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Thyroid function is back in recent news.
In March of 2022, the EPA chose not to regulate perchlorate levels in drinking water. Current evidence shows that 16 million Americans may be exposed to unsafe amounts of it. Perchlorate is a known disruptor of thyroid function.
Some states like California and Massechusets monitor for it in public water supplies, yet there are no federal guidelines.
What is perchlorate? Are you exposed? If so, what can you do? Here is a quick summary of the most important things you should do.
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What is perchlorate?
Perchlorate is a molecule made from 4 oxygen atoms and one chlorine atom. Just from knowing that, anyone with a background in chemistry would rightly suspect this to be a highly reactive compound. It is. Perchlorate has been used in rocket fuel, fireworks, and safety flares. Its other main uses are in fertilizer and stabilizing plastic compounds.
Where is it found?
It is naturally occurring in the soil and synthesized for some industrial purposes. Some foods also contain appreciable amounts of perchlorate.
The amounts of naturally-occurring perchlorate vary tremendously from region to region. In general, the southwestern United States has the highest levels. In the image below, the states in white are simply those with no data.
Perchlorate in Foods
Nearly all foods have trace amounts, but generally these are well-below significant ranges. Perchlorate primarily enters food from the soil. It is not a by-product of pesticides. Organic foods are not necessarily lower in perchlorate.
Some foods that are consistently high in perchlorate include bologna, salami, and collard greens. Foods that occasionally have higher amounts of perchlorate include green leaf lettuce, spinach, and cantaloupe – when grown in the Southwest.
What does it do to the thyroid?
Perchlorate alters the sodium-iodide symporter. This means that it makes it harder for the thyroid gland to regulate its iodine levels.
The negative effects of this are all the negative effects of altered thyroid function. In children this can include impaired cognitive and physical development. In adults this can include a slower metabolic rate, fatigue, and higher levels of cholesterol.
In fact, perchlorate was used as a treatment for hyperthyroidism in the past. Doses as high as 600 – 1000 mg were routinely used until the 1950’s. By then, safer treatments were available and it became evident that perchlorate caused delayed complications like aplastic anemia.
It is indisputable that high enough doses of perchlorate can cause thyroid disease. Now there is evidence mounting that even low dose exposure may be relevant.
A recent study compared thyroid function in adults with typical urinary perchlorate levels. It turned out that in women, the more perchlorate they were exposed to, the higher their TSH was and the lower their T4 was. In the recent past, evidence has shown that more common levels of exposure can skew thyroid levels. The same effects were less apparent in men.
Other studies suggest that the negative effect of low-exposure perchlorate may be more relevant when combined with other thyroid toxins. Thiocyanate from tobacco and nitrate from processed meat seem to worsen the negative effects of perchlorate.
Should you get tested for perchlorate exposure?
No. Tests are not commercially available. Perchlorate has a short 1/2 life (6-8 hours). Tests would only show the most recent exposure if any.
How is perchlorate absorbed?
Oral, transdermal and respiratory. Most absorption of perchlorate is oral. It can absorb across the skin and in the respiratory tract, but these routes do not appear to be as relevant.
Perchlorate in water remains ionized. In this state it can absorb in the intestines, but not across the skin or lungs. Therefore perchlorate in water that is used for showering or bathing is not a likely source of exposure.
What should you do?
Here is a little more depth on the main action steps.
- Use purified water for cooking and drinking. For most, this means having a reverse osmosis in your home or purchasing purified water. If you are buying water, look for water that is purified through reverse osmosis or distillation. Bottled water from spring or municipal sources has no current regulation for perchlorate content. If you get water from a well you should test for perchlorate, especially if you live in a high-perchlorate region. You can find out more about testing options from the EPA at: http://www.epa.gov/privatewells
- Limit the intake of smoked and cured meats. The biggest offenders have been salami and bologna. But given how perchlorate enters these foods, the same risks would likely apply to other processed meats like sausage, bacon, and cold cuts.
Additional steps if your thyroid is unstable:
- Eat collard greens less frequently or avoid them.
- Be aware of where your spinach and tomatoes are grown. The main sources to be mindful of are Arizona, California, and Mexico. I would not avoid these foods from these areas, but I would prefer to have them from other growing regions most of the time.
Those last two points give me pause. For many other reasons, adding greens to your diet is one of the single most powerful health practices. As long as you eat a variety of greens, you’ll come out ahead.
Take Good Care Today
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Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet, The Metabolism Reset Diet and The Thyroid Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.