Guide to kelp

Kelp is a type of brown seaweed that grows in shallow salt waters around some coastlines. It has been used medicinally in China for thousands of years.

Kelp is a super food all-rounder, packed with important nutrients needed by the body. It’s rich in iodine needed to support normal thyroid function and your metabolism, as well as 16 amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Other minerals found in kelp include: calcium for strong bones, teeth and nails; iron to make red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body; zinc for the immune system; magnesium for muscle health; and potassium for regulating blood pressure.

It’s also rich in antioxidants including vitamins C, A, K, and B6 so may be protective against free radical damage which contributes to diseases such as heart disease. It is also used as a supplement to support normal skin and cognitive function.

Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Scientists are only just beginning to unlock some of the secrets of the plants that grow on the seabed, but kelp is already known to be nutrient-dense. It’s a rich source of vitamins and minerals, and a kelp supplement is a popular option for vegetarians and vegans for all-round health. Some people report it’s particularly good for healthy skin, hair and nails.’

What does kelp do?

Iodine found in kelp is needed by the thyroid gland to make thyroxine, a hormone that regulates metabolism and controls growth.

Although most people get enough iodine from their diets, there have recently been concerns some adolescent girls and pregnant women might not get adequate amounts. A UK study published in 2011 found two-thirds of 700 girls sampled had iodine levels below the acceptable minimum set by the World Health Organisation (below 100ug/L).

This is worrying because even mild iodine deficiencies in pregnant women can impair a baby’s brain development. Children born to women who were iodine-deficient during pregnancy scored lower in IQ tests in one study. Experts believe the fall in UK iodine levels is due to children and adolescents drinking less milk and an increase in the popularity of organic milk which contains 40 per cent less iodine. Also, the UK government does not legally require salt producers to add iodine to their products as is standard practice in some countries.

Thyroid function

Iodine supports thyroid function; it is needed by the thyroid gland to make T3 and T4 hormones which are then released into the bloodstream where they control metabolism, converting calories and oxygen to energy.

Doctors prescribe artificial thyroxine (levothyroxine) for people with underactive thyroid glands who don’t produce enough T3 and T4. The symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland include: weight gain; depression; tiredness and fatigue; feeling the cold; slow movements; muscle aches; and weakness. If you are taking thyroxine medication, always consult your doctor before taking kelp supplements. Kelp may also make your symptoms worse if you have an overactive thyroid.

Getting kelp from your diet

You can eat kelp raw in sushi dishes, in noodles or pasta, or add it to foods as a powder. Picking your own kelp from the beach is not recommended as it may have grown in water polluted with sewage. Taking a supplement is probably the easiest way to consume kelp.

Safety

Kelp supplements can interact with thyroid medication so you should avoid them if you are being prescribed it for a thyroid problem, or at least discuss it with your doctor first.

Correct dosage

The EU recommended intake of iodine (kelp’s main ingredient) is 150mcg a day. Kelp supplements are available in 180mg standardised extract tablets (each containing 150mcg of iodine). Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised by the European Food Safety Authority to consume 200mcg of iodine a day.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

Scientists are only just beginning to unlock some of the secrets of the plants that grow on the seabed, but kelp is already known to be nutrient-dense. It’s a rich source of vitamins and minerals, and a kelp supplement is a popular option for vegetarians and vegans for all-round health. Some people report it’s particularly good for healthy skin, hair and nails.

Dr Sarah Brewer
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