Nutrition for Radiation
I have received a lot of questions from friends and family here in Hawaii about nutritional ways to protect from exposure to radiation. These questions are prompted by the tragic events currently unfolding in Japan. My constant prayer and belief is that the situation will come back under control, but I still thought it would be wise to post this information for all of you out there for the sake of educational purposes and to help those of you who may be exposed to radiation at work or as part of cancer treatment. So, here’s what I know:
- The single most important nutrient when looking at protection from radioactive fallout is iodine, which is why almost every store here in Hawaii all the way to the west coast of the US is sold out of iodine supplements. Radioactive iodine is a by-product of uranium fission, and iodine is a necessary nutrient for the body which is taken up hungrily by the thyroid. If the body is low in iodine, it will absorb more than a fair share of radioactive iodine which is obviously very harmful and can lead to several types of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer. For more info on iodine for protection from nuclear fallout, check out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s article on the subject.
- If you are able to flood the body with real, non-radioactive iodine before possible exposure to radioactive iodine you will be less likely to absorb the radioactivity because the thyroid is less hungry. It’s basically the same principle as ruining your appetite for dinner by eating lots of snacks…except in this case dinner is radioactive.
- The dosages of iodine used by the NRC are either 65 mg or 130 mg once daily, which offers 24 hours of protection. These are very high doses intended for those living near a fallout zone. A daily intake of about 3 mg iodine for at least 2 weeks will saturate the thyroid while a dose of 10 to 15 mg should immediately saturate the thyroid. This is a moderately high dose but has been estimated to be the regular daily intake of a person in Japan (they eat a lot of seafood and seaweed – two of the richest sources of iodine), where rates of cancer are surprisingly low. To put this in perspective, the RDA for an adult male is only 150 micrograms per day (a microgram equals 1/1000 of a milligram – mg). The RDA is only enough to prevent goiter, but not enough to provide the iodine needs for the rest of the body that include cancer prevention, immunity, and skin health. I could go on and on about iodine, but that’s not the focus of this blog. However, if you are interested in reading more about iodine as a nutrient I recommend looking into the Linus Pauling Institute’s entry or reading the book Iodine: Why you need it, Why you can’t live without it by David Brownstein, MD.
- Children and fetuses are most at risk in the event of fallout, because thyroid cancer takes between 10 and 20 years to develop after exposure to radioactive iodine and they are growing so quickly that their thyroids are more “hungry” and therefore more vulnerable.
- The half life (meaning the amount of time it takes for quantities to reduce by half) of radioactive iodine is 8 days. This means that concentration is going to be highest when exposure first happens but over the course of a couple of weeks it will gradually fade (though in the event of a nuclear meltdown, large quantities of radioactive materials will persist in the environment for decades if not longer). My point in telling you this is that if at all possible, take preventive measures at the beginning of exposure when levels are highest.
- Vitamin E can also be very helpful for preventing side effects from radiation exposure (particularly the kind involved in cancer treatment). The generally suggested dose is 400 IU twice daily. Just be sure it is vitamin E in a natural form from supplements or from vitamin E rich foods such as cold-pressed oils or raw nuts.
- Homeopathic remedies have also been indicated in prevention of radiation side effects. That is not my expertise, however, so I won’t get into that too much except to say that if it’s something you would like to consider I would suggest working with someone knowledgable in the subject since homeopathic remedies need to be accurately prescribed to get the desired effects.
- As far as the current crisis goes, if things progress negatively (God forbid!) and risk of contamination is serious, our immediate exposure here in the United States depends on the jet stream pattern. Jet streams are narrow bands of high-altitude wind that move at high speeds around the world. To see updated jet stream maps, go to the San Francisco State University’s Jet Stream Map page.
Hopefully this information has helped you to calm your fears rather than add to them. I find that the worst thing in working with health is not understanding the risk of things we are dealing with because the mystery of it makes it that much more scary. On a personal note, if you’d like to know what I am doing for my family in preparation for the possibility of events taking a turn for the worse:
- I took our bottle of Iodoralout of the cabinet and put it on the counter so we’d remember to take a tablet each day (my husband and any friends that happen to be over take 1 tablet and I take 2 since I’m still breastfeeding the toddler formerly known as Mr. Milk). Even if nothing happens, I think it’s still good for us to get our iodine levels up since I occasionally experience some of the symptoms of low iodine levels such as PMS and my husband works in construction where he’s sometimes exposed to chemicals and heavy metals that can deplete iodine.
- I’m planning to serve more iodine-rich meals until the Japanese reactor situation is under control. This includes sushi, miso soup, eggs, fish, using ground seaweed in the form of Gomasio or powdered kelp as a seasoning, and adding a few pieces of dry kelp to soups or stews to release iodine.
- I’m stocking up on nori sheets (you can buy them here in huge packs at Costco). If you don’t have access to iodine tablets, seaweed is your next best bet. The amount of iodine varies, but an average estimate is that 1/4 ounce of dried seaweed can contain up to 4.5 mg of iodine! Nori sheets are one of my favorite forms of seaweed because they last forever, don’t take up much space, are inexpensive, and the big toddler loves to snack on them while running around the house. Since the situation is not more dire, I’m not having him take iodine supplements but I am letting him have his fill of nori. Radiation or not, it’s a great snack for kids and the iodine in it helps them become supremely intelligent so they will be able to figure out 10 times faster how to get around all of your household childproofing efforts.
- I’m also praying! A lot. For the people in Japan that have lost so much, for the brave workers at the nuclear plant who are putting themselves at risk to keep the rest of us safe, for mankind in general. I’m trusting that it will all work together for good, and I’m not letting myself go down a negative route of worrying…that’s bad for the thyroid!
NOTE: This blog is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified health care practitioner. If you are under medical care, especially if it is surrounding your thyroid, please work with a practitioner before adding iodine or any other nutritional supplement to your routine. Iodine should not be taken in large doses for extended periods of time without consulting a health care practitioner to determine specific needs.