Radiation and Thyroid Health
Published January 19 2015
Just about everyone reading this knows that radiation can be harmful. However, everyone is exposed to radiation, but of course not everyone develops serious health issues. And the reason for this is because there are different types of radiation, and both the type of radiation and the amount of exposure are factors in whether a person will develop a disease such as cancer. What I’d like to do in this article is talk about some of the different types of radiation, including ionizing and non-ionizing, as well as some of the common sources. And I’ll discuss how the health of the thyroid gland is affected by radiation. I’ll also discuss some things you can do to minimize the negative effect of radiation on the body.
The Different Types Of Electromagnetic Radiation
The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all of the different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. The less harmful types of radiation have the lowest frequencies and the highest wavelengths. For example, radio waves have the lowest frequencies. Microwaves are also on the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum. On the other hand, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma radiation are on the high end of the frequency.
There is also ionizing vs. non-ionizing radiation. The higher frequencies of electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet rays, x-rays, and gamma rays involve ionizing radiation. This type of radiation can cause free radicals and damage to the DNA. So whereas non-ionizing radiation is characterized by low frequencies, low energy, and long wavelengths, ionizing radiation is characterized by high frequencies, high energy, and short wavelengths. And the effects are cumulative. Just think of all of the different ways you might have been exposed to ionizing types of radiation throughout your lifetime (regular dental x-rays, mammograms, other x-rays, security scanners at an airport, etc.).
Does this mean that non-ionizing radiation is harmless? Not necessarily, as non-ionizing radiation can also have a negative effect on our health. Although they aren’t as damaging as ionizing types of radiation when exposed to them on a short term basis, they can potentially cause cellular dysfunction over prolonged periods of exposure. And unfortunately in this day and age we’re constantly being exposed to electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs), which are a source of non-ionizing radiation. So while you of course want to reduce your exposure to ionizing types of radiation, you also want to try minimizing your exposure to non-ionizing types as well.
Ionizing Radiation and Cancer
Many types of cancer are treated by radiation. And the reason for this is because the high frequencies of radiation can effectively kill cancer cells. The problem is that they don’t only kill the cancer cells, but they also can kill your healthy cells as well. And as we all know, frequent exposure to ionizing radiation in the form of x-rays can actually cause cancer. So ionizing radiation can kill cancer cells, but also can lead to the development of cancer.
Since radiation doesn’t discriminate between healthy cells and malignant cells, you might wonder if it is wise for people with cancer to receive radiation treatment. I’m not going to discuss this much here, as while I’m not a big fan of using radiation treatment for cancer, I also realize that in some cases of malignant cancer this type of treatment has helped to prolong people’s lives. Of course in some cases this isn’t a good thing, as most people feel horrible during these treatments, and depending on the type of cancer someone has it might only prolong someone’s life by a few months, while reducing the quality of their life during this time. Once again, this doesn’t describe everyone, as there are some people who have gone into remission with the help of radiation treatment.
There are some healthcare professionals who focus on curing cancer naturally, and some well known methods to help with cancer exist, such as the Gerson Therapy. There is a lot of evidence which shows that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a role in the development of cancer (1) (2) (3). And so regardless of what type of cancer someone is dealing with, it is important to work on improving the health of the mitochondria.
Common Sources Of Radiation
What are some of the common sources of radiation? Well, these days the most common sources probably come from cell phones, computers, televisions, wireless routers, etc. Of course x-rays are also a common source of radiation. And while getting x-rays sometimes is important, many times they aren’t necessary. One of the controversies applies to getting regular dental x-rays, as many dentists will recommend for their patients to get annual x-rays. And while the use of digital x-ray machines can reduce the exposure to radiation when used properly, this of course still involves radiation exposure, and one needs to ask themselves if the risks of getting annual dental x-rays is worth the benefits, which is the early detection of dental cavities.
Many women receive annual mammograms, which is another source of radiation. And there are many women who receive annual dental x-rays AND annual mammograms. One can argue that getting regular mammograms is more important than getting regular x-rays, as getting breast cancer is obviously much more serious than getting dental cavities. But there are other alternatives, such as thermography, which I discussed in a past blog post entitled “Is Getting Regular Mammograms Safe?”
There are other sources of radiation, such as food irradiation. Irradiating food is used to reduce illness from food-borne pathogens, and to extend food shelf life by delaying ripening, inhibiting spoilage, and minimizing contamination (4). However, irradiation can potentially damage the quality of food (although the FDA claims that irradiation doesn’t compromise nutritional quality), and it hasn’t been proven that eating irradiated foods for a prolonged period of time is completely safe. Three sources of radiation have been approved for use on foods, including gamma rays, x-rays, and an electron beam (5). Some of the foods which have been approved for irradiation include beef, pork, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce, and spinach. (5)
Nuclear power is another source of radiation. Nuclear power plants emit very small amounts of radioactive gases and liquids to the environment during normal plant operations (6). And even though the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires monitoring of the discharges and analyzes nearby environmental samples, I’d still be very cautious about living nearby a nuclear power plant. And of course catastrophic events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are another source of radiation. According to the National Cancer Institute, the two radioactive isotopes released in such accidents that usually pose the greatest cancer risks are iodine 131 (I-131) and cesium 137 (7). I-131 is also what is used in radioactive iodine treatment.
How Does Radioactive Iodine Relate To This?
Speaking of I-131, this is a radioactive isotope, also known as a radioisotope. These are taken up by the body as if they were their essential mineral counterparts. For example, iodine-131 is absorbed as iodine. On the other hand, the radioisotope cesium-137 is absorbed as iron. Once these radioisotopes are in the body they travel through the bloodstream and become incorporated into living tissue. And the radiation can in turn kill cells of the living tissue.
So when someone receives radioactive iodine treatment, this goes through the bloodstream and travels to the thyroid gland, where it will destroy the thyroid cells. While smaller quantities of I-131 (i.e. those used in a radioactive uptake scan) aren’t enough to cause significant damage to the thyroid gland, they still will kill some thyroid cells. And of course in radioactive iodine treatment larger quantities of I-131 are used to kill significant numbers of thyroid cells in order to “cure” the hyperthyroid condition. As many people reading this already know, while this treatment is frequently successful in making the person hypothyroid, it doesn’t do anything to address the cause of the problem.
I-131 is also frequently used after someone has a thyroidectomy due to a known or suspected malignant tumor. Since this radioactive isotope kills thyroid cells, they will usually use this to make sure it kills off any remaining thyroid cancer cells which might remain after surgery.
Unfortunately the radiation doesn’t just kill the cells of the thyroid gland after receiving RAI. The breasts absorb iodine, and thus RAI can potentially affect the cells of the breast. Although there is no clear evidence that RAI can cause infertility, since the ovaries are exposed to radiation after receiving RAI it is recommended for pregnancy to be put off until at least 6 to 12 months after receiving RAI (8). Men who receive RAI may have decreased sperm counts and temporary infertility for up to two years (8).
How Does Radiation Affect Thyroid Health?
I already discussed how radioactive iodine treatment (using I-131) affects the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is one of the most sensitive areas of the body with regards to radiation-induced cancer. It is well recognized that the use of external irradiation of the head and neck to treat patients with various non-thyroid disorders increases their risk of developing papillary thyroid carcinoma years after radiation exposure (9). This is especially true with children, but affects adults as well. Nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have led to an enormous increase in the incidence of childhood thyroid carcinoma. Numerous studies show that hypothyroidism is frequently observed after radiation (10) (11). There is also evidence that increased radiation exposure from nuclear fallout and medical radiation can increase the risk of autoimmune thyroid disease (12) (13).
How Can One Protect Themselves From The Effects Of Radiation?
1. Minimize exposure. Since radiation is cumulative, it is important to minimize one’s exposure to radiation as much as possible. You of course want to try to reduce your exposure to ionizing types of radiation such x-rays, CT scans mammograms, security scanners at the airport, etc. Obviously you won’t be able to completely eliminate your exposure, and keep in mind that I’m not suggesting to never get dental x-rays or a mammogram. However, you really do need to try to reduce the amount of these exposures. And if you have children or grandchildren I would do everything you can to minimize their exposure to ionizing sources of radiation. When you need to be exposed to these types of radiation, make sure you take the proper precautions. For example, when you get dental x-rays, make sure you ask for a thyroid protection shield. Many dentists will have these, but unfortunately most don’t routinely use these on their patients while taking x-rays.
You also want to decrease your exposure to non-ionizing sources of radiation. Many people are cautious about using microwaves, yet some of these people will hold their cell phone against their head for a prolonged period of time when making a phone call. Although most of the time I won’t hold my cell phone against my head, I’m guilty of being on my computer for many hours each day, and so I’m definitely exposed to a decent amount of EMFs each day. I’m not going to get into great detail about EMFs, as I’ve discussed this in greater detail in other articles. But you really do want to minimize your use of electronic devices. And once again, if you have children you especially want to minimize their exposure to these devices.
Hopefully you don’t live too close to a nuclear facility, as this also will be a source of radiation exposure. Obviously there is also a threat of some type of catastrophe happening, especially if there is a nuclear facility nearby and you live in an area where there are frequent earthquakes. But these incidences are of course rare, and the greater concern is the constant exposure to the radiation emitted from these facilities. It is recommended to live at least 40 miles away from such a facility.
You also might want to consider drinking reverse osmosis water. Yes, I know that reverse osmosis water removes all of the good minerals, but it also removes many of the harmful toxins that other filtration methods don’t remove. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reverse osmosis can also remove radioactive particles (14).
2. Nutrients which offer protection from the effects of radiation. Certain nutrients can help to protect you from the negative effects of radiation. With regards to thyroid health, many people are familiar with the benefits of iodine supplementation in negating the effects of radiation. Potassium iodide is specifically used to help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, thus protecting it from damage from the radiation. However, keep in mind that potassium iodide doesn’t necessarily protect other areas of the body from the effects of other types of radiation.
Numerous studies have shown that taking antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals can offer protection against ionizing radiation (15) (16). This includes supplements with selenium, N-acetylcysteine, alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin E, and CoQ10 (16). Some doctors are concerned that antioxidants might interfere with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but fifty human studies involving 8,521 patients have shown that non-prescription antioxidants and other nutrients do not interfere with therapeutic modalities for cancer, and that they actually enhance the killing of therapeutic modalities for cancer, decrease their side effects, and protect normal tissue (17).
Does this mean that everyone should take antioxidant supplements to help counteract the effects of radiation? Well, I think that most people should try to get most of their antioxidants through eating a healthy diet. However, if someone knows in advance that they will be exposed to a significant amount of radiation then they might want to take some antioxidant supplements for a few weeks prior to the exposure (i.e. before getting some x-rays), as well as a few weeks after the procedure. Glutathione is one of the most potent antioxidants, and there is evidence that taking N-acetylcysteine, which is a precursor of glutathione, can offer protection against radiation-induced cell damage (18) (19) (20).
Propolis is made by bees, as they use this to glue their hives together, with the help of beeswax and other secretions. And there is evidence that propolis can offer protection against radiation (21) (22). Since turmeric can help to prevent oxidative damage it also can offer protection against the effects of radiation (23). DIM (3,3′-diindolylmethane) is found in cruciferous vegetables and can also offer protection against ionizing radiation (24) (25). For those who are concerned about the goitrogenic effect of cruciferous vegetables, you can take a DIM supplement. Animal studies have shown that spirulina can have a radioprotective effect (26) (27).
3. Earthing. Earthing, also known as grounding, might also minimize the negative impact that radiation has on our health. It also might help to improve sleep, reduce pain, and even thin the blood. Although I’ve read some articles on earthing in the past, the subject caught my attention more when one of the speakers of a recent nutritional conference I attended discussed it. Earthing essentially involves a transfer of electrons, as being exposed to the negatively-charged electrons of the earth can potentially neutralize free radicals which are generated during radiation exposure.
It’s pretty easy to engage in earthing, as spending about 20 minutes barefoot on your lawn will qualify as an “earthing session”. This is just one example of earthing, as the key is to have direct skin contact with the ground. Another option is to use something called an earthing mat. So for example, if you work a desk job in front of a computer and are able to keep your feet bare for at least 30 minutes per day then you can use this. Even though I became more interested in earthing after attending a nutritional conference, I’m not suggesting that doing this alone will prevent or reverse any adverse health effects associated with radiation exposure.
So hopefully you now have a better understanding of the different types of electromagnetic radiation, including the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Some of the common sources of radiation include x-rays, mammograms, and food irradiation, although one also needs to consider electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs). Radioactive iodine is a form of ionizing radiation which kills the cells of the thyroid gland, and the thyroid gland is also one of the most sensitive areas of the body with regards to other types of radiation. Minimizing one’s exposure to radiation is of course important, earthing is also something to consider, and taking nutrients such as N-acetylcysteine, alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin E, propolis, turmeric, DIM, and perhaps spirulina can offer protection from the effects of radiation.