This actually isn’t a post about something I love. I love neither spirulina (yuck!), nor iodine (smelly!), and especially not radiation. It is, however, related to someone I do love very much.
Reading all the stories coming out of Japan lately, I can’t help but think what a charmed childhood I lived. As much as I sometimes get frustrated with the choices that our society led my parents to make in their care and feeding of me, leading undoubtedly to the health problems that I have experienced both as a child and adult, I feel lucky, really really lucky sometimes. My dad came home every night, after every business trip. And never had to clean up a mess like what’s happening at Fukushima Daiichi right now.
My dad is a nuclear engineer. Growing up, I didn’t worry much about radiation, about where he worked, because he explained to me how it worked, and showed me how it was safe. In fact, a lot of his job, at least what he talked about when he talked about work, revolved around safety — training for safety, working with safety regulations and regulators… I remember visiting the reactor where he worked (and still works some of the time) and seeing the yellow safety suits and radiation showers. It was a little scary, but the unfamiliar is always more scary than the familiar. Hearing about AIDS on NPR scared me as a kid a lot more than radiation. I’m so glad that my parents were honest with me, explained things to me, and told me how they felt about things that they knew probably concerned me.
When everything blew up in Japan, I was concerned, but not panicked. Maybe on the edge of moving into panic mode, but not jumping off that cliff just yet. My dad and I talked about it. Things were not good, and we both acknowledged that. From pretty early on in the crisis, based on communicating with him, I was fairly confident that things were not going to get better, at least not for a good while longer, and probably would get worse. Although I didn’t tell him this, I was concerned about the health impacts that this crisis would have on all of us, even those of us on the east coast.
I needed to be able to do something. So I did research, which is what I do. (That and write; my dissertation is coming along fine, thank you. Well, it will be once I get this post out of my head.) I freaked out a little bit and, mid-research, bought some kelp-based iodine drops (which I now understand wouldn’t really do much in the overall scheme of things). But in the end I came to the conclusion that I actually don’t need to do anything particularly reactive in light of the nuclear crisis in Japan. Which is what my father would have told me right from the get-go, I’m sure. But I’ve always been someone who needs to figure things out on her own, and maybe waste $4.99 in the process.
However, I also came to the conclusion that I probably should be doing something about radiation in general, something my dad would not have told me (and probably will not agree with when he reads this post!). The amount of radiation from the Fukushima disaster that I will likely be exposed to is minuscule, insignificant, really. Especially in ratio to all of the other radiation which I am likely exposed to on a regular basis in our post-post-modern world.
The cells of my body interact with a level of radiation which the cells of my ancestors’ bodies 10, 25, 50 generations ago never encountered — from every-6-month x-rays of my full torso throughout my teenage years, to excessive second-hand smoke exposure during a year in Paris, to the very minimal amounts of radon which are likely trapped in my home over the winter months. My point is, after careful consideration of the issues, I am presently of the opinion that I probably am choosing to expose myself to a greater danger in terms of radioactivity when I fly on an airplane than I will likely be exposed to because of the Fukushima disaster.
And I will continue to fly, tho reluctantly (and my reluctance is not because of radiation exposure). The Fukushima radiation is just scarier, because it’s half way around the world; you can’t see it — it’s just in the air (and probably now the water, too). The unfamiliar is always scarier than the familiar.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not convinced that any of these levels of radiation exposure are safe for unsuspecting, unprepared bodies. Scientists are only beginning to understand the vast potential for minute, insignificant dilutions of substances to cause dramatic reactions, both damaging and healing, within the human body (something homeopaths have understood for years).
But when it comes down to the root of things, we can’t prevent radiation exposure above and beyond what our bodies are familiar with from previous generations’ experiences. We can limit, of course — swear off TVs and laptops and flying and airport scanning machines and conventional medical imaging technology and on and on … But like it or not, you can’t control the actions of others, even if you’re Gaddafi.
And so apparently there’s been a run on iodine all down the west coast, as people decide to take things into their own hands to try to control the perceived effects of others’ actions upon their own bodies. Only the thing is, they’re probably going to end up doing a bunch more damage to their own bodies than the radiation might ever do.
In serious radioactive emergencies (like what’s happening in Japan), substantial amounts of iodine are administered to thwart the development of thyroid cancer. People considering significant iodine supplementation in reaction to possible radioactive exposure should also consider the fact that emergency, large-dose iodine supplementation is just that — emergency. When you go to the emergency room with a ready-to-rupture appendix, you expect intensive, invasive action to help prevent your immediate demise. The doctors and nurses will use procedures that will cause you harm, but the harm they will cause will be less significant than if they did not use them. Iodine supplementation can be extremely dangerous (though on a much more subtle level than a burst appendix), but when faced with a pretty good prospect of thyroid cancer, it is the better option.
To put it simply: Iodine supplementation in large doses is the approach of conventional medicine. The fact that alternative health practitioners have latched onto it does not change the fact that it is what the Japanese government is handing out to its citizens. It is what the US government would do here in the event of a nuclear disaster. (And once this whole thing calms down, and large dose iodine becomes available again when manufacturers catch up with the panic-induced shortage, I’ll be buying some for my family and putting it in our emergency supplies. Never to be used, hopefully!)
I do not believe large-dose iodine is innocuous. I am not saying that if, God-forbid, we ever find ourselves in a nuclear disaster or fallout, I would not take it — I probably would. It might save my life. But I’m not going to monkey around with it if I fear that the wind is going to blow some radiation my way, just as I wouldn’t monkey around with removing my own, or J’s, appendix if either of us had a sharp belly ache.
Isolated iodine supplementation, even in small doses (i.e. iodized salt and iodine in tap water) can trigger autoimmune reactions to the thyroid, fostering a host of imbalances and disturbances throughout the body. There has been significant debate about iodine supplementation within the alternative health community in recent years, and there has yet to be consensus regarding the whole matter, tho I am inclined to side with Chris Kesser, as his argument is the most informed and well-thought-out that I have thus far seen.
However, there is one form of iodine about which I’m not quite as wary. Naturally-occurring iodine in sea vegetables and algae has been consumed by traditional peoples for thousands of years, whereas isolated iodine — the kind that comes in supplements and as an addition to table salt and drinking water — has obviously not been consumed prior to the industrial revolution. The isolation of elements from their naturally occurring states can make a significant difference in the ways that the body can absorb and utilize them. Metaphysically speaking, nutrients in whole food form represent balance, homeostasis, which is a property which we desire to cultivate in our own bodies and systems. When isolated, nutrients such as iodine, without the balancing effects of as-yet-undiscovered elements in their naturally-occurring states, can create disturbances in the balance of bodily systems by means of their own unbalanced nature.
In excessive amounts, any whole food, including seaweeds and algae, can cause unbalance as well. How much constitutes an excessive amount will depend upon the state of each individual body — despite USDA recommendations, and recommended dosages and serving sizes, there is no one-size-fits-all. Each body reacts differently, which is why it is important to learn to listen very carefully to what your body is telling you.
There is some credence to be given to the value of spirulina (and chlorella too, tho it has its potential hazards) in counteracting the effects of long-term exposure to radiation, both of small and large doses. It is not entirely clear what particular properties within the spirulina have made it so effective for dealing with radiation. Like many seaweeds and algae, spirulina does contain not-insignificant amounts of iodine, and I have read precautions against using it in situations of thyroid disorder. Measuring the content of iodine in different seaweeds and algae is problematic, because they can vary dramatically, but I have read that spirulina is typically lower in iodine than many other seaweeds/algae (tho I can’t find that list now!). So the radiation-protective properties may be connected to the iodine, but may also be an effect of the iodine in concert with all the other beneficial minerals and nutrients stored up in this tradition-based health food.
Although I have had issues with other seaweeds, Spirulina does not seem to trigger adrenal or other reactions in my body. I am less wary of it because it is recommended by the WAPF, and although I certainly don’t take everything printed in their journal as dogma, I have found that for the most part, particularly with respect to Sally Fallon Morell‘s work, they provide fair, balanced, historically-sound, and scientifically-based coverage about nutritional topics. And because of its whole-food form, I am not as concerned about its potential for triggering (or aggravating) auto-immunity as I am about isolated iodine (such as Lugol’s).
If my body is uninterested in absorbing the iodine in the spirulina, it is being introduced to this substance in a form it can identify and recognize, and, as a species of algae, in a form to which its ancestors for generations were exposed. I hope that my system is balanced enough that, once it recognizes the food, it can choose to pass it on down the line, so to speak, if it doesn’t want it. Just like most other foods on GAPS, I removed it for several weeks before reintroducing it, at which point I didn’t have any reaction to it. So, at least for the time being, I’m going to continue taking it, in modest amounts (1 to 2 grams/day), from a reputable source that I trust. I would take this amount with or without concerns about radiation, because of all the other health benefits it can provide.
That is not to say that you should supplement even modest amounts of it, tho! One of the key messages of the GAPS program is that each body is different, each ecosystem of bacteria is unique, and each person/patient may react differently as new foods are introduced. You have to go slow, and start with very small amounts, and wait and watch.
The crisis in Japan has served as my wake-up call, and, for now at least, if I’m going to worry about radiation exposure, I’ll worry about the radiation I might be exposing myself to by writing this, and make a point of putting away the computer more often. And I’m going to keep taking the spirulina in modest doses–and taking periodic breaks from it, just to make sure my body continues to tolerate it. Hopefully my thyroid will reward me in the years to come for my attentiveness and cautiousness.
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