The 5-Cent Mineral That Makes Kids Smarter

Kids who don’t get enough of a crucial mineral in the womb are likely to have lower IQs and reading scores, two new studies report. Deficiency in this mineral is also the world’s leading cause of preventable brain damage in kids—and can even threaten their survival, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Iodine—which can be added to table salt for just five cents per person per year—provides astonishing benefits to pregnant women and babies. In fact, the WHO reports that iodized salt, found in most American homes, offers “a spectacularly simple, universally effective, wildly attractive, and incredibly cheap” way to combat iodine deficiency.

However, despite the availability of iodized salt, research shows that many pregnant women don’t get an adequate amount of iodine. Not only do moms-to-be who consume enough iodine have a lower risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, but their kids are smarter.

An Overlooked Pregnancy Danger

Two new studies highlight the potential hazards of getting too little iodine in the womb, which scientists have described as “an overlooked cause of impaired neurodevelopment” in babies.

In the first study, published in Lancet, British researchers studied more than 1,000 moms and kids. Children whose moms were mildly to moderately deficient during pregnancy (as measured with urine tests) had lower verbal IQ scores at age 8 and lower reading accuracy and comprehension scores at age 9.

Study author Dr. Sarah Bath told BBC News, "We saw a three-point IQ difference between children who were born to mothers with low iodine in early pregnancy and children who were born to mothers above the cut-off."

The researchers also noted that even this modest difference “may prevent a child reaching their full potential.”

Additionally, the lower the mom’s iodine level was during pregnancy, the worse her child’s scores were likely to be. Far more children of iodine-deficient moms were in the lowest groups for verbal IQ and reading, even when other confounding factors, such as the mother’s age, parenting practices, income, education, and health habits, including smoking during pregnancy, were taken into account.

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Lasting Effects of Inadequate Iodine in the Womb

In the other new study, Australian scientists found that 9-year-old kids who were shortchanged on iodine in the womb performed worse on literacy tests—particularly spelling—compared to other children their age.  

“Our research found children may continue to experience the effects of insufficient iodine for years after birth," the study's lead author, Kristen L. Hynes, Ph.D., of the Menzies Research Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said in a news release.

"Although the participants' diet was fortified with iodine during childhood, later supplementation was not enough to reverse the impact of the deficiency during the mother's pregnancy."

Iodine boosts kids’ IQs by up to 17 points

Despite the accessibility of iodized salt, and other iodine-rich foods, it’s common for pregnant women in the U.S. to be at least mildly deficient in this crucial nutrient, according to a new study by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine. Another recent study found that many pregnant women get a “less than adequate” amount of iodine, especially in their first and second trimesters.

That’s alarming because iodine plays a key role in fetal brain development. About 38 million newborns around the world are affected by this common deficiency, which can lead to mental impairment, poorer performance in school, and in adulthood, reduce job productivity and even the ability to find employment.

Iodine deficiency is also a menace to babies and toddlers, since this mineral, which is required for production of thyroid hormones, is also essential for healthy brain development in the first two years of life.

Witness what happened when severely iodine-deficient areas of China launched a supplementation program: kids’ IQs shot up an average of 17 points, according to a recent analysis of studies involving 12,291 children.

Eradicating iodine deficiency would be a public health triumph on par with eradicating smallpox and polio, adds the WHO.

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How much iodine do you need?

The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) recommends that adults and teens age 14 and older consume 150 mcg daily. The RDA for kids ranges from 90 mcg to 120 mcg, depending on age. Moms-to-be need 220 mcg of iodine daily, while breastfeeding women need 290 mcg.

It’s important for everyone to get enough iodine, since it’s used to make thyroid hormones, which in turn help regulate metabolism and many other vital functions.

What are the best sources of iodine?

Since the body isn’t able to produce iodine, your best bet is to get it through your diet. Since supplements can interact with certain medicines, consult a healthcare provider before starting one. Taking supplements, including seaweed pills, may cause you to get too much iodine, which can also have harmful health effects. The following foods can help you get the right amount of this essential mineral:

  • Seafood. Saltwater fish (such as cod and tuna), seaweed, shrimp, and other seafood are all excellent sources of iodine.
  • Dairy products. Egg yolk, milk, cheese and other daily products are rich in iodine because it’s used in feed for chicken and dairy cows, Medscape reports. However, a new study reports that organic milk may contain 40 percent less iodine than the conventional variety.
  • Grains. Bread, cereal and other products made with grains are a common source of iodine in the typical American diet.
  • Fruits and vegetables. The amount of iodine in produce varies widely, depending on where it’s grown.
  • Iodized salt. Table salt is the cheapest source. However, iodized salt is almost never used in processed foods, ODS notes.

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