is vital for the thyroid, iodine deficiency no longer seems to be questioned in these cases. Two years ago my thyroid was low and my hormone doctor wanted to prescribe desiccated thyroid (a more natural means of correcting hypothyroidism). I demurred, looking for options, and ultimately found iodine. When my thyroid returned to normal after several months of supplementing with Lugol’s, my doctor responded, “Well, if you can correct your thyroid just by taking iodine, that is certainly much better for you than my putting you on medication.” Which begs the question: Why do doctors not suggest this in the first place? To this woman’s great credit though, she has since begun to prescribe Lugol’s to some of her patients.

Why is it that so many people have to be on thyroid medication? Is it possible that there is wide-spread iodine deficiency? Many experts say there is. Why? There are a number of factors, but that discussion will have to wait for another time.