Saturday, March 12, 2011

Updated Thoughts on Radiation Exposure

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  This post no longer reflects my current thinking.  See

I've been watching the news of the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant with grief and horror.

What will happen next remains unclear. In the best case scenario, every reactor will be successfully cooled, and Japan will be left with a disaster area to contain and manage and try to heal while also recovering from the devastation of the earthquake and the tsunami and with a small to moderate population of people dealing with the after effects of radiation exposure.

My thoughts are first and foremost with the people of Japan, and with the plants and animals and land and water and sky. I have been offering prayers all day to the Great Mother in her manifestation as Quan Yin, Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.

But I have also been thinking a lot about friends on the Pacific Coast of North America. If a meltdown occurs and the wind patterns are right , radioactive material could potentially reach the west coast of this country.

Whether or not that happens, my focus has been drawn to herbal protocols to minimize the damage from radiation exposure. This is not an area where I have any clinical experience, but here are the suggestions I am sharing with my family and friends:


Radioactive Iodine 131 is a byproduct of nuclear fission and is be released in the event of a meltdown or possibly in the event that the fuel rods have degraded and fission products are carried with the steam vented from one of the reactors. Iodine 131 has been detected in the area around the Fukushima plant.

Fortunately for those of us in North America, the half-life of Iodine 131 is 8 days, and radioactive material will likely take a week to be reach our west coast if indeed it is carried that far. But there is still some threat of radioactive Iodine exposure for west coasters and certainly a more substantial threat for those in and closer to Japan.

Because the thyroid takes up Iodine, and Iodine 131 is highly unstable, there is a large risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to Iodine 131. The best way to minimize the Iodine 131 uptake is to provide the thyroid with large amounts of Iodine 127. Standard procedure in the event of a nuclear disaster is to distribute Potassium Iodide to people in affected areas. And Potassium Iodide will certainly do the job. (But be careful to make sure you aren't overdoing it!)

Personally, though, I prefer food based sources of Iodine that are gentler on the body.

Seaweeds are the best natural source of Iodine. Larch Hanson says that Laminaria digitata, a Kelp species, has the highest Iodine content, but other brown Kelps are excellent sources as well. Any seaweed will give you some decent amount of Iodine.

Shellfish, ocean fish, and red meat also contain Iodine in lower but appreciable levels. (Make sure your sources are ethically and environmentally clean!)

(One caution: people with hyperthyroid conditions such as Grave's Disease and people taking medications for hypothyroid conditions should not increase their Iodine levels without consulting an experienced practitioner.)

Because radioactive isotopes of other minerals may be released as well its advisable to eat bone broth and/or drink mineral rich herbal infusions (Nettles, Oatstraw, etc.)

Robin Rose Bennet, who has dealt with chronic radiation exposure herself, notes that "Russian scientists have found that sunflower seed pectin offers a great protection against deposition of strontium 90 in the bones. "


There is evidence that a diet including large amounts of Miso may have reduced rates of cancer and radiation sickness in some Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. There are a couple of possibilities here: One is that this was simply a factor of increased Iodine intake since Miso was traditionally served with fish and sea vegetables. But it is also possible that the beneficial bacteria in Miso may have played a protective role.

Because Soy is detrimental to thyroid health I would suggest Miso made from other legumes (South River Adzuki Bean Miso is my favorite!) For those who can tolerate gluten, Robin Rose Bennett reports good results with Barley miso.


One thing stands out to me in the photos I see of the forests around Chernobyl: the abundance of Chaga. I am struck by the abundance of Chaga in the forests of southeastern Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire as well, downriver and downwind from the troubled Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Its presence in both places certainly long predated the nukes but it got me thinking.

Beta Glucans in a number of mushrooms including Chaga, Reishi, Turkey Tail, Matiake, Mesima,Birch Polypore, Lion's Mane, and Maitake help to modulate immune activity, and have been used with great success by a number of clinical herbalists working with cancer patients. Reishi and Mesima mushrooms have been shown to inhibit angiogenesis (See George Vaughan's great chapter on "Mushrooms in Cancer Therapy" in Margi Flint's The Practicing Herbalist.)

These qualities put medicinal mushrooms on my short list of medicines to look to in cases of radiation exposure.

I personally like Mushroom Harvest's 14 Mushroom Powder which Darcey and I regularly use in our soups, sauces, and gravies. (Thanks to Margi Flint for that tip!)

Other immune modulating adaptogens such as Eleuthero and Ashwagandha may be of benefit as well. I have seen Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) suggested elsewhere but I am wary of it because it is highly stimulating and heating and traditionally indicated only for the weak and infirm. American Ginseng is far less stimulating and would be appropriate here, but remember that it is highly endangered and only buy from cultivated sources.


Gentle lymph moving herbs like Red Clover and Calendula are worth using, especially to keep the lymph moving around the head and neck. I might consider a gentle alterative like Burdock as well to support the body's natural detoxification systems as they move any radioactive materials out of the body.

Robin Rose Bennett also suggests salt water and baking soda baths -- which I agree are excellent for aiding in the body's natural detoxification process. Adding herbs to the bath can be nice as well. Calendula is a wonderful bath herb. I like Chapparal baths for releasing both physical and emotional toxicity.

Contrary to popular belief, Cilantro will not chelate heavy metals. Ground Ivy does appear to help the body flush lead, however, and MAY be applicable in the clearance of other heavy metals as well.


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