Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Sunshine Vitamin

As research continues to shed new light, scientists are realizing that vitamin D has many critical functions in the body. It works more like a hormone rather than a vitamin and affects the performance of almost every cell of the body. 

1.      We all know that vitamin D is critical in maintaining adequate amounts of calcium and phosphorus in bones and teeth. In simple words it helps keep bones and teeth strong and protects against osteoporosis and dental caries. However we need vitamin D for many other roles. 
2.      It is important in the regulation of the immune system. It produces anti - bacterial and anti- viral substances and helps fight infections like common cold and influenza. 
3.      It helps to keep the brain functioning normally in later life and prevents mental illnesses like dementia, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and depression
4.      Vitamin D helps maintain ideal body weight. Those with vitamin D deficiency are likely to be obese and fail at attempts to reduce body weight via diet and exercise. 
5.      It plays a role in preventing inflammatory disorders like Rheumatoid Arthritis (multiple joint pains), inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and eczema
6.      It reduces the frequency and severity of asthma and allows for speedy recovery from tuberculosis
7.      It reduces the risk of heart attacks and protects against high blood pressure and diabetes. 
8.      Vitamin D has recently been shown to be critical for a normal pregnancy. It prevents pregnancy related illnesses, reduces risk for premature deliveries and reduces infertility
9.      It reduces risk of all types of cancer. 

What are the daily requirements of this valuable vitamin? Most authorities recommend around 600 IU of vitamin D daily. Infants less than one year old need 400 IU and adults above 70 years of age need 800 IU.

Now that we realise the critical benefits of vitamin D, we must find out how to get it! Unfortunately getting vitamin D from diet alone is an uphill task. Few foodstuffs are a good source of vitamin D. Vitamin D rich foods include beef liver, egg yolk, certain types of cheese and certain types of fish. One egg gives approximately 40 IU of vitamin D. Unfortified milk (milk is fortified with vitamin D in America and European countries as a government initiative) is a poor source of vitamin D. 
Sunlight is an additional source of vitamin D. It is important as dietary sources of vitamin D are few. Ideally we should get 90% of our daily vitamin D requirement from sunlight. UV rays in sunlight convert a type of cholesterol found in the skin to vitamin D. Modern lifestyle has limited our exposure to the sun. There are many variables that affect the ability of the skin to produce vitamin D. As a result it is difficult to recommend how much sunlight is enough. Most authorities recommend between 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure to your unprotected face, arms, legs or back between 11 am and 3 pm two to three times a week.  Early morning or late evening sunlight does not work as UV rays are not able to penetrate the atmosphere. Ability to produce vitamin D also depends on the colour of the skin. Fair skin people need less sunlight than darker ones in whom melanin (skin pigment) restricts entry to UV rays. Exposure to sunlight should be direct as UV rays are restricted by glass (window panes) and sunscreen. Weather conditions, cloud cover, pollution and clothing also affect vitamin D production in the skin. At the same time too much sun exposure is detrimental.

Certain groups of people are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. These include pregnant and breast feeding women, children between 6 months and 5 years, persons older than 65 and persons who keep their skin covered or stay indoors (don't get enough exposure to sunlight). At risk individuals need to discuss with their doctor and get vitamin D supplements. In America and some European countries, milk and fruit drinks are fortified with vitamin D.

Few sources of vitamin D in diet coupled with poor exposure to sunlight and lack of fortified foodstuffs (especially in India and Asia) makes huge sections of the population at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Everyone should get their blood levels of vitamin D tested. If deficient, appropriate changes must be made in lifestyle to increase exposure to sunlight. If that is not possible, vitamin D supplements are necessary.

Vitamin D deficiency is a modern and very real epidemic that has silently contributed to increase rates of osteoporotic fractures, heart attacks, influenza, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and premature births! The general public needs to become aware of this hidden deficiency and take immediate corrective measures!