by Dr. Will Cole
Your thyroid hormone is the queen of all hormones. Every single cell of your body needs thyroid hormones to function optimally, so when your thyroid isn’t working right, it can influence all aspects of your health including your metabolism, sex drive, immune system, digestion, and mood. One of your body’s main requirement to produce thyroid hormone is iodine. Your body doesn’t make enough iodine, so you must get it from food. Sadly, people don’t tend to eat very much iodine-rich food, resulting in 40 percent of the entire world being at risk for iodine deficiency.
I’m always amazed at how many people come to see me who have low iodine levels, and my solution is almost always dietary. While there are a variety of foods that contain iodine, there is no food more effective at boosting iodine supplies than sea vegetables. These superfoods have more iodine per serving than any other food on the planet.
Welcome to the seaweed kingdom.
“Sea vegetable” may not sound particularly appetizing, and what are we even talking about? I’m talking about seaweed – red algae, brown algae, kelp, etc. And don’t worry, I’m not going to send you wading into the ocean to collect your own. Sea vegetables are easily and widely available at health food stores and even lots of supermarkets. Often cultivated in Japan (where the citizens have among the highest iodine levels in the world). The real trick is in how to use them so they are palatable and can do your body good. Here is your go-to guide to these superfood powerhouses.
Dulse is a type of red algae that grows on the northern coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It’s commonly used in Ireland and Iceland to cook with and snack on, but we aren’t so familiar with it here. Let’s change that! In addition to its iodine content, it’s an excellent source of protein.
How to use: Purchase dulse in powdered form to use just like a spice – it can flavor all your savory dishes, from soup to pizza. You can also add a pinch or two to your morning smoothie for a first-thing iodine boost.
This edible kelp is cultivated in Japan and Korea. It is the single greatest source of iodine out of all the sea vegetables, so definitely audition it for a role in your regular diet.
How to use: Since it’s pretty chewy, it’s not great to eat on its own, but it can add a deep briny flavor to soups and is a common ingredient in Japanese soup stock and broth. Typically you buy chunks of it, cutting off and soaking the pieces. You can also buy it powdered to add to smoothies, soups, or your other culinary creations.
Kelp’s iodine levels are sky-high, with some varieties having up to 2,984 micrograms it has the highest iodine content of any sea vegetable. It’s also a rich source of magnesium, and since many of us are also magnesium-deficient, kelp can solve two problems in one delicious dose.
How to use: Dried kelp flakes are crunchy, salty little pieces of yum. Add them to salads for crunch, soups for flavor, or to garnish any savory dish that needs something extra special. You might also try kelp noodles, a yummy and easy-to-eat form of this sea vegetable.
This type of seaweed is probably what you’re most familiar with, as it’s used to wrap sushi rolls. But did you know you can eat it without the sushi, or use it for other things, like wraps for veggies and fish? It comes in dried sheets that are also delicious for snacking on their own, or look for roasted snack versions cut in smaller pieces.
How to use: Buy these nori sheets and make yourself some delicious sushi or wraps! Add in some of your favorite seafood, avocado, cucumber, and cauliflower rice, wrap it up and enjoy! Perfect for a quick snack or on-the-go lunch, these are great dipped in some coconut aminos.
5. Irish moss
Not actually a moss, this seaweed is another variety of red algae commonly found along the Atlantic coast of North America and Europe, and is commonly consumed in (how did you guess?) Ireland. It has a rubbery/leathery texture so it may seem inedible, but it is high not just in iodine but also in potassium, and makes a great thickening agent in cooking.
How to use: Best soaked in liquid, it can then be chopped up and added to soups or broths. The water left behind takes on a gel-like quality which is great for thickening foods like sauces or soup.
This is a species of brown algae kelp mostly found in Japan and commonly sold dried.
How to use: Milder and sweeter than many other sea vegetables, arame is a great additive to any food because you won’t necessarily taste it. Soak it in water and add it to anything, even baked goods.
This blue-green algae doesn’t technically come from the sea – it’s a freshwater plant cultivated around the world for its health benefits. Beyond iodine, spirulina is about 60 percent protein, and also has a powerful heavy metal detoxifying effect.
How to use: This powerful superfood most commonly comes in powder form. Add this to anything liquid such as tea, soups, and smoothies to get a boost of its amazing food medicinal capabilities.
Other benefits of sea vegetables.
I’ve already touched on some of the additional benefits from sea vegetables beyond iodine – you have lots of other reasons to love them. Just a few more benefits: Spirulina, dulse, and Irish moss are great plant sources of iron, which is also important for the production of thyroid peroxidase – the enzyme used to make healthy thyroid hormones. Nori is rich in B vitamins, which are much-needed for methylation and opening up your body’s detox pathways.
As more people begin to appreciate the wonders of sea vegetables, demand will increase and so will availability. Even now, you no longer have to go to a specialty store to find them. Whole Foods and similar stores carry many varieties, and they are also easily purchased online from places like Amazon. Before buying, the one thing to remember is to buy reputable brands that source their products sustainably. If you are getting sea vegetables from a contaminated water source containing toxins or other chemicals, the sea vegetables will be contaminated as well. Thankfully, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has very high standards for the commercial sea vegetables it imports.
Iodine supplements versus sea vegetables.
Maybe despite my glowing recommendations, the idea of eating seaweeds still turns you off. Can’t you just take an iodine supplement? In addition to missing out on all of the other important nutrients and the synergistic magic of real food you would get from sea vegetables, iodine pills are not a good option for people with thyroid problems. This is very important to understand because health professionals often say “take iodine” for a natural solution to thyroid problems, but iodine supplements could actually trigger an autoimmune response toward the thyroid. While you do need iodine for thyroid hormone production, several studies have found that increased iodine intake is associated with Hashimoto’s disease.
Research has also found that an increase in thyroid antibodies is associated with iodine supplementation. This is why I much prefer getting a balanced source of iodine with all of the other uber-important nutrients in its natural form: seaweed. For autoimmune thyroid cases, I also suggest limiting kelp in particular, because of its higher iodine content. Instead, try some of the other varieties for a milder dose of natural iodine. We are all different. Even with healthy foods, what works for one person may not be right for you.
Want to add some seaweed to your diet but aren’t sure where to start? Try this delicious soup recipe, featuring several different varieties.
Sea Vegetable Whitefish Soup
- 2 pieces of kombu (roughly 3-inch squares)
- 1 cup lightly packed bonito flakes
- 4 cups water
- 2 to 6 ounces tilapia or cod fillets
- 1 lb. kelp noodles
- 2 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 1 tablespoon coconut water vinegar
- 4 cups loosely packed greens
Place kombu and bonito in water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop greens and cut the fish into 1 to 2-inch cubes. Cook kelp noodles as per directions on package. Pour broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove bonito and kombu. Return the broth to the heat and add coconut aminos and coconut water vinegar. Add the fish and simmer for 5 minutes or until fish is cooked through. If you are using tougher greens – such as bok choy, cabbage, snow peas, or kale – add them at the same time as the fish. For more tender greens – such as spinach, chard, or beet greens – add them after the fish is cooked and simmer one minute to wilt. Add the kelp noodles and simmer.
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Sea Vegetable Whitefish Soup
2 pieces of kombu kelp (roughly 3-inch squares)
1 cup lightly packed bonito flakes
4 cups water
2 to 6 ounces tilapia or cod fillets
1 lb. kelp noodles
2 tablespoons coconut aminos
1 tablespoon coconut water vinegar
4 cups loosely packed greens
1. Place kombu and bonito in water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, chop greens and cut the fish into 1- to 2-inch cubes.
3. Cook kelp noodles as per directions on package.
4. Pour broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove bonito and kombu.
5. Return the broth to the heat and add coconut aminos and coconut water vinegar. Add the fish and simmer for 5 minutes or until fish is cooked through. If you are using tougher greens—such as bok choy, cabbage, snow peas, or kale—add them at the same time as the fish. For more tender greens—such as spinach, chard, or beet greens—add them after the fish is cooked and simmer one minute to wilt.
6. Add the kelp noodles and simmer.