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Opinion: 'Eating this mineral in pregnancy - and before conception - can boost how your child's brain develops'

The evidence is very clear and yet we are among the countries in the world that is most deficient in this mineral, writes

Ciara Wright Senior nutritionist

DURING PREGNANCY, THERE’S a lot of advice around for mothers-to-be. But there’s one mineral that you can eat before and during pregnancy that can help boost your child’s brain.

What’s the secret?

The secret is in your diet, pre-conceptually and during your pregnancy. Very simply, it is your iodine intake which has a direct link with the brain of your child in the future. The evidence is very clear and yet we are among the most iodine deficient countries in the world. That doesn’t bode well.

Most countries have addressed this issue with a fortification policy; specifically, iodised salt. The Irish and the Brits have opted not to do this and as a result our iodine levels are the kind of ‘deficient’ usually associated with malnutrition and images of starving children on the Trócaire box.

Where to get this secret ingredient? Iodine is naturally found in fish and dairy products. But watch out modern Ireland, organic dairy has far less iodine, because iodine is traditionally used to disinfect milking teats and so sneaks into the milk in regular farming, but not organic milk farming.

For those following a vegan diet, iodine intake can be even lower. Seaweed could come to the rescue here. There are lots of fantastic Irish artisan companies harvesting wild Atlantic seaweed and producing great products including pasta, noodles and savoury sprinkles.

It looks quite different on your plate to the brown slimy stuff underfoot on
the beach and has that wonderful umami flavour.

Too much of a good thing 

There is a cautionary tale here though. Levels of iodine vary wildly in seaweeds, between species and from batch to batch. Too much of a good thing is often unhelpful and this is no exception. Iodine is the main nutrient required for thyroid function and incidence of thyroid disease is high in Ireland.

You might rightly wonder whether that is because we are deficient in the required raw material. But it’s never that simple. The most common cause of thyroid dysfunction is autoimmune in nature (which we also have our unfair share of).

Taking in too much iodine may make your thyroid work harder and can act as a red flag to a bull for your immune system. The net result is increasing the immune attack on your thyroid and making the situation worse.

Safety of supplements

Iodine supplements are recommended for pre- conception and in pregnancy in many countries, much like the advice to take folic acid.

Those countries must have really smart babies and an abundance of painfully proud parents. Ireland has not issued these recommendations because the data is not fully clear yet.

Much of the confusion has arisen from studies of iodine supplementation carried out in populations where they already had plenty, which more likely pushed the mamas into overdose rather than sorting a deficiency.

With our crippling iodine stats and lack of fortification, we are pretty good candidates to recommend iodine supplementation. Take it at a low dose, just to ‘supplement’ your diet and make sure to chat to your GP first if you have a thyroid condition.

Ciara Wright PhD DipNT is Senior Nutritionist and Director of Glenville Nutrition and The Wellness Crew.  

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About the author:

Ciara Wright  / Senior nutritionist

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