Imagine that you could be ten IQ points smarter! Even better, imagine that you could make millions of people more intelligent. Although it is too late for you and me to be smarter, we do have the potential to improve the brainpower of others.
What would it take to achieve this? Ensure they get sufficient amounts of iodine, an essential micronutrient. People who live by the ocean and eat fish consume adequate iodine, but inland it is often a different story. More than a billion people live in iodine-deficient areas, and half of the world’s births occur in these locations.
Iodine is an essential part of thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism. Growth and development depend on them. When iodine is lacking, a person may feel sluggish and have little energy. If a mother is deprived of this vital element when she is pregnant, the fetus will not develop properly. The chance of miscarriage is increased—and so is the risk of stillbirth.
If an iodine-baby deficient survives, it is likely to be born small, develop slowly, and be left with severe, permanent mental and physical deficits. (An old term for congenital hypothyroidism is “cretinism.”) In richer countries, including the USA, newborns are routinely screened for the and the problem is treated in time.
Because all people consume salt, the best way to get adequate iodine is by eating iodine-fortified salt. Most salt sold in this country is iodized. Sea salt may not contain sufficient iodine.
Kiwanis International and UNICEF have worked to increase the iodization of salt worldwide. When they started twenty years ago only about 20 percent of the developing world’s salt supply was iodized, but now over 70 percent is. But there are still those billion-plus people—responsible for half the world’s births—who lack access to this essential micronutrient.
How does this influence population? Child survival is key to slowing population growth. Unless people can be sure that their kids will grow into healthy adults, they will continue to have large families. Furthermore, societies will benefit from healthier, smarter citizens with adequate iodine.
Iodine is not the only micronutrient essential to good health. Although micronutrient deficiency is most common in developing countries, even wealthy countries have vulnerable populations. Many breastfeeding women in the USA are low in at least one vitamin or mineral. Deficiencies are made worse in the tropics where many people (especially children) are infested by parasites that suck nutrients from their human hosts.
Most patients I see already know about the importance of folic acid (vitamin B9). B9 is essential for the synthesis of DNA (our genetic coding) and thus is critical during pregnancy. Without adequate levels a developing fetus may have serious problems, including brain or spinal cord abnormalities. We recommend that every woman take at least 0.8 mg daily starting three months before conception, and during pregnancy and nursing. Natural sources include leafy vegetables and beans, and many processed foods are supplemented with folic acid.
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the US, but in developing countries it is both common and devastating. Vitamin A has essential benefits in addition to preventing night blindness. Children deficient in Vitamin A may develop permanent blindness from scarring of the cornea—the window in the front of the eye-—and they usually die within a year of loosing their sight.
Vitamin A is fat soluble, so it can be dosed just once or twice a year. Programs to distribute vitamin A have been very successful in preserving children’s vision. Further, vitamin A given to at-risk populations can reduce child mortality by 23% because kids are more resistant to measles and other infectious diseases. Women with adequate vitamin A levels may be less likely to die in childbirth.
Other vitamins and minerals are also important for the realization of full human potential. We in the USA are fortunate that most of us get all the micronutrients we need from our diet. Indeed, occasionally people ingest toxic amounts from taking too many supplements. In poorer countries though, many people (especially children) have multiple deficits. The organization Vitamin Angels (vitaminangels.org) helps distribute micronutrients internationally. Their site includes much information about micronutrients, as well as inspiring success stories from their programs.
The next time you shake salt onto food, think about iodine, Folic Acid, Vitamin A, and the other micronutrients our bodies need to be healthy. Then consider how simple it can be to improve the brainpower and overall health of millions of people.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2010
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