Women lack critical nutrient for pregnancy

25 October 2017

More than 40 per cent of women are deficient in iodine, an essential mineral in developing healthy brains in babies, new research out of Westmead has found.

Lead researcher Dr Jenny Gunton, from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, the University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital, said a lack of iodine was a major concern for women planning pregnancy as the deficiency could stunt a baby’s brain development.

“Pregnant women and those planning pregnancy must get enough iodine in their diet,” she said.

“Iodine is a trace mineral that is essential for growth, and is critical in forming healthy brains in babies.

Iodine deficiency is recognised as the single most preventable cause of mental delays globally.

The best food-based iodine sources include marine (not freshwater) seafood, seaweed, iodised salt and bread.

Internationally, iodised salt has been the main food source of additional iodine, in accordance with World Health Organization recommendations, but most salt sold in Australia is not iodised.

In 2009, a public health measure aimed at boosting iodine consumption was introduced, mandating iodine be included in bread across Australia.

Dr Gunton’s study found that despite the measures, the median iodine level in the sampled group was 117ug/L - well below the National Health and Medical Research Council’s recommendation for pregnant and lactating women of 250ug/L.

“Our study shows that adding iodine to bread has not been enough to meet the additional needs of women who are planning pregnancy,” Dr Gunton said.

“Women in certain cultural groups who tend not to eat much bread are at even higher risk of iodine deficiency.”

Dr Gunton said it was important for women to have adequate iodine intake, even before they conceived. Her advice to women contemplating pregnancy was simple: start taking a pregnancy multivitamin now.

“Women really should be taking pregnancy multivitamins before they even start trying to conceive – your baby’s brain will start developing before you even know you’re pregnant,” she said.

“Because iodine passes through the body quite quickly, multivitamins are most effective when taken every day.”

“Iodine levels are not commonly tested in pregnant women so women are often unaware they are lacking the nutrient; it makes taking a daily multivitamin all the more important.”

The National Health and Medical Research Council also recommends women who are pregnant, breast feeding or considering pregnancy take a daily iodine supplement.

Professor Gunton’s study measured spot urinary iodine in 97 women of childbearing age (16 to 45) from outpatient clinics across Sydney.

The research has been published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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