By Karl Erik Zachariassen (a) & Trond Peder Flaten (b)
(a) Laboratory of Ecophysiology and Toxicology, Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO 7491 Trondheim, Norway
(b) Department of Chemistry, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway
East African immigrants to Scandinavia are admitted to mental hospitals far more frequently than native Scandinavians. Most of these patients are admitted for psychosis, commonly ascribed to problems adapting to the new culture. However, psychosis is also known to be associated with hyperthyroidism, and the high frequency of psychosis among East Africans in Scandinavia may at least in part be due to hyperthyroidism rather than cultural problems. Large areas in East Africa are notorious for high natural concentrations of fluoride in water and plants. Fluoride inhibits the production of thyroid hormones. To maintain normal thyroxin levels the body increases the capacity for thyroxin production. Goitre is caused by such a compensatory mechanism, and endemic goitre is widespread in many high-fluoride areas, even where dietary access to iodine is adequate. When people from such areas arrive in a low-fluoride area, their elevated capacity to produce thyroid hormones may lead to hyperthyroidism and subsequently to psychosis.
Background of the hypothesis
Asylum seekers and immigrants in Scandinavia are admitted to mental hospitals for psychotic disorders up to ten times more frequently than native Scandinavians ,  and . The high frequency of psychosis among immigrants is usually explained as a result of traumatic experiences in their countries of origin, problems with adapting to a new culture, and the fact that immigrants are often socially underprivileged  and .
The frequency of psychotic disorders seems to be particularly high among immigrants from East Africa  and , and in this group of immigrants it seems particularly common to explain psychotic behaviour as a result of cultural collision and problems with social adaptation  and . However, some studies , but not all , indicate that the high frequency of mental disorders is not seen in second generation immigrants, who often have the same social standing as their parents. Hence, although social factors are likely to be of importance, there may also be other causes. In this article, we put forward the hypothesis that hyperthyroidism, caused by fluoride exposure in their home country, is a cause of psychosis among immigrants from East Africa and other high-fluoride regions.
Hyperthyroidism is a persistent elevation of the blood levels of the thyroxin hormones T3 and T4, which are produced in the thyroid gland . These hormones are notable for their high content of iodine; three atoms in each molecule of T3 and four in T4. Via a negative feedback mechanism the function of the thyroid gland is controlled by the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland. A suboptimal blood level of thyroid hormones stimulates the release of TSH, which in turn stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more of its hormones .
A chronic deficit of iodine causes a permanent reduction in the levels of thyroid hormones in the blood, a condition known as hypothyroidism. The resulting elevated level of TSH will increase the capacity of the thyroid gland to produce thyroxin, and sometimes also cause the thyroid gland to develop goitre . If a person with an elevated capacity for production of thyroid hormones experiences an increased dietary intake of iodine, the thyroid gland will produce increased amounts of thyroid hormones, sometimes resulting in a shift from a hypothyroid to a hyperthyroid condition. An elevated capacity for thyroxin production and hyperthyroidism may occur even without a manifest goitre .
Hyperthyroidism is characterized by a number of physiological disturbances, including mental disorders. Some hyperthyroid patients develop behavioural problems, paranoia and an explosive temper ,  and . In spite of the characteristic and often dramatic symptoms, such a psychotic disturbance may be present for years without being properly diagnosed. The consequences can be tragic, involving for example broken marriages and serious violent crime.
A high frequency of hyperthyroidism among immigrants from East Africa could be related to the chemical environment in their home countries. Large parts of East Africa are naturally very rich in fluoride, and local water sources frequently contain as much as 10 ppm  and sometimes up to 40 ppm  of fluoride. Fluoride is ingested especially via drinking water, but also via tea, fruits and vegetables . While optimal water levels of fluoride (about 1 ppm) result in a good dental health, higher water levels as well as contribution from other sources, often cause dental fluorosis. The brown-spotted teeth that are characteristic of dental fluorosis occur very frequently in East Africa .
A substantial amount of evidence indicates that fluoride affects the thyroid gland ,  and , and a high-fluoride intake may have similar effects as an iodine deficit . Many independent investigators have published experimental data suggesting that fluoride reduces the production of thyroid hormones , and epidemiological data indicate a relation between high dietary fluoride intake and goitre  and . Fluoride has even been used successfully to treat hyperthyroidism  and . Hence, a high intake of fluoride may cause hypothyroidism and goitre in spite of an adequate intake of iodine  and . The body responds by increasing the capacity to produce thyroid hormones, and due to this compensation people may have normal levels of thyroid hormones in spite of a permanent presence of inhibitory fluoride .
Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the inhibitory effect of fluoride on thyroid hormones. The mechanism that has received most attention is related to the chemical similarity between fluorine and iodine. The elements are in the same group in the periodic table, but fluorine is the smallest and most reactive element. Fluoride may thus cause a competitive inhibition of the uptake of iodide in the thyroid gland, and reduce the production of thyroid hormones .
When people with a compensated fluoride-induced hypothyroidism move to a low-fluoride area, the fluoride-induced inhibition of the production of thyroid hormones ceases. In Scandinavia, the dietary intake of iodine is usually quite high due to iodized table salt and easy access to marine fish. Under these conditions, the elevated capacity for production of thyroid hormones may result in hyperthyroidism.
Evaluation of the hypothesis
The development of hyperthyroidism is a complex phenomenon, and a number of factors are likely to be involved. The experimental data are somewhat contradictory, in that not all studies on the effects of fluoride in humans and experimental animals have shown a clear effect . Many vegetables and other foodstuffs may contain a variety of goitrogenic substances that interfere with thyroid metabolism , and these substances may sometimes act in combination with fluoride in man under natural conditions, but may not be included in laboratory experiments. Hence, the hypothesis does not imply that everybody who moves from a high-fluoride area will develop hyperthyroidism.
Consequences of the hypothesis
If the hypothesis is correct, people who move from a high-fluoride area to a low-fluoride area may have a physiological disposition for a hyperthyroid condition, and one may expect a substantially higher frequency of hyperthyroidism among people moving from high- to low-fluoride areas than among the native population of low-fluoride areas.
An increased frequency of hyperthyroidism among immigrants from high-fluoride regions is likely to be associated with an increased frequency of mental disorders such as psychosis . Hyperthyroidism is easy to diagnose and treat, and much might be gained by an increased focus on the occurrence of hyperthyroidism-related psychosis among immigrants.
The diagnosis of a hyperthyroid condition among immigrants may be complicated by several factors. Persons with a compensated hypothyroidism are likely to show normal levels of thyroid hormones if they are tested when they arrive in their new country, and it may take several months before the symptoms of hyperthyroidism become conspicuous. If this is the case, hyperthyroidism may be ruled out as a cause of their problems without conducting new thyroid hormone measurements. Furthermore, people with manifest hyperthyroidism may not be motivated neither for a diagnostic investigation nor for treatment. Any suggestion that they may suffer from a hormonal disturbance is taken as another insult. It would therefore be useful if immigrants from high-fluoride areas were routinely made aware of the possibility of developing a hyperthyroid condition when they arrive in their new country.
Testing the hypothesis
We suggest the following approaches to test some aspects of the hypothesis:
- Establish the frequency of hyperthyroidism among psychotic immigrants admitted to mental hospitals in Europe and see if the frequency is higher among immigrants from high-fluoride areas than among immigrants from other areas.
- Compare immigrants from high- and low-fluoride areas as to their thyroid function parameters, thyroid size and nodular structure, at the time of arrival and again after about one year.
- Establish the frequency of psychosis among 2nd generation immigrants, who have grown up in their new country, and who have the same social position as their parents, but a lower previous exposure to fluoride.
Authors want to thank Prof. Emer. Per Løkken, University of Oslo, for his comments on the manuscript.
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