More than 90 per cent of healthy people suffer from Vitamin D deficiency

More than 90 per cent of healthy people suffer from Vitamin D deficiency

The “cultural reason” plays a major factor in this deficiency in addition to the lack or absence of fortified foods.


Olivia Olarte-Ulherr

Published: Wed 10 Sep 2014, 12:39 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:59 PM

SOAK UP SOME SUN ... Experts recommend that people should be exposed to the sun every day for 20 minutes. — AFP file photo

Vitamin D deficiency has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions, and despite the year-round sunlight, a great number of people are suffering from its deficiency.

“There is an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency sweeping across the world, and it’s an epidemic of such magnitude and seriousness that is not only alarmingly widespread but a root cause of many serious diseases such as rickets, multiple sclerosis, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, tuberculosis and heart disease,” said Dr Afrozul Haq, a Vitamin D expert and a principal scientist in research and development at VPS Healthcare.

A study conducted by him in 2006, as the then senior clinical scientist at the Shaikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC), with Dr Laila Abdel-Wareth, chair of Laboratory Medicine at SKMC, revealed that over 90 per cent of healthy and active young people are suffering from low levels of Vitamin D. The study included a survey of 220 male and female students from Zayed University.

“That was completely unexpected,” Dr Abdel-Wareth told Khaleej Times. She said the study was conducted after clinical observations showed that many patients who visited her were Vitamin D deficient.

“We also conducted a risk factor and a seasonal variation study. We did the survey during the summer and winter months...and noticed that during winters Vitamin D level was actually a little bit better than the summer time. We then gave them a questionnaire and found that the most important factor for this deficiency was the tendency to avoid the sun. In other words, students who get exposed to the sun have much better Vitamin D level than those who avoid it by applying sunscreens.”

Cultural factors

According to Dr Haq the “cultural reason” plays a major factor in this deficiency - such as the wearing of abaya, burqa and kandura - in addition to the lack or absence of fortified foods.

“People living near the equator who are exposed to sunlight (without wearing any kind of sun protection) have robust levels of 25- hydroxyvitamin D — above 30 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml). However, even in the sunniest areas, Vitamin D deficiency is common as most of the skin is shielded from the sun,” Dr Haq pointed out.

He cited several studies carried out in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia, Turkey, India and Lebanon, where 30 to 50 per cent of children and adults have Vitamin D levels under 20 ng/ml or 50 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L).

In the Middle East, 81 per cent of post-menopausal women tested for osteoporosis have inadequate Vitamin D levels, while 82 per cent of infants were found to be lacking in Vitamin D supplement.

A research by the Dubai Hospital also revealed that more than 80 per cent of Dubai residents don’t get enough Vitamin D.

Kids more prone to deficiency

According to Dr Jaishen Rajah, paediatrician from SKMC, there are two main age groups in which lack of Vitamin D is apparent. “One is the infancy period mainly because the children are exclusively breastfeeding. Even though breastfeeding is the best milk source, it is deficient in Vitamin D and we recommend supplementation of 400 international units (IU) of Vitamin D since the time the child is born.”

“The second (is the) pre-pubescent females or children from eight to 10 years old. That maybe due to various factors which we haven’t really worked out clearly, maybe change in behaviour patterns, change in dress and body weight which affects the Vitamin D storage and so forth,” he said.

Required sun exposure

Since 90 per cent of Vitamin D is obtained from the sun, experts recommend that people should be exposed to the sun every day for 20 minutes. Otherwise, a supplement of at least 1,000 IU per day is recommended for adults, while 400 IU for newborns.

“Basically, if you’re not exposed to the sun you need a supplement and that’s the only way you get Vitamin D,” stated Dr Abdel-Wareth.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, essential for the body to be healthy and to maintain strong bones.

“Vitamin D is actually a steroidal hormone like estrogen or testosterone. It stands alone as the only ‘vitamin’ the body can produce on its own. A healthy young light-skinned person can generate up to 12,000 IU of Vitamin D with just 20 minutes of sufficient bare skin exposure to a strong noon day sun under good conditions,” said Dr Haq.

Vitamin D is also found in limited amount in food sources such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines) and egg yolks, cheese and beef liver.

Importance of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is needed by the body to properly use other substances like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, zinc and boron to build and maintain healthy tissue, skin, bone, teeth and nerves.

It is essential for the effective working of a host of body functions – immune system, muscle function, blood circulation and cardiovascular function, respiratory system, even brain development and maintaining healthy bone structure.

“The main function of Vitamin D is to help the body absorb calcium and phosphorus in the small intestine. Low Vitamin D status leads to weak bones and a disease called Rickets in children, and Osteomalacia in adults. In addition, it also leads to an increase in the risk of some chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, hypertension, flu and colds, depression, fatigue, low energy and back pain,” said Dr Dana Al Hamwi, general physician and clinical dietician who is currently working with Al Rawabi Dairy for its latest fortified milk product .

“Also low Vitamin D levels have a negative impact on muscle mass leading to Sarcopenia (or loss of muscle mass) which might cause changes to body weight,” she added.

The risk of having Vitamin D deficiency increases with age (50 years old or over), those with dark skin, overweight or obese and also who are allergic to milk or are lactose intolerant.

The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition has stated that Vitamin D-sensitive diseases — cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory infections, respiratory diseases, tuberculosis and diabetes mellitus — account for more than half of global mortality rates. It recommends that doubling Vitamin D levels is the most cost-effective way to reducing global mortality rates.

“Vitamin D deficiency is a silent epidemic,” Dr Al Hamwi stressed. “There are no clear symptoms, especially in the beginning, however, most Vitamin D deficient people will complain of suffering from fatigue, lack of energy, tiredness, bone pain, muscle weakness, and depression. The only way to confirm the deficiency is through a blood test.”

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